Deathmatch review: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Mavericks

Although you can now hide some of the Windows 8 dissonance, Windows 8.1 doesn't leap forward enough

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These flaws pale in comparison to Windows 8.1's dissonant UI and awkward stitching together of two distinct environments: Windows 7 (called Windows Desktop) and Metro (which has no formal name). As an example of an unfriendly change in Windows 8 not corrected in Windows 8.1, Microsoft has added the ribbon to the File Explorer file manager. Fair enough -- it's standard in Microsoft's apps, after all. But unlike the ribbon in other apps, the one in File Explorer is hidden until you click or tap the corresponding menu. That's fine. The boneheaded part is that when the ribbon displays, it overlays part of your content window, obscuring whatever is at the top. In a file manager, that's especially problematic. (Fortunately, you can turn off this autohide functionality to make File Explorer's ribbon work like all other apps' ribbons and stay affixed above the content area.)

By contrast, the Metro part of Windows 8 can be downright elegant in its simplicity, focus, and use of imagery, without distracting chrome such as window frames and menus. It makes Windows 7 look dowdy and archaic.

There are two ways to get app options that aren't in the app's screens, and they're easily reached through gestures. But if you -- like 99 percent of the planet -- use a mouse and keyboard, accessing the common search, sharing, and settings services (called "charms") involves an awkward action. If you don't have a physical keyboard, such as for a tablet, there are some Metro features you simply can't use, such as searching for an app by typing its name in the Start screen, because there's no way to invoke the onscreen keyboard. You really need a keyboard to use a Windows tablet.

Despite its simplicity, the Metro environment can be befuddling; the Store app and Internet Explorer are difficult to navigate, for example, and easily let you run in circles. One reason for this: There's little apparent hierarchy in Metro apps, and you often have to use the application bar to navigate to specific functions rather than move laterally among them via the visible navigation controls. It's a bit like being forced to walk through a maze when you actually want to get somewhere as directly as possible.

However, IE11's copying of Apple Safari's iCloud Tabs is a nice touch, letting you access recently opened websites on other PCs linked to your Microsoft account. Windows 8.1 also nicely reworks the PC Settings app to bring in more functions, but you'll still rely on the separate Control Panel in the Windows Desktop, which provides much more control over the PC.

The Windows Desktop part is the Windows 7 you know and probably love. The good news in Windows 8.1 is that you can set your PC to boot directly to the familiar Windows Desktop, rather than having to go to the Metro Start screen, then clicking the Desktop tile. Still, you can be popped into the Metro environment unexpectedly by double-clicking a file and finding it opens a Metro app instead of a traditional Windows one. Microsoft wants people to switch to Metro, so it has set the default core apps such as email and media players to be the Metro versions.

Also, the Start menu remains missing in Windows 8.1, so it's hard to get to your Windows 7 apps quickly. Microsoft has brought back the Start button, but all it does is switch you between Metro and the Windows Desktop -- as if you pressed the Windows key. Clearly, Microsoft doesn't get why users are so frustrated. (To get the handy Power User menu, you now right-click that Start button, or you can continue to use the Windows-X shortcut.)

Just as Metro works nicely via touch and poorly via traditional input methods, Windows Desktop works well via traditional input methods and poorly via touch -- Windows 8.1 does nothing to fix that. Icons and menus are often too small to read on a tablet screen, as well as too hard to touch or tap reliably. Plus, touch equivalents for common actions such as right-clicking do not work reliably in the Windows Desktop.

Ultimately, you're switching between two different computers that share a file system and a few core services, and each computer is optimized for a different set of input methods. As InfoWorld suggested earlier this year, it would have been better to leave Metro for tablets and Windows 7 for laptops and desktop PCs, and slowly merged the UIs as Apple is doing with OS X and iOS. For most users, Windows 8.1 will be a confounding mess, even if now the two piles can be kept a bit more separated.

Features: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Mavericks

Scores:
Windows 8.1: 7
OS X Mavericks: 9

Over the years, Apple has made OS X much more than an operating system. It's also a product suite, with a very capable email client, calendar manager, note-taker, browser, lightweight word processor, image editor/PDF markup tool, media player, and instant messaging client. If you buy a new Mac, you also get the very capable iPhoto, GarageBand, and iMovie apps for media manipulation and creation. Mavericks adds a mapping/navigation app and book reader to the mix. For many users, these apps are all they need. Beyond the assortment of moderately to highly capable apps, OS X has exceptional support for human languages and for people with various kinds of disabilities.

Windows 8 offers less than OS X across the board, partly because Microsoft wants people to buy or subscribe to its pricey Office suite, so tools such as WordPad and the Mail app in Metro provide only a subset of OS X's counterparts. (You can of course pay extra for Microsoft Outlook in the Windows Desktop to get a full email client for Windows.) But even where Microsoft doesn't have a product it wants to sell you -- for example, media playback (Xbox Music, Xbox Video, and Windows Media Player) and PDF markup (Reader) -- its tools are decidedly inferior to OS X's (iTunes and Preview, respectively). Also, Metro's Mail app still doesn't support the oldest and most common types of email account (POP). Windows 8.1's services for sharing, notifications, and search are also both less capable and more clunkily implemented than OS X's equivalents.

Some of the Metro apps in Windows 8.1 are more functional than in Windows 8, and more like what's available in iOS and Android. For example, the Camera app now supports panoramic shooting and the Photos app allows for basic image manipulation such as cropping and color shifting, both like recent iOS and Android editions. But the music and video players, calendar, and PDF apps are decidely inferior to those in OS X, and the new Alarms app is inferior to what you get in iOS or Android, though OS X has no equivalent. Metro's Weather app is the most compelling of the Metro apps (and OS X has no built-in equivalent), and the Sports app remains a nicely customizable gateway to your favorite sports content.

Also new to Windows 8.1 are apps for scanning documents (long built in to OS X's Preview and Image Capture apps, where it makes more sense to integrate scanning capability) and maintaining reading lists of Web documents (which OS X's Safari has had for some time, and again a more sensible location for this capability). The new Calculator app is very much like OS X's ancient version. Microsoft seems to be throwing widgets into Metro to increase the list of features, rather than creating a suite of compelling apps.

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