OS deathmatch: Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7

I've put both operating systems through their paces, selected categories for a head-to-head competition, and then chosen a winner in each category

It's the best of times if you're a lover of operating systems, with the nearly simultaneous release of Apple's Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard" (available right now) and Microsoft's Windows 7 (available Oct. 22). This leads to the inevitable debate: Which is the better operating system, Windows 7 or Snow Leopard?

To help determine that, I've put both operating systems through their paces, selected categories for a head-to-head competition, and then chosen a winner in each category. And at the end, I summarize the scorecard.

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For testing Windows 7, I did a clean install of Windows 7 Ultimate Edition RTM on a Dell Inspiron E1505 notebook with 1GB of RAM and a 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo processor. To test Snow Leopard, I did an upgrade from Mac OS X Leopard on my MacBook Air, which is loaded with a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB of RAM.

Overview

The two companies took diametrically opposed approaches to their newest operating system upgrades.

Microsoft, burned by the compatibility issues that bedeviled Vista, strove to make compatibility with Vista-level hardware and software a centerpiece of Windows 7, and so didn't dramatically change the under-the-hood plumbing in Windows 7.

However, significant interface changes and features were added. The taskbar got a thorough reworking, making it much more Mac OS X Dock-like -- in fact, even better than the Dock. Similarly, the addition of HomeGroups was an attempt to make networking simpler for home users.

Apple, on the other hand, focused its efforts largely on internal plumbing, and many of those efforts won't pay off immediately for users. OpenCL and Grand Central Dispatch are new technologies designed to better take advantage of multi-core CPUs and to offload more graphics and animation processing to graphics cards.

In the long run, this should make for significantly juiced-up performance. But in order for people to reap much of the benefits, developers will need to rewrite their programs. The new Apple technologies are designed to make that easier, but until those new applications are written, the effects most likely won't be extremely noticeable.

Apple also tweaked the operating system interface, refining the Finder and integrating the Dock with Exposé. But those changes are not nearly as significant as the ones Microsoft made to Windows 7.

With all that as a background, let's get on to the smackdown. Come along for the great debate -- and weigh in with your own comments.

OK, let's get this issue out of the way quickly. Which operating system would you rather run: one with the cool name Snow Leopard, or one with the unimaginative moniker Windows 7?

Enough said.

The Winner: Snow Leopard. Wild animals are inherently more exciting than panes of glass.

Price

For anyone buying a new computer, a price comparison between the two operating systems is meaningless, because the operating system will come pre-installed on whatever hardware they buy. But for upgraders, it can be a very big deal.

Apple upgraders will certainly be happier than those who make the move to Windows 7 from earlier versions. Snow Leopard is a $29 upgrade (unless you're still using Tiger, in which case you have to buy the Mac Box Set -- which includes iLife '09 and iWork '09 -- for $169). The Windows 7 Ultimate upgrade costs a whopping $220 on Amazon, Windows 7 Professional goes for $200, and Windows 7 Home Premium weighs in at $120.

Windows users also have to face the confusing decision about which of theversions of Windows 7 to purchase -- given the price points, are you better off with Windows 7 Ultimate, Windows 7 Professional or Windows 7 Home Premium? With Snow Leopard, there's no confusion; there's only one version of the operating system.

The Winner: Snow Leopard. At $29, it's practically an impulse buy.

Installation

Here's what you need to do in order to install Snow Leopard: Insert the installation disc and then go through a simple setup routine. You won't have to decide between a clean install and an upgrade. You won't have to mull over which version of Snow Leopard is best for you. You won't have to type in a lengthy registration code.

In Windows, you'll have to choose between a clean install and an upgrade. In addition, depending on your hardware configuration and version of Windows, it may take you some time to figure out which version of Windows 7 you can upgrade to.

Once you do all that, though, there are no real major differences between installing the operating systems. Snow Leopard took a little less time to install on my system, but apart from that, the installation process itself was quite similar.

Snow Leopard did do a better job of recognizing the hardware -- it did it without a hitch. Windows 7 at first didn't recognize my video card and so I had problems with screen resolution. However, Windows 7 quickly resolved the problem without any intervention on my part via Windows Update.

The Winner: Snow Leopard. It wins by a hair because of Windows 7's slight glitch with my hardware and the configuration choices you need to make. Aside from that, though, installation wasn't significantly different.

Launching applications

What do you do all day with an operating system? You primarily launch programs, and then switch among running programs and windows. To a certain extent, everything else is just window dressing.

So it's probably no surprise that some of the biggest changes to both Snow Leopard and Windows 7 have to do with the way you launch applications and switch among them. Snow Leopard's Dock was tweaked by integrating it with Exposé (a window-management feature); while Windows 7's taskbar was significantly reworked.

The Dock and the taskbar both do double-duty as application launchers and task switchers. The Dock is more aesthetically pleasing, with its application icons cut out in profile and highlighted against the Mac desktop, while the taskbar runs like a flat ribbon across the bottom of the Windows 7 screen.

Both added a nearly identical feature -- the ability to see thumbnails of all the windows open in an application. In Windows 7, when an application has multiple windows open, you'll see a stack of icons in the taskbar that match the number of windows open. Hover your mouse over the application's icon, and you'll see thumbnails of them all, spread out across the bottom of the screen. Similarly, in Snow Leopard, when you click on an application's icon in the Dock and hold it, you see thumbnails as well.

The taskbar's implementation is superior to the Dock's. The taskbar displays the number of windows open in an application because it shows a stack of icons -- the Dock has no visual clues like that. In addition, when you scroll through each thumbnail in Windows 7, you see a full preview of the window on your desktop, making it easier to determine which window you want to switch to. The Dock doesn't do this.

The Dock's implementation of thumbnails is also incomplete. In Snow Leopard, if you run a browser such as Safari or Firefox and then hold down its icon in the Dock, you won't be able to see all open tabs as separate thumbnails; instead you see only a single tab, and have no idea what other tabs are open. In Windows 7, each tab gets its own thumbnail, so you know exactly what's open in your browser.

The Windows 7 taskbar has something else that Snow Leopard doesn't: Jump Lists. When you right-click an application's icon in the taskbar in Windows 7, you get a menu offering various actions and tasks associated with that application. The list varies according to the application -- so when you right-click Microsoft Word, for example, you see a list of recently opened files, but when you click Internet Explorer, you see a list of your most frequently visited sites.

Of course, both OSes have other ways to switch from one task to another: Snow Leopard has Exposé, while Windows 7 uses the Alt-Tab key combination. Here it's more of a toss-up over which is superior.

Exposé has nifty features such as letting you move your pointer to a corner of the desktop to perform a task like putting the display to sleep, displaying all open windows, etc. And the Spaces feature lets you create multiple virtual desktops, each with its own look and application organization.

Alt-Tab, though, has one thing that Exposé doesn't: When you cycle through all your open windows, the background of the desktop shows that window, so you can more easily decide which program you want to switch to.

The Winner: Windows 7. The taskbar has more features such as Jump Lists and has more fully featured thumbnails. The Dock may be more elegant-looking, but in this case function is more important than form.

System configuration

If you're like most people, you're not satisfied with the out-of-box experience offered by your operating system. You want to customize it and tweak it.

For doing this, it's hard to beat the straight-ahead simplicity and organization of Snow Leopard's System Preferences. It sports five categories: Personal, Hardware, Internet & Wireless, System, and Other. In each category you'll find a group of icons, such as Appearance, Desktop & Screen Saver, and so on. Click an icon, and you'll be presented with a straightforward menu for changing the way that feature works. It's as simple as customization gets.

Windows 7's Control Panel is far more complex. It has seven major categories and many subcategories, using a very confusing hierarchy. It has numerous applets for configuring Windows, but unlike System Preference, there is not a common interface among them all -- the interface of each applet is different, and so it takes quite a time to learn each. The learning curve is steep.

But there's also a big upside to that complexity: As a general rule, Windows is more configurable than Snow Leopard, with more options. And some of the applets are extremely useful and superior to what is available in Snow Leopard.

A good example of the contrasting approaches is Snow Leopard's Network System Preferences compared to the Windows 7's Network and Internet category in its Control Panel. In Snow Leopard, it's exceedingly easy to get at important network information such as TCP/IP and DNS configuration. In Windows 7, to get that information you have to dig deep through numerous applets and menus, and once you do it, it's not easy to remember how to do it again.

However, in Windows 7, you get more networking options and features, such as an excellent network map that visually displays all the devices on your network and lets you get information about them.

So while it's true that Microsoft could have done a better job for system configuration than the Control Panel, it has also tried to stuff many more features into it. Partly, the complex design goes with the complex territory.

The Winner: Windows 7. Many people might consider this a toss-up, but this choice reflects my predilection for tweaking and customizing. Those who want simplicity will appreciate Snow Leopard's System Preferences' easy and accessible way to configure the operating system. Tweakers who like as many choices as possible, no matter how confusing and inelegantly presented, will prefer Windows 7's Control Panel.

Software compatibility

What good is an operating system without software that runs on it? No good at all. So it's worthwhile looking at how compatible existing software is with each operating system.

When it comes to compatibility with existing third-party applications for the Mac, Snow Leopard has some problems. As I've written in Snow Leopard: Which apps, utilities have been left behind?, I found a number of compatibility problems between Snow Leopard and software that I use on a daily basis. The excellent Xmarks bookmark synchronizer won't work on Safari in Snow Leopard, for example, and neither will the free office productivity suite NeoOffice. In addition, Adobe Systems has said that its Creative Suite 3, which includes Photoshop, may not run on Snow Leopard, although Creative Suite 4 should have no problems.

I've found several other utilities that won't work either, such as the very good Windows Sync synchronization tool from Windows. In some instances, betas of the utilities or applications already exist that fix the problem. In others, work is being done or planned, but not yet completed. Most likely, most if not all popular applications will eventually be compatible with Snow Leopard. But that's not the case today.

As for Windows 7, Microsoft seems to have learned the lessons of Windows Vista. Applications written for Windows Vista will work with Windows 7 -- I haven't found a single issue where that isn't the case. There's also a Windows XP mode that allows applications written for XP to run on Windows 7 and look as if they were running on it natively. True, it's a kludge, but at least it works. (Note that XP mode is available only for certain hardware and in certain versions of Windows 7.)

The Winner: Windows 7. That's for now, though. In relatively short order, Snow Leopard may have its compatibility problems worked out.

Hardware compatibility

I haven't given Windows 7 or Snow Leopard comprehensive run-throughs that test how well they work with different peripherals. As a result, there's no way for me to compare their compatibility with peripherals at this point.

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