Deathmatch: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion

Microsoft is intent on shipping Windows 8 as is despite all the criticism, so it's time to see if OS X can truly take its place

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Another ease-of-use issue introduced in OS X Mountain Lion involves software installation. The new Gatekeeper feature won't let you install apps that don't come from the Mac App Store, a great way to prevent malware installation, but the process for allowing other apps to be installed is arduous for nontechies. As a result, users may be prone to leaving the security capability off altogether, defeating the purpose for including it in the first place.

But these examples pale in comparison to Windows 8's dissonant UI and awkward stitching together of two distinct environments: Windows 7 (now called Windows Desktop) and Metro (whose formal name is not yet known). As an example of an unfriendly change in Windows 8, Microsoft has added the ribbon to the Windows Explorer file manager. Fair enough -- it's become standard in Microsoft's apps, after all. But unlike the ribbon in other apps, the one in Windows Explorer is hidden until you click or tap the corresponding menu. That's fine. The bone-headed 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 auto-hide functionality and make Windows Explorer's ribbon work like all other apps' ribbons and 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 just two ways to get app options that aren't in the app's screens, and they're easily accessed through gestures. But if you use a mouse and keyboard -- which 99 percent of the planet does -- accessing the common search, sharing, and settings services (called "charms") involves an awkward action. And 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 svcreen, because there's no way to invoke the onscreen keyboard instead.

The Windows Desktop part is the Windows 7 you know and probably love. The changes to this environment are insignificant, beyond the ill-advised ribbon change and a nice-looking Task Manager, so users can go with what the old standbys -- until they double-click a file and find 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. Just as Metro works nicely via touch and poorly via traditional input methods, Windows Desktop works nicely via traditional input methods and poorly via touch. Icons and menus are too small to read on a tablet screen, and 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. 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 will be a confounding mess.

Features: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion

Windows 8: 7
OS X Mountain Lion: 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, browser, lightweight word processor, image editor/PDF markup tool, media player, and instant messaging client. 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 its Office suite, so tools such as WordPad and the Mail app in Metro provide only a subset of OS X's equivalent features. But even where Microsoft doesn't have a product it wants to sell you -- for example, media playback and PDF markup -- its tools are decidedly inferior to OS X's. For example, Metro's Mail app doesn't support the most common type of email account (POP). Its services for sharing, notifications, and search are also both less capable and more clunkily implemented.

The Metro apps are decidedly lightweight, offering fewer capabilities than even their iOS counterparts, and IE10 remains significantly behind all major browsers in its support for the emerging HTML5 standards.

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