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

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But I can generally gauge their compatibility with the hardware for which their operating systems were designed. So how compatible is Windows 7 with Windows-based PCs and how compatible is Snow Leopard with Macs?

Snow Leopard requires Intel-based hardware; in other words, it won't run on PowerPC G4 or G5-based systems. This means if you've got an Apple machine built before 2006 (when Intel processors were introduced to Macs), you're out of luck. The various Mac lines were switched to Intel processors at different points throughout 2006, so if your machine was built in 2006 it may or may not be compatible. You can check About This Mac under the Apple menu to see what kind of processor you have.

In general, though, if you've bought a new machine in the last three years, you're probably in good shape. Snow Leopard requires 5GB of free disk space and 1GB of RAM.

With Windows 7, things get a bit more complicated. It is designed to run on any machine that runs Windows Vista, which was released in January 2007. But it will also run on many machines originally designed for Windows XP -- in fact, I run it on a Dell Inspiron E1505 that I bought before Vista's release in January 2007, and that was originally an XP machine.

To be more specific: Windows 7 requires 1GB of RAM for the 32-bit version and 2GB for the 64-bit version. The 16-bit version requires 16GB of hard disk space, while the 32-bit version needs 20GB. To run the Aero interface, a graphics card must support DirectX 9 graphics and have 128MB of graphics memory. These are generally modest specifications, so many PCs designed for XP can handle Windows 7. That means that Windows 7 will run on older hardware than Snow Leopard (although if your machine dates from 2001 or 2002, you may need to check its specs carefully).

The Winner: Windows 7. Windows 7 will work with a wider variety of hardware for which Windows was designed than Snow Leopard will work with Macs.

Ease of use and elegance

Windows has come a long way since its humble -- and let's face it, just plain ugly -- beginnings. With each iteration of the operating system, it gets a little slicker, a little smoother, a little easier to use. Windows 7 continues this tradition, particularly with the new taskbar.

All that being said, Snow Leopard, like earlier versions of Mac OS X, is just plain beautiful. The word "seamless" is overused when describing an elegant, simple-to-use product, but in the case of Snow Leopard it's absolutely true. It's as intuitive and as aesthetically pleasing an operating system as you can find.

In addition, because Apple controls the hardware as well as the software, the integration between machine and software is unparalleled. Windows users have become used to strange behavior and odd error messages that appear from time to time -- it's the background radiation of Windows. To a certain extent, there's no way around it. Windows has to work with countless different combinations of CPUs, RAM, hard disks, video cards and other main system hardware. Because of that, these kinds of problems are almost inevitable with Windows-based hardware. They don't happen on Macs.

The Winner: Snow Leopard. No one beats Apple when it comes to design. As with previous versions of Mac OS X, Snow Leopard is flat-out beautiful. Windows may be improving, but it still has a way to go if it wants to catch the Mac.

Enterprise readiness

Windows is the business standard -- and the release of Snow Leopard won't change that. In enterprises and most businesses, the vast majority of computers run Windows, with only a few exceptions. Many enterprises have standardized not just on Windows but on the entire Microsoft architecture, including Office, SharePoint, Exchange, custom-built applications for Windows and so on.

In addition, Microsoft has a host of IT and management tools for deploying, maintaining and updating Windows hardware and software. Windows 7 adds some new ones, including management tools that use the scripting and automation capabilities of Windows PowerShell 2.0.

Snow Leopard makes a nod toward the enterprise, with built-in support for Microsoft Exchange Server 2007. But that's simply not enough. Snow Leopard is a consumer operating system, and isn't accompanied by the kind of management tools and IT ecosystem that enterprises need in order to manage large deployments.

The Winner: Windows 7. Windows remains the enterprise standard. No change appears imminent.

Extras

Snow Leopard is more than just an operating system -- it comes with a full suite of applications, notably iLife with iMovie for making movies, GarageBand for recording and editing music, iWeb for making Web pages and more. There's also the excellent Time Machine backup and restore utility, QuickTime X for capturing movies, and the PDF reader and utility Preview.

By way of contrast, Microsoft has made the decision in Windows 7 to strip out many of the extras in Windows. For example, Windows Movie Maker and Windows Mail -- both very good programs -- shipped with Windows Vista, but will not ship with Windows 7. Windows 7 does include a usable backup program -- finally -- but it's not up to the standards of Time Machine.

The Winner: Snow Leopard. There's no real competition here; it wins hands down.

Conclusion

If you go by the scorecard, we have a tie -- Windows 7 and Snow Leopard each win five categories. Of course, going by a scorecard is too simplistic, because not all of the categories carry equal weight.

So which operating system is better? The near-simultaneous release of Snow Leopard and Windows 7 doesn't change the dynamic that has been in place for many years in the operating system competition between Apple and Microsoft.

Snow Leopard is more beautiful and elegant as well as simpler to use -- although with Windows 7, Microsoft has closed the gap between the operating systems, particularly when it comes to taskbar improvements.

Windows 7, on the other hand, remains the corporate standard, and nothing in Snow Leopard is likely to change that. And it's still a more tweakable operating system (although its critics may say that tweaking is mandatory in order to get it running right).

As for me, I'll continue to use both Windows 7 and Snow Leopard. I can't remember another time in which Apple and Microsoft simultaneously released major upgrades to their operating systems. Both releases are big improvements. It's a golden time for operating system aficionados -- my recommendation is to use both and enjoy them if you can.

This story, "OS deathmatch: Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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