Deathmatch review: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8.1 has languished as Microsoft seeks to move past its failure, while Apple has extended its Mac OS into an intriguing new direction

At a Glance
  • Microsoft Windows 8.1

  • Apple OS X Yosemite

With OS X 10.10 Yosemite now shipping and Windows 8.1 done with its 2014 update cycle, how do the two flagship PC operating systems compare?

Windows 8.1 and some of its 2014 updates let users avoid most of the Windows 8 experience, so they can return to a Windows 7-like state of comfort. In contrast, Yosemite moves the Mac into new collaborative territory with iPads and iPhones, and it adopts iOS's visual conventions. In short, Windows has essentially languished this year as Microsoft turns its attention to the next version to debut next year, and Apple has continued its steady pace of evolving OS X into iOS territory.

My colleague Woody Leonhard has reviewed 2013's Windows 8.1 in depth, as well as the Update 1 improvements from 2014, and I encourage you to read his take to understand the nuances of Microsoft's tablet/desktop hybrid OS. I've previously detailed the intriguing new capabilities in OS X Yosemite, which I also urge you to check out. Here, I highlight the key differences, strengths, and weaknesses of the two OSes, both of which I've been using since their first betas were released, organized by InfoWorld's scoring categories for desktop operating systems.

Meanwhile, the new OS X Yosemite changes the visual appearance of OS X to mirror that of iOS 8, while leaving most OS functions working as they did before. Instead, Apple has focused its changes is on new features, such as tighter integration with iOS and iCloud via its Handoff, iCloud Drive, and Continuity capabilities.

For example, using Handoff, a recent-model Mac can detect a nearby iPhone and transfer the email, calendar item, or document in progress there to the Mac. Using Continuity, a wider set of Macs can answer calls made to a nearby iPhone (though the voice quality is bad) or participate in an SMS conversation on that iPhone. 

OS X Yosemite Continuity taking a call

With Continuity, a Mac runnig OS X Yosemite can detect a call coming to a nearby iPhone and switch the call to FaceTime Audio instead.

But at the end of the day, OS X Yosemite is, like Windows 8.1, a small upgrade from its predecessor. For both Apple and Microsoft, it's an era of incremental change.

Ease of use: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8.1: 7
OS X Yosemite: 9

Apple defined the graphical user interface as we know it today, and despite nearly 30 years of changes, the core metaphors remain unchanged. That consistency makes it easy to use each new version of OS X, and Yosemite is no exception.

Yet the OS has expanded to support touch gestures in a very natural way, via touch mice and touchpads. Also, Apple's slew of helper utilities -- such as the Quick Look preview facility, the Notification Center, the embedded sharing capabilities, and the Spotlight search tool -- do what Apple does best: offer sophisticated capabilities that users can discover as needed, rather than face a steep learning curve to get started. The Dock and the persistent menu bar also simplify app access, while the full-screen mode introduced in OS X Lion lets users stay focused when they want to be, yet have quick access to the rest of the OS as desired.

Yosemite makes a few small enhancements to that UI: One is that the Notification Center, like its iOS 8 counterpart, can now contain widgets ("extensions"), such as for stock data, current weather, or third-party notions, including Evernote updates. OS X has also changed its unloved Dashboard feature -- which holds an earlier form of widgets -- so that it can now appear as an overlay over your current Desktop screen, not only as a separate Desktop. Still, the Dashboard remains pretty useless. Don't expect it to survive past Yosemite now that the more accessible extensions are here.

The bigger change is the change from iCloud Documents to iCloud Drive. iCloud Documents was awkward to use, with a wholly separate user interface in Open and Save dialogs from the standard Finder, and a clumsy method to move files between iCloud Documents and the Finder. Plus, iCloud Documents were available only to their apps.

The new iCloud Drive works like Dropbox or Box, displayed as a virtual disk whose files and folders are accessible using the standard Open and Save dialogs, as well as the standard Finder windows. Apps still have their own folders, for compatibility with iOS apps that use iCloud Documents (including Apple's own iWork suite). On iOS 8, iCloud Drive is treated as an import/export function, not as a direct save/open mechanism as it is on OS X Yosemite, so there are still vestiges of the clunky iCloud Documents separation in iCloud Drive.

OS X Yosemite iCloud Drive

iCloud Drive in OS X Yosemite works like any other cloud service's virtual drive. But it also provides app-specific folders for compatibility with apps designed for its iCloud Documents predecessor, such as Pages here.

In Yosemite, Apple uses iCloud Drive in its Mail app so that large attachments can be automatically stored on iCloud Drive, with recipients getting a link to the file (they don't need an iCloud account to retrieve them). That helps get past attachment limits in email servers. 

Still, OS X flaws like the iCloud Document remnants and Dashboard awkwardness 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.

Another nice touch, taken from Windows tablets, is the Snap feature that lets you run two Metro apps side by side. Figuring out how to enable this feature is not at all intuitive (right-click the upper-left corner of the current app), but once you know how to do it, you can use your Metro screen space more effectively, especially for running widgets that don't need a whole screen.

Windows 8.1 Snap view in Metro

The Windows 8.1 Snap view -- once you figure out how to enable it -- lets you use Metro's screen real estate more effectively, especially for widget-style apps like Weather.

Metro still struggles to work well with both keyboard/mouse and touch scenarios. For example, there are two ways to get app options not 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 sharing and settings services (called "charms") involves an awkward action. If you don't have a physical keyboard, such as for a tablet, you simply can't use certain Metro features. For example, you can't search 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.

Fortunately, Windows 8.1 Update 1 brought two new icons -- Search and Power -- that now make search and restart or shutdown both easily discoverable and simpler to use.

Windows 8.1 Search and Power in Metro

A pair of small but very useful additions to the Metro Start screen in Windows 8.1 are the Search and Power buttons (at upper right) that make these two common features easier to discover and access.

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. And the taskbar shows running Metro apps now, not only Desktop apps.

Windows 8.1 taskbar

Windows 8.1's taskbar shows both Desktop and Metro apps, for easier access to both.

Still, you can unexpectedly pop into the Metro environment by double-clicking a file and finding it opens a Metro app instead of a traditional Windows program. Microsoft wants people to switch to Metro, so it has set the default core apps such as email and media players to 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. (To get the handy Power User menu, shown above, 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 has suggested, it would have been better to leave Metro for tablets and Windows 7 for laptops and desktop PCs, then 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 the two piles can be kept a bit more separated.

There is hope: The forthcoming Windows 10 takes many of InfoWorld's suggestions to intelligently merge the Desktop and Metro environments. But until Windows 10 ships some time next year, you're stuck with the Jekyll-and-Hyde split that is Windows 8.1.

Features: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8.1: 7
OS X Yosemite: 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, maps-and-directions app, media player, and instant messaging client.

If you buy a new Mac, you also get the very capable iWork productivity suite (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote), iPhoto (to be replaced next year with Photos, which is not yet in public beta), GarageBand, and iMovie apps for media manipulation and creation. 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 much 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).

And after two and a half years, Metro's Mail app still doesn't support the oldest and most common type of email account (POP). Windows 8.1's services for sharing, notifications, and search are also less capable and more awkwardly implemented than OS X's equivalents.

Some of the Metro apps in Windows 8.1 are more functional than in Windows 8, and they're more like what's available in iOS and Android. For example, the Camera app supports panoramic shooting, and the Photos app allows for basic image manipulation such as cropping and color shifting, as in recent iOS and Android editions.

But the music and video players, calendar, and PDF apps are decidedly inferior to those in OS X. The 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; OS X Yosemite's equivalent is a simple widget in the Notification Center. The Sports app remains a nicely customizable gateway to your favorite sports content.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Ease of use (25%)
Features (25%)
Manageability (15%)
Security (15%)
Compatibility (10%)
Value (10%)
Ease of development (25%)
Overall Score
Microsoft Windows 8.1 7 7 9 8 10 7 0 7.8
Apple OS X Yosemite 9 9 7 9 8 10 0 8.7
At a Glance
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