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

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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.

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 Metro 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.

The big new thing in Yosemite is Handoff and Continuity, the features that let Macs work with iOS devices more easily. Handoff is very intriguing, but unfortunately I found it unreliable on the Mac. Activities on my iPhone 6 or iPad Mini usually did not show up as available to Handoff on the OS X Dock, where they should appear. Ditto for the reverse. Yet Handoff worked nicely and consistently between my iPhone 6 and iPad Mini. For some reason, my 2012 MacBook Pro didn't often get the Handoff message, though it's compatible.

OS X Yosemite Handoff from Maps

The Handoff feature in OS X Yosemite -- when it works -- is a great convenience if you use an iOS device and want to move what you're doing on a mobile device to your Mac, or vice versa.

By contrast, Continuity worked fine on both a 2009 MacBook Pro and 2012 MacBook Pro: The FaceTime app noticed when my iPhone 6 got a call and let me take the call on my Mac via FaceTime Audio. The same goes for the Messages app with SMS text messages received on my iPhone 6. The rest of Continuity existed in prior versions of OS X and iOS, such as keeping alerts, iMessages, passwords, browser tabs, "where I left off" status, and so on in sync automatically across your iCloud-connected devices.

Handoff needs some work in OS X, clearly, but based on how it functions in iOS 8, the capability holds much promise.

Windows 8.1 has nothing like OS X's Handoff, and its equivalents to OS X's Continuity are limited to updating application settings, and in a tiny number of apps, "where I left off" status for documents.

Manageability: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8.1: 9
OS X Yosemite: 7

If you're willing to spend the money, you can manage Windows 8 PCs every which way from Sunday using tools such as Microsoft's System Center. Remote installation, policy enforcement, application monitoring, software updating, and so forth are all available.

OS X Yosemite provides similar capabilities through its use of managed client profiles -- including enforcing use of disk encryption -- through OS X Server. Alternatively, OS X management capabilities are available through third-party tools such as those from Quest Software that plug into System Center or via MDM tools from the likes of Citrix Systems, Good Technology, and MobileIron.

OS X Mavericks rationalized the OS X policy set with iOS, so it's easier to manage Macs using the tools you likely have in place for mobile devices. Mavericks also supported enterprise-style app licensing for Mac App Store apps, a big shift IT should welcome. Yosemite keeps these and adds a few more policies to cover new features like Handoff.

But the degree of control available to Windows admins -- as well as the number of tools to exert that control -- is still far greater than is available for OS X admins.

Security: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8.1: 8
OS X Yosemite: 9

With nearly every computer these days connected to the Internet, security is a big focus, including both application security and data security. Windows has been a malware magnet for years, and antivirus software has been only partially effective in protecting PCs.

Macs have been immune from most attacks, but in the last two years, the Mac has seen a handful of high-profile Trojan attacks through plug-in technologies such as Oracle Java and Adobe Flash. Windows, of course, suffers hundreds of such attacks each year.

Microsoft provides in Windows 8.1 the free but basic Windows Defender antimalware app (as it provided Security Essentials for earlier Windows versions), so you get some native defense against malware. Likewise, Apple has included antimalware detection since OS X Mountain Lion, with daily checks to update signatures and remove known malware.

But Windows' registry makes it harder to truly eliminate malware than Apple's Unix-based approach of relying on discrete files and folders that can simply be deleted if found to be harmful.

OS X has a feature called Gatekeeper that prevents installation of apps without a valid Apple developer signature, meant to block stealth malware from secretly installing itself. You can disable that feature permanently or on a  case-by-case basis (such as to install old software from CDs you trust). Windows will alert you to suspect downloads, but it can't prevent sophisticated malware from self-installing as OS X can. OS X also won't run Java versions older than Java 7, which cuts off a major route for malware infections.

Security researchers such as Trail of Bits say OS X is much harder for hackers to successfully attack than Windows, though Microsoft's Vista and later have done a good job of closing up many holes in Windows XP. Also, many more tools are available to monitor and protect Windows, commensurate to its greater risk, than for OS X.

Both OSes' boot loaders include antimalware detection, and OS X has a password-protected firmware option to prevent startup from external disks. That way, no one can bypass the startup password by booting from a different disk. (One of OS X's handy features lets you boot a Mac from external disks and network volumes easily, which is great for testing and shared environments.)

Beyond such application security, both OSes support FIPS 140-2 cryptographic encryption. Both OSes also provide IT-manageable on-disk encryption, though Microsoft's BitLocker requires a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip to implement it fully, and few PCs have such a chip.

For me, that means I can't access corporate email from one of my Windows 8 PCs via the Metro Mail app because it has no TPM to enable encryption; also, our Office 365 Exchange server requires encryption be enabled to gain access. That same server works fine with OS X, iOS, Android, and BlackBerry 10 devices' encryption, and of course it works fine with my TPM-equipped Surface Pro tablet.

Also easier in OS X is data security, thanks to the included Time Machine backup program. With Time Machine, it's dead simple to back up a Mac or OS X Server, and the backups can be encrypted and even rotated among multiple disks. System restoration is also exceedingly easy, with no driver installation or command-line setup involved.

Windows 8 introduced File History, which backs up data files in certain locations to your choice of your startup disk, an external disk, or Microsoft's OneDrive cloud storage service. Like Time Machine, File History keeps incremental versions of these files so that you can roll back to a previous point in time. Unlike Time Machine, it can't restore your whole PC in case of a crash or simply to transfer your environment to a new machine. Windows 8.1 doesn't change that.

Of course, Windows 8 relies on its OneDrive cloud storage service as the default location for Office and other Microsoft apps' files, as does OS X Yosemite for iWork and other Apple apps' files. Cloud storage makes backup less of an issue -- a toasted hard drive doesn't matter.

On the other hand, cloud storage is synced storage, so deletion in one place deletes a file everywhere, increasing the risk of loss. For cloud data recovery, Windows 8.1 moves OneDrive files deleted from the PC's File Explorer to the local trash, so it can be recovered from there until you empty the trash. It also moves files deleted on OneDrive into a trash folder you can access via the Web.

By contrast, for iCloud Drive, you can recover deleted files if you deleted them from OS X, where they're placed in a trash folder. But if you delete them on the website or from an iOS device, they're gone forever, with no undelete capability -- a dangerous move.

Compatibility: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8: 10
OS X Yosemite: 8

Because Windows 8 is Windows 7 with the Metro environment tacked on, it is compatible with all the software, hardware, and services you already have. Yes, some older PCs won't run Windows 8.1, but that's about resource requirements and lack of drivers for those that also don't support Windows 7.

OS X Yosemite of course runs only on Apple's Macs, for which there is a smaller set of hardware and software available than for Windows. Although Apple is ruthless in dropping technologies over time as it deems them problematic or limiting, none has been dropped in Yosemite, which also runs on the same Macs that supported the previous version of the OS (Mavericks).

But you can't use Yosemite's new Handoff features unless your Mac is a 2012 or newer model; they require radios that support both Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi Direct, which earlier models don't have.

OS X is frequently underappreciated for its compatibility with corporate resources. It supports Microsoft's SMB file sharing; it supports Open Directory and Active Directory; it supports corporate VPNs; and its email, calendar, task, and notes apps all support Exchange out of the box, though some enterprises have reported odd compatibility issues with Exchange calendars.

The Safari browser is also much more compatible with the current and emerging HTML standards than Microsoft's Internet Explorer. For example, IE11 scores 376 out of 555 points in the tests, up from IE10's 335, but well short of 427 in OS X Yosemite's Safari 8, 475 in Mozilla's Firefox 32, and 512 in Google's Chrome 37. Still, if you want maximum modern Web compatibility, on either platform Chrome is the clear leader.

The sad truth is that IE is a woefully outdated browser that's not compatible with many websites. Enterprises often stick with it due to the use of ActiveX-based apps, but that forces organizations to support both IE for legacy apps and Chrome for modern websites.

It's best to cut the IE cord and standardize on a single browser that works on almost everything, and leave the ActiveX world behind. Microsoft has been urging businesses to drop ActiveX for years, to little effect. But IE11's horrible compatibility with the modern Web might finally force the issue, though by moving companies to a competing browser.

Value: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8.1: 7
OS X Yosemite: 10

OS X Yosemite is clearly the better value, offering more capability and ease of use -- the two factors that matter most to the public -- than Windows 8. In addition, the psychic price of Windows 8's split personality is quite high, even with Windows 8.1's ability to better hide the Metro side.

Apple's free upgrade price for Yosemite is hard to beat. But Microsoft has sort of matched it with Windows 8.1, which is free to Windows 8 users. If you're running a prior version of Windows, Windows 8.1 Pro costs $200. If you're running OS X Snow Leopard or later, you can upgrade to Yosemite at no charge. Also, you don't need to do an intermediate upgrade first, as Window 8.1 requires if you have Windows XP or Vista.

For enterprises, OS X may have a higher cost for IT, at least initially, as staff must learn to manage and support the OS and the company must invest in tools to achieve the same level of management as the tools already purchased for Windows allow. Mac users tend to require less support than PC users, perhaps because most Mac users choose the platform and are thus more likely to be self-supporting in the first place.

How it all adds up: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite

Windows 8.1: 7.8
OS X Yosemite: 8.7

Deathmatch review: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Yosemite
PC Operating System:
Apple OS X Yosemite

Clearly, OS X Yosemite is a better operating system than Windows 8.1. It's better designed, more capable, and -- contrary to many people's beliefs -- supportive of mainstream business security and management needs. But Windows supports a much wider universe of apps, so many people legitimately can use only a PC.

The misguided UI mismatch in Windows 8 caused many users to look for alternatives -- most simply stuck with Windows 7. If you're in the market for a new PC, you should get one running Windows 7 while you still can (a few are still available online).

If you must get a PC with Windows 8.1, the good news is that it is more tolerable than Windows 8. The bad news is that it's still basically Windows 8, so if you want a new computer, move to a Mac, using a Windows virtual machine as a transition aid.

At a Glance

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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