Deathmatch: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion

With the final version of Windows 8 now complete, how does Microsoft's great hope for reinventing itself for the post-PC world compare to Apple's new flagship? The short answer: not well. But lest you think that it's a simple case of sainted perfection versus preordained disaster -- the peanut gallery's running themes for Apple and Microsoft, respectively -- think again. OS X Mountain Lion has some unwelcome flaws, whereas Windows 8 has some virtuous aspects.

My colleague Woody Leonhard has reviewed the final version of Windows 8, and I encourage you to read his take to understand the nuances of Microsoft's tablet/desktop hybrid OS. I've detailed the many capabilities in OS X Mountain Lion, 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 the InfoWorld Test Center's key scoring categories for desktop operating systems.

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Ease of use: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion


Windows 8: 6

OS X Mountain Lion: 9

Apple defined the graphical user interface as we know it today, and despite 28 years of changes, the core metaphors remain unchanged. That consistency makes it easy to use each new version of OS X, and Mountain Lion 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 new Notification Center, the new 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.

However, OS X Mountain Lion has UI flaws that undercut the superb ease-of-use. Apple has been monkeying with its application file services since OS X Lion, so there are now three distinct UIs and services for saving files: one for traditional apps, one for Versions-enabled apps, and now one for iCloud Documents-compatible apps. It's confusing. The misguided removal of Save As in Versions-enabled apps in OS X Lion is an example of misguided arrogance, and even though it's back in OS X Mountain Lion, it's available only if you know to hold the Option key when using the File menu.

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.

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