PC vs. Mac deathmatch: Snow Leopard beats Windows 7

I have a confession: I'm a switcher. My long journey with Windows, which began even before Windows with MS-DOS, ended with Windows Vista. While so many others navigated the Vista debacle by sticking with Windows XP, I gave Vista a try -- and gave up. I leapt to the Mac OS.

Could Windows 7 lure me back?

Windows 7 was built to fix the problems that plagued Vista, and it unquestionably succeeds in doing that. It's a bit less bloated, and it runs a bit faster. The annoying security alerts from User Account Control have been quieted. And the compatibility issues with third-party software and hardware device drivers have largely been ironed away; after all, it's been two and a half years since Vista debuted. Windows 7 even includes a virtual "XP mode" for running legacy programs.

[ Which is better? The Mac OS and Windows 7 UIs face off. | Get InfoWorld's 21-page hands-on look at the next version of Windows, from InfoWorld’s editors and contributors. | Find out what's new, what's wrong, and what's good about Windows 7 in InfoWorld's "Windows 7: The essential guide." ]

Windows 7 goes a few steps beyond merely repairing Vista. It borrows --and improves on -- tricks from the Mac's playbook to make it easier and faster to organize files and launch programs. Like Apple's operating system, Windows 7 not only looks good, but it has tools and shortcuts that help you work more efficiently. If there were ever a Windows that could challenge Mac OS X, Windows 7 is it.

Still, once you've had Mac, can you ever go back? Mac OS X Leopard received rave reviews for good reason, and Snow Leopard further improved OS X. Although the changes to the GUI are minimal (why mess with success?), there are important improvements under the hood, including a recoded, 64-bit Finder that takes better advantage of multicore processors. Snow Leopard also makes the Mac a better fit with PC-oriented businesses with integrated Mail, Address Book, and iCal support for Microsoft Exchange Server 2007.

After spending a few weeks with both new operating systems and exposing each to my geek's gauntlet of everyday tasks -- e-mail, instant messaging, Web surfing, blogging, creating and editing Office documents, Web page creation, and audio, video, and photo editing -- I have to call Snow Leopard the winner. All considered, from starting up to backing up, Mac OS X still offers the best overall user experience. The competition was close, though -- far closer than it's been in quite a while.

Read on to find out how Windows 7 and Snow Leopard compare in usability, features, security, and speed. In some areas the winner is clear, while in others I have to call it a draw. Generally where one wins, the other is not far behind. Perhaps not surprisingly, Apple and Microsoft largely agree on how an operating system should look and act when you're trying to get work done. The similarities are often striking.

One last note before we dive into the details: To test the operating systems, I installed each on a dedicated laptop computer that had previously been running the earlier version. In each case, either shipping or release candidate code was used for the initial installation, and each was current with all patches and updates as of the date of testing.

Usability: File exploring While noting that there are options you can set to determine just how files and folders will be displayed, both Windows 7 and Snow Leopard follow the same basic script for letting you find files. The larger units (computer, network, libraries, and so on) are on the left side of the window, while details are on the right.

Windows 7 places more options in front of the user with the bar at the top of the window, while Snow Leopard tends to place the options under buttons there. No huge difference here, though I'll say that the "more intuitive" description that Mac users love to throw around suffers a bit when intuition is hidden under icons. It's true that you can add tasks to the toolbar in Mac OS X, but it requires more work than simply accepting the default options in Windows 7.

The larger difference comes in Windows 7's treatment of "libraries." In a library, you can collect files of various sorts without moving them from the folder where they're stored; libraries can even collect files from different disks. It's easy to create these collections of whatever you'd like and pin them to the left-hand side of the window. If you're like me, a file pack rat who tends to work on a number of different projects at once, then the libraries can be a major improvement in the way you work with files.

Verdict: Yes, Snow Leopard has the ability to move documents into stacks on the Dock, but the Windows 7 libraries are much more powerful and flexible. Advantage: Windows 7.

Usability: Launching applications There is no more iconic visual symbol for Mac OS X than the dock, that strip at the bottom of the screen where frequently used applications live. It's easy to forget that you can launch most programs from the applications folder, but good to remember before your dock becomes hopelessly overcrowded. Snow Leopard didn't make significant changes to the dock, so users accustomed to the Leopard way of doing things should be comfortable with Snow Leopard's as well.

Windows 7, on the other hand, makes significant changes to the Windows task bar. It's now possible to pin applications to the task bar to make it far more Mac-like. Further, Windows 7 improves on the Mac model by allowing you to pin folders to the task bar, as well. The Windows 7 task bar can also be moved around the screen, appearing at the bottom, top, or either side, though most users will find it easier to let it sit at the bottom, where it's always been.

Verdict: The ability to pin folders is a genuine improvement to the Windows task bar, especially when your work requires you to constantly refer back to the same set of files. Advantage: Windows 7.

Usability: Managing windows One of the more noticeable functions of Windows Aero is the "glass" view of the desktop. When the cursor hovers over a small bar in the lower-right corner of the screen, all the active windows turn transparent, allowing you to see the desktop underneath. A variation on this comes when you hover over an application on the taskbar, to bring up a thumbnail of the application screen (or rows of thumbnails, if the app has multiple windows open), then hover over the thumbnail; the application's window becomes active while all other windows become transparent. The visual effect is pretty cool, even if the functionality isn't required in every situation.

The Snow Leopard equivalent comes when you click and hold on a dock icon that represents an application that is running. A shrunken application window appears over a darkened desktop, and the application can be chosen with a single click. The Snow Leopard representation comes forward regardless of which Spaces desktop the application is running within, so it's a fast way to jump between the various desktops. Snow Leopard can also let you see all of the running applications in small, side-by-side windows, so it's easy to choose which you should hop to next.

Verdict: While the Windows 7 application and desktop view is graphically richer, the Snow Leopard method is more fully integrated within the rest of the user interface. By a narrow margin, the advantage goes to Snow Leopard.

Usability: Searching The Mac OS X Spotlight offers a powerful way to launch both applications and data files by typing a search string, then choosing the desired file from the results list. While Windows Vista has a search function as part of the Start menu, it's not as powerful as the Mac OS X Spotlight. In Windows 7, the search feature gets major upgrades, becoming a genuine rival for the Mac OS X Spotlight.

If you open the Start menu and begin typing, Windows 7 will bring up a list of programs, control panel items, documents, and media files whose titles contain the string you're typing. This is very similar to the approach Spotlight takes, and it's powerful enough to be faster than scrolling through the application menus if you have more than a very basic set of applications on your system.

What we're really seeing is that both Windows and the Mac OS are converging toward a common model, in which most applications (and the most common data files) will be accessed through icons on the dock or the menu bar, while less-common apps and data are accessed through rapid search results. The traditional Start menu and application folder are obviously being replaced by more efficient ways of launching applications.

Verdict: Both companies have reached similar conclusions about the best ways of navigating applications as well as files, so there's no clear advantage for one over the other. Draw.

Performance: An extra inch Microsoft promised to make Windows 7 faster and leaner than Vista, and InfoWorld lab tests show slight improvements on both counts. OfficeBench, which measures the time required to complete a variety of Microsoft Office tasks, puts Windows 7 at roughly 4 percent faster than Vista (and 15 percent slower than XP). InfoWorld's OfficeBench tests also show that Windows 7 uses about 8 percent less RAM than Vista when running an identical workload. PC World WorldBench tests likewise indicate "incremental" speed improvements.

Whether Snow Leopard is faster than Leopard seems to depend both on the task and on the machine. In Macworld tests, the biggest consistent speed improvements were in system shutdowns and initial Time Machine backups. Snow Leopard was no faster than Leopard at starting up or running a Photoshop script, and it was slower at duplicating a 1GB file in the Finder and at waking from sleep. Results for other tasks were inconsistent across an iMac, a MacBook Pro, and a Mac Pro.

In short, Leopard users may or may not notice the additional oomph provided by Snow Leopard's 64-bit Finder, QuickTime X, or Safari 4 browser. Further, the effects of two other behind-the-scenes innovations won't be felt until application programmers begin to take advantage of them. Snow Leopard's Grand Central Dispatch will allow programmers to optimize application performance on multicore processors, while OpenCL will let them tap certain graphics processors to give the CPU a helping hand.

The good news today, however, is that both operating systems snap to attention relatively quickly. In my startup tests, Windows 7 required 2 minutes, 17.9 seconds to move from power-button press to ready. Snow Leopard moved from button press to ready in 1 minute, 15.1 seconds. Naturally, I recorded these times was with no password required; password protection will cost you a few more seconds, but I consider it a good investment.

While the two systems weren’t identically configured in terms of the applications that load on startup, they were configured similarly. Each loaded a firewall, antivirus software, Dropbox (a cloud file storage system), Plaxo (cloud contact manager), and the Evernote clipper. Each started a network and Bluetooth service set. Each had a healthy number of fonts available and the same set of three printers on the network. In short, they were loaded with software that users might regularly use to get their jobs done.

In general responsiveness, for doing things like launching applications and switching tasks, I couldn't say that one was any faster than the other. I found the two to be very similar. There is one area, though, in which Snow Leopard seemed to perform better than Windows 7, and that’s in continous operation over the course of several days.

Here’s what I mean: I’m forever shutting the lid on my laptop, picking it up, and heading to another location. If I don’t think about it, I can go several days without shutting the system down. Each of the systems does, eventually, need a reboot to keep everything happy, but Snow Leopard can easily go four or five days without requiring a full power-off and cold boot. Windows 7 seems happiest when I reboot it every couple of days, though that’s a major improvement over Vista, which wanted to be shut down every night. I understand that my way of operating probably isn’t best, but it’s also not uncommon, and Snow Leopard seems to enforce garbage collection and polite behavior of applications a bit better than Windows 7.

Verdict: Neither operating system seemed more responsive or faster than the other. There's a clear winner in boot speed, as Snow Leopard is ready a full minute faster than Windows 7. In terms of ability to handle continuous operation, while Windows 7 is a dramatic improvement over Vista, I still have to give the nod to Snow Leopard.

Security: Fortress vs. outpost Windows 7 has made several important strides in security over Vista. The most important centers around improvements in User Account Control, the security feature most responsible for users' profanity-laced tirades against Vista.

The problem with Vista's UAC is that it is a blunt instrument for controlling application installation and activity. With Windows 7, the controls over UAC and the warnings it gives have become much finer-grained, allowing the user to tell UAC that a particular application or process is trusted, and should therefore not be the source of incessant warnings and permission requests. The changes make UAC in Windows 7 a much more useful security technology because it's much less likely to be turned off by the user.

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