Deathmatch review: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Mavericks

With Windows 8.1 Professional and OS X 10.9 Mavericks both now shipping, how do the two flagship PC operating systems compare? Does Windows 8.1 fix enough of Windows 8's usability flaws to be worth adoption? Does Mavericks add enough value to get your attention?

Windows 8.1 lets users avoid most of the Windows 8 experience, so they can return to a Windows 7-like state of bliss, whereas Mavericks simply makes the Mac that much easier to use, especially if you work with iPads and iPhones, too. In short, the two updates keep the relative balance between Windows and OS X the same. Windows 8.1 does reduce PC users' frustration enough that they may be less likely to switch to a different OS like OS X, but it does so by retreating into Windows 7, making Windows feel more dated than ever.

My colleague Woody Leonhard has reviewed the final version of Windows 8.1, and I encourage you to read his take to understand the nuances of Microsoft's tablet/desktop hybrid OS. I've detailed the best new capabilities in OS X Mavericks, 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.

Ease-of-use: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Mavericks

Scores:

Windows 8.1: 7

OS X Mavericks: 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 Mavericks 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.

Mavericks makes a few small enhancements to that UI: Finder windows now support tabs, like a browser, which reduces screen clutter and adopts a widely used organizing principle. You can also tag files with your own keywords, to aid in searches. Neither requires you to relearn anything fundamental. And thanks to the inclusion of iOS's Maps and iBooks app, using the two platforms is even easier -- especially with the new ability to send driving directions from Maps straight to your iOS device and the new ability in Calendar to estimate driving times to your appointments.

However, OS X Mavericks has a few UI flaws that undercut its 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 one for iCloud Documents-compatible apps. It's confusing. OS X Mavericks doesn't do anything to rationalize these differences.

Also, though Apple encourages broad usage of the iCloud service, it doesn't work with Apple's Mail program. Adding or saving attachments becomes a rigmarole as you transfer the files from iCloud to your Mac's local drive or vice versa. (iCloud is available only in apps obtained from the Mac App Store, so most Mac apps can't use it.) SkyDrive's deeper integration allows for much more straightforward use, though many IT managers won't like that fact. To manage access to SkyDrive, IT can go with a separate SkyDrive Pro client available for Windows 8.1.

These flaws 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.

There are two ways to get app options that aren't in the app's screens, and they're easily reached through gestures. But if you -- like 99% of the planet -- use a mouse and keyboard, accessing the common search, sharing, and settings services (called "charms") involves an awkward action. 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 screen, because there's no way to invoke the onscreen keyboard. You really need a keyboard to use a Windows tablet.

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. Still, you can be popped into the Metro environment unexpectedly by double-clicking a file and finding 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.

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. Clearly, Microsoft doesn't get why users are so frustrated. (To get the handy Power User menu, 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 suggested earlier this year, 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 8.1 will be a confounding mess, even if now the two piles can be kept a bit more separated.

Features: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Mavericks

Scores:

Windows 8.1: 7

OS X Mavericks: 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, media player, and instant messaging client. If you buy a new Mac, you also get the very capable iPhoto, GarageBand, and iMovie apps for media manipulation and creation. Mavericks adds a mapping/navigation app and book reader to the mix. 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 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). Also, Metro's Mail app still doesn't support the oldest and most common types of email account (POP). Windows 8.1's services for sharing, notifications, and search are also both less capable and more clunkily implemented than OS X's equivalents.

Some of the Metro apps in Windows 8.1 are more functional than in Windows 8, and more like what's available in iOS and Android. For example, the Camera app now supports panoramic shooting and the Photos app allows for basic image manipulation such as cropping and color shifting, both like recent iOS and Android editions. But the music and video players, calendar, and PDF apps are decidely inferior to those in OS X, and the new 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 (and OS X has no built-in equivalent), and 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 new 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.

Manageability: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Mavericks

Scores:

Windows 8.1: 9

OS X Mavericks: 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 Mavericks provides similar capabilities through its use of managed client profiles -- enforcing use of disk encryption is a new capability in this version -- 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, including from the likes of AirWatch and MobileIron. OS X Mavericks rationalizes its policy set with iOS, so it's easier to manage Macs using the tools you likely have in place for mobile devices. Mavericks also now supports enterprise-style app licensing for Mac App Store apps, a big shift IT will welcome.

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 Mavericks

Scores:

Windows 8.1: 8

OS X Mavericks: 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.

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