October 24, 2013, 9:26 AM — 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
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
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
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
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.
So it's no surprise that Microsoft has included its (unfortunately anemic) Security Essentials antimalware app since Windows 8. For its part, Apple has included antimalware detection since OS X Mountain Lion, with daily checks to update signatures and remove known malware. Windows' registry does make it harder to truly eliminate malware than Apple's approach of relying on discrete files and folders that can simply be deleted if found to be harmful. Security researchers such as Trail of Bits say that OS X is much harder for hackers to successfully attack, though Microsoft's Vista and later have done a good job of closing up the many holes in Windows XP. Also, there are more tools 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; users can't bypass the startup password by booting from a different disk. (One of OS X's handy features is that you can 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, and our Office 2013 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 SkyDrive 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, but 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.
Compatibility: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Mavericks
Windows 8: 10
OS X Mavericks: 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 it, but that's about resource requirements and lack of drivers for those that also don't support Windows 7.
OS X Mavericks 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 have been dropped in Mavericks, which also runs on the same Macs that supported the previous version of the OS (Mountain Lion). The truth is that the everyday hardware people use -- mice, keyboards, storage devices, printers, and displays -- work on Macs, and the same is true for mainstay software such as Microsoft Office and Intuit QuickBooks, though often (as in these two cases) with inferior versions.
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, despite Microsoft's update to IE11 in Windows 8.1. For example, IE11 scores 355 out of 500 points in the HTML5Test.com tests, up from IE10's 320, but well short of 400 in OS X Mavericks' Safari 7, 414 in Mozilla's Firefox 24, and 463 in Google's Chrome 29.
Value: Windows 8.1 vs. OS X Mavericks
Windows 8.1: 7
OS X Mavericks: 10
OS X Mavericks 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 Mavericks 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 Mavericks 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, but that may be 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 vs. OS X Mountain Lion
Windows 8.1: 7.8
OS X Mavericks: 8.7
PC Operating System
Apple OS X Mavericks
Clearly, OS X Mavericks 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 -- or to simply stick with Windows 7. If you're in the market for a new PC, you should get one running Windows 7 while you still can (they're 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.