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Windows 7 versus Snow Leopard — The poison taste test

Abandon ye rhetoric

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Apple's Snow Leopard arrived during the twilight zone between the completion of Microsoft's Windows 7 and its general release.

The Snow Leopard media was built in early August and shrink-wrapped and on sale late the same month. Windows 7 went gold in late July, but will not appear on the high street until October 22nd.

The reason for the three-month delay on Windows 7 is so Microsoft's partners can create their custom builds, complete with third-party utilities, trial subscriptions and OEM branding that can be detrimental to the user experience. The culture is different to Apple's carefully crafted marriage of hardware and software into one seductive package.

Still, forget all that for a moment. If you leave aside both the packaging on the Apple side, and the OEM pollution on the Windows side, how do these two operating systems stack up against one another?

Abandon ye rhetoric

First, fanboys go home. Following an extended period living in first one, then the other, environment it is hard to justify the more strident criticisms of either. Windows 7 is smooth, stable and easy to use. Snow Leopard is not short of applications, nor is it that hard to accommodate on a Windows network. Most things can be achieved on either platform.

Now some observations. The Mac user interface is better designed and more polished than that of Windows 7. Take the Dock versus the Taskbar, for example. The Taskbar is greatly improved in Windows 7, but there are flaws, like the fudged business of hiding notification icons by default, and the fact that it does not scale nicely as it fills. Setting "Small icons" in the Taskbar is a disaster: each icon becomes mostly background, achieving only a 20 per cent reduction in width but with much poorer visibility. That would never have made it past the Mac design tyrants.

OS X and Win 7 docks

Docks away: icons for OS X, left, and Windows 7, right

By contrast, the Mac Dock simply scales icons smaller as it fills. A clever magnification option - though curiously off by default - expands icons as you mouse over them. It is a better solution to the problem. A small detail, but our computing experience is a composite of small details and few are truly unimportant.

Here's another pro-Mac detail. Spaces. Press F8 and you get four desktops to play with (configurable from one to sixteen). Why can't Windows do that?

Nevertheless, Windows 7 has some handy features lacking in Snow Leopard. Libraries is one, which merges several locations to appear as one. Jump Lists, overlays and programmable preview windows in the Taskbar are another, though few applications currently take advantage, and there is also multi-touch support, though who knows, Apple may announce its own Tablet soon.

The problem with this kind of analysis is that it misses the main beef users have with Windows, which is not with how it runs when it works correctly, but how often it fails to work correctly, or runs too slowly. Does Windows 7 fix it? A nuanced answer is required.

Windows works better when properly managed, which is why a skilled business user gets a better experience than the hapless crapware-laden consumer. Windows Vista at launch was a worst case, with some machines on sale that could barely run it, especially when further crippled by resource hogs like Outlook 2007. Malware is also a factor, since Windows is by far the most popular target.

Windows 7 offers considerable mitigation. It is less demanding that its predecessor, and typically, a Windows Vista machine actually runs faster once upgraded. Windows 7 is also less prone to annoying pauses, though they are not all eliminated. On the Mac side though, Snow Leopard is the fastest OS X yet, especially on 64-bit machines with generous amounts of RAM, and I would not bet against it in a head-to-head test.

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