OS Smackdown: Linux vs. Mac OS X vs. Vista vs. XP

Four experts defend their chosen operating systems in an opinionated free-for-all

Mac OS X: All you need in one dynamite package

Computing nirvana isn't difficult to find. If you want a simple-to-use computer that can run virtually any application you need on stylish hardware that gives you easy online access and instant connectivity to all types of satellite devices, just go to an Apple store and buy a Macintosh.

A complete software/hardware ecosystem

When it comes to integration, no other operating system can boast the unity of purpose and results that exist on the Mac platform. While the competition is busy mashing feature after feature into poorly designed products, Apple focuses on what's important: creating a software/hardware ecosystem that gets out of the way so you can do what you bought a computer to do -- work, make movies, build Web sites, communicate or crunch data.

You know what I'm taking about -- all those annoying little things that add up when using Windows. Plug in a mouse on a PC, and a little dialog box pops up exclaiming that it just sensed you plugged in a mouse, and after installing the driver, it's ready to go! This isn't a shuttle launch; I just plugged in a mouse. I'll know the operating system recognizes it as soon as I can move the pointer, so stop bugging me with alert boxes!

Apple's relentless attention to detail has created a world where hardware and software are equally polished -- so polished, in fact, that a wireless mouse, an iPod or an iPhone feels more like a natural extension of the Mac than a separate device.

For those still stuck with Windows, that kind of experience remains a mirage, always just over the horizon. With Vista, users get an operating system that comes in six -- six! -- different versions, all of them with driver issues . Many older PCs can't handle the operating system -- and even a lot of those newer "Vista Capable" machines may not be so capable after all.

Sure, you could try Linux. But the kind of integration I'm talking about isn't possible in Windows, never mind Linux. When software and hardware engineering and design are divvied up among multiple companies and communities -- each with its own agenda -- complete hardware/software unification is just not a realistic expectation. (I'll give devotees an A+ for effort, though.)

Elegance and ease of use

The glue that binds the hardware is the operating system, and Mac OS X 10.5, a.k.a. Leopard, has elegance and ease of use baked right in. Leopard easily leads the pack in terms of security, ease of installation, maintenance and integration of applications whose learning curves are so minimal Apple doesn't even bother with full manuals. That isn't an accident.

Let me just reel off a few Mac OS X advantages:

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  • Drag-and-drop application installs

  • Notifications written in real English and not Geek-English

  • One-click, set-and-forget automatic backups that people actually use

  • The ability to peer inside files without having to launch an app

  • Tech support that doesn't involve being bounced between different companies

  • Inherent security with no real-world exploits, despite dire warnings every year

  • A clean and consistent look throughout the operating system and applications

  • Run any application in the world

Other operating systems have their strengths. Windows is ubiquitous; it isn't going anywhere soon. And the collective hive of developers working to make Linux better is impressive. But Apple's switch to the Intel architecture, along with today's impressive virtualization software, means Macs can now run those other operating systems -- at full speed. That gives you access to software across all three platforms, letting you work and play without walling yourself off from the rest of the computer world.

Let me say it again: All Macs can run Windows and, consequently, all of the software that runs on Windows. All versions. At once, if you want to.

Did I mention that Leopard is a certified Unix product, too? Mac OS X is the only operating systems that can run all mainstream Windows and "*nix"-based operating systems -- and host "*nix" software natively -- with few of the usual security risks.

Security

Along with its famed user interface, one of the keys to the success of Mac OS X is the lack of malware, spyware and self-propagating viruses. We can debate the reasons -- whether it's the security inherent to the modern BSD underpinnings of Apple's code or the "security by obscurity" theory -- but Macs are not susceptible to the problems that have always plagued Windows PCs.

Let me put it in perspective: I have been working with Macs since 1993, and not a single second of downtime has been caused by a virus, spyware or malware. Think about that for a moment. Not a single second has been wasted dealing with security.

And ponder this: If 100,000 viruses or malware variations targeting OS X sprang up tomorrow, that number would still pale in comparison with the malware aimed at Windows every year.

Look, it's the 21st century. Computers are everywhere; shouldn't they just work by now? Who wants to spend their time running spyware scans and virus scans? (Imagine having to run a virus scan on a microwave or DVD player.) Just because folks who use other operating systems have to put up with it doesn't mean that's the way it has to be.

Bottom line

I want more from my computer, and Apple capitalizes on its unique position as sole operating system designer, application developer, hardware engineer and media distributor, offering a seamless experience across its entire slate of product lines and services.

Macs may not "just work" exactly 100 per cent of the time, but they sure work when I need them to. And, after all, isn't that the point?

-- Michael DeAgonia

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