Love it or hate it, Microsoft Windows is the world's most dominant operating system. But when you look at some of the hot features found in competitors such as Linux and Mac OS X, both XP and Vista can seem a little incomplete.
From intuitive interface features like Apple's application dock and Cover Flow to basic media capabilities such as ISO burning, Windows often falls short on built-in goodies. And some features that other operating systems offer by default — such as 64-bit processing and business-networking tools--require a premium-version license in Windows.
We took a good look at a variety of OSs, from the Mac to Linux to PC-BSD and beyond, and we rounded up a list of our favorite features--few of which come standard in any version of Windows. We even considered some operating systems of yore, and recalled a couple of cool features that Microsoft still hasn't caught on to. Some of these features simply aren't available for Windows at all, owing to the way the OS is designed. But you can add most of them to XP or Vista with the help of third-party applications, and we'll show you how to get them.
Available on: Mac
It's an elegantly simple idea, and it has been available on the Mac since 2003. When you want a clear view of all the application windows that are open at any one time, you just press F3, and a little feature called Expose arranges them all as thumbnails spread neatly across your screen. Click one, and it pops to the front while the rest snap back into position behind it.
With the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft deployed a feature called Flip3D that attempts to simplify window management in a slightly different way. Flip3D lets users flip through three-dimensional renderings of whatever windows are open on the desktop, but it doesn't offer nearly the same instantaneous visibility that Expose does.
Fortunately, a few downloads can add Expose-like thumbnails to your Windows machine. One little tool called iEx for Windows does the trick for free; the installation is a little awkward, as you have to drag the downloaded files into the correct folders on your PC. A more refined program, TopDesk, installs automatically in XP and Vista — but it will set you back $ US 20 after the 14-day free trial.
2. Virtual workspaces
Available on: Linux, PC-BSD, Mac
Linux users have long enjoyed the freedom to keep large numbers of applications running simultaneously — without being overwhelmed by screen clutter — thanks to the power of virtual workspaces. In a typical Linux installation, at boot time four workspaces spring into existence automatically, signified by a little map on the control panel in the corner of the screen. As the user opens more programs, thumbnail icons of them appear in the workspace switcher, indicating which program windows are running in each workspace. To change workspaces, the user simply clicks the appropriate area on the workspace switcher or uses a keystroke combination such as Shift-Right Arrow to move between them.
With multiple workspaces comes the ability to organize the Linux desktop environment by task, by application type, by priority, or any other way you care to slice it. It's particularly handy for keeping a handful of applications out of sight and out of mind, without having to shut them down. For instance, I like to keep my messaging and communications apps in a separate workspace from my document-creation programs as a way of staying focused while I work.
Apple added this concept to OS X with the launch of Leopard in October 2007, although Leopard's Spaces feature lacks dynamic thumbnails (something its Linux forebears offer) in the Dock icon. To get workspaces on Windows, however, you'll have to do some downloading. XP users have an easy solution with the Microsoft Virtual Desktop Manager, a free download from Microsoft's PowerToys collection. For Vista, you must turn to one of several third-party utilities. My favourite among them is a freebie called Dexpot, which offers a wide variety of configuration options.
3. Back to My Mac
Available on: Mac
Nothing quite matches the feeling you get when you sit down at your office desk, boot up your PC and realise that the most recent version of the document you've been working on is stranded 50 miles away on your home machine. If both of your computers were Macs running Leopard, you could use Back to My Mac (coupled with Apple's $139.95-per-year .Mac service) to fire up a connection to the remote computer, grab whatever files you need, and even navigate the other machine's desktop as if you were sitting right in front of it.
If either of your PCs are running Windows, however, all the .Mac accounts in the world won't help you. Instead, try GoToMyPC. At a base price of $US20 per month ($US180 per year) for one PC, this service ain't cheap. But it does give you unfettered access to your Windows computer from any Web browser.
4. Screen sharing
Available on: Mac
When Mac OS X Leopard hit shelves last year, it came with a handy little upgrade in iChat Apple's homespun AIM client) that lets two Leopard users share screens with each other on the fly.
Want to show your friend or colleague what you're looking at on your display? Just share your screen with them. Or ask them to share their screen with you. It's free. You get an exact view of everything they can see, as well as the ability to control their mouse pointer and click around as needed. It's a great way to fix your mother-in-law's computer without actually having to go visit her. (Not that you would mind, of course.)
Windows Meeting Space, built into Vista, offers similar functionality but only over a local network, so sharing your screen with a remote relative isn't an option. Fortunately, a Web tool called LiveLook allows you to share your screen in moments, no matter what operating system you or your remote pal happen to be running, and it doesn't require an IM session to launch. Just log in to LiveLook.net and click 'Show My Screen'. LiveLook will give you a unique session ID number to share with your friend. When they enter it at LiveLook.net, they'll immediately see your screen. After the 14-day free trial, LiveLook jumps to a hefty $US40-per-month fee, or to a pay-as-you-go plan priced at 2.5 cents per minute.
5. Time Machine
Available on: Mac
pple's Time Machine backup utility is one of the coolest new features in Leopard; with its help, backing up all of your files to an external drive is idiot-simple. Better yet, it lets you quickly recover an older version of any backed-up file, so you can undo all of your horrible, horrible mistakes.
Windows XP and most versions of Windows Vista have no such feature. Sure, they have a backup utility built-in, but it's nowhere near as easy to work with as Time Machine is, and it will do nothing to help you track down lost versions of your important files. But three versions of Vista (Ultimate, Business, and Enterprise) do come with a utility called Shadow Copy, which lets you retrieve older versions of your files by right-clicking the file and choosing 'Restore previous versions' from the context menu.
What few people know is that cheaper versions of Vista (including Home Basic and Home Premium) do record the necessary data for Shadow Copy to work — they just don't give you access to that data. A free utility called Shadow Explorer can set that data free, letting you roll back to an earlier version of just about any file on your hard drive, without forcing you to buy an expensive OS upgrade you don't need.
6. ISO Burning
Available on: Mac, Linux, PC-BSD
Mac OS can do it. Linux can do it. PC-BSD and just about every other modern OS can do it. But for some reason, Windows can't burn an ISO disc image to CD without a little third-party help.
If you want to burn a CD image on occasion, but you don't want to buy premium disc-burning software, try Alex Feinman's free ISO Recorder. Available for XP and Vista, ISO Recorder adds disc-image burning to your context menu whenever you right-click on an ISO file. It's a lean, simple utility that does just what it's designed for and nothing more. ISO Recorder is available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions for Vista, and the Vista versions support DVD burning in addition to CD burning.