PC vs. Mac – the software
We’ve covered the differences in hardware between the PC and Mac – now for software.
A lot of what you'll experience when you buy a new PC comes by way of its operating system (OS) – the software that coordinates how your hardware and programs interact. Both PCs and Macs come with an OS. Often Win 7 for PCs and OS X ("oh ess ten") for the Mac.
You may have heard that the Mac's OS is flawless and Microsoft's is hopeless. Neither is true. Both OSs have their advantages and weaknesses.
OS X has long been admired for its looks, and there's no denying that its graphics and text are impressively crisp, thanks to the way the OS processes images, relying less on hardware and more on programming.
As a result, OS X's icons and labels look sharp and elegant. Add OS X's image shading and translucent screen elements and you have an interface that dazzles, especially if you're used to working in Windows.
Microsoft's answer to OS X is Aero, a new-age interface with a floating, translucent 3D look and sharp images. But that beauty comes at a price. Windows-based PCs require some muscle to power Aero's advanced graphics: a minimum of a 1GHz processor, 1GB of memory, and a processor such as the Intel® Core™ i7 processor with Intel® Graphics built in. Anything shy of that, and you're back to using Win 7 basic mode, which lacks Aero's veneer. What's more, Win 7 even in basic mode can be painfully slow on low-end or even mid-range hardware. That's a serious drawback if you want to buy a low-cost Windows-based PC.
Where Windows offers Search for finding phrases in a file name or within a file itself, Apple has SpotLight; where Windows revives a crashed PC with System Restore, Apple has Time Machine; and where Vista displays everyday applications like a clock and calculator in the Sidebar, OS X puts them in the Dashboard.
Win 7 improves on earlier versions of Windows in many ways. It offers beefed-up security with built-in functions, like background defragmenting (where the hard drive recombines split files to improve performance). But it doesn't always work as intuitively as Apple's OS. On a Mac, for example, you both launch applications and switch among them using the Dock. In Vista, those same tasks require two tools: you start an application using Quick Launch, then switch among them from the Windows Taskbar. Point: Mac.
Apple's Dock lets you both launch and switch among applications. Active applications display a glowing light. But OS X, too, has its lapses. Take the Dock/Taskbar example above. If you download a file from a Web site, both OS X and Win 7 open a new window showing your download progress. Win 7, in addition, adds that window to its Taskbar, which turns out to be a boon. Say you go off and do other tasks, then want to check your download progress. In Win 7, you do so by clicking on the download window icon in the Taskbar, which brings up the download window. But you don't really even have to do that, since Win 7 displays the download progress ("70 per cent", for example) within the icon itself. OS X, on the other hand, gives you no hint of the window's location, or of the download progress. If you switch back to the original Web page hoping to see the download window sitting on top of it, you'll be disappointed – OS X has confined the window to the ether, and it can be enormously frustrating. (You can get to it, by the way, by hitting the F3 key, which displays mini-windows of all open applications onscreen at once.)
But Apple shines in hiding much of OS X's complexity. That's what people mean when they call the Mac OS "intuitive”.
Take uninstalling a program: In Win 7, it's a many-stepped process. You select Start, then Control Panel, Programs, Programs and Features, then wait for the resulting window to populate with a list of installed programs. Once that's done, you select the program you no longer want and go through a dialog box that asks you to confirm the uninstall and, sometimes, to confirm that you want to delete all its associated files, too.
To do the same thing in OS X, you drag the application's icon to the Trash and that's it. OS X deletes both the program and its associated files without further fuss.
So which OS is better? You'll likely find things you love and hate about each one. For overall smoothness of operation without a lot of extra hardware, OS X is a great option. But if you're used to Windows' look and feel, a switch to the Mac might rock your boat.
Both OSs make setting up a network easier than ever before, whether you want a simple Internet connection for a single PC or a home network that links a couple of PCs and peripherals together. Both detect wired and wireless networks; both offer seamless ways for you to add PCs or peripherals to your network; and both systems can "see" each other on a network (handy when you want to mix Macs and Windows PCs on a home network to share files, peripherals, and an Internet connection).
OS X takes you through network setup step-by-step. For its part, Win 7’s interface is vastly improved over earlier Windows versions: it detects and displays networks and their PCs and peripherals so you can connect them with point-and-click simplicity. Even so, Win 7 sometimes shows its ugly side. What OS X does with one click and one window, Win 7 may do with multiple clicks and multiple windows. For example, if you want to change your IP address (your PC's unique identifier on the Internet), you have to open Windows' main network window, open a list of network connections, right-click the correct one, select the "Properties" option from the resulting menu, and wade through a list of network protocols. On the Mac, that same task takes just a couple of clicks.
Apple also offers "multi-homing”, which automatically detects which available network is the fastest and connects you to it without any action on your part—really useful for laptops. If you're connected to a docking station (a box that connects your laptop to a full-sized monitor and keyboard), OS X uses your wired Ethernet connection. If you're roaming around the house, OS X connects you through AirPort, the Mac's built-in wireless network card.
Both OSs offer a range of bundled applications that include everything from e-mail programs to Web browsers to multimedia tools. Windows, once far behind the Mac in the bundled applications game, took a big step forward with Win 7, which includes a lot of new or upgraded programs. For example:
- Movie Maker lets you edit raw footage, and DVD Maker writes that footage to disc.
- Photo Gallery lets you view, organize, rate, and edit your photos.
- The Sidebar displays a floating panel of your choice of single-purpose programs (called "gadgets") like news feeds, weather reports, stock prices, and virtual lava lamps.
- Complete PC Backup takes a snapshot of your hard drive.
- Windows Fax and Scan adds those business capabilities to your system.
- Windows Mail, the e-mail program formerly known as Outlook Express, now has a spam filter.
The competition is far from over – next week, we’ll review the extras that can tip the scale.
Published on: Thursday, October 14, 2010