May 23, 2007

Vista versus Mac OS X

Windows Vista, Microsoft's long awaited upgrade to Windows XP is finally here. Vista has been over 5 years in the making and Microsoft have rewritten millions of lines of code and spent over $6 billion dollars getting it ready. The marketing budget for Vista has been reported to be over USD $500 Million. With those sort of numbers Vista will be the most successful version of Windows ever. In fact, as it will ship as standard on most new PC's Vista's market share next year will make it the second most popular operating system, only lagging behind Windows XP. Do you need to upgrade your PC to Vista today or should you wait? Is there anything else on the market that is as good as Vista or better? Five years ago there weren't any serious competitors to Windows but now there is, and it's called Mac OS X. The release of Vista has flared up the old Microsoft versus Apple rivalry again, and this time it's Apple that comes out on top, by miles.

The first point of comparison between Mac OS X Tiger and Vista is pricing. Not only will this give you a indicator of value but it will also demonstrate Microsoft's view of its consumer as compared to Apple's. Vista comes in four different varieties; Home Basic ($385), Home Premium ($455), Business ($565) and Ultimate ($750) with 'upgrades' costing around about 30% less. Mac OS X Tiger comes in one version and it costs $199. If you choose to buy the 'upgrade' version of Vista you'll need to ensure that you have Windows XP or 2000 (not Windows 95, 98 or ME) running on the computer you'll be upgrading. In the past just having the CD was sufficient - during the upgrade Windows would prompt you to insert it, validate that you had a genuine copy and then let you proceed with the installation. Now, with Vista you'll need to have the version you are upgrading from running. That means if your computer crashes and you have to reinstall you'd better find that old version of XP and install it before you install Vista - In my rough estimation this new 'twist' on upgrading will add around 2 hours to your total re-installation process. With Mac OS X there is no upgrade version, just the full version that you install. Apple makes it easy for its customers, and Microsoft makes it difficult.

The basic hardware requirements to run the two operating systems are also different. To run either Home Premium, Business or Ultimate you'll need a minimum 1GHz processor, 1GB of memory, a 40GB hard drive and a graphics card that supports DirectX 9 with a minimum 128MB ram. Mac OS X Tiger runs on any Mac that has a G3, G4, G5 or Intel Core Duo processor, built-in Firewire (on all Macs as standard for the past 5 years), 256MB RAM and at least 3 GB free disk space. That means if you want to upgrade to Vista and it is more than about 12-18 months old it's time to go and buy a new one. If you've had a Mac since 2001 chances are you can use Tiger. Apple supports old hardware, Microsoft doesn't.

Two major new features introduced for Tiger eighteen months ago were Spotlight, Dashboard and Expose. Spotlight provides an 'instant search' from anywhere on the computer. As you enter your search term Spotlight automatically finds what you are looking for in real time. It searches emails, contacts, documents and even the contents of documents. Vista also introduces a new feature called 'Instant Search' that is very similar. From the new Start menu you can enter a search term that lets you find the same content. The Spotlight icon appears in the top right hand corner of the screen and Vista Instant Search is in the bottom left hand corner.

Tiger's Dashboard feature hosts mini applications called Widgets that appear instantly and can keep you up-to-date. You can view share pricing, local or international time, exchange rates etc. In fact there are now over thousands of Widgets that Tiger users can download. Microsoft's version of Dashboard is called the Windows Sidebar and its widgets are called gadgets - they serve the same purpose as widgets. Expose helps users navigate open windows or view their desktop. Microsoft's new Flip 3D presents all open windows as cards in a floating deck, you can navigate back and forwards through them but you can't get them to disappear so you can see the desktop.

Also new to Vista are a group of productivity application like an email client (this used to be called Outlook Express), Windows Calendar and Windows Contacts. Microsoft have also added some better digital media features like Windows Photo Gallery, Movie Maker and DVD Maker. Mac OS X has iCal, Address Book, iPhoto, iDVD and iTunes - all standard, on all versions of the OS since 2003.

On features alone it's easy to conclude that Vista and Mac OS X are now on par but this overlooks two important elements. Firstly, the feel of both products is very different. In my opinion Mac OS X is unobtrusive and its interface intuitive and clean. Vista on the other hand makes you work for it. Take for example another new feature for Vista called User Account Control (UAC). UAC presents an intrusive dialogue box that warns you whenever you try to make a system wide change or install a new application. This will annoy most users however and you can just switch it off. But doing so overrides all of the new security measures Microsoft have built into Vista and makes the threat of infection from viruses or malware more likely. In contrast Mac OS X generally still remains virus and malware free.

Secondly, Apple have just announced that it's new version of Mac OS X, called Leopard will be shipping by this Autumn. Apple have already announced some new Leopard features like Time Machine (simple backup), Spaces (multiple desktops) and iChat at last years developers conference but held back on announcing all the new features for fear of plagiarism.

Vista takes Windows to the next level, and adds a level of 'fit and finish' lacking in XP, however in my opinion the steep price and complicated upgrade procedure should be reason enough to wait until you upgrade your PC before using it.