The desktop operating system may soon be dead. Apple’s latest release of OS X, Lion, shows a heavy influence from iOS, the operating system found on iPhones and iPads. Likewise, the upcoming Windows 8 OS, expected in 2012, is inspired by smartphones. Yet the personal computer itself is far from gone. Sales maybe down, and tablets maybe hot, but there are still more than 260 million laptops and desktops that serve as the primary window through which Americans work and play. And many people feel their computer choices define them — allegiance to an OS can be as passionate as loyalty to a sports team or a political party. Well, it’s time to stop the bickering and cut through the rhetoric and marketing once and for all. We purchased two near-identically specced laptops, one with Windows 7 and another with Mac OS X Lion, and subjected them to a brutal battery of tests to see which UI has the higher IQ.
Model: Apple MacBook Pro
Processor: Intel Core i5, 2.3 GHz
Graphics: Intel HD 3000
RAM: 4 GB DDR3
Hard drive: 320 GB, 5400 rpm
Screen: 13 inches, 1280 x 800 pixels
Battery life: 7 hours
Ports: 2x USB, Ethernet, Thunderbolt, FireWire, SD
Operating system: Mac OS 10.7 Lion
Model: HP Pavilion DM4
Processor: Intel Core i5, 2.3 GHz
Graphics: Intel HD 3000
RAM: 4 GB DDR3
Hard drive: 500 GB, 5400 rpm
Screen: 14 inches, 1366 x 768 pixels
Battery life: 6.75 hours
Ports: 3x USB, Ethernet, HDM1, VGA, SD
Operating system: Microsoft Windows 7, Service Pack 1
We gave our machines to everyday users. Here’s what they thought.
“The Mac’s navigation is cleaner and more organized. However, it doesn’t automatically maximize apps, which adds an extra step. I prefer the PC’s separate left/right click buttons, and without guidance I never would have known about OS X’s finger gestures. Both machines, however, would suit my needs.”
“The PC has a bigger screen at the same weight. Navigation in both OSs is easy if you know what to do, but neither is intuitive. Aero Peek in Windows is great, as are Jump List shortcuts in the Start menu. I’ve been a Mac user forever, but I think I’ll switch to a PC for my next computer.”
Know Your Interface
Mac: The first version of OSX (10.0), called Cheetah, launched a decade ago, and much of it remains in Mac OS X Lion (10.7), including the Dock, an application; launcher. But there have been significant changes Mission Control provides a bird’s-eye view of the OS, where users can see and organize open applications and switch between separate desktops, or Spaces. Other features have been carried over from smartphones: Apps are downloaded from the App Store, and programs are suspended rather than fully closed, so that saving files isn’t necessary. Smart phone and tablet users will easily grasp the new multitouch gestures, but it can be hard to tell where the “home” of the OS is. Is it Mission Control? The Dock? The iOS-style Launchpad?
PC: Windows’greatest strength is familiarity. Its core navigation and application-launching tools, the Start menu and taskbar, were introduced in Windows 95; these features, along with much of the logic of the menus and keyboard shortcuts, have changed little since, meaning that anyone who has used Windows in the past 15 years will feel at home in Windows 7. Yet Microsoft has done much to improve the Start menu/ taskbar concept over the years, adding instant menu and file searching, visual application previews and a view called Aero Peek, which lets users find windows by hovering the cursor over the taskbar.
Where some users will find comfort and consistency, others will find staleness. Windows 7 is a refinement, not a reimagining.
“Windows feels clunky — it reminds me of my old computer, but at least I know where stuff is. Mac hardware and software feel more modern, but I don’t see the point of some of the gestures.”
“Both Web browsers are terrible — download a new one. Seems like there’s more to set up with a PC. The HP’s hardware feels cheaper, but I like the roundness and slick feeling; the Mac finish is gritty, and edges are sharp. Both are fine for multimedia, but for gaming, PC wins.”
How do buyers’ options stack up? How many models are there? And how much do they cost?
Mac: Apple’s hardware is attractively designed and well-built, but options are limited and expensive. Macs also have certain hardware limitations: no Blu-ray drives, no HDMI ports in laptops and no removable batteries. Many laptops have flash storage, which is fast but limited in capacity.
MAC STARTING PRICE
PC: Microsoft lets anyone make Windows PCs, which means there are plenty of options in specifications, designs, and prices. A vast array of ports and accessories is available. Hardware quality runs the gamut from topnotch to poor; hardware prices, from sky-high to bargain-basement.
PC STARTING PRICE
Mac: OS X Lion comes with a suite of apps, including iTunes (music), iPhoto (photo management), iMovie (movie editing), Mail and Safari (Web browser). Serious document-editing apps are not included.
PC: Windows 7 comes with few apps, but Microsoft offers many of the missing pieces, including email, movie editing and photo management, as free downloads. PC makers often bundle Microsoft Office for free, but also include unwanted bloatware.
Mac: Today’s most popular apps are available on the Mac OS — where there is no Mac version of a Windows app, there is often a quality alternative. Gamers, however, will find little comfort in Mac OS’s anemic game selection.
PC: Windows has a glut of available software, and no central app store. You may always be able to find the app you need, but it may take some work. Thousands of games, from vintage to cutting-edge, are available.
• No matter which side you’re on, you’ll end up using a lot of the same apps. Here are some of the must-haves.
• Firefox/Chrome: Fast, full-featured Web browsers that is better than either Safari or Internet Explorer.
• Microsoft Office/Open Office: Office is the de facto productivity suite; Open Office is a capable free and open-source alternative.
• Drop box: An online storage locker for your files. Drag and drop files the way you would with a flash drive.
• Google Apps: Websites that behave like apps, including Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Calendar.
• Facebook and Twitter: The most popular social sites don’t have a stake in the Mac-versus-PC battle.
The battle between platforms is over. In our tests, raw performance was almost identical. Support for third-party software was close to equivalent. While our Mac felt faster by a hair, our PC was cheaper by a mile. Our PC came with a bundle of free software, but our Mac was impervious to viruses. The point is, as tools, these machines are both hugely –and equally-capable. And make no mistake: In 2011, tools are what they are. Smartphones and tablets have stolen our attention and affection away from laptops and desktops, and they’re not giving them back. Besides, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Bing, where we spend so much of our time, are apolitical. So, if you love Macs, stay put. Likewise for PC partisans — Apple’s touch-inspired software and sleek hardware are neat, not essential. For everyone else, the choice is simple: Save your money and buy a PC. It’ll get the job done. And if you’re interested in the real future of computing, take that extra cash and pick up an iPad.