With the final version of Windows 8 now complete, how does Microsoft's great hope for reinventing itself for the post-PC world compare to Apple's new flagship? The short answer: not well. But lest you think that it's a simple case of sainted perfection versus preordained disaster -- the peanut gallery's running themes for Apple and Microsoft, respectively -- think again. OS X Mountain Lion has some unwelcome flaws, whereas Windows 8 has some virtuous aspects.
My colleague Woody Leonhard has reviewed the final version of Windows 8, and I encourage you to read his take to understand the nuances of Microsoft's tablet/desktop hybrid OS. I've detailed the many capabilities in OS X Mountain Lion, which I also urge you to check out. Here, I highlight the key differences, strengths, and weaknesses of the two OSes, both of which I've been using since their first betas were released, organized by the InfoWorld Test Center's key scoring categories for desktop operating systems.
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Ease of use: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion
Windows 8: 6
OS X Mountain Lion: 9
Apple defined the graphical user interface as we know it today, and despite 28 years of changes, the core metaphors remain unchanged. That consistency makes it easy to use each new version of OS X, and Mountain Lion is no exception.
Yet the OS has expanded to support touch gestures in a very natural way, via touch mice and touchpads. Also, Apple's slew of helper utilities -- such as the Quick Look preview facility, the new Notification Center, the new sharing capabilities, and the Spotlight search tool -- do what Apple does best: offer sophisticated capabilities that users can discover as needed, rather than face a steep learning curve to get started. The Dock and the persistent menu bar also simplify app access, while the full-screen mode introduced in OS X Lion lets users stay focused when they want to be, yet have quick access to the rest of the OS as desired.
However, OS X Mountain Lion has UI flaws that undercut the superb ease-of-use. Apple has been monkeying with its application file services since OS X Lion, so there are now three distinct UIs and services for saving files: one for traditional apps, one for Versions-enabled apps, and now one for iCloud Documents-compatible apps. It's confusing. The misguided removal of Save As in Versions-enabled apps in OS X Lion is an example of misguided arrogance, and even though it's back in OS X Mountain Lion, it's available only if you know to hold the Option key when using the File menu.
Another ease-of-use issue introduced in OS X Mountain Lion involves software installation. The new Gatekeeper feature won't let you install apps that don't come from the Mac App Store, a great way to prevent malware installation, but the process for allowing other apps to be installed is arduous for nontechies. As a result, users may be prone to leaving the security capability off altogether, defeating the purpose for including it in the first place.
But these examples pale in comparison to Windows 8's dissonant UI and awkward stitching together of two distinct environments: Windows 7 (now called Windows Desktop) and Metro (whose formal name is not yet known). As an example of an unfriendly change in Windows 8, Microsoft has added the ribbon to the Windows Explorer file manager. Fair enough -- it's become standard in Microsoft's apps, after all. But unlike the ribbon in other apps, the one in Windows Explorer is hidden until you click or tap the corresponding menu. That's fine. The bone-headed part is that when the ribbon displays, it overlays part of your content window, obscuring whatever is at the top. In a file manager, that's especially problematic. (Fortunately, you can turn off this auto-hide functionality and make Windows Explorer's ribbon work like all other apps' ribbons and and stay affixed above the content area.)
By contrast, the Metro part of Windows 8 can be downright elegant in its simplicity, focus, and use of imagery, without distracting chrome such as window frames and menus. It makes Windows 7 look dowdy and archaic. There are just two ways to get app options that aren't in the app's screens, and they're easily accessed through gestures. But if you use a mouse and keyboard -- which 99 percent of the planet does -- accessing the common search, sharing, and settings services (called "charms") involves an awkward action. And if you don't have a physical keyboard, such as for a tablet, there are some Metro features you simply can't use, such as searching for an app by typing its name in the Start svcreen, because there's no way to invoke the onscreen keyboard instead.
The Windows Desktop part is the Windows 7 you know and probably love. The changes to this environment are insignificant, beyond the ill-advised ribbon change and a nice-looking Task Manager, so users can go with what the old standbys -- until they double-click a file and find it opens a Metro app instead of a traditional Windows one. Microsoft wants people to switch to Metro, so it has set the default core apps such as email and media players to be the Metro versions. Just as Metro works nicely via touch and poorly via traditional input methods, Windows Desktop works nicely via traditional input methods and poorly via touch. Icons and menus are too small to read on a tablet screen, and too hard to touch or tap reliably. Plus, touch equivalents for common actions such as right-clicking do not work reliably in the Windows Desktop.
Ultimately, you're switching between two different computers that share a file system and a few core services, and each computer is optimized for a different set of input methods. It would have been better to leave Metro for tablets and Windows 7 for laptops and desktop PCs, and slowly merged the UIs as Apple is doing with OS X and iOS. For most users, Windows 8 will be a confounding mess.
Features: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion
Windows 8: 7
OS X Mountain Lion: 9
Over the years, Apple has made OS X much more than an operating system. It's also a product suite, with a very capable email client, calendar manager, browser, lightweight word processor, image editor/PDF markup tool, media player, and instant messaging client. For many users, these apps are all they need. Beyond the assortment of moderately to highly capable apps, OS X has exceptional support for human languages and for people with various kinds of disabilities.
Windows 8 offers less than OS X across the board, partly because Microsoft wants people to buy its Office suite, so tools such as WordPad and the Mail app in Metro provide only a subset of OS X's equivalent features. But even where Microsoft doesn't have a product it wants to sell you -- for example, media playback and PDF markup -- its tools are decidedly inferior to OS X's. Its services for sharing, notifications, and search are also both less capable and more clunkily implemented.
The Metro apps are decidedly lightweight, offering fewer capabilities than even their iOS counterparts, and IE10 remains significantly behind all major browsers in its support for the emerging HTML5 standards.
Manageability: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion
Windows 8: 9
OS X Mountain Lion: 7
If you're willing to spend the money, you can manage Windows 8 PCs every which way from Sunday using tools such as Microsoft's System Center. Remote installation, policy enforcement, application monitoring, software updating, and so forth are all available.
OS X Mountain Lion provides similar capabilities through its use of managed client profiles -- enforcing use of disk encryption is a new capability in this version -- through OS X Server. Alternatively, they're available from a third-party tool such as those from Quest Software that plug into System Center or via MDM tools, including from the likes of AirWatch and MobileIron. But the degree of control available to Windows admins -- as well as the number of tools to exert that control -- is greater than is available for OS X admins.
Security: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion
Windows 8: 9
OS X Mountain Lion: 9
With nearly every computer these days connected to the Internet, security is a big focus, including both application security and data security. Windows has been a malware magnet for years, and antivirus software has been only partially effective in protecting PCs. Macs have been immune from most attacks, but in the last year, the Mac has seen a handful of high-profile Trojan attacks through plug-in technologies such as Oracle Java and Adobe Flash.
So it's no surprise that Microsoft includes its Windows Defender antimalware app in Windows 8 and Apple has included antimalware detection in OS X Mountain Lion, with daily checks to update signatures and remove known malware. Windows' registry does make it harder to truly eliminate malware than Apple's approach of relying on discrete files and folders that can simply be deleted if found to be harmful. But there are more tools available to monitor and protect Windows, commensurate to its greater risk.
Both OSes' boot loaders include antimalware detection, and OS X has a password-protected firmware option to prevent startup from external disks; users can't bypass the startup password by opting for their own disk. (One of OS X's handy features is that you can boot a Mac from external disks and network volumes easily, which is great for testing and shared environments.)
Beyond such application security, both OSes support FIPS 140-2 cryptographic encryption (new to Mountain Lion and requiring an additional installation). Both OSes provide on-disk encryption, as well, though Microsoft's BitLocker requires a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip to implement it fully, and few PCs have such a chip. Thus, enabling disk encryption is easier in OS X.
Also easier in OS X is data security, thanks to the included Time Machine backup program. With Time Machine, it's dead simple to back up a Mac, and the backups can be encrypted and (new to OS X Mountain Lion) even rotated among multiple disks. System restoration is also exceedingly easy, with no driver installation or command-line setup involved.
Windows 8 does introduce File History, which backs up data files in certain locations to your choice of your startup disk, an external disk, or Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud storage service. Like Time Machine, File History keeps incremental versions of these files so that you can roll back to a previous point in time, but unlike Time Machine, it can't restore your whole PC in case of a crash or simply to transfer your environment to a new machine.
Compatibility: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion
Windows 8: 10
OS X Mountain Lion: 8
Because Windows 8 is Windows 7 with the Metro environment tacked on, it is compatible with all the software, hardware, and services you already have. Yes, some older PCs won't run it, but that's about resource requirements and lack of drivers for those that also don't support Windows 7.
OS X Mountain Lion of course runs only on Apple's Macs, for which there is a smaller set of hardware and software available than for Windows. And Apple is ruthless in dropping technologies over time as it deems them problematic or limiting, such as removing RSS support in its email client and browser in Mountain Lion. The truth is that the everyday hardware people use -- mice, keyboards, storage devices, printers, and displays -- work on Macs, and the same is true for mainstay software such as Microsoft Office and Intuit QuickBooks, though often (as in these two cases) with inferior versions.
OS X is frequently underappreciated for its compatibility with corporate resources. It supports Microsoft's SMB networking in addition to IP, it supports Open Directory and Active Directory, it supports corporate VPNs, and its email, calendar, task, and notes apps all support Exchange out of the box. The Safari browser is also much more compatible with the current and emerging HTML standards than Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
Value: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion
Windows 8: 6
OS X Mountain Lion: 9
OS X Mountain Lion is clearly the better value, offering more capability and ease-of-use -- the two factors that matter most to users -- than Windows 8. And the psychic price of Windows 8's split personality is quite high.
Apple's $20 upgrade price for Mountain Lion is hard to beat. Windows 8's prices are unknown, but its various versions are expected to cost $100 or more for upgrades, and features such as DVD playback require the purchase of an extra-cost software pack that runs only on the costlier Windows 8 Pro version.
For enterprises, OS X may have a higher cost for IT, at least initially, as staff must learn to manage and support the OS and the company must invest in tools to achieve the same level of management as the tools already purchased for Windows allow. Mac users tend to require less support than PC users, but that may be because most Mac users choose the platform and are thus more likely to be self-supporting in the first place.
How it all adds up: Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion
Windows 8: 7.6
OS X Mountain Lion: 8.6
Clearly, OS X Mountain Lion is a better operating system than Windows 8. It's better designed, more capable, and - contrary to many people's beliefs - supportive of mainstream business security and management needs. But Windows supports a much wider universe of apps, so many people legitimately can only use a PC (or a Windows virtual machine on a Mac).
With the misguided UI mismatch in Windows 8, many users will no doubt be looking for alternatives. If you're in the market for a new PC, you should get one running Windows 7 while you still can (October 26 is when Windows 8 takes over, though Windows 7 will still be available for enterprise customers). Or move to a Mac.