I think that at last, it is time for me to review what I consider the three main current generation operating systems side by side. After upgrading the family computer with a fairly impressive set of hardware, I now have a computer that runs Windows Vista Ultimate, as well as my 15″ Macbook Pro running OS X 10.5 Leopard, and a (fairly old, but not bad) Acer notebook from about 2 years ago, which runs Ubuntu Gutsy very comfortably.There are a few areas in which I will compare the operating systems – customisability and looks, ease of use, multimedia features and support, features out of the box, security, and (on the negative side) those little things that do nothing but annoy the hell out of whoever might be using the operating system. Each section will be marked out of 10, with the last annoyances section worth negative marks.
So, to begin.
Customisability and Looks
In terms of customising the Aero interface, there isn’t an impressive amount by which you can customise it. You can change the tint of the glassy windows bits from the standard pale blue to basically any colour you like, but it still remains just a tint. You can change a few interface fonts, just like in Windows XP, or you can switch to the classic windows view, as seen in the server versions of Windows and any version pre-XP. There’s also the ability to change to the Vista ‘basic’ scheme, which does not have the flashy transparency and looks generally terrible.
As far as looks go, however, Vista (at least any version from Home Premium upwards) does look nice. The glassy interface elements are a welcome change from the revolting blue or silver Luna interface from Windows XP, or the standard boring grey from older versions of Windows. Flip3D is not as good as Mac OS X’s Expose feature, although it does look pretty good, and does have its place. The annoying inconsistency of so many applications, however, and the fact the menu bar in Vista is one heck of an ugly brute does count against it, however.
Overall score: 7/10 (3/5 for Customisability, 4/5 for Looks)
Mac OS X
In terms of customisability, OS X is the poorest contender. There is little more you can change but the colour of selected items and the main colour scheme of the OS (and even for that you have little choice – blue or grey).
However, in terms of looks, Mac OS X does look very nice, and the fact the interface is so supremely integrated and consistent throughout almost all applications is definitely a good point. Whereas in Windows or Linux, you might have various toolkits doing the interface rendering or those horrible applications which decide to use their own way rather than using the default Windows stuff, 99% of Mac applications have the same pleasing interface.
Overall score: 6/10 (1/5 for Customisability, 5/5 for Looks)
In the category of customisability, Ubuntu is a clear winner. The interface can be completely customised in so many ways – icons can be changed, fonts can be changed, the colour schemes can be changed, and so many more things. Depending on your graphics card, you can also install Compiz fusion, which allows the system to have some very advanced 3d effects, more advanced even than Vista’s, and again, they’re all completely customisable.
The looks out of the box are not the best, on account of a strange sandy brown interface, which I have never really understood. And while compiz fusion might make a very impressive 3d desktop, it does not work with all graphics cards. Ubuntu’s interface is also full of large buttons, large icons and big text, far larger than other operating systems, making it seem to some degree a bit childish.
Overall score: 8/10 (5/5 for Customisability, 3/5 for Looks)
Ease of use
It almost goes without saying that Vista is an ease of use nightmare. It even stumped me for a couple of days when I was looking around for the shortcuts for Crysis and Hellgate:London. After some Googling (which, I might add, I should never have had to do), I found that these links were in a new ‘Games Explorer’, and only in the games explorer. No link in the start menu (or whatever you want to call it now, on account of it not saying ‘start’ anymore) – the start menu being the place you would expect it to be. Just games explorer.
And while Flip3D might look nice, it is far from useful. Having to bring your hand to the keyboard, hold the Windows key and tap tab over and over is not something I like doing. If you have many windows open and you accidentally skip past the one you want, you can either flick through all the windows again, or you can contort your hand onto the shift key as well. I do not understand why people like Flip3D. It’s just horrible.
And things are not where you expect them to be. This, in my opinion, is a very important aspect of designing an operating system – if a user is looking for something, they should be able to take some kind of logical route to get there – in Vista there are so many cases where this is not true. Take the Performance and Reliability Monitor. Thinking logically, I clicked start, opened the control panel… ah, there’s a section about performance, I’ll go into that… nope it’s not there. It turns out it’s in Administrative tools. There wasn’t even a mention of it in the performance section of the control panel.
Of course, Windows has never been the most user-friendly of operating systems. And while Windows Vista is, in many ways, slightly more user friendly; in other ways it is not.
Overall score: 4/10
Mac OS X
This is the category, of course, where Mac rules. Macs are built to be easy to use, productive and intuitive machines. And there are so many parts of the system that are simply superior to Windows and other operating systems.
The first I’d like to mention is universal drag-and-drop. Imagine the situation: you are sent an email that has a nice photo in. But before you print it out, you want to use Photoshop to remove some red-eye that’s ruining the picture. So what do you do? In Windows or Ubuntu, you’d have to right click on the file, select to save it to your hard drive, put it somewhere, open up Photoshop, then go File -> Open, navigate to the directory with the photo, and select open. In Mac? Well… drag and drop. You literally pick up the photo from the email and put it into Photoshop. Photoshop will then automatically start up and open the picture for you. There are so many more applications with this universal drag and drop. You can drag and drop a music file into Quicktime to play, you can drag files from one application to another all over the place. Only want to copy a few CD tracks into iTunes? Drag and drop the tracks from the CD into iTunes. Finished with that CD now? Drag and drop into the trash, and it will eject automatically.
Of course I could not forget to mention Quick Look when talking about ease of use. Say you have a folder with loads of Photoshop documents in. You don’t want to go through the trouble of opening every single one in Photoshop – you just want to preview them. So press space. A quick look window appears with a preview of the file. No need to spend ages waiting for Photoshop to load.
Another thing I would like to mention is Fitt’s law. This is a law governing the size of targets – if something on the screen is big, it is easy to hit. If something is right at the edge or in a corner, it is even easier to hit. The Mac OS X menu bar is there for a reason. Many Windows fanboys don’t like it, but it does in fact make the OS easier to use. Throw your mouse up to the top of the screen and you’re guaranteed to be somewhere near where you need to be. To the bottom and you’ve got the dock. This also relates to an OS X feature called Expose – there is an option available such that if you just throw your mouse up blindly to a corner of the screen, you get a view of all your open windows.
Also: consistency. Whereas in Windows so many applications have their own customised interface of some kind, which is often fundamentally different to many other programs (look at Winamp, for example), applications in OS X all look pretty much the same, they have many of the same keyboard shortcuts, and are all logical and designed to be easy to use and intuitive. Command+Comma is a nearly universal shortcut for preferences. Command+H hides the application. Command+W closes a window, and Command+Q quits the application.
There are some things that are a bit awkward, however. Opening applications the ‘normal’ way, while very logical, is a little clunky – involving opening the Finder, navigating to your applications folder, and opening the application. Applications in your dock can be started just by clicking on them, but clearly not all applications will always be in your dock.
Overall score: 9/10
There are some ways in which Ubuntu is a very well designed operating system. Everything in the normal user interface is set out in a way that is very logical – it is all very well designed, and it very easy to use. Things are where you expect them to be.
However, that careful integration between applications and the operating system doesn’t exist in the same way it does in OS X. There are many, many different libraries for rendering GUIs – some of them are done with X GUIs, some with Gnome, some with KDE, some with QT, some with various other libraries besides. This of course means that not all applications act or look the same – some are very pleasant and look very familiar, if they are using a Gnome-based skin, however others which use a KDE one won’t look so familiar. Compare Pidgin, for example, with Kopete – both excellent messaging applications, but Pidgin uses the Gnome GUI libraries (also known as GTK) and Kopete uses the KDE ones.
There are various features available which do add to the ease of use, however in a way they also take away from that ease of use. Depending on your graphics card, it can be supremely easy or supremely hard to install compiz, a 3D window manager, on Ubuntu, and once it is working, it can also be a very difficult job to configure it the way you want to. Once configured, however, you can have all the features of Expose in Mac OS X, or Flip3D like Vista. Or, if you were to be so inclined, both at the same time.
And while the GUI is nice and many parts of the operating system are very easy to use, there is still a very large dependence on the command line in practically all Linux distributions, and the command line is the epitome of user-unfriendliness. The days where you have to be taught how to use a computer should be gone already – however to be able to use Linux very effectively, you have to be able to use the command line effectively as well, and that takes some learning.
Overall, however, and for normal use (and if you’re lucky enough to have an Intel graphics card in your computer), Ubuntu is a very easy to use operating system. As I said, it is organised and logical, programs are easily accessible via the menu and easily installable via Add/Remove programs and the package manager.
Overall score: 7/10
Multimedia features and support
Of, course, there is more power in Vista for multimedia than in the Home or Pro versions of Windows XP, and slightly more than the media centre edition as well. The media centre within Vista is fairly easy to use, and quite powerful as well, and is integrated carefully into Windows Media Player, thus you have access to all your music and videos in your library. If you have a TV tuner connected to your computer as well, Vista’s media centre also integrates carefully with this, allowing you to watch TV and browse a TV guide.
Outside of the media centre, there is Windows Media Player, a fairly powerful yet not particularly easy to use program which you can use for managing your music and video library and playing music and videos as you wish. There’s also Windows Photo gallery, which seems like a complete rip of an older version of Apple’s iPhoto, but I will not go further into that.
There’s also Windows Movie Maker, an application which leaves a lot to be desired, with about the power of a lame fish. Windows Movie Maker has been criticised heavily since its inception on Windows XP, and deserves an equal amount of criticism on Windows Vista. Frankly, it’s terrible. There’s also the fact that you can only edit HD video in the Home Premium and higher versions, not in the basic version.
Support of various formats is not the greatest in Windows. Out of the box the main formats the system supports are mp3 and WMA, as well as WMV and some AVI formats. It will also play DVDs. Other formats like OGG, FLAC, iTunes AAC, and others are not supported by default.
Overall, I think media centre is pretty good, but the other programs for managing music, videos and photos leave much to be desired.
Overall score: 5/10
Mac OS X
Now, some might consider it unfair for me to include the iLife suite within this comparison, but I am comparing the operating systems ‘out of the box’. If you buy a mac – any mac – you will get iLife with it. You don’t really have a choice about it, but it’s an awesome suite of applications. First of all, though, I will look at Front Row and iTunes.
Many of you will be familiar with iTunes – it does exist on Windows, and isn’t too different on Mac, actually. There are many advanced features for browsing through your media libraries, such as cover flow and the integrated (and immensely useful) search tool. Of course there’s a close harmony between iPods and iTunes, and an excellent one at that – plug the iPod in and it’s all set up for you. iTunes syncs automatically, and there’s options to pull media from other sources besides iTunes as well.
Of course, there is front row – Apple’s media centre. Like any other Mac application, it is very simple and organised and logical, and is accessed either via your applications folder or simply by pressing the Menu button on your apple remote. Front row makes it easy to present photos and music, and to watch videos and DVDs, although does not really have any integration into any kind of TV, if you had a TV tuner for your Mac.
Now, iLife. iLife is a suite of applications: iMovie, iDVD, iWeb, Garageband and iPhoto. Five applications with supreme multimedia organisation and creation capabilities. iPhoto allows you to browse through photos with ease, manage them, adjust some basic features like the brightness, contrast and colour, and crop them. You can view an album at a glance just by moving your cursor over it, and you can instantly publish all your photos onto the web if you have a .Mac account.
iMovie is effectively a movie maker, like Windows Movie Maker – but is incredibly easy to use and very powerful. You select chunks of movie like you select text. You can add text over the top of the movie, choose various effects to apply to the movie, and iMovie will put it all together for you. You can then, with a click of a button, publish the video to Youtube, a .Mac gallery, or put it into iTunes on your iPod. Out of the box, of course, there is HD support for your movies. After this, iDVD allows you to put your movie onto a DVD with ease.
In terms of media support, OS X supports various formats out of the box – including MP3, AAC, and WMA (through import), MP4, MOV and some AVI, and will play DVDs. Again, other formats like OGG and FLAC are not supported.
Overall score: 9/10
Ubuntu’s media support, in some ways, leaves quite a bit to be desired, although there are some very useful features worth mentioning.
While the other systems require other programs or various libraries or hacks to be able to play other formats like OGG and FLAC, Ubuntu supports these ones out of the box. While mp3, aac, and various other formats are not supported right away, if a codec is missing to play a certain file type, Ubuntu can install it automatically for you. Lack of mp3 support out of the box, however, is certainly not good – while there are various reasons for this, MP3 is a rather universal codec, and should be supported by default.
Out of the box, Ubuntu has only some basic media capabilities – there is a media player somewhat reminiscent of iTunes, as well as a CD ripper and a CD burner. There are many other pieces of media software available, including VLC media player and others.
While media support out of the box does not impress, the system can be upgraded a lot to improve its media support.
Overall score: 6/10
Of course, we know Vista is going to lose. There is a good way to sum up the security of Vista.
“There is no doubt that Vista will be Microsoft’s most secure operating system. However, most secure is not equivalent to secure.” – Natalie Lambert
There are various new security features of Vista that do make it more secure than XP. ASLR – which changes the place in memory important system programs go (a feature that has been in OpenBSD for years), Bitlocker, which allows your hard drive to be encrypted (been in OS X for a while, the home folder anyway), and the infamous user account control, which does make the system more secure by making all administrative tasks be verified by a user, but is obviously infernally annoying.
And of course, there are hundreds of thousands of pieces of malware in various forms – viruses, spyware, adware, rootkits, and so many more.
Vista is more secure than Windows XP. But with the number of viruses on Windows systems and the fact that most pieces of software from previous versions of Windows will run on Vista, Vista is still not a secure operating system.
Overall score: 3/10
Mac OS X
And of course, Mac OS X is the winner for security. At some counts there are less than 20 viruses for Macs, some of which do not even run or work properly in OS X Leopard. There is an incredibly small number of any kind of malware on OS X, and there always has been.
There is a form of a kind of UAC in OS X, but it is by no means as annoying and many times more effective. This security layer prevents modification of important system folders, but does not annoyingly stop you from changing any options within System Preferences, and does not stop you installing software. In short, this security layer stops programs from performing administrative tasks, but does not stop the user from performing administrative tasks, except in very important system folders.
There is also the essential firewall, as well as FileVault, which encrypts all user folders, although not the entire hard drive.
Another advantage of OS X is that, like in many Unix systems, the user is not actually an administrator as such, although may perform administrative tasks. Thus programs running under the user do not have the full security privileges. Compare this to Windows, where the user is actually an administrator, not a normal user who can perform administrative tasks. This is an important difference, and one which makes unix-based systems inherently more secure.
Overall score: 8/10
The security advantage in Ubuntu is much like that of OS X – there aren’t many viruses, there’s no real malware or adware or anything like this. Some estimates do put the virus count of Unix and Linux systems somewhere in the hundreds. While higher than OS X, it is certainly lower than the hundreds of thousands of pieces of malware on Windows.
All Linux distributions are very modular. That is, they are broken up into many different parts which do different jobs. One of the advantages of Linux systems is that if you fear a particular module is a security risk, you can replace that module. For example, if you run a linux-based web server running Apache, and you fear Apache might be causing security problems, you can replace it with Lighttpd. This applies to viruses as well – many viruses are specific to individual modules, and if you do not have that module, it will not affect your system.
Just like OS X, the user is not an administrator. The system is somewhat more annoying than the way it is organised in Leopard, although isn’t as annoying as Vista. For example in OS X, you can change a system file just by browsing to it, selecting to change it, and confirming with an admin password. In Ubuntu, you specifically have to open up an administrative file browser to do so.
Overall, Ubuntu is a very secure system – certainly more secure than any Windows system.
Overall score: 8/10
The annoying little things
Where to start, I wonder. Well, I suppose I’ll go in the order the things annoyed me.
Firstly, then – User Account Control. That annoying little popup box that asks you whether you’re absolutely sure about every single task that might possibly be related in some remote way to being administrative. The dimming of the screen was actually one of the main things that annoyed me about this, but that’s really just my personal reason for hating it. There is no need to ask about every possible administrative task. Perhaps if you bothered to adopt Unix-style users – where the user is not actually an admin, but can perform admin tasks – it wouldn’t be necessary. Fortunately, you can disable it. It kind of defeats the point, but in all honesty I’d rather be more sane than more secure.
Like every other version of Windows, driver problems of course exist. Vista seemed to recognise my DVD Burner drive fine – it acknowledged its existence, at least. But it refused to load the driver. It took 20 minutes to get it to load the damn thing, and then of course I had to reboot the system in typical Windows style. Of course, with the install of the new driver, Windows decided there was a hardware change and demanded that I activate Windows. While this didn’t take long to do, that feature should never exist. OS X doesn’t require any activation at all, it all just works. And on the subject of driver problems, I have had to look at a nice pretty “Blue Screen Of Death” twice already. I have had the system for no more than two weeks.
The sidebar, for some reason, is also instantly annoying. I do not want more clutter on my desktop, thank you. Widgets are fine (or Gadgets, as Microsoft call them – but they’re widgets really), but they should be on a separate widget layer, or hidden in some way, like in Mac OS X. You can quickly show them in OS X by hitting a button, or by throwing your mouse to a defined corner, actually making Widgets more accessible than in Windows – to get to them in Windows, I would have to minimise all my windows or Windows+Tab to the desktop.
After all this had been sorted out and I had installed some new games on my system, I found another problem. Crysis, nor Hellgate:London, existed in the start menu. As I said in the above ease of use section, they’re in the new Games Explorer. Now, instead of pressing the windows key, typing a few letters, and expecting the application I want to be in the search results, I have to open up the Games Explorer just to open up a game.
When I did open it up – in DX10 mode the first time – I was less than impressed. While the graphics are visually stunning, DirectX 10 is far more resource intensive than DirectX 9. To get a decent framerate, I had to set the quality mode to medium, which somewhat degraded the previously stunning graphics to a rather mediocre visual experience I could easily have got with a 3-year old game. This is not the reason I bought Crysis.
Running Crysis in DirectX 9 mode, however, saw a dramatic performance increase. I could easily set the detail mode to High, and anti-aliasing to 4x, which actually made it look better than in DX10 on Medium detail. That’s right – I got better quality out of DX9 than out of DX10. My graphics card is probably the third best one on the market – the nVidia 8800GT 512MB – and it’s overclocked. Nice job, Microsoft.
Overall, I am going to award Vista with a nice little 10/10. It’s arguably the best version of Windows, but is definitely the most annoying.
Mac OS X
There isn’t much to be annoyed about in Mac OS X, although there are a few things that I will mention.
The first is opening programs – a problem I do have have to face because I have installed Quicksilver – but a problem nonetheless. Opening applications in OS X requires opening the Finder, going into the applications folder, and opening them via that, which can be a somewhat annoying process. Of course, most people put their favourite applications in the Dock anyway, so while this is a bit of an annoyance, it doesn’t get in the way that much at all.
I honestly can’t think of anything else that has annoyed me about the system, at all. It just works.
Overall score: 1/10
Ubuntu is also not a particularly annoying operating system at all, although again, there are a few things that have annoyed me.
The first, and I would call most significant, is that, despite being a very user-friendly Linux distribution, there still exists a dependency on the command line. Yes, I know how to use a command line, and I have confused many people as I whiz through it with CD and ls; but the point is I shouldn’t have to. The command line is the interface of two decades ago, it should not be so heavily relied on in a modern operating system.
There are certain network functions which seem to be quite strange as well. The network switcher applet in the menu bar on Ubuntu is a very useful thing to be there if you are using wireless, but it seems to me that Ubuntu can only actually connect through one network interface at a time. I regularly transfer files between my Windows and Mac computers over a gigabit ethernet wire, and during this process both computers are still perfectly capable of connecting to my wireless network for internet access. I just can’t seem to work out how to make it connect to more than one thing at a time.
The last fact is that the interface, as I said before, is big, with big text, big icons, and seems somewhat childish.
Overall score: 3/10
And so, this brings us to the overall scores.
|Vista||Mac OS X||Ubuntu|
|Customisability and Looks||7||6||8|
|Ease of Use||4||9||7|
I am someone who has used all three systems, and I personally believe Macs are simply superior to both Vista and Ubuntu. Yes, there’s a premium – you’ll pay Â£100-Â£300 extra for a Windows PC of equal spec to a Mac – but to get software as good as that iLife suite, you’d have to pay upwards of Â£500. Ubuntu is really starting to become a system that could viably compete with both, but there are some aspects about it that really need to be sorted out. And while Vista is a definite improvement upon XP and previous versions of Windows, there are so many aspects of it that are just aggravating.
In conclusion: Get a Mac 😛