Both windows 7 and Snow Leopard have been on the board for quite some time and bow lets pitch them head to head and see if they are worth the upgrade.
Both operating systems have improved the user experience, and which one you prefer is largely a matter of taste. There’s no doubt that Windows 7 is the prettiest Windows yet, but to our eyes Apple still has the more refined appearance while the redesigned Windows Taskbar is, well, a bit minging.
SERVICES MENU: OS X’s Services menu is handy, but it gets awfully cluttered. Hurrah, then, for the new context-sensitive version. Snow Leopard is all about simple but useful UI tweaks like this
Snow Leopard includes lots of welcome interface changes, including a context sensitive Services menu, a QuickTime interface that isn’t utterly hideous, a redesigned Exposé that’s now integrated into the Dock, scrollable Stacks and the latest Safari, which brings iTunes-style Cover Flow browsing to your favourite sites and browser history.
STACK IT UP: Snow Leopard refines rather than reinvents a lot of features, so for example Stacks are now scrollable for easy navigation
Windows 7 gets Taskbar icon thumbnail previews and the fun Aero Shake, which enables you to hide everything but the current window by giving it a wiggle. Jump lists make Taskbar icons more useful, the streamlined Notification Area is considerably less annoying than before and you now get an OS X-style pop-up preview that enables you to listen to MP3s without opening Windows Media Player.
PREVIEW IT: Thumbnail previews are little things that make a huge difference, and they’re among several useful UI improvements in Windows 7
In interface terms, then, Windows 7 is Vista with knobs on and Snow Leopard is Leopard given a bit of polish. The difference between Vista and Windows 7 is much more dramatic than the difference between Leopard and Snow Leopard, but both make your computer a nicer place to be.
Both operating systems promise improved performance and smaller footprints, with Apple suggesting that you’ll free up 7GB of hard disk space by upgrading. Microsoft is rather coy on this one, but if we look at the recommended system requirements Windows 7 wants 16GB free disk space for 32-bit and 20GB for 64-bit. Snow Leopard wants 5GB.
Windows and Snow Leopard have a number of performance features, but some of them are very hardware-dependent – so for example Snow Leopard’s hardware acceleration for QuickTime only works on Macs with an Nvidia 9400M graphics processor.
Similarly OpenCL, which uses the graphics chip for additional processing muscle, only works on specific Nvidia and AMD graphics chips, while the 64-bit processing naturally requires a 64-bit processor. If you do have all the right bits you should notice a dramatic difference in system performance, but even if you don’t Snow Leopard boasts faster waking, a faster Finder, speedier Time Machine backup and Safari, which is positively rocket-powered compared to Windows’ Internet Explorer 8.
However, to make all of this possible Apple has decided that it needs to make a sacrifice: Snow Leopard doesn’t support PowerPC Macs, so if you’ve got an ageing PowerBook kicking around you won’t be able to upgrade from Tiger or Leopard.
QUICK TIME: Bye-bye horrible old QuickTime interface; hello minimalist new UI, hardware acceleration and iPhone-style editing
Windows is noticeably quicker too. As we discovered when we benchmarked the RTM version Windows 7 is significantly quicker to boot, to sleep and wake, to shut down and to copy files than Vista, and it feels much snappier too.
Like Snow Leopard it enables programs to take advantage of the graphics processor for additional horsepower, although like Snow Leopard you need specific hardware to get the benefit: in the case of Windows 7, that means DirectX 11-compatible graphics kit.
Windows 7 has tweaked its multi-core support, although if you install the 32-bit version you won’t be able to take advantage of 64-bit processing. We’d recommend installing 64-bit Windows unless you’re running peripherals whose manufacturers can’t be bothered making 64-bit drivers; thankfully such firms are becoming increasingly rare.
In both cases the real performance increases will turn up in the longer term, when application developers take advantage of OpenCL and Grand Central Dispatch in Snow Leopard and DirectX 11 in Windows 7.
Rather bizarrely, Macs now support Microsoft Exchange by default while Windows doesn’t. But there’s more to Snow Leopard than support for Microsoft’s collaboration and communication system – which is just as well, given that few home users give a monkey’s about Exchange.
iChat AV does a better job using less bandwidth than before, PDF handling has been improved to make selecting text in multi-column layouts much simpler, and networking has been cleverly tweaked so that a sleeping Mac will wake up when files need to be shared and nod off again when it’s no longer needed.
The most dramatic new feature is QuickTime X, a major overhaul of Apple’s media player. It can use hardware acceleration for smoother playback, supports HTTP Live Streaming and provides easy video capture and uploading to YouTube or MobileMe. You also get iPhone 3GS-style video editing and a much less obtrusive interface.
Windows 7 gets better multimedia too. Media Player supports more formats including H.264 video, and there’s a nice feature called Play To that enables you to send media to other devices such as the Xbox 360. Cleverly, Play To will convert media into formats that your chosen device can understand.
PLAY TO: Windows 7 quite likes multimedia, and its Play To feature enables you to send music to a wide range of devices
Last but not least, Windows 7 gets Windows Touch, which supports iPhone-style multi-touch input (provided, of course, you have the hardware). OS X has touch support via laptop trackpads, of course. Windows Touch could be very important when you’re choosing your next PC, but it’s irrelevant at the moment for the majority of upgraders.
Everyone’s a winner, baby
On the face of it, Apple beats Microsoft in several key areas. The first is price – Snow Leopard is £25, while Windows 7 Home Premium is currently £64.98 at Amazon – and the second is ease of installation: while Windows 7 supports in-place upgrades that keep your files intact, XP users will need to do a clean install, as will anybody upgrading from a 32-bit Vista installation to a 64-bit Windows 7 one.
Snow Leopard is designed to be an in-place upgrade, and there’s no version confusion either: Apple sells one version to Microsoft’s three retail editions.
Microsoft could certainly learn some lessons from Apple in these areas – although Apple isn’t entirely angelic, as Tiger users can only get Snow Leopard if they also buy iLife and iWork in the £129 Mac Box Set.
At least, that’s the official story. According to Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, “Apple concedes that the $29 (£25 in the UK) Snow Leopard upgrade will work properly on these Tiger-equipped Macs.” We’ll let you know what Apple says about that one.
Overall, though, it’s impossible to say whether one operating system is better than another – we’re comparing apples and oranges here, no pun intended. As most of its key changes are under the hood Snow Leopard feels more like a service pack than a new OS, and it’ll be a while before its biggest changes – such as the new toys for software developers to play with – become obvious to the average punter.
The price reflects that, and there’s enough tweakery and polish to ensure that no Intel Mac owner is going to regret spending their twenty-five quid.
Windows 7 is a different beast, with some dramatic differences to Windows Vista. In many respects it feels like the operating system Vista promised to be, but there’s enough innovation here to make it more than just Windows Vista Fixed Edition. As with Snow Leopard, you’re not going to regret purchasing it – especially if you pre-order it right now before the prices go up on 1 September.
So which is better? We think that’s the wrong question. Snow Leopard is better than Leopard, and Windows 7 is better than Windows Vista. If you aren’t planning to buy a new computer in the not too distant future, that’s all that matters: whichever platform you’re currently running, upgrading is well worth the money.