Why I chose Windows 7 over Snow Leopard (and you should, too)

Last week, I returned to using Windows 7 after spending the summer on a 13-inch MacBook Pro. Apple almost had me there for awhile, but I'm back where I belong and satisfied with the switch. Given that Apple released Snow Leopard a couple of weeks ago, Windows 7 officially launches October 22nd and there is plenty of geek debate about which OS is better, it's appropriate time to tell the story about how I went -- in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien -- "there and back again."

First, some background. I am a longtime Mac and Windows user. I have used Windows pretty much since its release in the early 1990s and Macs since December 1998, when I carted a Bondi Blue iMac out of a CompUSA. Based on my reading comments, many Betanews readers are religious about their platform choices; I am not. Mac OS and Windows are just tools to me. I don't dogmatically defend either platform. I'm neither Mac or Windows fanboy. My work requires using both operating systems, and for convenience one usually is primary. That said, I've flopped between platforms for more than a decade.

In April, I posted at my old work blog: "How I Came to Get a PC and Not a Mac." There I explained how in January 2009, I forsook the Mac for the PC, mainly because of Windows 7. If someone asked me in November 2008 about buying a Windows PC, I would have laughed. It just wasn't happening. But Windows 7 won me over, in beta and later release candidate.

Still, post switch, I struggled with a key product category: Digital media creation software suite. In a June blog post, I asked: "Why is there no iLife equivalent for Windows?" Windows Live Essentials isn't it, although Microsoft's digital media suite is lots closer since the final release of Windows Live Movie Maker. Ahead of Comic-Con 2009, where I planned video interviews and needed easy and efficient software to process them, I moved back into the Apple camp. My main machine became the then new 13-inch MacBook Pro. I also planned to test out the MacBook Pro's new battery and later Snow Leopard.

The Mac portable's battery life hugely satisfied (consistently 6 hours) but not Snow Leopard. I find Snow Leopard to be hugely disappointing, shockingly so. Apple promised no major, new features, so I didn't expect much -- and the $29 price ($100 less than Leopard) further lowered expectations. But, after using Snow Leopard, I think $29 is asking too much for what Microsoft would call a Service Pack and give away for free.

From an architectural perspective, however, Snow Leopard is Apple's most important Mac OS X release since the dot-oh release in March 2001. I call Snow Leopard a fix-the-plumbing release, in preparation for moving the Mac install base forward to 64-bit. Performance tweaks are everywhere, and you can feel them in subtle but distinct ways. I predict that Mac OS X 10.7 will be a big release, jumping off Snow Leopard's architectural remodeling. But for now, Snow Leopard offers few benefits where users can see them.

The Mac OS X user interface, once trendsetting, is now a tired motif overdue for overhaul. Worse, Apple hints at what the UI could and should be in a few places, with QuickTime being the most visible example. The QuickTime UI is refreshing and new -- delightful. Something similar should skin much of Snow Leopard. Worse still, QuickTime's more modern UI is jarring reminder when switching back to the Snow Leopard Finder about how old most of the rest of Mac OS X feels.

By comparison, Windows 7 feels surprisingly fresh. Microsoft is finally doing good user interface design. Around 2006, which coincidentally -- or not -- is about when Bill Buxton joined Microsoft Research as principal researcher, the company started making huge strides in UI and UX (user experience) design. Buxton is a well-know UX designer who professes mantra:

Ultimately, we are deluding ourselves if we think that the products that we design are the 'things' that we sell, rather than the individual, social and cultural experience that they engender, and the value and impact that they have. Design that ignores this is not worthy of the name.

I find myself to be way more productive using Windows 7 than any Mac OS X version, and that's surprising to me. For years, the greater productivity claim belonged to Mac OS X. Consistently, I get about 30 percent to 40 percent more work done using Windows 7 than either Leopard or Snow Leopard. Windows Vista doesn't rate. The combined usability flaws -- everything from slow resume from sleep to nagging pop-ups to UI pauses or hangs -- are too much for me to use Windows Vista any longer.

More importantly, I have loads more fun using Windows 7 than Mac OS X. I haven't had this much fun using a Microsoft operating system since Windows 95. After more than three months running Mac OS X, I really missed Windows 7. By comparison, for the six months I primarily used Windows 7 test builds, I only missed Mac OS X for iLife.

There still is no iLife for Windows, but I decided to do without. Perhaps if Snow Leopard was more or Windows 7 much less, I would be using a Mac laptop today. I did briefly use Apple's Boot Camp to install and run Windows 7 gold code on the MacBook Pro (Hey, the Windows Experience Index was 5.2 -- not bad). But I wanted something more from a lightweight portable that Apple doesn't offer, which I explain in a couple paragraphs. The MacBook Pro is gone now and replaced with a Sony VAIO.

I find the Sony VAIO, model Z720D/B, to be much better value than the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Sony sells the VAIO for $1,849.99, but some dealers charge less. I got mine from PC Nation for $1,499.98 -- or about $100 less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro sold direct from Apple ($75 less from some dealers). A friend bought the MacBook and digital camera, which more than covered cost of the VAIO.

Sony config: 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (1066MHz front-side bus), 13.1-inch LED backlit display with 1600-by-900 resolution, (dedicated) 256MB nVidia GeForce 9300M GS graphics (DDR3) and Mobile Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD, 4GB of DDR3 memory, 320GB SATA hard drive (7,200 rpm), dual-layer DVD burner, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, 10/100/1000 Ethernet, fingerprint reader, 802.11a/b/g/n wireless, two USB ports, FireWire 400 port, HDMI port, Verizon EVDO modem and Windows Vista Business 64-bit.

MacBook config: 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor (1066MHz front-side bus), 13.3-inch LED-backlit display with 1280-by-800 resolution, 4GB DDR3 memory, (shared) 256MB nVidia GeForce 9400M (DDR3) graphics, 250GB SATA hard drive (5,400 rpm), dual-layer DVD burner, 802.11n wireless, backlit keyboard, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, 10/100/1000 Ethernet, two USB ports, FireWire 800 port, one Mini DisplayPort and Mac OS X 10.5.

While the computers are fairly close in terms of base hardware, I find the VAIO's higher screen resolution to be a highly appealing feature, and the major reason for my replacing the MacBook rather than installing Windows 7 via Boot Camp.

Since there has been so much unnecessary noise about 20-hour Windows 7 upgrades -- which Scott Fulton appropriately addressed yesterday -- I would briefly like to share my own expierence. After unboxing the Z720 and booting it up, I immediately made restore discs. After which, I removed unwanted software, such as Google Toolbar and Symantec anti-malware. I then installed Microsoft Security Essentials beta and Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit gold code. The upgrade took about 45 minutes. The Windows installer warned of compatibility problems with four Sony utilities, but they all work just fine.

Windows 7 performance is excellent, and resume-from-sleep time is about as fast as Snow Leopard. I've no complaints and lots of satisfaction for the switch. For anyone holding back because of Vista, Windows 7 is for you. For anyone considering switching to a Mac, wait to see what new designs PC manufacturers release with Windows 7. You might be surprised just how cool they can be.

Gulp, here it comes. I'm a PC, and why aren't you?

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