Perspective: XP or OS X?

The debut of the new iMac has many potential Windows XP upgraders wondering if they should ditch their PCs and join the Apple crowd. But cool design is the wrong reason for buying a computer. Most people will want to be able to do something productive or fun--ideally both--with their new computers. There, a solid operating system foundation can make all the difference and matters much more than the computer's packaging. So before plunking down your hard-earned cash consider: Whither Windows XP or Mac OS X?

Apple officially released Mac OS X in March 2001. The new version is the most significant upgrade to the Mac OS since its 1984 introduction. Apple built the core of Mac OS on Unix, adding a very cool interface--dubbed Aqua--true multitasking that allows many programs to run at once, better memory management and improved crash protection. But Mac OS X was not ready for primetime when first released. Apple initially did not support CD burning or DVD playback, leaving people using these optical drives in a lurch. Mac OS X also suffered from performance and stability issues that prevented Adobe, Microsoft and other software developers from quickly releasing applications that run natively in OS X rather than in "Classic" compatibility mode. Apple largely remedied this latter problem with the September upgrade to OS X 10.1. The current version is OS X 10.1.4.

Microsoft officially launched Windows XP in October 2001, although PC makers started shipping new computers with the operating system about a month earlier. Windows XP Home is Microsoft's first truly stable consumer operating system, ditching the unstable foundation established by Windows 95. XP's heritage derives from Windows NT and 2000, which are much more crash resistant than the 95 lineage, manage memory better and easily run many programs simultaneously. Unlike OS X, XP offered full support for CD burning and DVD playback, either directly in the operating system or in conjunction with third parties.

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Both Mac OS X and Windows XP can be considered mature operating systems, offering the robustness and stability long found with Unix. Many of the basic features are similar, in fact maybe more so in these releases than any others. With Mac OS X, Apple largely has focused on digital media--music, movies, photos and DVDs--bundling in very cool software, too. In fact, using Apple's iTunes 2, burning or ripping digital music is much easier in Mac OS X than Windows XP. Apple's music software also fully supports the popular MP3 format, something XP's Windows Media Player only does with extra-cost add-ons from CyberLink and InterVideo. Microsoft limited MP3 support, although users can doing everything they need using Microsoft's proprietary Windows Digital Media format. Apple's iPod, its digital music player available in either a 1,000-song or 2,000-song model, could be a good reason for choosing Mac OS X. For now, Apple only supports these devices on Macs. That support has been suggested as coming in the future and some third-party companies have tried to remedy this shortcoming today for Windows. DVD playback is far superior on the Mac than the PC, regardless of hardware or software used. This situation has long puzzled me, because I assumed switching DVD playback software or graphics card would improve DVD movie watching on the PC. But not in my testing, suggesting the difference is an operating system issue. Skin tones are more true to life, motion sharper and shading, and particularly in dark areas, crisper on the Mac than the PC.

Apple's iMovie 2 easily outshines Microsoft's Movie Maker software for retrieving and editing digital video. Some third-party Windows software is more sophisticated, but most are not as easy to use. One exception: Pinnacle System's Studio Deluxe. Mac OS X also has the edge burning DVDs. Apple's iDVD 2 uses an intelligent, task-oriented approach to making movie DVDs grandma can watch on her home player. Apple's choice of graphics, themes and icons are more tasteful than most PC software competitors, and iDVD 2 will produce professional, Hollywood-stylized menus for navigating the DVDs. Microsoft does not bundle in DVD burning software, although a recent deal with Sonic Solutions could lead to the feature be added to Windows XP later on. Also, a forthcoming upgrade to one of Sonic's DVD authoring packages likely will close to gap on iDVD 2. Apple also has an edge handling photos, despite the great job Microsoft has done in this area. With iPhoto, Mac OS X users can easily manage thousands of photos that can be resized in the view window for quick review and which are cataloged like film rolls for easily finding pictures. Users also can use categories to group photos.

Advantage XP

Windows XP does digital media, too. Mac OS X may make using digital media easy, but XP unlocks more richness and features. Windows Media Player for XP, for example, is a real mixed bag for consumers. Full MP3 support requires add-on products as does DVD playback. Windows Media Player will play DVD movies, but only if someone else's decoder is installed. In both cases, Microsoft was too cheap to pay the licensing fees. Something cool: When accessing a CD, DVD or attached drive containing digital content, XP displays a menu of programs that can be used to access the material. The user can continue to get that menu each time or choose a default program for the particular content type. XP's media player also is much harder to use for organizing, ripping or burning digital music. But Microsoft built support for digital music right into XP's file system, and that's a big plus. In any folder, with digital music, XP displays song attributes, such as title and artist, without the need of a media player. Songs can be played easily using a control in the file menu, too.

Windows XP also handles digital photos or video better from the file system than Mac OS X. While not as robust as the digital music feature, users have more photo and video viewing and playing options within folders. Speaking of photos, Microsoft's Scanner and Photo wizard does a pretty good job of retrieving images. Photo retrieval is a bit more cumbersome than on OS X, but XP's scanner support smashes the Mac. Both operating systems also connect to digital photo printing services. OS X's nicety: The ability to order professionally printed and bound gift books from their digital images. Windows XP also offers more choice accessing digital content.

XP's look and feel dramatically differs from Apple's OS. In fact, Mac OS X sports a much cooler interface than Windows XP's cartoonish Luna desktop. But XP's interface, beginning with the revamped Start Menu, unlocks more features. Luna is more customizable than OS X's Aqua interface, as well. OS X nice touch: Users can burn CDs or DVDs from the file menu. Just drag, drop and burn. Windows XP will burn CDs but not DVDs, although that may change in the future because of the Sonic deal. Another OS X advantage: Native support for Adobe's PDF file format. This is particularly handy for any in government or education, where PDF documents are more commonly used. Click on a PDF file on the Web, the document drops on the desktop and a viewer opens to see the contents. No Adobe Acrobat reader required. But OS X comes up way short on a long-time Windows productivity booster: Full support for the two-button mouse. Mac OS will let users right-click on a two-button mouse, but Apple still offers only single-button mice with its computers. There is the option of pressing "Control" on the keyboard when clicking the mouse to get some context menus available with a right click. But XP's superior support for right-click functions, such as rich context menus, far exceeds OS X.

One of XP's best features has not been widely popularized by Microsoft but is a boon to anyone using a portable computer or flat-panel monitor: ClearType. The font rendering technology sharpens text--particularly black-on-white--viewed on LCD displays. ClearType is particularly useful on notebooks packing high-resolution displays. Another big XP advantage is multiple user support. Both OS X and Windows XP can be set up so more than one user can log on at a time. Both offer customized desktops and user files separated from the other. But Windows XP lets several users log in and stay logged in at the same time, with fast switching available between. So while one of the kids downloads songs from the Internet, mom can swoop in and check her e-mail without stopping the process. But Microsoft could have done better on the security front. A user with "Administrator" access can too easily access another's files. To properly install software, most users need administrator's rights. So if mom wants her seven year-old son to be able to install that new Arthur or Spongebob game, she's got to make sure he has maximum privileges, which could give him access to files he shouldn't see or allow him to inadvertently damage the OS installation or create a security breach. On the flipside, Mac OS X's default settings make it too hard for a user with administrator rights to access another's files.

Decisions, Decisions

Operating systems cannot be viewed in a vacuum but in relationship to the programs that run on them. BeOS or IBM's OS/2 were two of the best operating systems ever developed, but both floundered in large part because of lacking applications. OS X has most of the larger categories covered, but there is still much more choice on Windows XP. The big one, Microsoft Office, is covered. Office XP for Windows and Office v. X for Mac OS X use the same file system and so can share documents seamlessly. But many PC makers bundle in Office XP Small Business Edition with the cost of the computer, while the upgrade could set many Mac users back 300 bucks. Web browsing software is available aplenty for both operating systems. Instant messaging finally is in place. Yahoo released its Mac OS X messenger on April 18, filling in a void between AOL and Microsoft OS X messengers. Media playback is a weak area, as RealNetworks has yet to deliver an OS X version. Microsoft's MSN Messenger and Apple QuickTime are available for OS X. But other communications areas, such as robust file sharing or videoconferencing and videochat, are sorely missing for Mac OS X. Many kids educational software titles and popular games are not yet available for OS X; limited gaming support has long been a handicap for Mac OS. Many applications for vertical markets, such as architecture, are sorely missing for the Mac, too.

For many people, the similarities between Mac OS X and Windows XP may seem far greater than the differences. But without question, XP offers much more choice and a deeper richness of features--networking, file management and customization, among others. There is more software available to do more things. The available hardware supporting XP far exceeds that for OS X. For things that OS X does well, ease of use surpasses doing comparable tasks using Windows XP. The choice may come down to what you want to do with your computer. If that is largely limited to digital photos, music and movies and authoring or viewing DVDs, OS X is a clear winner. But many people may find they can do a lot more with their computers using Windows XP, particularly on the Web. So, if you're looking for fun computing that's a breeze right out of the box, maybe that new iMac with OS X is a good choice. But if you want to do more and don't mind a little more work, XP might be better.

Joe Wilcox has been covering technology since 1994 and now spends his days writing about Microsoft for CNET News.com. More rants and raves from Joe can be found on his Web site, joewilcox.com.

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