Saturday, September 12, 2009

Operating System Showdown!

This fall, we have a convergence of new operating systems. On October 22nd, Microsoft will replace the oft-maligned Windows Vista (and maybe, finally, for real, XP) with Windows 7. And just this past August 28th, Apple released the new version of Mac OS X, named Snow Leopard. I got a copy of Snow Leopard, since the "upgrade" copies are cheap. And while Windows 7 doesn't officially go on sale until October 22nd, it actually went gold in July. Members of the Microsoft Developers Network are already able to download it, and I was able to exploit some connections to get my hands on a copy of Windows 7 Professional.

So how do they stack up?

I've been talking about Windows 7 a lot since I'd been beta testing it for quite some time. In fact, you can read about the release candidate version here and here, and my impressions of the beta from all the way back in January here. The truth is, if you'd read my posts about the release candidate, or if you tried the release candidate yourself, not much has changed. This isn't really a bad thing. I was very impressed with the release candidate, and I'm not at all surprised that they just cleaned it up and shoved it out the door.

One of Microsoft's goals was to not have a repeat of Vista on their hands, so a major focus was on compatibility. Your hardware should all work fine. I installed Windows 7 on my main computer, a gaming desktop with a 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 3GB of RAM, and an EVGA GeForce 9800GTX+. All of my hardware, including my monitor, was recognized out of the box. The few things that weren't, like my printer and my Samsung Omnia smartphone, grabbed the drivers from Windows Update. I've never had to load drivers from a CD, and ironically the only hardware that needed software from the internet was my Microsoft Wireless Desktop Elite mouse and keyboard combo. To be fair, they worked without downloading any software, but I customize the two thumb buttons on my mouse for gaming, so I needed to download the Intellipoint software to set it up.

Software seems to be just as compatible. Everything I've tried to install since getting the final version of Windows 7 has worked without any issues. In fact, some software is updating to be even more compatible with Windows 7. iTunes 9, for example, supports Jump Lists on the Taskbar.

There's a lot of changes going from Vista to Windows 7, and more so going from XP to Windows 7. As I said, though, there's not so much from the release candidate to the final version. So I encourage you to go back and read my earlier posts on the release candidates. The bottom line is that it works great, looks good, and is lighter on its feet than Vista. I wholeheartedly recommend Windows 7. If you've got XP, upgrade. If you've got Vista, upgrade. If you're buying a new computer, either wait until after October 22nd, or buy it now and check out the manufacturer's upgrade program.

Apple has taken a sort of different path with Snow Leopard. While Microsoft was trying to sweep Vista under the rug, Apple's previous OS, Leopard, was generally well-received, although not without its problems.

Snow Leopard is Apple addressing those problems. Not a lot is different than Leopard. In my time using it, mostly what I've noticed are improvements to Stacks, which sorely needed. Apple's also been able to trim some fat from Leopard by finally ending support for PowerPC processors. So, unless you have an Intel Mac, you can't upgrade (and poor suckers like me that bought one of the original MacBooks with the Core Duo are stuck with 32-bit apps). Ironically, that puts Apple in the position where Vista was, with a number of incompatible applications. Unlike the mainstream PC market, where people cling to their computer for ages, Apple seems to have a program of planned obsolescence. Apple users have had to deal with incompatibilities when they went from the G3 to the G4, when Apple went from OS 9 to OS X, when Apple went from OS X 10.2 Jaguar to OS X 10.3 Panther, and when Apple went from the G5 to the Intel processors. What Apple would really like to tell me is that my three-year old MacBook is obsolete and I should buy a new one. I'm not going to, since I think it's ridiculous that an $1100 computer I bought three years ago is comparable to a $300 netbook I bought a little less than a year ago, but that's a story for another day.

Despite scary stories of incompatibilities, the fact is that the upgrade process for me went very smoothly. Unlike previous versions of OS X, a clean install is NOT recommended for Leopard users. Just put the Snow Leopard disc in, and it'll walk you through the upgrade process. It took about an hour on my MacBook (1.83GHz Core Duo, 2GB of RAM, Intel GMA 950 graphics), and when it booted into Snow Leopard, everything was pretty much as I left it. My wallpaper didn't change, my arrangement of apps on the Dock was the same. Some Apple apps, like Quicktime and Safari, were updated, but my other apps all appeared to be there. I've read on other reviews of Snow Leopard that the installation will take incompatible apps and put them in their own folder. Since I couldn't find any such folder on my MacBook after upgrading, I'm going to assume I didn't have any incompatible apps. For professionals, this might be more of a problem, but for generic use, all I can say is that Firefox, VLC, App Zapper, Office 2008, Parallels 4, Transmission, and Toast Titanium 8 (I guess I'm a little behind on that one) all work just fine in Snow Leopard.

It's not all raindrops and roses, though. To be as fair as possible to Snow Leopard, I decided to hook my MacBook to the same 22" Samsung Touch of Color monitor that my Windows 7 desktop is connected to. This turned out to be my biggest headache. When I connected the MacBook then woke it up, everything was huge and stretched, because the MacBook defaulted to an 800x600 resolution. The monitor's native resolution, 1680x1050, wasn't even on the list. I wound up having to get another app, SwitchResX, to get a 1680x1050 resolution. Maybe things would have gone more smoothly if I'd used the monitor's DVI connection, but the Windows desktop was using it, and all I had was a MiniDVI to VGA adapter (mind, you that adapter worked find when I had connected the MacBook to an older Sony monitor with a 1280x1024 resolution back when I was still using Leopard). Apple shouldn't assume that everyone who wants to connect their Mac to a monitor is either doing so via DVI or using an ancient 4:3 monitor, because I shouldn't have to resort to an app that costs as much as the OS to get the thing to display in the monitor's native resolution.

Would I recommend Snow Leopard, then? I don't think it's as essential an update as Windows 7. It's definitely more evolutionary than revolutionary. You'll definitely want to check if you have any incompatible software first, and if you don't have an Intel Mac you're left out in the cold. If you do have an Intel Mac, though, and you don't have too much in the way of incompatible software, the major factor here is that Snow Leopard is only $29. There seems to be some confusion as to whether that's an upgrade copy (others say that the upgrade license is the $9.95 license Apple is offering for people who have bought Macs since June of 2009) or the regular single-use license; all I can tell you is that you can do a clean install from the $29 Snow Leopard disc, and you can install it on Macs that are running Tiger. With the low price, I'd say it's probably worth it, with a few buts to consider.


Mike said...

In case you miss the Twitter post, if you come up for a vacation again this fall, we're so seeing Zombieland. Yeah, I'd text you to tell you that, but I'm low on texts. Unlimited Verizon to Verizon texts was great... until you got an iPhone and half my other friends wound up on T-Mobile.

science412 said...

That'd be pretty sweet. We'd need to hit up the Grist Mill for some $1 coffee first, though...