User-friendliness is the ultimate benchmark for any operating system. After all, a system must look and feel right, and provide precisely what you need. Therefore a comparison between Apple's Mac OS X and Microsoft's Windows should consider basic, user-oriented questions.
Does the operating system look good?
Screen layout, icon design and colours are important. They help improve your experience of using a computer. In this respect, however, there's a difficulty making any judgement between Mac OS X and Windows Vista. This is partly because what looks good to one person may not impress another; and partly because familiarity with one system's appearance can create an automatic feeling of satisfaction with it.
The answer, if you're a long-term Windows user, is to take time to view Mac OS X whenever you can. Apple gives a great deal of thought to design, not just of its hardware but of everything that appears on the computer screen. The icons are distinctive; the colours are bright; and the layouts are simple and consistent. You might soon decide you could enjoy working with these.
Does the operating system act discretely and leave you to get on with your work?
Windows is forever reminding you of its presence. If you attach a peripheral to your computer, for instance, it tells you what you've done. Mac OS X, on the other hand, doesn't give you any such message - unless there's a problem and you need to take remedial action. With Mac OS X, you can go about your business without unnecessary interruptions.
One of the principle functions of an operating system is to do what you want quickly and easily. If you run a simple test between Mac OS X and Windows to reach a similar goal on comparable software from the moment you switch on, you'll find Mac OS X usually requires fewer actions. You could argue this isn't entirely fair because Mac Computers have a different style mouse and, on some models, a trackpad. But aren't these features part of the process of making your life as easy as possible?
Putting this point to one side, you can still make a reasonable comparison by assessing how long it takes to find what you're looking for. In Windows Vista, for example, the "Display" function lies in "Personalization", which is not the most obvious place to track it down. On the other hand, Mac OS X presents "Display" clearly and without fuss.
Is the operating system consistent?
A consistent operating system avoids potential confusion. On Windows, for instance, you sometimes have to look around to confirm your active window. With Mac OS X, the active window is always easy to spot.
Mac OS X has also kept the same basic style of window controls for the past few years. This helps when you upgrade to the next Mac OS X version. Windows Vista, however, uses different window controls compared to Windows XP without any apparent improvement.
Is the operating system secure?
Most Windows users are aware of the vulnerability of their operating system to viruses and spyware. Both retailers and experts urge anyone who buys a Windows computer to install security software and update it at least annually.
Mac OS X has built in security features. You don't have to buy additional software. Apple also makes free security upgrades available to each Mac OS X user. The result is an operating system that is notably free of the virus problems that afflict Windows.
Is the operating system reliable?
Windows has become the butt of jokes about frozen screens and crashes. These problems may have different causes; but from a user's point of view they're a time-consuming nuisance.
Mac OS X is far more reliable. It rarely crashes or freezes because Apple ensures that the software complements the operating system.
Does the operating system support all the software I use, including games?
There was a time when Windows led the field with a varied range of compatible software and games titles. In recent years, however, the position has changed. You can now obtain most software and games titles in Mac formats - Microsoft Office 2008, for example, and The Sims.
You can also transfer Windows files to Mac OS X thanks to Boot Camp software (available as part of the operating system on all Mac computers). It's even possible to go one step further and install Windows XP or Vista on your Mac alongside Mac OS X by using either VMware Fusion or Parallels Desktop software.
Does the operating system have a long and successful history behind it?
Mac OS X and Windows are established systems, although this doesn't mean they've developed in the same way. Apple releases major operating system updates every 12 - 18 months and proceeds in a uniform fashion. By contrast, Microsoft uses a far more irregular approach.
An example of Microsoft's upgrade delays is the six year gap between XP and Vista. XP did have an update with Service Pack 2, but during those six years Apple offered a steady series of operating system releases, improvements and innovations.
What's the support like?
Microsoft makes its own software, but other companies manufacture the computers that use it. This approach has helped Windows achieve the largest share of the operating system market. Nonetheless, the drawback for consumers is that Microsoft can only provide support for Windows as long as the hardware isn't causing a problem or making it worse.
Apple makes its own software and hardware, and therefore takes full responsibility for any issue that affects Mac OS X. The result is that Mac OS X has few problems because it's in Apple's interest and direct control to resolve them. This means that Apple's support for Mac OS X and Mac computers amounts to the same thing, and is both thorough and comprehensive.
Ask Mac users about the best feature of Mac OS X and they'll respond along the lines of "Apple has designed Mac OS X for the benefit of the user". This sums up the purpose of an operating system. With Windows you have to work harder, and the system lacks the uncluttered, dependable and stylish ease of use that Mac OS X achieves.
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