With such a radical departure from the Windows format we've all used for the last 17-odd years since Windows 95 was launched, we thought it was time to take stock and see how Windows 8, compares with Apple's Macintosh operating system - OS X Mountain Lion - and find out whether it's time to switch.
In releasing Windows 8, Microsoft has taken a huge step towards a unified operating system experience across PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Where once small icons and start menus populated the Windows desktop, the simplified Modern user interface, replete with live tiles and controlled with touch gestures, is proving an unfamiliar and often confusing new landscape.
Improvements behind the scenes are noticeable, but redesigning the way that users interact with their machines was always going to be a difficult proposition. Don't forget, though, that the traditional desktop remains, albeit without a start menu.
Response to Windows 8 has been mixed. Microsoft claims to have sold sixty million copies which, if true, is a healthy figure. However, there has also been a lot of negative press about the frustrating learning curve that Windows 8's new interface requires and other reports of customers (particularly businesses) exercising their downgrade rights and switching to Windows 7 when buying new PCs.
One of the problems Windows 8 has faced is being a touch-based OS often running on machines with only a keyboard and mouse for input. It's certainly possible to use the Modern UI with a keyboard and mouse, but it can take more clicks to accomplish a task in Windows 8 than in previous versions.
We’re now seeing PCs manufactured specifically with the Modern UI in mind, featuring touch-screens, gesture-supporting touchpads, and even some unusual designs that enable laptops to transform into tablets. Finally, it's possible to experience Windows 8 as Microsoft intended.
Since it isn't possible to run older applications in the Modern UI, Microsoft has had no choice but to retain the traditional desktop environment, making Windows 8 an operating system of two halves. In this feature we're going to compare both sides of Windows 8 against Mountain Lion.
In order to make this more manageable, we're comparing the two operating systems as they arrive out of the box, with no third-party browsers, email clients, photo managers, or anything else installed. To evaluate Windows 8, we used a Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 - a 13in ultraportable laptop whose screen folds back 360 degrees so it can also be used as a tablet - and for OS X, we sourced a 13in Macbook Air.
We'll look at every facet from the obvious interface design to the bundled apps, security, file sharing and more.
Windows 8 has been out in the wild for five months now, had its preliminary patches applied, and seen the introductory £15 upgrade offer consigned to history. Now things get serious: so it’s Microsoft vs Apple, Windows 8 vs OS X Mountain Lion. Read on to find out how two different design concepts stand up to the mundane reality of everyday computing.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Interface design
Let's start is with the new Modern UI. There’s no doubt that this is probably one of the boldest moves that Microsoft has made with Windows, and every new Windows device on sale proudly displays the colourful and dynamic design.
We can see why the Start screen (effectively a replacement for the old Start Menu) is an interesting environment. Large boxes form a multi-coloured grid that sits on top of a customisable background. Several tiles are live, meaning that they update frequently to reveal the latest sports news, search trends on Bing, weather in your location, or news headlines, and the desktop app tile displays the current wallpaper that you use on the traditional Windows desktop.
The addition of images that accompany the constantly changing news makes the whole Start screen experience seem alive and interesting, even to the point of it actually being distracting. Leaving this Start screen open while reading through a document on a second screen can be a hazardous affair as your eye is invariably drawn to the flashing and flickering of transfer rumours or the startling news that Dolphins are one of the most searched-for terms on the internet today.
For the more organised user, there's the option to group the icons together in columns simply by dragging them into a new grid and then using the pinch gesture (or mouse wheel) to zoom out, clicking on the column and then naming it.
Selecting one of said icons also shows that Microsoft’s designers have a dash of flair. The tile animation expands, flipping over as it does so, before launching the app. It’s a small detail but adds charm.
This also introduces one of the other significant changes to the Windows experience, that of the full-screen app. When using the traditional desktop, you have the choice of resizing windows to suit your preference and screen real-estate, but in the Modern UI full-screen apps are order of the day.
The one concession is ‘Snap’ a feature that allows you to display an app on most of the screen, with another squeezed into a quarter strip on either the left or right. For Twitter feeds or other list-based apps this can work quite well, but if you want to run anything more complicated side-by-side then you’ll need to invest in a second monitor or develop a deep kinship with the Windows+Tab shortcut.
This is where the tablet-like nature of the new design begins to rear its head, and may cause those who have grown up using Windows a little confusion. Many of the Modern UI apps also have simplified layouts both visually and functionally, but we’ll cover that in more depth below. Even the symbols for loading or processing have been tweaked, with users now watching five little balls orbit around an invisible sun, or a coloured line stretching across the top of the screen until the job is completed.
All of this looks, as the name aptly conveys, like a modern OS. In fact when you think of the clean lines and expanses of white empty space often found on the screen, it seems oddly similar in tone to Google’s most recent version of Android, mixed with the traditional minimalism of Apple.
Quite a departure from the traditional desktop, which you'll still use a lot to run the applications you use every day, such as Office, Photoshop and your web browser. That is, of course, until Modern UI versions appear which best the traditional versions. That's unlikely to happen any time soon, we'd wager.
On the desktop you can run your Windows 7/Vista/XP software and generally find your way around in a traditional manner, but it does require changing several default application settings (which we'll mention later) to avoid the common situation where you click on something in the Desktop app, say an image file, only to find yourself transported back to the Modern UI as the Photos app launches. Some people might not mind this switching about, while others will find it grating.
These are all set-and-forget fixes, but during the first few hours in the Windows 8 environment it can be easy to feel a bit lost, especially if you’re not confident when it comes to playing with your settings.
Arguably the most frustrating element is that Modern UI apps don’t have buttons to minimise or close the window, instead they rely on a less-than-obvious gesture where you drag your finger (or mouse cursor) down from the top to exit, or swipe in from the left side to switch between apps.
If you don’t have a touchscreen then Window+Tab will navigate between open Modern UI apps, and Alt+Tab will cycle through everything. Those preferring to use their mouse for everything will discover the new 'hot' corners which display the list of running apps (and charms bar) when you put your cursor in the left or right-hand corners respectively.
OS X, in case you're unfamiliar with Macs, is much more like Windows 7 than Windows 8's Modern UI. It's a windowing operating system and making the switch from XP/Vista/7 to OS X isn't difficult at all.
The latest version is called Mountain Lion, with previous iterations also named after big cats. Instead of fancy new graphics or unified layouts, Mountain Lion instead gets a carefully administered sheen of polish with useful features that make your life that bit easier.
By default the desktop is empty, with a dock at the bottom of the screen providing shortcuts for the various programs you can launch. You can achieve a similar look in Windows 7 (or 8), where you can pin shortcuts to the taskbar.
Mountain Lion's dock has a feature where icons are magnified as you move your mouse across them, which is either something you’ll find helpful or just plain annoying (it's disabled by default though). The dock can also hide itself away when you’re not using it, appearing only if you move your cursor to the bottom of the screen.
Whereas the minimise and maximise options on Windows have always given you a shortcut to either full-screen displays or hiding windows away, the Apple approach has been a little more confusing. Clicking on the green + button (zoom) can sometimes mean the window increases to fill the whole screen (while retaining the menu bars at the top), but on other occasions it just fills the height of the screen. This seems dependant on how you’ve set the window up before or possibly the internal settings of applications.
Since the release of OS X Lion, Apple has also included a full-screen button on many of its apps which not only expands the window in question but also removes the menus at the top so that it can utilise the entire screen for the application. In this respect, the move to full-screen apps that Windows 8 has made its standard was first available in Mountain Lion, but the decision whether to use it or not still remains under the control of the user without the need to work in a separate desktop environment.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Navigation
The visual redesign of Windows 8 is quite striking, but it’s nothing compared to the overhaul that has taken place in terms of how the user navigates their way around the system. In this respect it's the most significant area where the two operating systems diverge.
In Mountain Lion the Trackpad, with its multi-touch gestures, can become the fulcrum of the whole user experience, while Microsoft has decided that on Windows 8 the touchscreen should be the primary control - for the Modern UI at least.
As you might imagine, this dictates many of the decisions developers have to make in regards to app performance and even hardware design. This became manifest to us when we were considering which machines to use for the duration of this feature. On the Mac it didn’t really seem to matter as the controls behaved in exactly the same way across all of the current Apple hardware. But choosing the Windows machine gave us a few headaches. We chose the Lenovo Yoga 13 because it offered a full Windows 8 desktop experience, but could convert to a tablet by simply folding the screen back underneath the keyboard.
However, the larger choice of Windows hardware highlights how Microsoft’s desire to have a unified OS for all every type of device can be a confusing affair. We've already heard stories of customers buying Windows RT tablets thinking they were Windows 8 because they looked exactly the same, only to find that none of their existing software can be installed or even downloaded from the poorly stocked app store.
As Windows 8 matures in the coming years this may become less of an issue, and hopefully many of the programs we know and love will migrate to the Modern UI (without being compromised in the process). But at the moment it feels like Windows 8 is optimised for hardware, and indeed software, that isn’t quite ready to fulfil the OS’s vision for the future.
It’s also interesting to note that Apple currently leads the world in consumer touchscreen technology with the iPad and iPhone, but has - for now, at least - decided to keep OS X and iOS as distinct and separate environments.
Many of the touchscreen features of Windows 8 make complete sense. Swiping left to right moves the various Modern UI apps in the relevant direction and pressing any part of the screen has the reaction you would expect from a tablet - options are chosen, text boxes are activated, angry birds are catapulted. From the Start screen it's easy to move around and select an application to launch.
As we've already said, it's perfectly possible to use a mouse to achieve most of the things you can with a touchscreen, but it takes a while to get used to the left/right scrolling. For the most part the mouse wheel will automatically scroll left and right when this is all you can do, although you might have to click first to 'focus' the mouse on the scroll bar.
A significant portion of users are now used to the way mobile phones or tablets work, and therefore expect certain things to happen in a touch environment. For example - dragging down from the top is often a way to access notifications, but now you’ll close an app or on other occasions bring up a limited amount of contextual options. (A right click of the mouse brings up the same menus.)
Once these options appear it can also be baffling how to get rid of them. In the Mail app if you swipe in from either the top or bottom then you get the aforementioned menu, but to get rid of it you don’t repeat the action in reverse, instead you repeat it again. You can tap anywhere on the rest of the screen to get rid of the menu, but if you move your finger while doing it you’ll only scroll through the contents on the page instead. These are minor points, but they crop up more often that you might expect and quickly become irritating.
Swiping in from the right of the screen reveals the Charms bar, a useful link to the various settings on the PC. It’s noticeable that to dismiss this menu you do indeed reverse the action, which is inconsistent with the vertical gestures. Menus also fail to appear if you move too quickly, or your fingers are too light on the screen, which can become an issue when you’re working at a steady rate but find yourself tripping over the menus while hurrying to the next task.
There are also movements that don’t work the way you expect them to. When swiping in from the left you switch to the next open application. No problem there, but if you want to go back to the previous one you can’t reverse the motion. Instead you need to cycle through the apps until you get back to the start or quickly swipe right then left to open up a list of the available programs. It’s not the end of the world, and you still have the Alt+Tab option available, but it’s just another thing you have to remember.
Using the touchscreen can be fun, especially on websites with lots of links to click on, and we’ve no doubt that in time users will adapt to the quirks of the design, but the learning curve feels obstructive when you first use the OS.
Apple by contrast has honed the OS X interface to a very impressive degree in this vital area. As many a user’s fingers are already well versed in the way of trackpads it’s no great leap to find that two fingers scroll the page (admittedly in a direction that emulates touching content on-screen that Apple calls ‘Natural’. You can reverse the direction if you don't like it.
So adjusting to pushing four fingers up to reveal the open applications, pinching five fingers inwards to open the Launchpad screen (which holds icons for every program installed), and swiping three fingers left or right to move through different virtual desktops is a short jump that's easy to master in minutes.
All commands are speedy and become second nature in no time at all. Some applications also allow the screen contents to be rotated by moving two fingers in a circular motion.
It’s obvious that Apple has learned a great deal from the development of the iPhone and iPad and their control systems. This pays dividends in Mountain Lion which, rather than bewildering you with variety, makes a good deal of sense and remains consistent throughout the OS. It means Mountain Lion is a much friendlier environment than Windows 8 for someone sitting down to use it for the first time.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Email
One of the first things you typically set up when moving to a new computer is email. Both Windows 8 and OS X ask you to create IDs during setup to enable the operating systems to automatically configure their relevant applications.
This doesn’t tie you to an Microsoft or Apple email account, as both systems freely allow you to also use Gmail, Yahoo or whatever provider you like, but it does give you access to the other parts of the wider eco-system. One noticeable exception to the 'other providers' rule is that the Mail app on Windows doesn’t support POP3 accounts. To be fair there aren't many services that remain solely on this format, but if yours does then Windows 8's Mail app won't be much use.
In use, the two Mail apps are very different beasts. The OS X version is powerful and offers functions such as Smart Mailboxes, which filter contents by specific parameters set by the user. You can also mark different email addresses as VIPs, so they are separated from the general pack and more easily seen in the sea of email.
The various menus offer a high degree of control over the behaviour of your mail, and the unified inbox seamlessly draws together all of your correspondence from various accounts.
Conversation threads are grouped together neatly, text is cleverly examined so that events mentioned in mails can immediately be added to your calendar ("lunch at 12pm tomorrow" for example), and contacts can be added in a similar fashion.
The design of the app itself is a little bland and industrial looking, with barely any colour at all and a blockish, three-column layout. It can make the whole environment feel pretty stark as it essentially becomes a sea of grey, with even the icons eschewing decoration.
By contrast the Windows 8 Mail app is quite pretty. There still isn’t much in the way of colour, but the lack of too many hard lines gives the app a softer, more elegant visage very much in keeping with several of the other Windows 8 apps.
Unfortunately, looks are virtually all that's going for Mail because it certainly doesn’t have the brains to go with it. For sending and receiving emails it functions perfectly well, but if you want to create groups, filter messages by flagging, have a unified inbox for all your accounts, or anything remotely intelligent then you’ll be frustrated as none of this is possible.
Mail even struggles with images, failing to download them automatically even when you select that option in the settings. This is ironic as it’s one of the few settings in the options, and you can't view a large version of the thumbnail unless you save it to the hard disk and access it from the Photo app.
Attempting to use the Open With option only increases the sense of futility as it still appears broken after other Windows 8 updates. We wonder if this basic approach is a ploy by Microsoft to steer users to its online Outlook.com service, which is excellent, powerful, and far more like the classic Outlook experience that many people expect from Microsoft Mail.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Photos
If there’s one situation when a full screen application makes the most sense then it's when photographs are involved. The Windows 8 Photo app takes advantage of this with an image-heavy layout that sucks in pictures from your hard disk alongside (if you give permission) Facebook, Flickr, SkyDrive, OneNote, or your mobile phone if it has the SkyDrive app installed.
The 'collections' are laid out in a strip format by album and you can change the dominating background image to one of your choosing. Navigating this app is very easy with a touchscreen, as it feels and behaves for the most part like a tablet app. You can also share images with friends, but this is an email (or SkyDrive) only affair unless you link your contacts to Facebook or Twitter, which can make them somewhat unwieldy if you have a lot of online friends.
Sadly there are no editing functions at all within Photos, as it's purely a viewer. To alter the images you’ll need to launch the Desktop, find the image in File Explorer, then click Edit in the new 'ribbon' at the top.
This will launch Paint, a desktop application as ill-suited to editing photos as chocolate is for making teapots. Paint remains pretty much the same as it did in Windows 95, with very basic tools that are barely any use for enhancing photos. It’s all a far cry from even the simplest photo-editing apps available from most smartphones these days. It's a missed opportunity but if all you want to do is look at your pictures Photo is a fine way to do it.
In Mountain Lion, the Preview app is the default viewer for JPG files (among others) and includes some powerful editing tools to adjust colour, size, rotation and also lets you annotate images, check EXIF data and make contact sheets.
One of the standout features of OS X has always been the iLife suite of apps that comes with every Mac. iTunes will be familiar to most Windows users; Garageband is an excellent audio recording studio; iPhoto is Apple’s photo management and editing program.
iPhoto is a great app that sorts your various pictures into date order and allows you to apply a decent level of effects and corrections to your images. You can retouch blemishes, crop, straighten, fix red-eye, use a combination of filters, and even delve into the histogram to adjust exposure levels and a good deal more. It doesn’t allow advanced Photoshop-style manipulation such as layers, but for the majority of users there is more here than you’ll ever need and certainly a world away from the Windows poor offering.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Contacts
Windows 8's People app is easy on the eyes, with a list that scrolls left to right through the various contacts you have on Hotmail, Outlook, Google, or social media sites, depending on which accounts you connect.
You can create new contacts in the app easily but images aren't an option, which seems quite an omission. Searching is easy thanks to the fact that you can simply begin typing, which automatically opens the search bar. Connecting your Facebook contacts also links to your friends’ status updates and any photos they upload. This can be useful as you can immediately see what someone’s been up to recently.
Apple's Contacts app is incongruous with the overall 'business' feel of Mountain Lion, due to the styling choice of a traditional leather contacts book. Functionally, though, Contacts is impressive with plenty of detailed fields; iCloud integration so you’re always backed up and can access the information from almost anywhere; very clever blending of Facebook and normal contacts so that duplicates are merged together to form one contact without changing the original data, and the ability to create groups in a number of ways.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Videos
You might think that playing a DVD would be straightforward on any computer, but it poses quite a problem for our two computers. On the Apple side it’s simply a matter of hardware, as the MacBook Air doesn't have a DVD drive (the current MacBook Pro does, though). You could buy a USB DVD drive for the Air, of course. Apple is clearly trying to steer people towards the iTunes store for movie, but this doesn’t help people who already own a large collection of physical media. Playing DVDs is simple using the built-in DVD Player app, which can play optical discs or ripped VIDEO_TS content.
On the Windows side the Yoga 13 also lacks an optical drive, but many Windows 8 laptops still have them. Whether those can play a DVD movie all depends which version of Windows 8 they're running and whether the manufacturer has bundled an app which can play DVD movies.
Windows 8, which is aimed at home users, doesn’t come with Windows Media Center installed, nor the codecs necessary to watch DVDs. Windows 8 Pro users can buy the Media Center Pack for £6.99, which allows you to play DVDs and watch and record TV with Windows Media Center. If you have plan Windows 8, you have to pay £100 to upgrade to the Windows 8 Pro Pack.
Third-party apps, including the excellent, free VLC player will let you play DVD movies without spending any extra, but it doesn't make for a good out-of-the-box experience. If you have digital version of your movies, such as MP4 files, then both systems will happily play them in the Xbox Video or QuickTime apps.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Music
iTunes is probably the best-known music playback software around. Thanks to the success of the iPod many have spent hours ripping CDs using iTunes and even creating the odd playlist or two in Apple’s music-management application. Any previous purchases you’ve made on iTunes with your account are also freely available to download whenever you need them, which removes the need for making backups. The application is mature (some would say a little bloated), but it still remains one of the best ways to manage a digital music collection (and buying music via the iTunes store) especially if you also have an iOS device.
Microsoft’s new offering is the Xbox Music app which has some neat features including a Spotify-like streaming option which gives you free, ad-supported, music for six months and then ten hours per month unless you upgrade to the paid £8.99 monthly subscription.
Of course you can import your own music into the app, create playlists - which automatically sync between Windows 8, Windows Phone and RT devices - and buy new albums through the Xbox Music store. It’s a very good app, only hampered by controls that don’t do quite what you expect - such as the space bar restarting songs (or in some cases nothing at all) rather than stopping and starting, double-clicking on a track to play it but finding you’ve just turned a menu on and off, and the search option being hidden away in the Charms bar. A little spit and polish would make Music a real selling point for Windows 8.
If you prefer, you can use the familiar Windows Media Player (now on version 12) on the traditional desktop. Plus, although you have to download it, the Zune media management program is still a decent music manager and the only way to synch content with Windows Phone 7 smartphones (the new Windows Phone app works only with Windows Phone 8 handsets and has extremely poor user reviews).
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Games
If there’s one area where Windows has always been streets ahead of the competition then it’s games. That’s still the case when it comes to any new release on Steam, Xbox Games, or physical copies you buy from shops.
Out of the box it’s a little different, naturally. For years now, Windows users have been able to rely on Solitaire and Minesweeper to while away the hours, but with Windows 8 these stalwarts have gone. Instead users need to go to the Games app in which you can see all the different games, many free, available to download.
You can’t actually download them from there; that would be far too easy. Instead when you click Play you receive a message that you need to go to the Store and download the title, even though you’re in the "windows games store".
Clicking the "Get Minesweeper from the Store does at least take you straight to the game in the Windows Store. There are some great free and paid-for games available, including touch-based version of Minesweeper and Solitaire. Xbox gamers will also enjoy the way their gaming profiles are included in the Games app, and the ability to purchase downloadable games for their console via the Windows store.
Macs have never really been gaming machines, with even some iMacs struggling to run the most demanding titles. One game that's included with a new machine is a decent version of Chess. Thanks to voice control, you can even make all the moves by saying the board positions rather than fiddling with the mouse. It’s a nice touch, but we can't imagine many people using it.
The Mac App store is similar to the Windows alternative with a healthy amount of games to download for a variety of prices, and the integrated nature of both stores means less risk of downloading something harmful to your system from a seemingly innocent site. Apple also includes Game Centre which allows you to play games online against friends if you both have the relevant app and an OS X or iOS device.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Documents
Opening up documents to read or edit should be an easy enough task, after all it’s one of the most common usages of a computer. Clicking on a .docx file in Windows 8 brings up a dialog box for installing Office. You can circumvent that by using Open With and choosing Wordpad instead. This allows you access to the document and a decent amount of options with which to alter the content. PDFs are finally supported by the Windows Reader app, and .rtf files can be opened in Wordpad without any issues.
Mountain Lion has a built-in app called Preview which allows you to view all common document file types. The Text Edit app supports .doc, .docx, .rtf, .txt, and .html files. Using this you can open, edit, then save the documents. If you’ve received the file through email then you can use the Quick Look option to open the document while in Mail, then click a button to open it in Text Edit if you want to make changes.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Social Media
Facebook and Twitter have become standard features for many people's digital life now and both Windows 8 and OS X have native features which tie into the social media behemoths. We mentioned before how Facebook contacts are used by both, but there are other examples too. In Windows 8 the Messaging app can be connected to your Facebook account, meaning messages sent on the site appear as IMs in the app.
Sharing photos is also quite easy from the Photos app. First you need to connect your Facebook account then choose the Share option on the Charms bar. Videos proved to be less efficient, with the app often telling us to select a video even after we had already done so, which soon became annoying.
There are no dedicated Facebook or Twitter clients for Windows 8 included, or indeed even currently available, so tablet use isn’t as smooth as it could be. Of course you can always use the relevant websites or trust your details to one of the many third-party apps in the Store.
Apple has worked hard to integrate social media into the heart of Mountain Lion. Once you’ve connected your accounts you can post directly to either Facebook or Twitter from the Notification Centre that can be accessed from anywhere via a simple trackpad gesture.
All direct messages and mentions from the sites also appear here so you can see who’s talking to you without having to visit the website. Just like Windows you can share photos directly from the app, video sharing is also a breeze with options for Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo built in.
Twitter has built a dedicated app for OS X, but Facebook isn’t represented, although it matters not on a system which still behaves as a traditional desktop all the time, the website is perfectly fine.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Cloud Integration
The Cloud is a big deal these days and both operating systems offer their own online data storage and synching service.
Apple’s iCloud is one of the central pillars of Mountain Lion, with contacts, calendars, mail, photos, music, bookmarks, apps and documents all linked to the online servers so whenever you make a purchase or take a picture with one Apple product, it will also automatically appear on the others.
Of course, for all this to work in the way that it’s designed all your devices need to be made by Apple. So if you have an iPad or iPhone then the slick way in which iCloud moves your data around is very impressive. However, if you own an Android or Windows mobile device then you won’t really feel the benefit.
Apple gives users 5GB of free storage but also sweetens the deal by not counting your photos or purchases from the App and iTunes stores against it. If you’re immersed in the Apple universe then iCloud really is quite special. You can even track your portable devices whereabouts using iCloud.
Not to be outdone, Microsoft has crafted SkyDrive to be a robust and easy to use service. It works in a very similar way to Dropbox and Google Drive in that any file you save in the special folder becomes available to any other computer or device that has the SkyDrive app installed.
Unlike iCloud, SkyDrive is available on Android, iOS, Windows Phone 8, OS X, and all the versions of Windows back to XP. You get 7GB of free storage and you also have the option to share folders you create with friends, and even create Office documents in the cloud via the SkyDrive website (www.skydrive.live.com) on which friends can collaborate. (By contrast, you can't create a document on the iCloud website - merely view those created in an iWork app.) So if you prefer to keep to the Windows side of the tracks, or have devices running various operating systems, then SkyDrive is an excellent service that offers impressive tools.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: App Store
For the Modern UI to really work it needs apps that are designed specifically for this new environment. As we’ve seen with Photos, Music, Mail, and Contacts, this can be hit and miss even when Redmond’s finest are creating apps themselves, and it’s notable that Microsoft hasn’t released a touch-based version of its flagship Office suite yet.
The Windows Store should be the heart of the eco-system, but so far it remains a hotch-potch of clients for social media sites, a few decent games, and a dearth of quality software. There are a few gems, such as Fresh Paint, Evernote, Netflix, and Audible, but even several months after launch there’s very little to make the inconvenience of a whole new UI seem like an acceptable price to pay. Switch to the traditional Windows desktop, though, and you can run the wealth of software e that you’ve enjoyed for so many years.
After its success with the iOS app store it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Mac version is well designed, well populated, and generally feels like a more developed marketplace. It's noticeable that many of the top-selling apps are Apple's own, but you’ll find Adobe Photoshop Elements, Wunderlist, Scrivener, Twitter, Pocket, and good deal more when you browse the various charts and categories.
There still remains the option to download directly from a developer’s website, but the range of software on offer, when combined with the ones Apple includes with a Mac, suggests that unless you need specific apps for specialised tasks, you should be covered.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Web Browsing
Neither of the stock browsers are ones this writer uses on a daily basis, with that duty instead falling to Google Chrome.
Windows 8 hedges its bets though by having not one but two versions of Internet Explorer 10. The siblings are honed for the two different desktops, with the Modern UI version sporting a touch-friendly interface, replete with big buttons, and the other behaving more like the IE from Windows 7.
One huge difference is the address bar is in the 'wrong' place at the bottom of the page in the Modern UI version (curse you, muscle memory). It’s true that this gives the whole screen over to the webpage, but it really does feel like a design choice that puts form above function as we constantly found ourselves reaching up only to find nowhere to enter a URL. Sticking with the 'hidden' theme, tabs and bookmarks are tucked away so you have to work to get to them.
In use, IE10 is zippy enough on both versions, but the over complication of the menu makes the Modern UI version one to avoid. The desktop edition, though, is solid, offers far more functionality, and gets the job done without any fuss.
Apple’s Safari browser is a conventional design more in line with the IE10 desktop edition. It finally has the address bar unified with the search function, bookmarks are available in drop-down menus that you can order any way you like, and the load times are slightly quicker than IE10, although not by much.
The dull overuse of grey in the menu bars isn’t pleasant to look at and the fact that tabs display only the name of a page and not the icon means it can get quite difficult to tell them apart if you work with lots of them open at the same time.
iCloud integration is a nice addition: open tabs are synchronised across other Macs and iDevices, making it easy to carry on reading the same page as you move between iPhone, iPad and Mac.
Flash needs to be downloaded to use sites such as iPlayer which still rely on it, but this is a minor quibble.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Sharing files over a network
HomeGroup is a simple way to set up sharing on a home network so that Windows machines can talk to each other and allow users to share a variety of files and attached devices such as printers.
Once a HomeGroup is set up, any other Windows 8, 7 or Vista machine can join it by entering the HomeGroup password. It’s an easy and effective solution which doesn’t require any knowledge of IP addresses, subnet masks and other parameters that normal people shouldn't have to bother with.
Using a HomeGroup you can keep data on one computer and allow others access to it. In wider area networks you can use the Shared folder option in SkyDrive to transfer files to PCs, Macs, or mobile devices.
Apple has a similar function with File Sharing, that allows you to specify which folders or files are available to share with other computers on the network. It also has a Mac-specific feature called AirDrop with which you can send files directly to another user as long as they have the app running. It takes seconds to get up and running and creates an encrypted, peer-to-peer connection between the two computers over which files can be sent securely. It really is very easy to use and in our tests was much quicker than email.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Security
One stick that Mac users like to use to beat Windows adherents is the absence of viruses on OS X. Of course, they have a point, and it isn't simply the "security through obscurity" argument, although that's part of the equation. Hackers want your money and the easiest way to get it is by targeting the most popular operating system: Windows.
OS X uses a Unix-based file system and kernel which is harder to infect with a virus. It isn't invulnerable but you're a lot less likely to encounter a virus on a Mac than a PC.
There have been a few public attacks on Macs in recent years, so Apple now includes Gatekeeper as an anti-malware protection feature in Mountain Lion. This works on the basis that developers are issued unique IDs which they use to sign their apps. If you download software outside the App Store, Gatekeeper will scan for the ID and warn you if the application doesn’t contain a valid signature.
Microsoft has improved many of the security features previously offered through Security Essentials, making the new OS the most secure version of Windows yet. SmartScreen affords a good level of protection against malware by using a process which examines software before installing it and gives warnings if it finds any inconsistencies. Windows Defender also fights off any incoming viruses, and the new UEFI secure boot that replaces the traditional BIOS should prove a hard nut to crack for bootloaders and rootkits.
Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Conclusion
We knew from the outset that Windows 8 would be in for a rough time with this test. Microsoft has taken on the problems of a major update to the underlying engine of an OS while at the same time implementing a radical overhaul of the UI. Both usually bring their own unique challenges but the combination of the two is a formidable task.
It was also facing a version of OS X that has, in typical Apple style, built incrementally on the lessons learnt from previous version, with nips and tucks here and there to subtly improve the experience.
The approaches to the two designs also tell their own story about the companies themselves. Apple had many years of playing second fiddle to Microsoft (in OS market share, and this still very much remains the case) and so developed a mentality where it would be less reliant on third parties for hardware or software.
As primarily a hardware company it needs to offer a complete user experience if it wants to sell you the expensive machines that adorn its high street stores. This means that, out of the box, a Mac comes with pretty much everything an average user needs, and some fun extras thrown in such as Garageband which can be used to create your own music.
Apple’s well-worn mantra of ‘it just works’ is borne out to be true in most cases with a solid OS that interacts smoothly with the various extra applications that are included. Entering this land of plenty though comes at a cost, with the starting point being £500 for a desktop machine that doesn’t even arrive with a monitor or keyboard, and laptops starting at £849.
Also, to take advantage of the advanced features such as AirDrop and iCloud you need at least one other Apple device. If you’re willing to make this commitment to a single supplier then the overall experience and interoperability of Mountain Lion is an excellent platform that feels mature and highly polished.
Microsoft’s new direction still feels like it’s in the development stage, with the Modern UI applications lacking functionality and - at times - even common sense. The traditional desktop is where most people have pitched their tents, with those that run Windows 8 at PC Advisor barely ever seeing the new Start Screen, but it's an uncomfortable compromise.
Whereas Mountain Lion offers you applications that work together to help you achieve your goals, Windows 8 is a little like two sides of a personality at war with itself, with the two versions of IE10 being a prime example.
Without additional software the OS is neutered and incapable of even some basic tasks like removing red-eye from photos. The worst thing is that it all seems so unnecessary. Under the frilly curtains of the Modern UI beats the heart of a powerful and well-designed engine, one that - if freed from the touch-obsessed overlay - would be, we think, the best version of Windows we’ve ever encountered.
Windows 8 is fast and stable, which in many ways are the things you most want from an OS. But the cost in user experience that the Modern UI demands, in terms of relearning how to use Windows, isn't worth the hassle when you consider the benefits (and that's with a touchscreen).
The Windows Store is bereft of quality apps, Microsoft's own applications are pretty but dumb, and only the Music app really looks like something that’s actually finished. Should this paucity of riches be the reason to hobble a whole desktop OS just so that tablets and phones look the same? We don’t think so.
Of course, once you move beyond the confines of the out-of-box experience you can tailor Windows to be almost anything you want with the superb range of third party options, which has always been one of the great freedoms of the OS. The problem is that for a Windows 8 machine to be truly usable you almost have to.