Windows 7 may be the closest Microsoft has gotten to offering a desktop operating system as performance-nimble, aesthetically pleasing and, dare we say it, as potentially secure as Apple has delivered with OS X.
The relatively close release dates of both OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and Windows 7 plus the awesomeness of both operating systems are generating much publicity. Inevitably, both OSes will also be the subject of much comparison. This may not be a true apples-to-apples comparison, depending on which side of the fan base you reside on, but here's a look at features, side by side, of both Windows 7 and Snow Leopard:
Interface: Let's face it: Microsoft has judiciously borrowed interface "ideas" from the Mac OS for years. There is some fine-tuning of the interface in Windows 7 from Vista, but not a real noticeable difference. After upgrading to Snow Leopard, Mac users also will not see a major interface overhaul. However, there are several improvements made within the UI involving Expose and the Dock.
Microsoft has tapped into the glassy, transparent look of OS X with Aero, and DirectX 11 promises much in the way of 3-D graphics. By the way, Microsoft's DirectX 11 is the counterpart to Snow Leopard's OpenCL technology. OpenCL, like DirectX is, in a nutshell, a way to offset resource-intensive processes to the graphics processor rather than having them all handled by the CPU. This is crucial for ultimate performance in gaming, 3-D modeling and any graphics-intensive application. It will be interesting to see how DirectX 11 and OpenCL stack up against one another as developers design applications around these technologies.
Search: Windows 7 builds upon the Windows Search feature introduced in Vista. Clicking on the Start button brings up a search bar, much like the same search fields you find in a browser. You can type a word or few letters of a word to search on and Windows Search will ferret out anything on your PC related to that search criteria.
Windows 7 also has a feature called Libraries. Libraries are used to collect all content of a particular type in one place (photos or documents, for example), making searching really simple.
Spotlight is OS X's desktop search. Not only can users search for what's on the system, but they can search the Web through bookmarks and through browser history. Apple has been criticized for not extending the powerful search features within iTunes to its desktop products, but there seems to be marked improvement in the responsiveness and search capabilities of Snow Leopard's Spotlight feature. For instance, you can change the default behavior of Search to search the currently selected folder or a previous search location.
Architecture: It's all about 64-bit. With 64-bit, memory amounts can be increased and the system can deliver faster performance. In addition, with the possible exception of some antivirus clients and device drivers, 32-bit applications run fine on 64-bit operating systems.
All editions of Windows 7 except for Home Basic include both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Also, 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate can support up to 192 GB of RAM.
Apple is stating that Snow Leopard is ready to support a staggering 16 Tbytes of RAM -- of course, there aren't desktop systems out there with that type of memory potential, yet. Native applications in Snow Leopard such as iChat, iCal, Finder and Safari are also 64-bit, making them more secure applications than the 32-bit version.
Desktop Navigation: In Windows 7 you can now dock (Microsoft calls it "pin") any program to the taskbar. With a feature called Snaps, you can align windows side-by-side by grabbing them and pulling them to the edges of the screen. If you have multiple windows opened at once and want to minimize all but one, grab that one window, give it a shake and the other windows will minimize.
Apple has integrated Expose into the Dock. You can click and hold onto an application's icon on the Dock and the windows for the application will unshuffle, making for a quick way to navigate through windows. Expose now displays windows in a grid with thumbnails. Finder also has an enhanced icon view.
Security: Security is always a touchy matter when it comes to Windows. Microsoft is touting security enhancements in Windows 7. It seems Microsoft has tightened up security in Windows 7 with features like Data Execution Prevention (DEP), Mandatory Integrity Levels and Kernel Patch Protection. Auditing has been beefed up, a good thing for organizations with compliancy requirements. BitLocker has been improved upon, providing reinforced AES encryption.
It's just been recently confirmed that Snow Leopard comes with built-in antimalware protection. However, there are other features embedded within the OS to aid in keeping this version of OS X the safe, stable OS heralded by Mac users.
These features include: Library Randomization -- which guards the targets of malicious commands, Execute Disable -- which protects memory attacks, and inherent security controls within Safari, Mail and iChat to prevent malware from the Internet.
Networking, Business Use: Windows has always been the "business PC" and it doesn't disappoint in the business-class editions of Windows 7. Features like offline domain-joining, BranchCache and DirectAccess all make the case for Windows 7 as a powerful system for businesses. SOHO users also have networking capability available with HomeGroup, a much-needed home networking improvement over the lacking Workgroup feature in Windows past.
Of course, the big news about Snow Leopard for the business set is its native support for Exchange. The caveat, however, is that you can only connect to an Exchange 2007 server.
The majority of Exchange servers in business are still at Exchange 2003; however, there is an increasing exodus from Exchange 2003 to 2007 in the small-business sector. Until a majority of Exchange seats sold are for Exchange 2007, it could take awhile for many businesses to consider Snow Leopard a viable option for the office. Of course, home users have Finder to browse other networked computers with file sharing enabled.
Upgradibility,Pricing: The price of $29 to upgrade to the latest Mac OS X is a pretty sweet deal for Mac users.
Users who have purchased a compatible desktop or server after June 8, 2009, are eligible for the Snow Leopard upgrade at a price of $9.95 (that's about the equivalent of 9 iTunes!). Users on the older version of OS X, Tiger, will have to cough up $169.99 to trade in the stripes for spots. Snow Leopard is only compatible on Intel-based Macs and users can do an in-place upgrade from Tiger (with the higher-priced CD) or OS X 10.5 (with the standard Snow Leopard CD).
As the world knows by now, there is no Microsoft approved upgrade path from XP to Windows 7, an annoyance to home users, but not of much concern to IT pros. An in-place upgrade from Vista is supported. Retail prices for Windows 7 differ between the upgrade product and the full version. The upgrade ranges from $119 for Home Premium to $219.99 for Ultimate. For the full version the range begins at $199.99 for Home Premium and $319.99 for Ultimate.