XP vs Mac vs Linux
Microsoft has 90% of the desktop market, but how does its new Windows XP stack up against Mac OSX and Linux?Juha Saarinen | Tuesday, October 30 2001
NOTE: This artricle was written in May with current versions of software at that time. The article will be updated shortly.
Microsoft’s overhauled desk-top OS, Windows XP, has now been unleashed on the world. It’s big and requires plenty of system resources — it does run in 128MB, but only really becomes enjoyable with 256MB, a fast PIII/P4/Athlon CPU and a snappy graphics accelerator. On the other hand, there’s no denying Windows XP is a very good general-purpose operating system. It’s stable, fast, supports just about every kind of new hardware there is, and is backed up by mountains of Win32 software. But how does it compare to a couple of the rivals?
ROUND ONE: INSTALLATION
Winner: Mac OS X
Mac OS X takes the victory here, tailed by Windows XP with Linux (using the Windows-like KDE 2 shell) in third place. Upgrading a suitable Macintosh to Mac OS X is a simple process. If you need to run older OS 9 apps, Mac OS 9.1 must be installed before upgrading to OS X (a simple matter of inserting a CD-ROM and clicking on an updater executable). That taken care of, just pop in the OS X CD, start the installation program, decide on which hard drive the installation should go, and take a break for half an hour. After you reboot, follow a few simple setup screens, fill in the compulsory registration and you’ll have a shiny new Mac desktop.
Windows XP is almost as easy, but upgrades are only supported from Windows 98/SE, Me, NT 4 and 2000. There’s some character-mode ugliness in the Windows XP installation process, which requires more user intervention than Mac OS X. The easiest upgrade scenario is from a networked Windows 2000 setup with NTFS disks. For older versions of Windows, you need to think about whether or not to upgrade your file system, and if your applications will run on Windows XP.
Linux installations have come amazingly far in the last few years. Even the classic Unix installation hurdles — such as disk partitioning and video configuration — are taken care of. That said, neither the Red Hat nor the Mandrake installer has the slickness of their Mac OS X or Windows XP counterparts.
ROUND TWO: LOOK AND FEEL
Winner: Mac OS X
Photographic icons, beautifully rendered fonts and a clean yet stylish design brings home the trophy in the looks competition for Aqua, the interface for Mac OS X. The drop-shadows for the program windows and the transparent menu sheets add to the tastiness, and make everything else look dated.
Windows XP isn’t too bad in the looks department, and I’m a fan of the ClearType font rendering technology. Still, the interface can get too busy, and the colour scheme is Freedom Furniture on a bad day. KDE 2 is handsome, with a clear, Windows-inspired look. The design isn’t quite as slick as Mac OS X or Windows XP, and there’s still some work left to do on the anti-aliasing of certain typefaces.
ROUND THREE: USABILITY
Winner: Linux/KDE 2
This is a controversial and subjective decision. KDE 2 wins because it works the way the majority of desktop GUI users expect — like classic Windows but with refinements. You get drag-and-drop, right-click context-sensitive menus, Windows-like keyboard shortcuts (even the Windows keys on the keyboard work). The Konqueror file manager supports internet URLs, and is one of the best web browsers currently available for Unix. Up to 16 virtual desktops are available and you can customise any element of the GUI behaviour you don’t like.
In comparison, the Finder in Mac OS X feels awkward. You manipulate programs through the context-sensitive menu bar on top of the screen, as well as in the program window itself. To shut down the program you have to either go to the menu bar or use a keyboard shortcut. Quite simply, it feels like a throwback to the single-tasking 1980s.
Microsoft went in the other direction with Windows XP, and tweaked the living daylights out of a well-known interface in a misguided attempt to be helpful. The new Start button is abominable, with a More Programs pop-up menu thrown in as an afterthought. The menu items move around according to usage, and Windows XP hides desktop icons you haven’t used for a while.
ROUND FOUR: FEATURES, SOFTWARE SUPPORT
Tie: Windows XP and Linux/KDE 2
Windows XP has it all: office productivity software, multimedia, games, development tools, excellent web browsers and much more. Broad hardware support ensures the latest gizmo you buy will run on Windows XP as well.
Linux/KDE 2 fall short in the multimedia and games area, but make up for it with a vast amount of network and development tools that are lacking in Windows XP. KDE’s KOffice productivity suite isn’t a patch on Microsoft Office, but is quite adequate for most tasks.
Mac OS X is a mixed bag. There aren’t very many native OS X applications yet, nor would it be sane to suggest you run OS 9 apps under it. Yes, the emulation works, but the Classic Mac OS 9 environment takes a long time to load, and chews up a large amount of already constrained system resources.
ROUND FIVE: PERFORMANCE
Winner: Windows XP
A direct performance comparison between the three contenders would be very apples-to-oranges, so I looked at how responsive each is at doing everyday tasks. Mac OS X was handicapped right from the start, running on a 600MHz G3 iMac with 128MB of RAM. Apple Asia supplied the test machine, which, judging by Apple’s website, should be sufficient to run Mac OS X. The reality was that with the bundled version of Mac OS X installed, the iMac was horribly strained. Mac OS X has been criticised for its abysmal performance, and I was disappointed to see the critics were right.
KDE 2.2beta1 is faster in some ways than its predecessors, especially Konqueror, the network-enabled file manager that launches much faster and renders web pages with acceptable speed. There’s still plenty of room for speed improvement. Launching applications is slow and involves plenty of disk-churning, even in a 384MB 1.3GHz P4.
When I first tried Windows XP Beta 2, I thought it was either full of performance-hampering debug code or that Microsoft expected everyone to have 2GHz+ processors to run it on. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to note that a lot of tuning effort appears to have gone into Windows XP Release Candidate 1. It now feels as responsive as Windows 2000 SP2, and 3DMark 2001 scores are roughly equal for the two operating systems. Windows XP RC 1 multitasks smoothly, launches apps quickly and is very happy in 384MB of memory on a fast CPU. I ran RC 1 on a 500MHz P3 with 128MB, and wasn’t so impressed.
AND THE WINNER IS...?
It doesn’t come out on top in every category, but you can’t beat it as a general-purpose desktop OS. It’s solid, it’s fast, and does everything anyone could reasonably ask of it. Well, on new-ish hardware at least. For the anything-but-Microsoft crowd that’s willing to put in some elbow grease to get things to work, Linux 2.4 with KDE 2 won’t disappoint. They might have to boot into Windows to play the latest and greatest 3D games, though. Mac users can now boast that they, too, have a modern multi-user OS with pre-emptive multitasking and virtual memory handling. They will likely keep the copy of Mac OS 9 that doesn’t have any of these qualities, though, until the software support situation for OS X improves.
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