This is shaping up to be the autumn of new operating systems. The latest version of Mac OS X, Snow Leopard, ships to customers this Friday. Windows 7, the follow-up to the much-maligned Windows Vista, hits store shelves in late October. Neither operating system is going to drastically change the way you work.
Windows 7 builds upon Windows Vista and smooths out Vista’s rough spots, though it also brings a number of new end-user features to the table (such as the re-worked taskbar). Meanwhile, Apple’s focus with Snow Leopard mostly involves new under-the-hood technologies with subtle refinements and fixes. But there is plenty to say about how Apple’s next big cat and Microsoft’s lucky number stack up against each other.
Managing Your Files
Snow Leopard’s Finder and Windows 7’s Explorer have strikingly similar interfaces: Both have quick search fields in the upper-right corner, path bars (OS X’s is optional and can be switched on in the View menu), and sidebars giving you easy access to various common locations on your computer.
Nothing in Snow Leopard directly compares with Windows’ libraries. The closest OS X feature is saved searches (known as Smart Folders), but a saved search pulls together files based on search criteria, not location. You can’t, for example, create a smart folder containing all photos from only two folders. On the other hand, Windows 7 libraries can’t be combined with saved search results.
Some OS X apps can use the Dock’s pop-up menus to display application-specific information and provide easy access to frequently used commands. For example, if you right-click iTunes’ Dock icon in Snow Leopard, you’ll get a menu that lets you see what’s playing, play or pause your music, assign a rating to the current song, and control other simple iTunes commands.
Snow Leopard doesn’t have any features that directly compare to the jump list’s pinning feature; instead, Mac users can use stacks in the Dock to provide quick access to folders and files (drag any folder to the Dock to create a stack). Stacks get a refresh in Snow Leopard: You can now view unlimited items in a stack using Grid view (thanks to the addition of scrollbars), as well as drill down into folders without having to open any Finder windows. You can also drag and drop any file into the Dock for quick access.
Windows 7 has an optional preview pane for use in any Explorer window. Select a file, and the preview will appear in the preview pane. Windows 7’s preview feature seems pretty basic compared to Snow Leopard’s (text loses all formatting, for example), but it’s better than nothing. Also, as was the case with Vista, folder icons in Windows 7 give you a peek at the folder’s contents.
Expose, a part of Mac OS X since 2003, learns some new tricks in Snow Leopard. Most notably, you can now click and hold the Dock icon for any open application to view all open windows for that application. This now includes minimized windows; In previous versions of OS X, Expose ignored any windows you sent to the Dock. In Snow Leopard, these windows are now represented by a thumbnail in Expose.
Windows 7 brings a new window management tool to the table as well. Called Aero Peek, this new feature makes it easier to see which window you want. To use Aero Peek, click the taskbar icon for the application the window you’re looking for belongs to, then mouse over the thumbnails. All other windows go transparent, leaving only the window you mouse over visible.
The most useful aspect of Aero Peek, though, is the desktop peek feature. If you want to take a quick look at the desktop without actually hiding all your windows, simply shove your mouse into the lower-right corner of the taskbar; all windows will turn transparent. Click this spot once to hide all open windows and see the desktop, and click again to get back to work. This is roughly equivalent to the Show Desktop feature in OS X’s Exposé, which moves all windows off the screen with a keystroke (or flick of the mouse, if you have a hot-corner for Exposé set).
Both Windows 7 and Snow Leopard are solid updates to the respective operating systems, but I can’t say either one by itself will make someone want to jump ship and cross to the other side. If you’re perfectly happy with Windows, Snow Leopard probably won’t make you lust for a Mac. Likewise, if you’re a Mac user and weren’t considering switching to Windows before, Windows 7 isn’t likely to change your mind.
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