OS deathmatch: Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7

The newest operating systems from Apple and Microsoft go head to head.

It's the best of times if you're a lover of operating systems, with the nearly simultaneous release of Apple's Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard" (available right now) and Microsoft's Windows 7 (available Oct. 22). This leads to the inevitable debate: Which is the better operating system, Windows 7 or Snow Leopard?

To help determine that, I've put both operating systems through their paces, selected categories for a head-to-head competition, and then chosen a winner in each category. And at the end, I summarize the scorecard.

For testing Windows 7, I did a clean install of Windows 7 Ultimate Edition RTM on a Dell Inspiron E1505 notebook with 1GB of RAM and a 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo processor. To test Snow Leopard, I did an upgrade from Mac OS X Leopard on my MacBook Air, which is loaded with a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 2GB of RAM.

Overview

The two companies took diametrically opposed approaches to their newest operating system upgrades.

Microsoft, burned by the compatibility issues that bedeviled Vista, strove to make compatibility with Vista-level hardware and software a centerpiece of Windows 7, and so didn't dramatically change the under-the-hood plumbing in Windows 7.

However, significant interface changes and features were added. The taskbar got a thorough reworking, making it much more Mac OS X Dock-like -- in fact, even better than the Dock. Similarly, the addition of HomeGroups was an attempt to make networking simpler for home users.

Apple, on the other hand, focused its efforts largely on internal plumbing, and many of those efforts won't pay off immediately for users. OpenCL and Grand Central Dispatch are new technologies designed to better take advantage of multi-core CPUs and to offload more graphics and animation processing to graphics cards.

In the long run, this should make for significantly juiced-up performance. But in order for people to reap much of the benefits, developers will need to rewrite their programs. The new Apple technologies are designed to make that easier, but until those new applications are written, the effects most likely won't be extremely noticeable.

Apple also tweaked the operating system interface, refining the Finder and integrating the Dock with Exposé. But those changes are not nearly as significant as the ones Microsoft made to Windows 7.

With all that as a background, let's get on to the smackdown. Come along for the great debate -- and weigh in with your own comments.

Windows 7 vs. Snow Leopard

With Snow Leopard, Apple focused mostly on under-the-hood changes.

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Windows 7 vs. Snow Leopard

By contrast, Windows 7 introduces significant interface changes and features.

Click to view larger image

Operating system name

OK, let's get this issue out of the way quickly. Which operating system would you rather run: one with the cool name Snow Leopard, or one with the unimaginative moniker Windows 7?

Enough said.

The Winner: Snow Leopard. Wild animals are inherently more exciting than panes of glass.

Price

For anyone buying a new computer, a price comparison between the two operating systems is meaningless, because the operating system will come pre-installed on whatever hardware they buy. But for upgraders, it can be a very big deal.

Apple upgraders will certainly be happier than those who make the move to Windows 7 from earlier versions. Snow Leopard is a $29 upgrade (unless you're still using Tiger, in which case you have to buy the Mac Box Set -- which includes iLife '09 and iWork '09 -- for $169). The Windows 7 Ultimate upgrade costs a whopping $220 on Amazon, Windows 7 Professional goes for $200, and Windows 7 Home Premium weighs in at $120.

Windows users also have to face the confusing decision about which of the versions of Windows 7 to purchase -- given the price points, are you better off with Windows 7 Ultimate, Windows 7 Professional or Windows 7 Home Premium? With Snow Leopard, there's no confusion; there's only one version of the operating system.

The Winner: Snow Leopard. At $29, it's practically an impulse buy.

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