Smackdown: Windows 7 takes on Apple's Snow Leopard

Microsoft's new OS is the best Windows yet. Is that enough?

Last week's release of Windows 7 had Microsoft Corp. executives from CEO Steve Ballmer on down confident that this version of Windows is everything Vista wasn't.

The launch of Windows 7 followed the release of Apple's latest operating system, Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard" by two months. The latter mainly focused on under-the-hood technologies, and Apple went out of its way to promise no major obvious changes. Snow Leopard, which looks just like its predecessor except for a few UI tweaks, is supposed to provide a solid foundation for future technologies and hardware.

Microsoft, in many ways, took a similar tack with Windows 7. Following the much-displeasing Vista, focusing on the basics made sense. Windows users, like Mac users, want an operating system that works.

Fair warning: I come to Windows as a Mac user by nature and background -- I've worked with Macs for 17 years, although as an IT professional, I've had more than my fair share of time with Windows machines. Put simply: As an IT professional, I work on whatever hardware is in front of me.

In recent months, Windows 7 has been praised for righting many of Vista's wrongs. Back in August, Computerworld's Preston Gralla offered his own take on the two operating systems. Preston, who leans toward the Windows side of things, evaluated them both and declared a tie.

With that in mind, I took Windows 7 out for a spin recently, focusing on its updated user interface, general usability, stability and performance over several weeks.

To evaluate both operating systems side by side, I installed them on the same hardware: a MacBook Pro with a 2.53-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, a GeForce 9600M GT graphics card with 512MB of video RAM, and a 500GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive.

Snow Leopard, of course, runs natively on Apple hardware; I used Apple's Boot Camp software to run Windows 7 without virtualization but had to improvise when Boot Camp couldn't format the target drive to NTFS. I was able to circumvent the issue by simply installing Windows 7 from the CD it shipped on. (Apple plans to update Boot Camp by the end of the year to address this issue.)

OS pricing

Microsoft offers several versions of Windows 7; I tested the Ultimate edition. Since Apple ships just one version of its operating system, the only version of Windows that matches it for full functionality is Ultimate. If you're buying a new computer, upgrade pricing won't be an issue; Windows 7 will come preinstalled (now with less craplets!) But if you're moving from Vista or XP, Windows 7 Ultimate will set you back $219.99 for the upgrade or $319.99 if you buy the full version. Windows 7 comes in both 32- and 64-bit versions.

Windows 7 updates the Aero interface that debuted with Vista.

Windows 7 updates the Aero interface that debuted with Vista. (Click for larger image.)

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