Smackdown: Windows 7 takes on Apple's Snow Leopard

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

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As it has in the past, Microsoft also offers less-expensive versions -- Home Premium and Professional -- with fewer features.

Not sure which version of Windows you should get? Microsoft released a convoluted upgrade chart to help you decide. Good luck; it's not very helpful, given the various combinations of upgrade options.

In contrast, Mac users got a reprieve on Snow Leopard pricing this year: It costs just $29 if you're upgrading from Mac OS X 10.5 (a.k.a. Leopard). (In the past, Apple charged $129 for its OS.) Apple also sells a $49 Family Pack that allows for five installations. Snow Leopard, which requires an Intel-based Mac, comes preinstalled on all new Macs, and it will run applications in 32- or 64-bit mode automatically, depending on your hardware. (If you're upgrading from Tiger, you're supposed to buy the Mac Box Set, which includes Snow Leopard, iWork 09 and iLife 09.)

Installation

Windows 7 can be installed over Vista without your having to reinstall your apps or files. If you're still using XP, the installation is slightly more complex. You have to save your files and apps, do a clean install of Windows 7 and then copy all the old data back.

For Mac users, it doesn't matter whether you're upgrading from Leopard or even Tiger. There's no demand for installation codes or awkward activation hoop-jumping, and Apple streamlined the upgrade process to make it easier and quicker than before.

I did a clean install for both operating systems. Frankly, that's the optimal solution, and it's what I recommend to Windows users. The time needed to back up your data, format and clean-install Windows 7, and then reinstall your programs is worth it -- even if you're just moving up from Vista.

The good news for Windows users is that the install process is now pretty straightforward. The interface is thoughtfully laid out and even allows several hard-drive formatting options right in the main installation window. When choosing which hard drive or partition to use, all of the available hard drives are displayed, along with information such as Total Size, Free Space, and Type. There are options allowing you to load other drivers; to delete, format or create new partitions; and to expand a non-system disk partition.

The drive formatting options in Snow Leopard are part of Apple's Disk Utility application, which is separate from the main install window and might be confusing for new users too shy to click around and find it. (It's located under Tools > Disk Utility).

Overall, Windows 7 took less than a half hour -- and several restarts -- to install. Then Windows asked for a few settings: a username and password, time zone and time information, wireless network access info, the 25-digit activation code, and what kind of network configuration I wanted (home or office, for instance).

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