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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User interface

At first glance, Windows 7 looks more like a variant of KDE than a version of Windows, given some of the design choices Microsoft made. The new Aero themes and many of the new Windows desktop pictures are gorgeous. While I've heard some complaints from colleagues about overused visual effects, the interface changes reflect a more logical, modern design. And they take advantage of the underlying hardware by offloading graphics rendering to the GPU. True, Mac OS X has been doing this since 2003, but Microsoft brought this feature to Vista and then optimized the performance for Windows 7.

Truth be told, when it comes to UI, Windows 7 is the first version of Windows that doesn't bug me. Many of the interface features that I felt were half-baked in Vista have been polished and refined. The Taskbar, for instance, finally feels useful (more on this later).

With Windows 7, Microsoft has introduced Aero Shake. It allows you to grab the title bar of any window and, by shaking it, minimize all background windows to the Taskbar. Neat effect. On the Mac, hiding background windows requires the Command-Option-H key combination. There's no fancy animation; the windows just disappear. Shake may be a bit glitzy, but Windows users will certainly appreciate being able to hide all of their background windows at once.

I do like the new Aero Snap. If you drag an application window (using the top of the window) to the right or left side of your screen, the application window will justify itself to that side, taking up half of the screen. Dragging it to the top of the screen brings about a full-screen view, similar to hitting the middle Maximize button of Windows. The implementation is elegant and simple, although I had to be mindful whenever I dragged windows to the edge of the screen.

The result of these changes is a more cohesive feel to Windows 7. Apple's interface settled on a consistent OS theme with Leopard, but even before its arrival in 2007, interface elements were generally consistent. That's because most applications running in Mac OS X usually adhere to Apple's strict interface guidelines.

The changes to the UI in Windows 7 makes it less confusing than earlier versions of Windows; I could actually locate some features using logic. But you still have to memorize where a lot of features are. For instance, I wanted to turn on auto-log-in and looked for that setting under Control Panels: User Accounts. I poked around in several other locations that looked promising, but found nothing that was clear-cut. As it turns out, Windows logs you in automatically, as long as you don't have an account password. And if you do have a password, getting rid of it allows automatic log-in to your account.

If you have more than one account, and neither has a password, Windows 7 will ask which account you want to log into at start-up.

Usability is still hit-or-miss. For instance, navigating Control Panels should be easier. Take the Power Options panel, for instance. It allows you to set whether your computer is geared toward power or efficiency. But the Advanced settings are buried, meaning you might not find them unless you keep clicking. If Microsoft is going to allow users to customize their experience, it should make settings like this easy to access.

In Windows 7, changing the power settings for the computer can mean multiple windows and options.

In Windows 7, changing the power settings for the computer can mean multiple windows and options. (Click for larger image.)

Apple's System Preferences are not only better laid out and easier to navigate, but Apple's Spotlight search tool makes it easy to find what you're looking for. For instance, if I want an application to automatically launch at log-in, a Spotlight search for "login application" brings me to the Accounts System Preference, which is exactly where I need to be.

Snow Leopard's system preferences are more logically laid out.

Snow Leopard's system preferences are more logically laid out. (Click for larger image.)

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