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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It's not all bad: I do like being able to use the Alt key in Windows 7 to comb through menus using the keyboard. For some Windows programs, pressing Alt hides or shows the File/ Edit/View/etc. menus in Windows apps. You can control menu items in Snow Leopard, but on my MacBook Pro, I have to use the Ctrl-Fn-F2 key combo.

Overall, Snow Leopard's interface is cleaner, with lots of tiny usability niceties. Windows 7 is better than its predecessors, but still has a ways to go. Just take a look at Microsoft's Control Panels, which throw in every option and the kitchen sink; Apple's design for System Preferences in Snow Leopard is more streamlined and functional.

Microsoft threw everything and the kitchen sink in its Control Panels.

Microsoft threw everything and the kitchen sink in its Control Panels. (Click for larger image.)

The bottom line is this: When it comes to usability and workflow, less is often better. Cluttered interface elements can give a user too much information, making it more difficult to find specific features. Microsoft has done a fine job of making surface changes that apply this philosophy, but Apple has done this for years. That Microsoft is still learning becomes clear when you're spelunking through options and tabbed menus and sub-submenus.

Taskbar and Dock

The Windows 7 Taskbar has been redesigned and may look familiar to users familiar with *nix taskbars. Microsoft has removed the Start label, replacing it with a Windows logo, and has boosted the functionality so that it's more than a basic shortcut launcher. Running applications now reside there and can be pinned for one-click launching. And it can now be used now to display an application's open windows when you hover the cursor over the app's icon, allowing you to jump to the exact window you want.

Some applications can even be manipulated from the preview. For instance, you can control iTunes from the preview window, and Internet Explorer 8 displays a glowing green download-status indicator right in the Taskbar's IE icon.

I hate the hover feature. When I'm focused on the content in front of me, I usually move my cursor to the bottom of the screen to get it out of the way. Bad move in Windows 7. Depending on how many applications you have open or where the mouse settles, you could inadvertently trigger the Taskbar preview. Apple's Dock has a similar application-tiling preview, but it's more of an opt-in feature that can't be inadvertently triggered, since it requires a click and hold of the application's icon in the Dock.

The Taskbar now displays thumbnails of other Windows when you're in full-screen mode.

The Taskbar now displays thumbnails of other Windows when you're in full-screen mode. (Click for larger image.)

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