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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This is a hot topic, but it's an easy call. Microsoft touts its security benefits, saying that Windows 7's "security features such as Kernel Patch Protection, Service Hardening, Data Execution Prevention, Address Space Layout Randomization, and Mandatory Integrity Levels continue to provide enhanced protection against malware and attacks." These features, Microsoft hopes, should strengthen the barrier between end users and those out to exploit weaknesses in Microsoft's code.

One enhancement that is better employed here than even on Snow Leopard is Address Space Layout Randomization. This security method arbitrarily arranges the position of key data, making it difficult for exploits to take advantage of predictable target addresses.

Certainly, Windows 7 is more secure than Windows XP, which most users are still running. And it should be a step up from Vista.

It was in Vista that Microsoft introduced User Account Control (UAC) to help protect users from themselves. It allows programs to run with limited privileges until an admin authorizes privilege escalation. In its first incarnation, it also bugged the hell out of most Vista users.

While UAC is better in Windows 7, and far less annoying, its implementation is still problematic. When performing an action that can modify the system such as installing software or modifying some settings, UAC blinks the screen and brings up a dialog box. Considering the number of clicks necessary to do most things on Windows, UAC is nearly useless as is. Most people zone out and click through dialog boxes without caring what the alert actually says.

Microsoft would be better off using a dialog box that prompts you for a username and password. Yes, that might make UAC more intrusive, but it would sure get a user's attention. And that's exactly the point. If UAC is meant to force people to stop and think about what they're doing, then it should be implemented in a way that can't easily be dismissed or ignored like any other ordinary dialog box.

Windows 7's User Account Control is tucked away in the Action Center under Control Panels.

Windows 7's User Account Control is tucked away in the Action Center under Control Panels. (Click for larger image.)

Despite Microsoft's efforts to protect users, the number of exploits that can attack Windows remains high. The old argument that Windows is targeted more often because it's the predominant OS in the world may have once held water, but as Apple's market share rises, so does the platform's viability and exposure. And still there are no viruses and fewer than a handful of Trojans out there aimed at Mac OS X.

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