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Windows XP vs. Mac OS X

Joe Wilcox says Windows XP delivers all the features you'd ever expect from an operating system. But Mac OS X, despite flaws, gets the early nod.

    These days I can't write a story about Apple Computer without getting pummeled by negative e-mail.

    I can't figure out if Mac enthusiasts are defensive or overprotective. Whichever, they pounce on my stories like atom bombs falling on mosquitoes.

    Funny thing is, Microsoft fans don't like me much either. Responses to recent stories on HailStorm, Office XP and Windows XP burned the bytes on CNET's e-mail server.

    While not as strident as the Mac faithful, Microsoft's minions throw the weight of their opinions around, too. The difference is the intensity. The Mac crowd can be quite zealous defending Apple. But enough about the death threats.

    First impressions
    Since I haven't been getting much e-mail lately, I decided to share my first impressions running Apple's next-generation Mac OS X operating system and Microsoft's Windows XP second beta. Windows XP, if you didn't know, will succeed Windows 95, 98, Me and 2000 and is slated for release later this year. Mac OS X is the most serious overhaul of Apple's operating system since its 1984 introduction.

    Mac OS X and Windows XP Beta 2 rolled out last weekend, and they share some interesting similarities: slick new graphical interfaces, consumer and commercial features wrapped into one package, wide use of XML, and new tools for Internet entertainment, such as updated versions of Windows Media Player and Apple QuickTime.

    But the differences between the operating systems also are striking. At the core, Mac OS X is based on Unix, while Windows XP derives its heritage from Windows 2000. Windows XP seeks to do lots of things, but Mac OS X focuses on doing much less really well.

    In some ways such a comparison might appear unfair, since Windows XP is only a beta release. Frankly, given some of the missing features (more about that later), the small number of available applications, and that Apple won't ship the operating system on new systems until summer, Mac OS X is closer to beta than spit-and-polish code.

    Kitchen and sink
    Apple, unfortunately, shipped Mac OS X without support for CD-RW, DVD, DVD-R and DVD-RAM drives. The company promises to remedy these problems by summer. For now, using the drives requires a reboot back to the older Mac OS 9.1. It's like going back to your old apartment from that spacious new house to do laundry.

    Microsoft, by contrast, takes a kitchen-and-sink approach to Windows. If the company does not offer a feature but thinks someone might want it, that gets integrated into Windows. Only the kitchen sink is missing, and I am sure it's coming in a future Windows XP update for plumbing appliances.

    Because of this approach, Windows XP plugs some of the holes found in Mac OS X. Not only does Microsoft provide built-in CD-RW functionality, the company makes backing up data to CD media a snap. Yes, Virginia, CD-RW drives are good for something other than burning music CDs full of Napster-heisted songs. Windows Media Player 8 also serves up crisp DVD movie playback and booming sound--so good I made a bundle selling popcorn and soda to the neighbors.

    Microsoft also delivers nicely on making the Internet a cool place to work, learn or play. Some of the new features in Internet Explorer 6--the beta comes with Windows XP or can be downloaded separately from the Web--are slick. Built-in streaming media support, advanced search and P3P security topped my list of favorites. Separately, Windows XP also makes creating and publishing a Web page as simple as, well, using a Mac.

    Apple claims Mac OS X is Internet ready, but missing pieces tarnish the operating system's potential--fortunately not fatally or permanently. Besides setting up easily for Internet access, Mac OS X also delivers up nifty tools, such as finger, ping and Whois accessible from a slick control panel. All are standard command-line features of Unix. But the included Internet Explorer 5.1 browser--a Microsoft product, interestingly--is a preview and not final version. Consistently, Internet Explorer would not download files and Web surf at the same time, something possible using the Mac OS 9.1 version. Other quirks annoyed, too.

    Some troubles stemmed from the limited number of applications available for Mac OS X. Because of unavailable browser plug-ins, my daughter ran into trouble playing "Powerpuff Girls" games on the Cartoon Network Web site. I ran aground trying to watch CNET broadband video clips because there are not yet Mac OS X versions of RealPlayer or Microsoft Media Player. A simple way to enable Apple's QuickTime for viewing these media files would have solved that one problem.

    Time and again my biggest frustration with Mac OS X stemmed from lack of applications necessary to get the most out of the operating system. Some gaps are expected to be filled before Mac OS X starts shipping on new systems this summer, but many important programs could be as much as a year away. But the foundation--Mac OS X--is rock solid.

    Microsoft, by contrast, faces no shortage of applications. Most business programs released in the last three years and many recent games run on Windows 2000. Because Windows XP is based on that operating system, there will be plenty of applications available. Still, I couldn't get any of my daughter's favorite "Sonic the Hedgehog" games to work right under Windows XP.

    Apple's masterpiece
    Though Mac OS X feels like a house under construction--complete with scaffolding and tarp swinging in the wind--what a building it will be. Mac OS X's Aqua interface is elegant in both styling and access to features. When Apple rolls out--with complete optical drive support and core applications--the Mac OS X welcome mat, the company will have built a sturdy and awe-inspiring structure.

    Aqua contrasts sharply with the Windows XP Luna interface. Here we move into the realm of personal taste. I found Luna to be just too cartoonish and somewhat garish in use of colors. Someone else might take to the interface, which borrows its basic look and feel from MSN Explorer.

    But Mac OS X's strengths are not so obvious or easy to grab onto. I can only compare running Mac OS X and Windows XP beta to driving a Volvo vs. a minivan. The minivan may offer lots of gadgets and room, also appealing to a broader number of people. But Mac OS X felt sturdy, solid--like the kind of vehicle someone would spend more on for the ruggedness, handling and power.

    Mixing metaphors is a sign of bad writing. But my excuse here is one of the emotions evoked running the two different operating systems. Windows XP delivered all the features I could ever expect from an operating system. But using Mac OS X, despite early flaws, fit better in all the right ways.

    For my second round of testing, I installed Mac OS X on a Titanium PowerBook G4, which I carted down to the local Starbucks coffee shop where I meet high-tech companies when they come a calling. Within a couple of minutes, I had gathered quite a crowd, first drawn by the PowerBook's lithe beauty but quickly captivated by Mac OS X's Aqua interface.

    Why, it was almost a religious experience. Maybe that's why Apple enthusiasts are often referred to as the Mac faithful.