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Snow Leopard vs Windows 7: How the Apple has fallen

Snow Leopard is as slick as ever, but after weeks of exhaustive testing, we've discovered the newly spray-painted pussycat simply doesn't have what it takes to go up against its main rival, Windows 7

Apple's products are universally acclaimed for their wonderfulness and gorgeousness -- except in the real world, where people use computers for actual work and not just for messing around.

Just ask The Onion, and when you're done, have a butchers' at the latest market-share statistics. Apple's Leopard operating system failed to make significant in-roads against even an ailing Windows Vista, and we're not so sure Snow Leopard, despite its claimed improvements, has what it takes to topple Windows 7.

Save your eggs and flour until the end, children. Over the next few pages, we're going to explain our rationale, and by the end of it, we're willing to bet you'll agree with us. Or flame us in the comments below.

Apple evangelists will always tell you that Macs "just work". But it's difficult to ignore Apple's long-standing compatibility issues with, well, just about everything. Okay, that's a major exaggeration, but with a Mac, even one equipped with Snow Leopard, users constantly need to ask the question, "Will this software or hardware work with my machine?"

Step into your local PC World for a new webcam or printer, and you'll have to consciously remind yourself that because you're batting for another team, your chosen software or hardware may end up being absolutely useless because it was designed for the mass market -- not your uber-attractive, but ultimately niche setup.

Even something as innocent as exchanging files via USB storage can be a pain in the backside. Try sharing files with a Windows user -- you know, the people who make up 80 per cent of the computing world -- and you'll probably run into problems due to Apple computers' inability to write to drives with an NTFS file format by default.

There are even problems going from Mac to Mac. Upgrade to Snow Leopard and you may find your favourite software, even some created by Apple itself, no longer works. Apps such as Parallels Desktop v3, EyeTV v3.0.0 and Ratatouille simply won't run, while consumers are still reporting annoying glitches in major software such as Adobe Photoshop CS3.

Windows 7, in contrast, is fully compatible with software written for Windows Vista. It even has a built-in Windows XP mode that allows XP-specific apps to run in Windows 7. Just as long as your hardware supports virtualisation, using either Intel Virtualization Technology (VT) for Intel chips or AMD-V for AMD chips, then your stuff will "just work".

Mac or PC: It's PC all the way in this round.

Apple's operating systems are a byword for ease of use. Previous versions of the OS have always stayed a step ahead of their Windows counterparts, thanks to slick presentation. User-interface elements such as the Dock and Exposé are held in particularly high esteem.

Snow Leopard benefits from a couple of interface enhancements, including a superior Finder, which lets you customise Spotlight searches, and an advanced icon view that lets you browse through multipage documents or watch QuickTime movies without launching the relevant applications. Also, Exposé is now integrated into the Dock, so you can tile all active windows of a particular application to get a better overall picture of your work.

That's all fine and dandy, but these minor refinements pale in comparison to Windows 7's wealth of UI enhancements -- particularly its new taskbar. Hover over an application icon in the space next to the Start button and you're presented with live thumbnails of every open window in that application. Right-clicking on an icon presents a 'Jump List' that provides options for working with recent documents within that application, or a recent history of visited Web sites if it's a browser. Hovering over a particular thumbnail brings that window to the foreground and makes every other window translucent. The trick even works with tabs within browsers -- something Snow Leopard cannot do.

Windows 7 also gets a few useful updates to its Aero interface. Aero Peek lets you view your desktop instantly by moving your mouse to the bottom right of the screen. With Aero Shake, rapidly dragging an application window back and forth causes all others to minimise, giving you an easy way to work with your desktop and the application in question. In Aero Snap, clicking and dragging a window to the right or left side of the desktop causes those windows to fill their respective sides of the screen, giving you an easy way to compare documents side by side.

Mac or PC: We're tempted to give this one to Windows 7, but we'll call it a draw since you'll favour whatever you're used to.

So you've bought your computer and you're not happy with the out-of-the-box experience -- you want to tweak things a little. With Snow Leopard, this is fairly straightforward, particularly if you've used Leopard. Configuration options in the System Preferences span four categories: personal, hardware, Internet and wireless, and system -- each of which has its own sub category.

Windows 7's configuration mechanism, Control Panel, is less elegant  -- even the simple, task-oriented view is baffling, as it consists of more than double the number of Snow Leopard's configuration categories. Drilling down into each category, unless you're an experienced user, will almost certainly give you brainache, such is the quantity of options and the haphazard way in which they're presented.

We're grateful though, that Windows 7 provides the opportunity to tweak these options in the first place, rather than dumbing things down down and handling us with kid gloves. It provides options Snow Leopard can only dream of, including a wealth of power options that let you select the intensity of laptop LEDs, the ability to suspend USB ports, and whether the computer is allowed to sleep while sharing media. Try specifying these options in Snow Leopard, and it'll ruffle your hair and tell you not to worry your pretty little head about it.

Many will argue they'd rather not be presented with half a million options for tweaking their OS, and that Snow Leopard actually needs less configuration to get results. We disagree. Windows 7 is, to all intents and purposes, 'fully baked' out of the box, and inexperienced users can get by without ever opening the Control Panel. Inevitably, however, as the user grows more confident and willing to tweak, there's only one operating system that'll satisfy that geek urge to fiddle, and that's Windows 7.

Mac or PC: PC takes this round with (relative) ease.

Traditionally, Mac operating systems have had no business in the workplace. Apple has gone some way to turning this around however, by allowing Snow Leopard to connect directly with Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 -- a feature not present in Windows PCs that lack Microsoft Office. 

As a result, Mac users can use Mail, iCal and Address Book as credible alternatives to Microsoft Outlook. Within these applications, it's possible to send and receive email using your enterprise server, create meetings and appointments, and do all the 'serious' stuff Windows users take for granted.

There are problems, however. Snow Leopard machines will not synchronise with older 2000 and 2003 versions of Exchange Server, which despite sounding elderly are still being used by many large companies. Before taking the plunge, you'll need to check with your company whether your newfangled Apple OS will function on the network.

Even if your company is running the correct version of Exchange, that's no guarantee of plain sailing. Your IT support team may balk at your request to use a Mac, because Microsoft is still the de facto standard. Most businesses will have standardised their operation around Windows, Office and Sharepoint, and will have an array of Microsoft-flavoured IT and management tools for deploying updates to hardware and software.

The bottom line is if your IT dude wants to roll out a new piece of software that allows him to better monitor network traffic or spy on your IM conversations more effectively, he won't be too happy to find out you're using Snow Leopard.

Mac or PC: Now, when you see someone using a Mac in the office, there's a good chance they're doing some real work, instead of some artsy, creative nonsense. But that's nowhere near enough to topple Windows 7 in this area.

We're led to believe that Windows holds a definite advantage when it comes to serious work, while Apple computers are designed for people who enjoy the occasional bit of fun.

Snow Leopard's inclusion of iLife -- a suite of applications geared towards stoking your creative fires -- seems to reinforce this perception. iWeb lets you design Web sites easily, Garage Band allows users to create music with minimum fuss, using either the Mac keyboard or by connecting their existing instruments, while iMovie and iPhoto let you mimic Spielberg or create cool picture slideshows of your adventures.

Windows 7, in contrast, seems rather more serious. The new operating system even ditches two of the most playful additions to Windows Vista, namely Windows Movie Maker and Windows Photo Gallery. The pair are still available as free downloads in Windows Live Essentials, but their omission suggests Microsoft is squeezing the immediate fun out of Windows 7.

Despite Snow Leopard's apparent ability to evoke more smiles than its counterpart, it would be stupid to dismiss Windows 7 as the most platitudinous of the pair. Yes, Snow Leopard comes with a vast wealth of -- mostly excellent -- free software, but for every one of those programs, there are countless alternatives available to Windows users -- both free and paid-for.

The elephant in the room here is Windows' massive advantage in the gaming arena, and that is the most fun you can have with a computer --  questionable Web sites not included. Sure, Macs can play games too, but the number of decent titles that are Mac-only or simultaneously developed for Mac and PC is limited at best. At the time of writing this article, the featured game on Apple's gaming site was Spore -- which was released 14 months ago.

Mac or PC: Whichever side of the fence you're standing on, this one's a fairly obvious call. Snow Leopard, however fun it's portrayed, lags some way behind Windows 7.

Apple has long boasted that its computers are a haven from Internet nasties -- a claim that is, relatively speaking, still true.  Antivirus companies will warn of the odd Mac virus from time to time, but Apple's machines are far less susceptible to dangerous software than their Windows counterparts.

That's not to say they're completely foolproof. One of Snow Leopard's most significant additions is an antimalware protector. This little-publicised feature, sneaked into the latest OS, currently only checks for two known Mac trojans, and only flags warning messages if these trojans are detected via a small number of applictions, including iChat, Safari and Entourage. Viruses distributed via USB, CD or DVD are completely ignored.

More significant, perhaps, is Snow Leopard's susceptibility to phishing attacks. Like its less mountainous predecessor, it's just as open as Windows to professional acts of fraud, whether that's through the browser, or by falling into the common social engineering trap of responding to a scammer's email.

Windows 7 has more to worry about -- namely the vast wealth of viruses, trojans and spyware in circulation today. By default, the operating system does very little to protect itself against outside threats. Indeed, none of Microsoft's own top 10 reasons to buy or upgrade to Windows 7 are related to security.

Ultimately, if you're using a Windows 7 PC without third-party malware protection, you run a real risk of infection, losing valuable data, your money, and possibly even your very identity. If you're terrified these things will happen to you, there really is only one option.

Mac or PC: Mac, all the way.

It's impossible to deny that Snow Leopard is a brilliant operating system -- it is, after all, based heavily on Apple OS X 10.5, an OS we're all very fond of. We can't help but feel let down by it though. Whereas previous Apple OSs have presented concrete arguments for superiority to the various Windows incumbents of their era, Snow Leopard presents a less compelling case against Windows 7.

Apple could have pounded a dagger through the heart of Windows with real innovation, but its decision to rest on its laurels somewhat, incrementally tweaking rather than modernising, casts a shadow of doubt over its latest operating system. 

Microsoft, on the other hand, has cast aside the issues that dogged Vista and worked hard to catch up with the competition in crucial areas such as usability. It has also maintained its advantage in business readiness and gaming and, while it can never compete in the area of security, it has gone some way to closing any perceived gap in functionalty, and indeed coolness, between 7 and the Leopard.

We're not convinced either operating system is significantly better than the other -- each has its strengths and weaknesses. But we'd argue that as of now, Windows 7 offers more.

Mac or PC: Ultimately, we're siding with the PC.