It's easier than ever to pit Windows 7 and OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard head-to-head: They're launching soon, both within a month of each other—and both are basically glorified service packs of the current OS.
In way, they're opposites: Windows 7 uses the same core foundation as Vista while fixing issues and prettying up the outside, while Snow Leopard keeps most of the same spots while re-arranging how things work internally. But the mission is the same—to evolve their current OS—not change the whole game. And launching this fall, we can't avoid a comparison study. The stars of Redmond and Cupertino have never been so closely aligned before.
Snow Leopard socks Windows 7 on both counts here: It's shipping in September for just $29. Windows 7 doesn't hit until Oct. 22, and we've heard it could be pricier than Vista, though it will, on the other hand, be cheaper for people who already have Vista. Nowhere near $29, we bet, but we can dream, can't we?
Both Windows 7 and Snow Leopard are engineered to gobble less of your hard drive than their predecessors. Snow Leopard promises to give you back 6GB of storage—cutting out all the code for PowerPC-based Macs helped a lot there. Microsoft isn't touting how much extra space you'll have with Windows 7 vs. Vista, but an earlier version of Windows 7 used about 6GB of space, and they've been thinking about ways to make drivers take up less space.
If it says anything though, Snow Leopard requires 5GB of free disk space, while Windows 7 has a minimum recommended requirement of 16GB for the 32-bit OS and 20GB for the 64-bit OS—Microsoft doesn't put out absolute bare minimums, though the footprint seems to be about 6-8GB for Windows 7.
Windows 7 smoked Vista with sub-30-second startup times, and RC1 is even faster. Shutdowns are quicker too. We had problems with sleep in the beta release, but it still seemed better than Vista, if not faster. Apple doesn't pimp a specific improvement in startup time, but promises doubletime wakeups and 1.75x faster shutdowns than Leopard.
Windows 7 will come in both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors—it's up to you to pick the right one (hint: 64-bit). The majority of Windows 7 install will likely be 64-bit—since you don't have to worry about compatibility issues as much as with Vista 64, and people are starting to want 4GB or more of RAM—so we're at a tipping point there. Snow Leopard will also more or less finish up OS X's transition to 64-bit, so it's something Apple's pushing hard as well.
Multicore Parallel Processing Powah
Some of the tweaks that Microsoft is making to the core of Windows 7 are to improve parallel processing—in short, using multiple cores to handle more simultaneous tasks than past versions of Windows. But these multicore-optimizing tweaks don't seem as extensive as Apple's parallel processing plans in Snow Leopard, headlined by what it calls Grand Central Dispatch.
What's key about GCD is that if it works like Apple says, it'll make easy for app developers to use multiple cores by handling threading for the programmers. The trick these says isn't the hardware, it's the software—the software tools that enable programmers to actually use multicore technology. (Just look back at our interview with Intel chair Craig Barrett, who explained why Intel hires more software engineers than hardware guys at this point.)
GPGPU—Processing Powah Continued
Again, since Snow Leopard is all about the plumbing, Apple's being the loudest about how they plan to tap your graphics card for even more processing power. Using the OpenCL language, programmers can more easily tap the hundreds of cores lurking inside of your graphics card for applications that might have nothing to do with graphics. OpenCL is a big part of Snow Leopard, if you haven't noticed. Snow Leopard will also use your graphics card for H.264 video acceleration (for smoother playback without overheating the CPU), if you've got a newer Mac with an Nvidia GeForce 9400M chipset.
Windows 7 also uses graphics cards more smartly than Vista—it has native GPU-accelerated transcoding and some other refinements in the graphics programming. But its big GPGPU push we'll see a bit later when DirectX 11 launches in July.
Browser: Do You Want to Explore or Go on Safari?
Networking is waaaaaaaay better in Windows 7 than it was in Vista—you can actually get to wireless networking with fewer than seventeen clicks, and the networking UI makes more sense. It also seems to be a little smarter at finding stuff on your network, at least in our experience. We're still not totally sold on HomeGroups, but hey, Microsoft's trying. And (sorta) easy remote streaming built into the OS? Pretty good.
Apple's not really promoting any changes to networking in Snow Leopard beyond the metric that it's 1.55 times faster at joining networks than Leopard it's got more efficient filesharing. You could argue networking in Leopard didn't need to be reworked—it was definitely better than Vista's—but really, networking is one of those things that's still not easy to understand for regular people in either OS.
How Long's Your Battery Gonna Last?
Windows 7 supposedly improves notebook battery life by a minimum of 11 percent. On the Snow Leopard front, well, um, all of the new Macs have much bigger batteries? Since Apple didn't drop a slide at WWDC telling the whole world, we can presume there isn't any benefit.
So Much Media Playing
Windows Media Player will handle pretty much any kind of mainstream video or audio format you throw at it, be it H.264, Divx, Xvid or AAC. The UI is better too, but it still kinda sucks 'cause it's trying to do too much (kind of like iTunes nowadays). But it has a few pretty great tricks, like "Play To," that'll command any compatible device on your network and stream stuff to it by way of the newest DLNA standard. Not to mention it'll natively stream your whole library over the internets to anywhere. Oh yeah, and Windows Media Center still rocks.
Apple doesn't get too specific on whether or not QuickTime X can now handle a broader range of formats with its fancy new logo, just that it'll play "the latest modern media formats" like H.264 and AAC even more betterer. It's also got a pretty classy new UI and supports graphics-accelerated playback (mentioned above). But maybe the best new feature is built-in video recording and trimming.
If all this talk of video codecs and file formats is confusing, read our (hopefully) helpful guide on the subject.
Have you seen Windows 7 acid-trip backgrounds? Incredible. What's Snow Leopard got? Some stupid purple star thing. Apple background designers needs more drugs, plz.
Time Machine is simply awesome because it's so incredibly easy to use and implement. It's 50 percent faster in Snow Leopard. Our only gripe is that it's still all or nothing—a few built-in scheduling and content preferences wouldn't hurt. Windows Backup and Restore is definitely improved in Windows 7, with finer control over backups and descriptions actually written in English.
Dock vs. Taskbar Round 3
Oh, this is a contentious one. We think Windows 7's taskbar is pretty damn excellent and even said that it was useful than OS X's dock thanks to Aero Peek, which lets you find any window in any app smoothly and instantly. Jump lists, which give you quick access to common functions right from the taskbar icon, were also a nice touch. In short, with these features and stuff like Aero Snap, more usable previews, and Aero Peek mixing it up with Alt+Tab, Windows 7 has the best UI of any Windows yet.
Snow Leopard's UI is mostly the same, but it manages to improve on one of its best features—Exposé—and the Dock at the same time. You can actually do a whole lot more stuff from the Dock now, so you can easily drop files in whatever app window you want to. Exposé, my "I would die without it" feature in Leopard, now arranges windows in a neat grid, rather than scattering them across whatever space is available. Stacks is actually useful now too, since they're scrollable and you can look in folders within stacks in Snow Leopard.
Snow Leopard's got it built-in, your copy of Windows 7 doesn't. Freaky but true.
Overall Snap Crack and Pop
Both Windows 7 and Snow Leopard are designed to be faster, leaner, stronger and more stable than the OSes they're building on. Windows 7 is markedly more responsive, and you simply feel like you're more in control. We'll have to see with Snow Leopard, but if it lives up to Apple's promises, we're definitely looking forward to the performance prowess.
There' s a whole lot that goes into deciding whether you're a Mac or PC, but whatever one you pick, you definitely won't go wrong upgrading your OS this fall. Click to view