Now that we know Windows 7 will go on sale October 22nd and the feature-complete release candidate is available as a free download, it's time to put it through its paces: as compared to the current state of the Mac.
Oh, I know: the Mac versus PC debate is so played out. Perhaps, but dumb commercials aside, if you're deciding between buying a Mac or a PC in the coming months, it helps to know what you're getting from one or the other. I use both a Mac and a PC every day of the week, and both systems have their strong and weak points.
Note that I'm basing my observations on the Windows 7 Ultimate Release Candidate 1 (Build 7100) and Mac OS X Leopard 10.5.7. You could argue that I really should be comparing Windows 7 to the upcoming Snow Leopard, and you'd be right. If I had a copy of Snow Leopard to run I'd do that. Alas. As always, take all comments salted with a few grains of "this is all one person's opinion" and "what I should get depends on what I need." Also, remember to breathe. Let's do this.
Mac Finder versus Windows Explorer—A Draw
I've always thought that the default interface for dealing with files in every major operating system could improve, and given both Windows 7 and Mac OS X Leopard, I still feel that way. Both Finder and Windows Explorer offer pretty much the same features, with a few exceptions (like Finder's Sidebar and Places, and now Windows 7's Libraries). Still, I want a tabbed interface and Quicksilver-y file manipulation built into my OS, and neither Explorer or Finder offers that. Since I'm pretty "meh" on both of these, we're calling this one a draw.
Leopard's Quick Look versus Windows File Preview—Winner: Quick Look
The one feature of Leopard's Finder which is super-useful for most common document types is Quick Look. Select a file, tap the keyboard, and bang, you're peering into the contents of a file, whether it's a Word document, PDF, or image. In Windows 7 Explorer you can hit the Alt+P keyboard combination to preview the contents of a file in an embedded panel inside the Explorer interface (too small). This preview feature doesn't support nearly the amount of filetypes that Quick Look does and lacks Quick Look's separate window resizing and paging capabilities.
Windows Taskbar versus Mac Dock—Winner: Windows 7 Taskbar
The new Windows 7 taskbar is no doubt the best improvement interface-wise to your system. Now you can pin programs to your taskbar (ironically, Dock-style), but you've also got jumplists and Aero Peek rollover previews (which work for multiple windows AND tabs) and the ever-handy Show Desktop button that pulls the taskbar ahead of Mac's Dock. In the Dock's defence, the Windows 7 taskbar does lack a Stacks equivalent.
Windows System Tray vs Mac Menu Bar—Winner: Windows 7 System Tray
The Mac menu bar is an odd bird: it's fixed to the top of your Mac's screen with no easy way to hide it, and programs affix their icons there without asking you (or by burying the option to hide them somewhere in the individual program's preferences). The default date and time display isn't that informative, either. Compared to Windows 7's one-click full calendar, and your ability to easily customise what icons live there in one place, Windows 7 takes this one. (See more about that icon customisation in item #6 in the top 10 things to look forward to in Windows 7.)
Leopard's Time Machine vs Windows Backup—Winner: Leopard's Time Machine
Not too much has changed with Windows 7's built-in backup utility: it's a plain old wizard that asks you to choose a backup drive, choose the files you want to back up (along with an option to make an OS system image), and set the schedule. It's buried somewhere in the Control Panel and the whole business of using it is boring and easy to ignore. But Leopard's Time Machine? Nothing beats its dead-simple setup and over-animated but really-fun restore interface.
Windows 7 Aero Peek versus ? (Not Quick Look or Stacks)—Winner: Aero Peek
I admit it: I'm currently deep in a love affair with Windows 7's Aero Peek feature, which does all this beautiful thumbnail previewing and window clearing and docking—but not in an overwrought, show-offy way, but more in a smooth, utilitarian, why-doesn't-every-computer-do-this way. Currently Mac OS X doesn't offer a feature that one could compare to Aero Peek. While Windows 7 set its sights on making window management cleaner, Leopard tackled file previews in Quick Look and Stacks. By default, Aero Peek wins this one.
We Could Go On...
We've hit on the most obvious biggies already, but the list of items one could compare between Windows 7 and Leopard goes on. There's Safari 4 versus Internet Explorer 8, Windows Media Player 12 versus iTunes/Front Row, Leopard's Boot Camp versus Windows 7 XP Mode (though that's not exactly apples to apples), Windows User Account Control versus Leopard's user security, and Windows Search versus Spotlight. Also, both operating systems boast more features that don't have direct parallels, like Leopard's extra utilities (e.g. Preview and iChat), Spaces, and Windows 7's themes, built-in software uninstaller, games, and multi-touch support. Of course, no Mac versus Windows article would be complete without mentioning that more games and viruses exist for Windows than for Mac.
Time to discuss in the comments, where I present you with a challenge: try to make an intelligent remark that doesn't include the suggestion to "upgrade" to Linux, and doesn't draw a conclusion about either operating system without a reasoned argument or supporting facts. Can we do it? Let's try! Post your thoughts in the comments.
Gina Trapani, Lifehacker's founding editor, is confident in this community's abilit to have a productive Mac versus Windows discussion. Her feature Smarterware appears every week on Lifehacker.