Windows 8 vs Mac OS X: First Impressions

With the release of Windows 8, Microsoft has been far from subtle in its vision for the future of operating systems. Opting to radically change the default desktop to the same style as Windows Phone and the Xbox 360, Microsoft have changed up some of the fundamental aspects of Windows, as well as adopting new features like an App Store.

On the strike of midnight, October 26th, I bought my copy of Windows 8 and got it up and running on a MacBook Air. In this article, I’m going to share some of my initial impressions with the rival operating system, and compare it feature-by-feature to Apple’s latest OS, Mountain Lion.

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If you’re planning on installing Windows 8 on your Mac, treat this as an experimental release. Upgrade from a previous version but don’t do a clean install. Try and have a backup mouse and keyboard connected prior to installation. Some drivers are incompatible with Windows 8 at this time and parts of your computer, even including the built-in trackpad and keyboard, might not work until Apple releases support. Be careful and proceed only at your own risk!

Desktop

The most notable change in Windows 8 is the most visual: the introduction of the UI formerly known as Metro, now dubbed Windows 8-style Modern UI. Replacing the old-style desktop and Start Menu as default, Windows 8 opts for a dashboard of tiles more akin to that of the Xbox 360 and miles away from both OS X and previous iterations of Windows.

On the other hand, Mountain Lion continued the tradition of Apple not changing the fundamental setup of OS X. We, of course, still have our dock, our Applications Folder and the fairly new Launchpad, the full-screen, iOS-style homescreen of apps on Macs. In fact, the basic idea of the Windows 8 Dashboard is very similar to Launchpad, but the latter is certainly more tucked away in OS X.

The Windows 8 dashboard.

Most notable to any Mac users trying out Windows 8 is the one-at-a-time focus in apps. Much like we’re used to on iOS, Windows 8 really centers users on a single app at a time, rather than having an extensive amount of windows open at once. This is the big change that will likely turn off most long-time OS X (and Windows) users from giving it a serious go.

Design

I’ve always felt that OS X had the edge in design, having a polish to everything on show, especially text. Windows, in comparison, always felt like some sort of prototype with no real finish to it, where text often looked ridiculously bad.

That’s something remedied in Windows 8. The underlying fundamentals of the Metro design language are to be admired, and the whole OS feels polished for the first time in, well, ever. And of all things, it’s incredibly text centric.

Windows 8 looks so much better than previous versions.

App Stores

Of course, soon after the announcement of OS X Lion, Apple launched the Mac App Store, its digital distribution platform for Mac apps. It’s been significantly adopted in its near-to-two years of life and is already the most prolific storefront for OS X apps.

In Windows 8, Microsoft brings their own native storefront for apps to the table. In a way that’s very similar to the way iOS handles app downloads, users browse the Windows Store for software, buy and download it and then see it appear on their dashboard as a tile. The store is in its mere infancy at launch, with few apps available, however. This feels much more like buying apps on an iOS device than on a Mac, thanks to the full-screen-only view, and many of the apps feel much more like the lite mobile apps than the apps we’re buying from the Mac App Store.

The Windows store for software.

Ecosystems

I think we can all agree that, at least until recently, Apple was the leader in creating a cohesive, all-in-one ecosystem for their devices. Apple provides a solution for email, contacts/calendars, document storage, media and more under one roof. It’s something every other technology company wants to create, but no-one else is quite there yet, though Google and Amazon are sure trying.

Microsoft hasn’t suddenly jumped up to an iTunes-size catalogue of content, but the integration of their ecosystem and services is very apparent in Windows 8. Upon setup, users input their Microsoft account details and all the stock apps will use this. The stock music app works off Microsoft’s Xbox Music service (providing an awesome free, ad-supported music streaming service) while the games app is deeply integrated into Xbox LIVE. Then, Microsoft already has other solid online services in the form of Skydrive, Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail) email and calendars, Office 365, and more.

Xbox and Windows games sit alongside each other in the Windows 8 Games app, much like iOS and OS X games in Game Center.

Windows 8 is a very guided experience, much like iOS; you feel like you’re in a curated, walled garden. Windows 8 is kind of like iOS with a different UI and a different master, since everything in the Metro side somehow utilises Microsoft’s services. I love being in the Apple ecosystem, having everything work together, and Microsoft is doing the same for its Xbox and Windows users. It’s yet to be seen, however, if Microsoft can entice even their own users to be that fully dedicated to their ecosystem.

Time for a Switch?

Windows 8 is the first version of Windows that I could actually seem myself switch to from OS X. Of course I’m not switching; I’m completely happy with my Mac’s default OS and have no motivation to look to alternatives. But, no longer would I automatically condemn Windows to new PC buyers. Windows has had some beauty sleep and started working better together with its friends.

Windows 8 also has a Desktop mode that essentially puts you back in Windows 7, albeit one with a much nicer, polished UI.

Windows 8 is, honestly, more like iOS than OS X. It approaches desktop computing like a mobile operating system, with a more focused, guided and minimalist user interface that dumbs down a lot of the more technical features of Windows. It also fully indoctrinates Windows users into the Microsoft way of life. This new setup won’t be for everyone and there’ll be customers who’ll be far happier sticking with Windows 7. However, the “steep” learning curve is over-exaggerated and, in general, this is the best operating system Microsoft has pushed out.

Apple doesn’t have to be scared of; it’s Google who should be watching their backs on the tablet front. If anything, they should be proud of how their rivals are finally creating products and building ecosystems that start to match the quality and finesse that only Apple has possessed. Congratulations, Microsoft.

Editor’s note: As in all op-eds, this article expresses the author’s opinion.


  • Tim

    I think there is actually a pretty steep learning curve for Windows 8. Just start reading app reviews and you see it. Complaints about apps not having search functionality, not having an exit or quit button, having no controls at all, etc., etc. I’ve used the beta since it was released and I only just found out this week that the search in charms works for the app in the forefront. I assumed since it was a system resource, it’s sole purpose was similar to a spotlight type menu.

    To correctly judge Windows 8 you have to unpin the desktop tile and operate strictly in Metro. The mantra is metro is the future, the desktop is the past, so eventually the desktop will be gone. Try it for a week, if you find that you can’t live in metro alone, then there is a big problem. Doesn’t matter that improvements will be made over time. Windows 7 is essentially the same creature as was Window 95. How much really, truly changed? Why should anyone expect metro to become so much more than it already is?

    People used to bitterly complain about the limitations of iOS. Where are those people now with Windows 8? Microsoft is the one putting the choke-hold on usability and function, not Apple. Right now Apple is running a TV commercial for the new 13 inch Macbook Pro–”for the Pro in all of us.” What a wonderful distinction they are setting between themselves and Microsoft which insists ALL users are incapable and should be forced into a primitive environment.

    Windows 8 is a giant leap backwards after decades of so much progress. I really don’t agree with your thoughts on it being polished. Ballmer himself could easily have sat down and drawn colored rectangles and put text in them or a photo from a camera. As an artist, I don’t call that design. It really makes me sad that so many Mac users, who are often creatives, are praising Windows 8. Think about your workflow with metro Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator… Then think about having to organize your documents with the Windows 8 Files App. It’s a complete joke.

    Overall, I’m afraid 10 years from Windows 8′s influence will have dramatically limited our choices on all platforms unless people speak up now. I only hope it fails as badly as every other platform Microsoft has tried it on. Sorry for the long comment.

    • Kevin

      Windows 8 is simply widows 7+1 and the 1 is metro interface. Windows is so customizable compared to osx. If you don’t like metro you just simply download something completely the same as windows 7 start menu. Microsoft gave you the choice to be pro or not. Apple simply is one size fits all. Not that it’s bad, It’s just not for the real ‘pro’s. The new file manager ‘windows explorer’ is much more functional than finder, having command prompt is just one click away, with lots of advanced options dinner don’t provide. Apple does better on giving the user the ease of use, while windows gives more advanced customizable experience.

  • Pierre Wizla

    While being a big Mac OS X fan and owning an iPad, when my first-gen iPhone broke up, I bought a Windows Phone 7 device. It was really cheaper and I’ve always felt attracted by the sexy and radically different Metro interface.
    I’m really happy with my phone. Actually, I find that I get the info I need *faster* than with an iPhone, thanks to the so-called Live Tiles and deep integration with Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin (well before Apple did it).
    As you clearly stated, Connor, Metro is a mobile interface. The gap is huge with previous versions of Windows. I agree with you both: like you, Connor, I really find this new design refreshing and innovative; like Tim, I’m not sure this is appropriate for a desktop environment.
    But I want, for the first time in my life, to give Microsoft a chance. Maybe Windows 9 (or 8.5 or whatever they call the next iteration) will be perfectly polished. After all, when you look at iPhone OS 1.0, it was far from being completely polished, and several key features were missing (remember copy and paste? Spotlight? etc.) And also, even Apple polishes their system (Leopard to Snow Leopard, Lion to Mountain Lion…).
    Disclaimer: I haven’t tried Windows 8 yet ;-)

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      Interesting to hear. I’ve been playing with the idea of trying out a Nokia Lumia. I still want an iPhone 5, but I’ve never owned a modern smartphone (other than an iPod Touch which isn’t quite a phone) and would find it interesting to try. Possibly, anyhow.

      • Pierre Wizla

        It is however useful to know there are some tradeoffs. Mainly because you won’t find an equivalent to every app on the iOS App Store in Windows Phone 7.
        But that could be a good point: in accordance with my rather new ‘minimalist’ way of doing things, I find myself spending less time ‘procrastinating’ with my phone since I switched to WP7!
        The only third-party apps I need are 1password, a Dropbox client, Evernote, an Instapaper client and another one for Google Reader. Everything is available on the Windows Marketplace.
        Also, there is a built-in OneNote app that I find much more useful than the Notes app from iOS. I constantly use it for a lot of purposes: jotting things down (new contacts, ideas, suggestions), updating my groceries list (checkboxes included).
        And, because everything is mainly text based, this is really, really super fast (just a matter of microseconds to launch an app, you won’t even notice it!).
        I recommend it as a first smartphone. People switching from iOS could be disappointed, though. I didn’t, but this is matter of a debate, all depending on how ‘addicted’ to iOS apps you are ;-)

      • AMAR

        One big problem:
        1. Android is miles behind in quality app availability (I own a Nexus)
        2. Then Win Phone hasn’t even started

        Last night I saw the demo Win 8 on a Samsung made Air clone in a mall. It looked and felt crisp. IE 10 looks (haven’t used yet) promising for the first time. I will sure give it a chance.

        But the Metro for me is very limiting. I would want my desktop to be open (open as in visually open). I would want to keep whatever I want there, tiles, widgets, short cut or just a clean minimal nothingness. Both Mac and Xubntu let me do this with blazing fast speed.

        The one big test WIn8 will have to pass is those BSODs and frequent crashes.

        • c

          The Air is a clone of the Sony Vaio X505 so technically the Samsung is a clone of the X505. Get your facts straight.

  • Sigilist

    An interesting take, and I won’t reiterate the range of things mentioned. I will only say that a lot of what this article touts is what I hate about Windows 8. It is my opinion the MS tried to leap-frog on rumors and mentions that Apple would start pushing toward a one-for-all (and further “have it our way”) future of iOS being spread across all of its devices. I think it is a mistake for both companies; I have no interest in the dashboard of a scouter being applied to an eighteen wheeler let alone a jet. Metro is a horrible notion for a computer… as is another form of AppStore trying to play Big Brother to private developers. Those of us who actively support private software and involve themselves in its real world (which isn’t inside the AppStore) know what’s really going on out there.

    I appreciate hearing what someone else finds positive about Win8 as a counterpoint, since after using it I had no idea why anyone would want it… and I am a Win user from way back. (I’m now multi-OS on my mac almost every day.) It pretty much confirmed a lot of the things that drove me away from iOS… which I don’t want on any device that needs to do much more than a portable.

  • mIKE

    We’ve had the new Windows Server 2012 on one of our servers for over a month now and I’ve been testing Windows 8 on my Mac since the ‘consumer preview’ editions (betas) became available.

    By far the biggest complaint is the inconsistency. You want to change a setting? Find the settings on the right side of the screen, then if it doesn’t have it, it either dumps you into the metro settings interface or the desktop settings interface…and you have no idea how to get to those particular settings any other way or which you will end up in.

    Windows update? Good luck getting it to work correctly… especially on the server.

  • Cornelius

    I like to think of it as just one more step toward LCARS.

  • Bryan

    I have the sneaking suspicion that we’re all going to end up going back to the command line anyway. That was meant as humor…or was it?

    • Pierre Wizla

      Funny and interesting comment!
      Interesting if you look at it this way: voice will be the new command line. You speak, you command ;-)

    • http://techinch.com/ Matthew Guay

      The longer I use OS X, the more I love terminal. So…

  • TechFanBoy

    Well, my first impressions of Windows 8 Beta was “this sucks”. Uninstalled the OS is less than an hour of installing it! Then, when I saw Windows 8 running on a touch screen laptop, I had an epiphany!

    I am now the proud owner of a Dell XPS 12 running Windows 8 Pro operating system. This fantastic machine has replaced my MacBook Pro running OS X + Windows XP in VM + my iPad! I love the simplicity of the UI and the interaction with a touch screen is just awesome!!

    Apple makes great hardware but their incremental approach to improving their OS was just stupid! Mountain Lion looks and behaves more like iOS then iOS. Yes, I want seamless integration between my laptop, tablet and phone, but why should I need to manage 3 devices when I can have 2 that provide the performance I need.

    Watch out Apple, Windows 8 will eat your lunch if you keep on the path of incremental software and hardware releases!

  • MadBonkers

    I’ve been into MS software since MS-DOS and Windows 3.1, stuck with them through Win 95, 98, 2000, XP (hated), Vista and 7 (so far their best, albeit incomplete OS). By trade, I’m actually a MS .NET developer (originally from C/C++ and MFC background, starting from Visual C/C++ 6 up to VS2012 currently in use).

    However, I went out and bought a Windows Phone 7 device when they first came out to spite all the iPhone owners around me and was severely let down.. in fact, so much that I ditched my WP7 and finally went out and got an iPhone (and have never looked back).

    Great, lesson learnt I thought, don’t buy a Windows Phone ever again…

    But now they’ve done the same thing to Windows 8.. I tried it for a month and usually I love to upgrade to the latest version of any software as early as possible, but not so with Windows 8.. I absolutely hated it.

    Just as WP7 pushed me into getting an iPhone, Windows 8 convinced me there is no future for users like me with Windows. I went out in December and finally got myself a new MacBook Pro and feel much happier with that.. if I’m going to have to adapt to a new way of doing things, I might as well choose a good, well thought out system.

  • ljdsafjl

    WIndows 7 was very good too; was fine as is. Didn’t need W8.

  • Craig Chant

    I like you MadBonkers have been around Windows since the DOS days, each version of windows has had its issue and as always it has required an SP to fix , make stable or secure.

    However, having got our first Windows 8 machine, I hate it so much , that if it is “Time for a Switch?” as this article suggets, I feel it will be from Windows to Mac!

  • Lehi Beltran

    lol you guys I have been also a Microsoft user since the Dos days and in 2010 purchased my first macbook pro which I love but I have to say that I own a surface tablet pro and definitely love windows 8 they have done such a good job that Microsoft has earned my praises. I will install linux on this thing too :).

  • Ed

    No offence mate but your artcile is invalid and biased. You preffer apple in every aspect and you say that windows has a long way to go. That is definitely an opinion. Many people think that ios is one of the worst operating systems out there. So maybe next time rather than just taking your opinion, you could ask the other side what they think then your articles won’t be biased

  • Timmy

    Macs are always better.Windows just can’t compete with the Mac OS X.It is way better than windows 8.I have used both the operating systems and found that Mac is way more efficient than the windows.

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