OS Smackdown: Linux vs. Mac OS X vs. Vista vs. XP

Four experts defend their chosen operating systems in an opinionated free-for-all

Windows Vista: The best there is (despite the bad rep)

If you want the best operating system available today, there is only one choice: Windows Vista.

You heard me right: Vista, the operating system that people love to hate. The system that has been blamed, it seems, for everything from global warming to the US economic meltdown.

I'm here to tell you that the conventional wisdom is flat-out wrong. Vista is a solid, hard-working operating system that will run whatever software you need with simplicity and grace. And it doesn't suffer from the world of woes that affect its competitors.

Interface, tweakability and extras

Why is Vista the best operating system? The interface is a good place to start. Vista has a straightforward elegance, featuring transparent windows that niftily whoosh into and out of place when you minimize or maximize them.

Don't like the way Vista looks or works? No problem; change it. From the transparency of windows down to almost every level of the operating system, there's a way to customize it. And there's plenty of free and cheap software for further tweaking.

Vista's user interface is more than just a pretty face. Windows Flip 3-D, which shows you all of your open windows in a 3-D flip book, is exceptionally useful. So are Live Thumbnails, which show small thumbnails of what's happening in your minimized windows, including real-time video.

The integration of search into every level of the OS, including the Start menu and Windows Explorer, makes finding any information easy and fast. All your documents, files and communications are instantly indexed, and searching is lightning-fast. And it integrates with Microsoft Office applications, so that when you search in Outlook for e-mail, for example, you're using the Vista search tool, and you get near instantaneous results.

Vista also includes some very nice extras, such as gadgets for the Sidebar; the Sync Center, which makes it easy to keep data on multiple PCs in sync; and easy wireless networking.

Best choice of software

An operating system by itself is a lonely thing ... in fact, a worthless thing. Its true purpose is to let you run software for work, play or hobbies.

Do you need to run enterprise software at work? Don't try it with Mac OS X or Linux -- most likely they won't work. How about games? Again, Windows rules. There simply aren't nearly as many games that run on the Mac or Linux. The same holds true for many other kinds of software.

Now, it's true that for the moment, Windows XP is superior to Vista when it comes to software compatibility. But that won't last long. The best and newest software will be built for Vista, not XP. So if you want to look to the future, not the past, Vista is the way to go.

Security

With its built-in firewall, antispyware and antiphishing features, Windows Vista is far safer than XP. Making it even more secure are its under-the-hood features such as Window Service Hardening, which stops malicious activity from taking place in the file system, the Registry and the network to which the PC is attached. Similarly, Network Access Protection (NAP) stops an infected computer from making a connection to a network, ensuring that it can't infect other PCs.

Much has been made of the fact that Windows has been subject to more attacks than Mac OS X or Linux. That's not necessarily due to inherent Windows security problems, though. It's simply because there are so many more copies of Windows in existence, so malware writers target it.

Why it beats the competition

Why is Vista better than the Mac OS X, Linux and XP? Let's start with the Mac. There's no doubt that Mac OS X is a very pretty operating system. But it also runs only on expensive, proprietary hardware, and it can't run much common software, including enterprise applications and games.

Some people claim virtualization software like Parallels Desktop for Mac solves that problem, but it's not true. Virtualization software creates big problems for organizations with regard to volume licensing, technical support, creating standard enterprisewide images and so on. And as for games, consider this: Parallels can't run even the most basic Vista games such as FreeCell, Hearts, Pinball, Solitaire and Minesweeper, because it doesn't support DirectX 9.

So if you want to pay through the nose for a computer that can run only a limited number of apps and games, go ahead and throw away your money. Just keep in mind that you'll be putting money into the coffers of a company whose CEO has hypnotized its users into drinking the true-believer Kool Aid. Do you really want to join the club of users who get a big dose of their sense of self-worth from the type of computer they use?

As for Linux, if you're a fan, feel free to fly your uber-geek badge every time you boot up -- but don't expect to run your company's enterprise software, much less mainstream software and games. And do expect to become very familiar with the confusing vagaries of the specific version of Linux you've installed.

Windows XP? It's cartoonish and gauche compared with Vista, plus it lacks Vista's security, fit and polish, and extras. It's also looking backward, rather than forward. I have a dual-boot Vista/XP laptop, and every time I boot into XP instead of Vista, I cringe at what faces me.

Bottom line

If you want a safe, modern operating system that will run the software you want on reasonably priced hardware without requiring an advanced degree in geekology, Windows Vista is the only way to go.

-- Preston Gralla

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