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Windows 8 vs OS X Mountain Lion: which is the better operating system?

We pit the latest OS from Microsoft against Apple's

Window 8 vs Mac OS X: Interface design

Windows 8

Let's start is with the new Modern UI. There’s no doubt that this is probably one of the boldest moves that Microsoft has made with Windows, and every new Windows device on sale proudly displays the colourful and dynamic design.

We can see why the Start screen (effectively a replacement for the old Start Menu) is an interesting environment. Large boxes form a multi-coloured grid that sits on top of a customisable background. Several tiles are live, meaning that they update frequently to reveal the latest sports news, search trends on Bing, weather in your location, or news headlines, and the desktop app tile displays the current wallpaper that you use on the traditional Windows desktop.

The addition of images that accompany the constantly changing news makes the whole Start screen experience seem alive and interesting, even to the point of it actually being distracting. Leaving this Start screen open while reading through a document on a second screen can be a hazardous affair as your eye is invariably drawn to the flashing and flickering of transfer rumours or the startling news that Dolphins are one of the most searched-for terms on the internet today.

For the more organised user, there's the option to group the icons together in columns simply by dragging them into a new grid and then using the pinch gesture (or mouse wheel) to zoom out, clicking on the column and then naming it.

Windows 8 Start screen

Selecting one of said icons also shows that Microsoft’s designers have a dash of flair. The tile animation expands, flipping over as it does so, before launching the app. It’s a small detail but adds charm.

This also introduces one of the other significant changes to the Windows experience, that of the full-screen app. When using the traditional desktop, you have the choice of resizing windows to suit your preference and screen real-estate, but in the Modern UI full-screen apps are order of the day.

Windows 8 Full-screen App

The one concession is ‘Snap’ a feature that allows you to display an app on most of the screen, with another squeezed into a quarter strip on either the left or right. For Twitter feeds or other list-based apps this can work quite well, but if you want to run anything more complicated side-by-side then you’ll need to invest in a second monitor or develop a deep kinship with the Windows+Tab shortcut.

This is where the tablet-like nature of the new design begins to rear its head, and may cause those who have grown up using Windows a little confusion. Many of the Modern UI apps also have simplified layouts both visually and functionally, but we’ll cover that in more depth below. Even the symbols for loading or processing have been tweaked, with users now watching five little balls orbit around an invisible sun, or a coloured line stretching across the top of the screen until the job is completed.

All of this looks, as the name aptly conveys, like a modern OS. In fact when you think of the clean lines and expanses of white empty space often found on the screen, it seems oddly similar in tone to Google’s most recent version of Android, mixed with the traditional minimalism of Apple.

Quite a departure from the traditional desktop, which you'll still use a lot to run the applications you use every day, such as Office, Photoshop and your web browser. That is, of course, until Modern UI versions appear which best the traditional versions. That's unlikely to happen any time soon, we'd wager.

Windows 8 Desktop

On the desktop you can run your Windows 7/Vista/XP software and generally find your way around in a traditional manner, but it does require changing several default application settings (which we'll mention later) to avoid the common situation where you click on something in the Desktop app, say an image file, only to find yourself transported back to the Modern UI as the Photos app launches. Some people might not mind this switching about, while others will find it grating.

These are all set-and-forget fixes, but during the first few hours in the Windows 8 environment it can be easy to feel a bit lost, especially if you’re not confident when it comes to playing with your settings.

Arguably the most frustrating element is that Modern UI apps don’t have buttons to minimise or close the window, instead they rely on a less-than-obvious gesture where you drag your finger (or mouse cursor) down from the top to exit, or swipe in from the left side to switch between apps.

If you don’t have a touchscreen then Window+Tab will navigate between open Modern UI apps, and Alt+Tab will cycle through everything. Those preferring to use their mouse for everything will discover the new 'hot' corners which display the list of running apps (and charms bar) when you put your cursor in the left or right-hand corners respectively.

OS X

OS X, in case you're unfamiliar with Macs, is much more like Windows 7 than Windows 8's Modern UI. It's a windowing operating system and making the switch from XP/Vista/7 to OS X isn't difficult at all.

Mountain Lion Desktop

The latest version is called Mountain Lion, with previous iterations also named after big cats. Instead of fancy new graphics or unified layouts, Mountain Lion instead gets a carefully administered sheen of polish with useful features that make your life that bit easier.

By default the desktop is empty, with a dock at the bottom of the screen providing shortcuts for the various programs you can launch. You can achieve a similar look in Windows 7 (or 8), where you can pin shortcuts to the taskbar.

Mountain Lion's dock has a feature where icons are magnified as you move your mouse across them, which is either something you’ll find helpful or just plain annoying (it's disabled by default though). The dock can also hide itself away when you’re not using it, appearing only if you move your cursor to the bottom of the screen.

Whereas the minimise and maximise options on Windows have always given you a shortcut to either full-screen displays or hiding windows away, the Apple approach has been a little more confusing. Clicking on the green + button (zoom) can sometimes mean the window increases to fill the whole screen (while retaining the menu bars at the top), but on other occasions it just fills the height of the screen. This seems dependant on how you’ve set the window up before or possibly the internal settings of applications.

Since the release of OS X Lion, Apple has also included a full-screen button on many of its apps which not only expands the window in question but also removes the menus at the top so that it can utilise the entire screen for the application. In this respect, the move to full-screen apps that Windows 8 has made its standard was first available in Mountain Lion, but the decision whether to use it or not still remains under the control of the user without the need to work in a separate desktop environment.

Next page: Window 8 vs Mac OS X - Navigation

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