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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: Navigation

Windows 8

The visual redesign of Windows 8 is quite striking, but it’s nothing compared to the overhaul that has taken place in terms of how the user navigates their way around the system. In this respect it's the most significant area where the two operating systems diverge.

In Mountain Lion the Trackpad, with its multi-touch gestures, can become the fulcrum of the whole user experience, while Microsoft has decided that on Windows 8 the touchscreen should be the primary control - for the Modern UI at least.  

As you might imagine, this dictates many of the decisions developers have to make in regards to app performance and even hardware design. This became manifest to us when we were considering which machines to use for the duration of this feature. On the Mac it didn’t really seem to matter as the controls behaved in exactly the same way across all of the current Apple hardware. But choosing the Windows machine gave us a few headaches. We chose the Lenovo Yoga 13 because it offered a full Windows 8 desktop experience, but could convert to a tablet by simply folding the screen back underneath the keyboard.

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13

However, the larger choice of Windows hardware highlights how Microsoft’s desire to have a unified OS for all every type of device can be a confusing affair. We've already heard stories of customers buying Windows RT tablets thinking they were Windows 8 because they looked exactly the same, only to find that none of their existing software can be installed or even downloaded from the poorly stocked app store.

As Windows 8 matures in the coming years this may become less of an issue, and hopefully many of the programs we know and love will migrate to the Modern UI (without being compromised in the process). But at the moment it feels like Windows 8 is optimised for hardware, and indeed software, that isn’t quite ready to fulfil the OS’s vision for the future.

It’s also interesting to note that Apple currently leads the world in consumer touchscreen technology with the iPad and iPhone, but has - for now, at least - decided to keep OS X and iOS as distinct and separate environments.

MacBook Air

Many of the touchscreen features of Windows 8 make complete sense. Swiping left to right moves the various Modern UI apps in the relevant direction and pressing any part of the screen has the reaction you would expect from a tablet - options are chosen, text boxes are activated, angry birds are catapulted. From the Start screen it's easy to move around and select an application to launch.

As we've already said, it's perfectly possible to use a mouse to achieve most of the things you can with a touchscreen, but it takes a while to get used to the left/right scrolling. For the most part the mouse wheel will automatically scroll left and right when this is all you can do, although you might have to click first to 'focus' the mouse on the scroll bar.

A significant portion of users are now used to the way mobile phones or tablets work, and therefore expect certain things to happen in a touch environment. For example - dragging down from the top is often a way to access notifications, but now you’ll close an app or on other occasions bring up a limited amount of contextual options. (A right click of the mouse brings up the same menus.)

Once these options appear it can also be baffling how to get rid of them. In the Mail app if you swipe in from either the top or bottom then you get the aforementioned menu, but to get rid of it you don’t repeat the action in reverse, instead you repeat it again. You can tap anywhere on the rest of the screen to get rid of the menu, but if you move your finger while doing it you’ll only scroll through the contents on the page instead. These are minor points, but they crop up more often that you might expect and quickly become irritating.

Mail app Windows 8

Swiping in from the right of the screen reveals the Charms bar, a useful link to the various settings on the PC. It’s noticeable that to dismiss this menu you do indeed reverse the action, which is inconsistent with the vertical gestures. Menus also fail to appear if you move too quickly, or your fingers are too light on the screen, which can become an issue when you’re working at a steady rate but find yourself tripping over the menus while hurrying to the next task.

There are also movements that don’t work the way you expect them to. When swiping in from the left you switch to the next open application. No problem there, but if you want to go back to the previous one you can’t reverse the motion. Instead you need to cycle through the apps until you get back to the start or quickly swipe right then left to open up a list of the available programs. It’s not the end of the world, and you still have the Alt+Tab option available, but it’s just another thing you have to remember.

Using the touchscreen can be fun, especially on websites with lots of links to click on, and we’ve no doubt that in time users will adapt to the quirks of the design, but the learning curve feels obstructive when you first use the OS.

OS X

Apple by contrast has honed the OS X interface to a very impressive degree in this vital area. As many a user’s fingers are already well versed in the way of trackpads it’s no great leap to find that two fingers scroll the page (admittedly in a direction that emulates touching content on-screen that Apple calls ‘Natural’. You can reverse the direction if you don't like it.

OS X Mountain Lion navigation

So adjusting to pushing four fingers up to reveal the open applications, pinching five fingers inwards to open the Launchpad screen (which holds icons for every program installed), and swiping three fingers left or right to move through different virtual desktops is a short jump that's easy to master in minutes.

All commands are speedy and become second nature in no time at all. Some applications also allow the screen contents to be rotated by moving two fingers in a circular motion.

It’s obvious that Apple has learned a great deal from the development of the iPhone and iPad and their control systems. This pays dividends in Mountain Lion which, rather than bewildering you with variety, makes a good deal of sense and remains consistent throughout the OS. It means Mountain Lion is a much friendlier environment than Windows 8 for someone sitting down to use it for the first time.

Next page: Window 8 vs Mac OS X - Bundled apps

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