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Mac, PC or Linux? Your next operating system

Vista, XP, Linux or OS X; which OS is best?

Mac attack

If you're ready for an even bigger switch, the simple, clean lines of MacBook laptops and Mac Pro desktops hint that using a computer could be straightforward – easy, even. Mac OS X offers the same promise.

Apple's Mac OS X and Windows let you do similar things: surf the web, send emails, play music, organise and print your photos, make home movies and so on. Both can run Microsoft Office, and PC and Mac files can be shared on both systems. But the Mac interface seems to have fewer layers, levels and cryptic settings.

Like Microsoft, Apple ships software a-plenty with its OS X system, most notably the iLife suite. iPhoto handles photographs, iMovie edits video and iTunes manages your music. The latter is available for both Mac OS and Windows so if you've tried iTunes, you'll have a clue how straightforward but powerful Apple programs can be.

Because Apple creates both the hardware and the OS, everything tends to work without glitches. Installing software is certainly easier. Apple proudly boasts that there are no known Mac viruses or spyware loose in the wild. This could be because OS X is a more secure system, or simply because there are so few Macs in relation to Windows PCs that malicious programmers don't bother targeting the Mac OS. It's probably a bit of both, but the result is the same. Mac users don't install virus software and live a more carefree computing life.

It's nearly enough to make a 20-year Windows user jump ship. But that's not necessary, of course. Apple's Boot Camp software allows Intel-based Macs to bypass OS X and boot directly into Windows or other x86 OSes, such as Linux. Now, both übergeeks and regular folks who enjoy OS X's simplicity but still need to run applications in XP, Vista or Linux can run all of these operating systems on one PC.

And with the addition of inexpensive or free virtualisation software from Parallels and VMware, Macs can run those OSes simultaneously. Parallels' software provides a unique Coherence feature, that runs virtualised Windows apps inside OS X – giving you the best of both worlds. Parallels got a jump on VMware, whose product – code-named Fusion – is due this summer.

Both of these programs take a serious performance hit when running, and you'll need twice as much memory to run two OSes at once. And you can forget running Windows games through virtualisation software – although they run well using Boot Camp. As for running games on Mac OS X, well you might as well forget it completely.

Both Parallels and VMware are working to add 3D acceleration to their products, which could finally make serious gaming on a virtualised OS a reality. In the meantime, running games on Macs is a no-no.

But the big Mac OS news is just arriving as Apple is set to launch a new version, OS X 10.5, otherwise known as Leopard, although its release has been delayed until October while Apple works on its iPhone. Leopard promises a modest but desirable collection of features including Time Machine, an automatic backup system that lets let you flip back and forth through previous versions of your files.

Plus Leopard adds support for stationery and an integrated to-do list in Mail, an expansion of the Spotlight search tool to locate files on other Macs on your network, an Exposé-style virtual desktop feature called Spaces, as well as some as-yet-unannounced (killer, we hope) features.
However, Apple still won't allow OS X to be run on non-Mac systems, making buying Apple hardware the only way to run Windows and Mac OSes on one system. All this comes at a cost and Macs are expensive. They are comparable in price to high-end machines such as Sony Vaios, but there are no bargain-brand Macs to rival Dell. Add the cost of a new copy of Windows Vista to the price, and you'll suddenly realise why Macs don't sell as well as PCs.

Another down side is that because fewer people own Macs, you may find yourself stuck for fellow Mac owners that can help you out. So when problems do arise, you'll have to sort them out yourself or rely on internet forums for advice.

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