Choosing the perfect PC platform has never been easier. There have been significant advances in the Windows XP, Windows Vista, Mac and Linux operating systems, so let PC Advisor show you how to enjoy the benefits of all four.
Once, you were either a Windows user, a Mac devotee or a Unix geek. Whatever your poison, you had one OS (operating system) and little or no intention of changing allegiance to another.
Those days are over, however, thanks to the ubiquity of the Intel processor and the hard work of legions of software developers. Now, Apple's systems can run Windows XP and Vista as well as the Mac OS. Meanwhile, Vista is available on new PCs, but you can boot the same system with a Ubuntu Linux disc you downloaded and burned for free. And if you like Ubuntu, you can install it alongside Windows in just a few clicks.
Drastic improvements in virtualisation software, along with hardware advances and standardisation on x86 CPUs, allow any OS to play host to virtual versions of others. Every computer needs a primary OS, but mixing-and-matching them is now far easier.
It's not uncommon for a hobbyist to own a mix of Apple Macs running OS X, PCs running XP and Vista and a couple of computers with Linux distributions. But mainstream users are getting in on the multi-OS act too.
Here, we'll look at whether you should stick with Windows XP, make the move to Vista or perhaps try something entirely different. Whatever you regard as the most important aspect of your day-to-day computing experience – security, usability, software support or appearance – we've got the right system for your needs.
Over the next five pages we outline the key benefits of each OS to take the hassle out of deciding whether XP, Vista, Mac OS or Linux is most suitable for you. And the prescient facts are presented here, in this feature comparison table:
Mac, PC or Linux?
The full version of this article appears in the June 07 issue of PC Advisor, on sale now
Extolling Windows XP
Vista is finally here, but just because there's a new version of Windows, it doesn't mean you have to give XP the heave-ho.
Despite its reputation for Swiss cheese security, it's important to remember why XP became successful. Before XP and its predecessor, Windows 2000, Microsoft operating systems crashed, died and blue-screened weekly or even daily.
Crashes still occur, but they're far less frequent. Some XP users rarely see so much as a hiccup, which is why there is plenty of resistance among consumers about making the switch at all. While 11 percent of 1,608 PC Advisor pollsters plan to migrate to Vista within a year of its launch and a further 10 percent have already done so, 42 percent have no intention of switching at all.
Click here for our WIndows Vista poll results
This shouldn't be a surprise: XP has been the biggest-selling OS in the universe for almost half a decade. Whatever you do with a PC – accounting, blogging, photography, aimless wandering on the internet – the hardware and software works under XP.
If you do the sensible thing and download Windows Media Player 11.0, you've got a highly functional and easily searchable music, photo, video and recorded-TV library that will plug into a range of online stores.
Windows Movie Maker is worth investigating: slideshows, simple-but-effective video edits, transitions and audio overlays are easy to achieve.
If you need to synchronise data with other devices or across networks, XP is the current OS of choice, supporting hundreds if not thousands more programs, printers, cameras, scanners, smartphones, PDAs and GPS devices than any other.
And as XP has been so dominant for so long, it's got the widest number of internal components sewn up. Right now, it's a waiting game for those moving to Vista and keen to continue using XP hardware elements. So if you're equipped with plenty of PC peripherals and consumer gadgetry, running XP continues to be the one way you can guarantee being able to use them.
It's a similar story with software. Much will work on Vista, but you'll need to uninstall and reinstall each program on the new system – while having the licence agreement and product keys to hand.
Security companies have been slow to make their products Vista-ready, at least to Microsoft's specifications. With flaws already identified in Defender and OneCare Live, this is a serious concern.
Of course, you'll have to work to keep the wolves at bay if you're sticking with XP. While XP Service Pack 2, Windows Security Center and Internet Explorer 7.0 have closed a lot of holes, XP is sure to attract hackers and malware writers for years to come. Keep your PC's firewall, antivirus and spyware protection up to date.
In time, software will be written specifically for Vista, but XP users have no need to fear being left out to dry for a number of years yet. Similarly, Microsoft's support for XP will run until at least 2010, if not longer. As Microsoft's most successful OS, it's not likely to stop XP support in the immediate future. But judging by the fact it has delayed the rollout of its Windows XP Service Pack 3 until next year, Microsoft has already begun to focus on its new baby.
According to Forrester Research 40 percent of business Windows customers will move to Vista in the next year. Consumer adoption will expand from 12 million users in the first year to 73 million after four years. Microsoft will continue to roll out Windows XP security fixes for at least five years after it releases Service Pack 3, currently slated for the first half of 2008. So relax, there's no rush.
Windows Vista delivers improved security, but you'll still need a third-party firewall unless you're up for some complex configuration. There are several improved utilities and features, too, but it's the look that makes Vista such a desirable upgrade.
Vista's Aero environment displays windows, icons and other desktop elements with more colours, shading and shadowing, as well as, for the first time, transparency. Buttons glow like red or blue LEDs when you hover over them. Translucent window frames, menus and title bars remind you of other applications buried a layer or two deep, while the Flip 3D task switcher is clearly inspired by Apple's Exposé, which displays thumbnails of all your running apps.
Cribbing more directly from Apple, the gadget-populated Windows Sidebar is a variation on OS X's Dashboard widgets. However, the redesigned Media Player, Control Panel, mail and photo previewing interfaces are evidence that many of Vista's changes are only skin deep. Drilling down through a new menu structure often reveals the same dialog boxes present in XP. Gamers should eventually see great dividends by switching to Vista. DirectX 10.0 promises to accelerate games eightfold, and it won't be available under XP. And Vista's Windows Presentation Foundation makes it easier for software developers to produce graphics-hardware-accelerated applications.
Graphics card makers have pulled out all the stops to have their cards certified. Vista demands DirectX 10.0 support and, indeed, new games and visual applications being written for Vista aren't designed to run on anything but DirectX 10.0.
Vista's many innovations come at a cost, however. When we ran comparative tests on systems running Vista and XP, Vista trailed its predecessor. However, for multitasking and on dual-core PCs, Vista was able to outperform XP. The crucial part of the equation is having a PC with a specification at least equal to the one Microsoft says Vista demands: an absolute minimum of 1GB of RAM, dedicated graphics and, ideally, a dual-core processor. Assuming you meet these criteria, running Vista in all its Aero glory should be no barrier to performance.
So unless you can tolerate a downgrade in performance, you may want to upgrade your PC at the same time as your OS. Nevertheless, on a reasonably equipped system, Vista provides fast search results for files, documents, emails and websites.
XP go home
It seems like only yesterday we were installing Windows XP. Upgrading to a new OS, even when you're giving your PC new capabilities and tools, usually involves an unfamiliar interface and requires some adjustment.
To ease yourself into the new operating system, you could make Vista look like XP. Right-click the Start button, select Properties, Classic Start Menu. You'll revert to a Start menu primarily composed of cascading menus that lead to programs. Right-click the desktop, select Personalize and double-click Theme to choose the Classic theme.
Making XP and Vista look alike is all very well, but are the levels of support for the two identical? Microsoft will eventually expect everyone to adopt Vista. Early indications are that your OS will be supported until 2010, with the 'extended' support cycle for XP Home and XP Media Center Edition running until 2014.
Microsoft is already working on a successor to Vista, codenamed 'Vienna', and has ambitions to launch in three years' time. Vista support for its consumer Home Basic and Home Premium editions, as well as its top-end Ultimate Edition, however, is scheduled to last only until 10 April 2012. If you want an OS that's supported until 2017 via Microsoft's 'extended' cycle, you'll need Vista Business or Enterprise.
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.
Lots to like in Linux
Linux is an open-source operating system, meaning that it's freely available for installation, perusal and adaptation by anyone with the inclination and the know-how to do so. It was developed and distributed by Linus Torvalds, after whom it is named. It was then completed by enthusiasts worldwide, who continue to write applications for Linux.
Windows, by contrast, attempts to keep its design hidden from view. We certainly couldn't envisage Microsoft making its underlying code available to all and sundry to pick apart at will.
Linux was always seen as an also-ran OS, at least for less tech-savvy PC users. It didn't offer the same ease of use as either the Mac OS or Windows. Nor did it come preinstalled on a PC – something that the likes of Dell and HP have dabbled in and, in the former's case, are looking to push ahead with later this year, albeit in a limited way.
Another issue with Linux is that versions of it varied depending on the build or distribution you bought or downloaded. Red Hat and Suse are among the best known, but Ubuntu has been making great strides and it can be run from a bootable CD.
Such distributions are going a long way to change Linux's reputation for being difficult and complex to install and use. Ubuntu's bootable Desktop CD lets you find out whether or not you'll like Linux – and whether Linux will like your PC – without installing anything to the hard disk.
A few clicks more make room for Ubuntu and set it up on your hard drive, alongside Windows or the Mac OS (See Enough Ubuntu already, below). Once the Linux system is in place, a couple of simple applications let you choose from and install hundreds of free programs, including productivity, multimedia and development tools.
Another popular distribution, Novell's OpenSuse, provides configuration utilities and libraries of applications that are nearly as easy to navigate as Ubuntu's. Both Linux distributions deliver frequent bug fixes and automatic updates.
And visually-minded Linux fans can choose from dozens of user interfaces, chief among them KDE and Gnome. Both interfaces are evolving steadily, borrowing good ideas from each other as well as from Apple and Microsoft.
Despite its reputation, with its minimal hardware requirements and solid security Linux is more than capable of serving as a bullet-proof primary operating system. And with painless dual-booting and virtualisation options, including several free and open-source applications and the kernel-based Xen software, you can easily try out the latest in Linux without having to abandon your current operating system.
Enough ubuntu already
Ubuntu is a Linux OS that works on both PCs and Macs. It can be installed to dual-boot on Macs (both G5 and Intel) and it’s free. The software is burned to a CD, from which you can launch the operating system. Then you can finesse your OS before committing to an installation.
Alongside the operating system itself you get copies of The Gimp, Firefox, an email package called Evolution and plenty of games and tools. If you want more, there’s a built-in software-update utility that plugs into Ubuntu’s online catalogue. Receiving and installing applications is a simple case of ticking boxes and clicking ok.
Getting Ubuntu to run, however, took us the best part of an afternoon and an evening. Even then it failed to recognise our test monitor until we accessed the root user command to edit text-configuration files. Ubuntu is glorious fun if you enjoy tinkering – once installed, we spent ages playing with it. But if you need to get things done, get back to your PC.