The Truth About Windows AlternativesCan an annoyed Windows user find happiness in a multiplatform environment? Our editor tried the Mac and Linux--and came away impressed.
Eric Dahl is a senior editor for PC World.
Illustration by Hal Mayforth
Alternative operating systems look better all the time. If you like open-source software, such as the Firefox browser, you have to wonder whether Linux, too, is worth a shot. Plus, the stunning look of OS X (and the affordability of the Mac Mini) intrigued me.
But getting started with a new OS is a big adjustment. Sure, Windows can be annoying, yet most of us can't give it up entirely. Would it help to do most of my work in Linux or Mac OS, switching back to my Windows box when necessary? Or would a cross-platform setup introduce its own hurdles and annoyances, wiping out any benefits found in the alternative OS?
To find out, I spent a few weeks working with Xandros Linux and Mac OS X 10.4 (aka Tiger) in a mostly-Windows computing environment. Along the way, I dug into some of the conventional wisdom that surrounds Linux, Mac OS, and Windows, reexamining the preconceptions many people still have about these different operating systems.
Finally, how will Microsoft match the most appealing features of Linux and Mac OS? See "Microsoft's Longhorn Plays Catch-Up"--the last page of this article--for some answers.
Xandros OS 3 Deluxe
Xandros includes the free, powerful GIMP photo editor.
As a free OS that can run on your existing PC hardware, Linux has a significant advantage over Tiger. The first step in installing Linux is to pick a distribution that bundles together the key OS components and drivers you'll need. Most distributions also come with a large bundle of free, open-source applications, including everything from an office suite and a Web browser to games and image editors.
Many Linux distributions are available as free downloads, most often in the form of an.iso file that you burn to a CD using your CD-mastering software (click here for a list). There's a catch, however: Free versions of Linux rarely include any technical support beyond what you'll find in online forums and FAQs on the distribution's Web site.
But the deluxe versions--like SuSE Professional 9.3 ($60 and up), or the Xandros Desktop OS Version 3 Deluxe Edition distribution ($90) that I chose--often do offer tech support. Xandros also provides extensive printed documentation and some well-written FAQs on its support site.
The Linux Control Center looks like Windows' Control Panel.
Once my Xandros test machine was set up, life in Linux was easy to get used to--and surprisingly uneventful. Apart from a few niggling issues that I'll discuss below, I had relatively few problems. I could accomplish all the tasks I do in a normal workday--editing Word and Excel files, browsing the Web, moving files around our local network, and using IM and e-mail. The KDE desktop environment felt familiar and easy to navigate, while providing a few small enhancements like multiple desktops. In that sense, Xandros proved to be a more than capable alternative to Windows.
But while working in Xandros was simple enough, I didn't feel that I'd gained much from making the switch. Low cost and high security are among the best things Linux has going for it, making it a great choice if you require a bulletproof (or kid-proof) workhorse machine. Budget-conscious gamers might want to try a dual-boot setup: Boot into Windows for the games that require it, but work in Linux for most other tasks.
Beyond those two scenarios, I couldn't come up with many practical reasons for an intermediate-to-advanced Windows user to convert. My Windows software is already paid for, and with a capable firewall, good antivirus protection, and sensible computing practices, I personally can't say I'm too concerned about malware infecting my Windows PC. Still, Linux has a lot to recommend it, as I saw when I dug into some common Linux beliefs.
Conventional Wisdom: Linux is difficult to install and get running.
Reality: Well, that certainly wasn't my experience--the basics of installing Linux have gotten much easier. To get my test machine up and running, I first set my PC's BIOS to boot from the optical drive (you may not need to do this step). Insert the first Xandros CD, reboot, and you get a polished install routine that walks you through the decisions you have to make when installing any OS, such as time zone for the clock, networking support, and printer drivers.
Xandros let me choose to wipe out the version of Windows on my hard disk and start fresh, or to set up a dual-boot system that could run Windows or Xandros. I opted to dual-boot; all told, my PC was ready to go a scant 30 minutes after I began the installation.
Spotty hardware support can frustrate some new Linux users.
I ran into a couple of problems after setup. The first networked printer I tried, an old HP LaserJet 5si, simply would not print, even though the drivers seemed to install correctly. A newer HP printer, with a Linux driver from HP, worked perfectly. Xandros also couldn't identify my 21-inch ViewSonic monitor. A quick change to a setting in the KDE Control Center sorted that out. (Control Center works much like Windows' Control Panel.)
My test setup used standard PC hardware, but it always pays to check your hardware for Linux compatibility before installing the new OS. Wireless network adapter support, for example, is still a bit sketchy (click here for more about this tricky problem).
Conventional Wisdom: Linux is more secure than Windows.
Reality: It almost certainly is. These days, you'd be crazy to run a Windows box without every hotfix installed, as well as antivirus software, a firewall, and a spyware scanner. Linux and Mac users rarely need to worry about most of those tools. The vast majority of viruses, spyware, and adware all focus on Windows.
Do Linux and other open-source projects have their own security issues? Definitely. The Mozilla Foundation, for example, has released several updates to fix holes that were found in its Firefox browser. Open-source software is not a panacea, but programmers often fix, and release patches for, serious security holes in their tools within hours of discovery.
Linux was designed to be a multiuser OS, so security has historically been more of a focus for Linux users. Running a firewall on your Linux desktop system is still necessary, and the Deluxe version of Xandros ships with one included (but not enabled by default). Xandros Deluxe also comes with a tool called KDE Password Wallet, which stores Web site log-ins in an encrypted file. XP's own password manager doesn't offer nearly as good security for your stored passwords.
Conventional Wisdom: Moving data files back and forth between Windows and Linux can cause problems.
Reality: Not as many as you may think. OpenOffice.org worked remarkably well as a Microsoft Office substitute. In my tests, I encountered no significant glitches, even when editing Word documents that used revisions mode--historically a problem for most Office clones.
And if OpenOffice.org isn't cutting it, you can always install Microsoft Office itself with the help of CodeWeavers' CrossOver Office, which emulates enough of Windows to get Office (and other prominent Windows apps) running under Linux. Version 4.1 shipped with my Deluxe copy of Xandros.
Some of the other apps I tried didn't work as well. ITunes, for example, is listed as a supported application, but I couldn't ever get sound to work under CrossOver.
Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger
Illustration by Hal Mayforth
That's an impressive feat of hardware design, but the OS itself is what captured my imagination. Graphically, Tiger runs rings around both Windows and Linux. Transparency effects, elegant fades and swooshes, and high-resolution icons abound. Often such visual gloss becomes tiresome, but in Tiger most of the effects felt natural and added to my enjoyment of using the OS.
As my Linux test machine did, the IMac integrated with our office network just fine, and soon I was happily working with the Mac versions of Office and Firefox to accomplish my standard workday tasks. But working with Tiger and the IMac took quite an adjustment. A few hours with the minimalist Mac mouse was enough to send me hunting for a wired USB mouse--or any USB mouse, as long as it had at least two buttons and a scroll wheel. Any Windows user making the switch should invest in an alternative mouse before even booting up their Mac. The system's cramped wireless keyboard was the next to go after the ninth time I hit the <F13> key instead of <Delete>.
Tiger's Expose feature gives you ready access to many windows at once.
Once that was squared away, I began to really enjoy Tiger. Whereas my Linux test machine was an easy transition that didn't feel as if it delivered much value, moving to Tiger had several immediate advantages. A task-switching feature called Exposé (at left) is my favorite. When you have multiple windows open, simply flicking your mouse over to a hot-corner of the screen or pressing a hot-key displays a thumbnail of each open window. Just click the one you want to bring it to the foreground. It's a decent productivity boost for anyone who likes to work with lots of windows at once, with the added benefit that it simply looks amazing.
Tiger's Spotlight is a fast file finder.
Spotlight, Apple's new desktop search feature, provides the other major advantage of Tiger. Click the little magnifying glass in the top-right corner of the screen to bring up a search box (click on thumbnail image at right). Spotlight will instantly home in on the most relevant results and then group them all into useful categories such as applications, documents, and e-mail messages. And you can save a Spotlight query as a "Smart Folder," which updates itself. Another cool feature, Dashboard (below), offers widgets to simplify various tasks on the desktop.
Dashboard's desktop widgets simplify tasks like checking the weather (top).
Finally, once you consider the better security and lower likelihood of virus attacks, Macs start to look a lot more attractive. But first you have to assess the cost. Right off the bat, you're looking at purchasing new hardware. Once you factor in the cost of peripherals and Mac-compatible software, adding a Mac to your computing mix gets expensive. Is it still worthwhile? Let's look at some widely held beliefs about Macs.
Conventional Wisdom: Mac OS is more intuitive, but it's also underpowered.
Reality: Arguably wrong on both counts. Mac OS has often been way ahead of Windows in adopting intuitive interface design concepts; its adherence to Fitts' Law is one example. Fitts' Law says, among other things, that the corners and sides of computer screens are the easiest targets to hit, because no matter how far past the target you move your mouse, the pointer stays planted at the edge of the screen. Mac OS's dock, application menus, and various corner menus all take advantage of Fitts' Law. Originally the Windows XP taskbar didn't, although that has now changed.
For some users, whether an OS is intuitive misses the point. While I can understand that there are usually good reasons why the Mac OS interface works differently, breaking many years of habit is a maddening process. I've been using Windows for years, so any system that deviates from the way Windows works will be an adjustment. I expect scroll bars to have arrows at both ends, not just one end. I'm used to pressing <Ctrl> with my pinky finger to use most keyboard shortcuts.
But the real power in Tiger comes from features like Spotlight search and Exposé--great tools that you won't find in Windows. An easy-to-use scripting applet called Automator helps make repetitive tasks simple. And like Linux, Mac OS was built on Unix-like underpinnings, so all the command-line access you could ever want is there, if you need it. In short, the old saw about Macs feeling like computers with training wheels doesn't apply.
Conventional Wisdom: The Mac hardware is expensive for what you get.
Reality: Sad but true, especially if you're just comparing hardware specs. The least expensive Mac you can purchase right now is the $499 Mac Mini, which comes with a mere 256MB of RAM and a 40GB hard drive. If you move up to the PowerMac systems, where a high-end, dual-processor G5 goes for $2999, a comparably priced PC would ship with twice the hard-drive space and memory, a much better graphics card, extras such as built-in wireless networking, and very likely a monitor.
That is not to discount the value in well-designed hardware. Macs look great, and they frequently incorporate functional design touches. Top-of-the-line G5 models, for example, are water-cooled, keeping them quiet, as well.
As Apple transitions to Intel processors next year, it might bring Mac prices more in line with those of their PC counterparts. Still, most analysts expect Macs to retain a healthy price premium.
Besides hardware, a Windows user shifting to the Mac has to consider the cost of compatible software, too. Microsoft Office is probably a must, so that's $400 right there. Any other paid software that you need to run must also be added to the tally.
Conventional Wisdom: Mac OS lacks applications.
Reality: Sort of. Clearly, the sheer volume of Windows applications dwarfs the number that are available for Macs. But almost all of the major productivity apps have Mac versions. Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and InDesign, Macromedia's Web development and design tools, and video editing tools like Adobe Premiere--not to mention Apple's own Final Cut--are all Mac-ready.
But the one glaring hole in Mac software is games. While some popular titles like World of Warcraft, Doom 3, and many real-time strategy games have Mac versions, you won't find Half-Life 2, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, or a lot of other popular PC games on the Mac. When they do make the leap, it's often several months after the PC game release. The transition to Intel processors may help close the gaming gap by introducing yet another common component between the two architectures. So perhaps we'll soon see more Mac-enabled games.
A Look to the Future
If you want to take a break from your Windows annoyances right now, there's good news. You'll face a significant adjustment period when you pick up either a Mac or Linux, but adding a different OS to your computing environment has never been easier.
Stable, refined Linux distributions like Xandros provide an alternative OS that you can install on your existing PC hardware. But if I'm going to spend my time and money adjusting to a different OS, I want it to actually enhance my computing experience. That's what I found in Tiger. Amazing visuals, helpful tools like Spotlight, and superior overall polish provide clear benefits over Windows.
Microsoft's Longhorn Plays Catch-Up
Illustration by Hal Mayforth
Search:Longhorn was supposed to be built around a completely new file system called WinFS, but that won't make it into Longhorn's initial release. Microsoft planned to use WinFS to power up Windows' search capabilities, but the company hasn't given up on improving Windows' desktop search capabilities entirely. Longhorn will let you create virtual lists of files based on search terms, much like the Smart Folders you can create with Mac OS's Spotlight. So far, though, Longhorn's search capabilities don't appear to have the same slick autogrouping function that Spotlight has.
Security:"Safe and secure" is one of the six key pillars on which Microsoft claims to be building Longhorn, and the OS will finally include the two-way Windows firewall that Microsoft originally wanted to have ready for XP Service Pack 2. Beyond that, however, few details have emerged about Longhorn's expanded security features. At press time, none of the security enhancements have made it into the early builds that have been released to developers.
Task Switching:While it's not nearly the same as Tiger's Exposé feature, Microsoft's Alt-Tab Replacement PowerToy for Windows XP displays a thumbnail preview as you Tab through each running application's icon. Microsoft hasn't announced or shown anything like Exposé as part of Longhorn, but the visual enhancements that the company is adding to the OS--see below--certainly would make such a thing possible.
Visuals:Longhorn will lend some slick visual touches to Windows. The OS will use a new graphics engine called Avalon that employs the 3D rendering muscle built into your graphics card. Transparency effects, 3D rotating, and other animations all make appearances in the Aero desktop theme, which also brings the brushed-metal look to the Windows world. But Longhorn's visuals aren't just about eye candy: Microsoft has shown several new folder views that display previews of the documents within them to aid in navigation.