Why the new version of Apple's Mac OS X is still miles ahead of Microsoft's Windows and why you need to make the switch.
You've got to hand it to Microsoft; Windows 7 was a spectacular saving of face after the slow-moving train wreck that was Vista. It's a very good OS. But then, Windows XP was pretty good too. Win 7 is basically XP with a coat of paint and a lot of under-the-hood upgrades to cope with more modern system architecture. On the front-end of the OS Microsoft hasn't done much rethinking of the basics in a decade. Part of this stagnation is because of Microsoft's fear of offending corporate customers — every change has to be oh-soslowly introduced (and Redmond just announced another 1,000 days of support for Windows XP, for Chrissakes!). Apple, on the other hand, has no fear of offending anyone. It regularly pisses people off by taking the "our way or the highway" approach. But this lack of ball-and-chain mentality allows it to make rapid improvements in its software that Microsoft seems incapable of making. Here are the top 10 features of Mac OS X 10.7 "Lion" that demonstrate why Apple is still winning against Windows.
Networking has never been something that any OS maker has ever been able to make accessible to the non-techy person. Its reliance on accounts, permissions, share names and firewalls puts it in the realm of 'the IT guy' or the geeky family member. With Lion, transferring files between two Mac users is as easy as both of you going to the 'AirDrop' screen. Apple uses Wi-Fi triangulation technology to calculate the physical position of both computers. If it matches you as being close together, it will allow you to establish a peer-to-peer network with each other, and transfer files directly between the two Macs. The connection is still secure — files can only be sent, rather than a network share being browsable, and the receiver of the files has to agree to receive them.
One of the biggest advantages Macs have over Windows PCs generally is utterly reliable, near-instant suspend and resume. It's hard to really understand how useful this is until you've experienced it. Windows has suspend and resume functionality, but how well it works is heavily reliant on the assortment of drivers and how well a system maker has implemented everything. Sadly, the majority of PC makers do not do it right, and Windows can still take several seconds — or longer — to resume. Lion is now taking that to the next level with Resume, which opens apps to the same state they were in when they were last quit. So, if you have to reboot your machine, you can get back to where you were quickly.
3. Auto Save
While Microsoft Office has a good autosave feature, most apps still don't have it. In Lion, Apple has made Auto Save a system-wide API that any app can hook into, meaning everything from the plain text editor upwards will be able to auto-save documents. Because it's built into the OS, it's designed so users and developers don't have to worry about overwriting a good version of a file with a partially edited one — the system keeps multiple duplicate versions. This is married up to an upgraded version of Apple's Time Machine backup software which used to only work when an external or networked hard drive was connected. Now, Time Machine is capable of letting users delve back into previous auto-saved versions. You can even grab pieces out of an older version, rather than restoring a file to a whole version.
4. Virtual desktops
Windows doesn't have them at all, but to be fair to Microsoft, desktop switching isn't exactly something that people have been crying out for. Mac OS X already had 'Spaces' for the last two versions of the OS but it was an unloved feature, ignored by most people, because it was pretty inconvenient to use. In Lion, Spaces is actually useful, due to one key improvement — the ability to swipe between desktops using a multi-touch gesture. There's absolutely no delay; just a silky smooth horizontal scroll.
5. Better app switching
We thought Apple's Exposé window management feature was pretty revolutionary when it was introduced back in 2003 (especially compared to what was available at the time: [Alt]+[Tab] in Windows!) You could press one button on the keyboard and see a shrunken version of all your open windows at once — or just the open windows from your current app. The downside of this was that as Macs got more powerful, people left more and more windows open, and it became difficult to make out which window belonged to what. The new Mission Control feature in Lion is a refined version of Exposé — it shows a miniaturised version of all your apps, along with their windows clustered together, so it's easy to switch apps and switch windows. You can also drag an app to one of your Spaces.
Sync between computers and mobile devices is still a roadblock for a lot of people. Dropbox has made PC-to-PC sync easy, but because mobile phones are pretty locked down, the Dropbox mobile app doesn't integrate very deeply with the contents of mobile phones. There's Google Sync, but it still requires pages and pages of instructions on how to set it up — and support on the desktop is patchy. Apple's own MobileMe service was an overpriced disaster from day one. The introduction of the free Apple iCloud service will closely sync the iPhone/iPod/iPad with Macs (including Mac-to-Mac sync). One username and password login will do the lot: photos you take on your iPhone will automatically appear on your Mac; documents will sync, apps and music/video content will appear across all the devices, and contacts/mail/calendar will be kept in sync. In OS X Lion, a Mac can even be woken from sleep overnight to do iCloud sync tasks, without having to turn on the monitor or attached USB devices.
7. Remote wipe
In the era of identity theft, notebook users take a big risk by leaving the contents of their notebook open to someone who finds/steals it. Apple's new full-disk encryption in Lion means two things: someone who gets hold of a Mac can only use it if they're already logged in to a user's account. Even if they take the hard drive out, it will be unreadable. But where Lion really beats Windows (which already has full-disk encryption) is that a Mac's hard drive can be remotely erased by its owner. Using iCloud, you can just log in and request that the encryption keys of that Mac be wiped. The instant a crook connects the notebook to a network, the data on that Mac will go up in a puff of encrypted smoke.
8. App store
This will surely come to Windows in Windows 8 — and to an advanced user an app store might not be a big deal — but the popularity of app stores in the mobile space demonstrates how the software discovery and installation process is still a challenge for most people. The app store on Mac OS X makes it possible to buy software using iTunes store credit (or credit card details), and makes it easy for people to find the sort of software they're looking for in a consistent directory format. The little-known killer-feature of the Mac App Store, though: all software purchased through it can be installed on up to 10 Macs! There are also no serial numbers — if you switch Macs or need to reinstall an app later, a list of all previously purchased/downloaded apps is available for one-click reinstallation.
Windows 7 Home Premium upgrade costs US$119.99 per PC ($199 per PC in Australia) and the full version costs US$199.99 ($299 in Aus). Meanwhile, Lion costs U$29.99 ($31.99 in Aus) and can be installed on up to 10 Macs. No further explanation required.
10. Sign documents
From the 'tiny feature, but oh so useful' department. You know the promise of the 'paperless office'? Yeah, the faceless bureaucrat who still makes forms that still need to be signed with a pen-and-ink signature didn't seem to get that memo. Apple has found a solution to that. Open up any PDF form in Apple Preview; 'sign' it by stamping your signature on it and saving it again. The brilliant part is how you add your signature to Preview the first time — just sign on a piece of paper and hold it up to the Mac's webcam.