Windows 8 vs. OS X Mountain Lion: The debate begins

While both operating systems are far from final, CNET editors Seth Rosenblatt and Jason Parker run a comparison on key features.


The Mountain Lion Developer Preview came out just a couple of weeks ago, and today's announcement for Windows 8 Consumer Preview now puts both of the major next-generation operating systems on display for all to see. CNET editors Seth Rosenblatt and Jason Parker went through and answered some key questions at this very early stage of the game. While neither operating system is close to finished, we put up some of the known features and examined reasons people might be enticed by one or the other.

Does one have a more compelling ecosystem?

Many of the new features in the Mountain Lion Developer Preview demonstrated how desktops and iOS devices will play well together. Features like the ability to view, create, and share documents between computers and mobile devices will be dead simple. Upon launching an app (Keynote, for example) you're immediately presented with a handy list of your latest presentations synced to the cloud, making it easy to pick up where you left off on any device. You even have the ability to use AirPlay mirroring. This means a presentation made on your Mac could be presented on an Apple TV-equipped big-screen monitor at a business meeting using your iPhone--all without ever having to save, import, export, e-mail, or anything. Your work is simply everywhere you need it to be.

In more-casual settings, the same is true. Entertainment apps like Netflix will work on all devices (also with AirPlay mirroring). Game Center integration in Mountain Lion will mean gamers can play multiplayer games on whatever device they're using and even switch devices and keep all their progress.

Windows 8's "ecosystem" is designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. While that may in fact be the goal of every operating system design, Windows 8's success at this is quite impressive. App "chrome," the bits of the interface that take up space on your screen, is extremely minimal in the apps that have come with the Consumer Preview.

Microsoft is specifically encouraging developers to stick to its guidelines, so don't be surprised if Windows 8-era apps and programs have very little to do with the traditional Windows look. The best example of this is Internet Explorer 10, which disappears completely from view when you're interacting with a site. You only see the location bar or your tabs when you swipe in from the edges.

That being said, we are still in the early days for Redmond's nascent OS, and we won't get a good sense of how app development is proceeding until the Release Candidate comes out in a few months.

How does each handle hardware transitions?

While there's been a lot said (both positive and negative) about Apple's walled garden, the major advantage for Mountain Lion is consistency across devices. When developers make an app, they have the advantage of knowing how it will show up in all of Apple's hardware, ensuring smooth transitions between MacBooks, iPads, and iPhones. Microsoft can't count on Windows 8 working consistently across all the hardware available.

This is one of the big, complicated questions for Microsoft: will it be able to influence hardware makers to create a compelling base-level Windows 8 experience? From what little we saw at the Windows 8 beta unveiling in Barcelona, Spain, the answer is a confident "yes."

Windows 8 is optimized for both tablets and PCs. It comes with several soft keyboards, and the main one is impressively responsive.
Windows 8 is optimized for both tablets and PCs. It comes with several soft keyboards, and the main one is impressively responsive. (Credit: Microsoft)

But so what? Sexy, light, thin, affordable, whatever adjectives you choose to describe your ideal machine, I bet I can find one that matches that description and failed. Microsoft is in uncertain waters, taking a stronger hand at the hardware rudder than ever before, yet there are no guarantees this gamble will work. But what choice did it have?

Is the hardware available important? Which is better?

With each operating system launched by Apple--especially since the change to Intel processors--more and more Mac hardware has been excluded from the latest and greatest features. Lion already outgrew the older PowerPC processors, and Mountain Lion's feature set has even started to exclude some of the older Intel setups. For better or for worse, the message is clear: if you want to run the latest OS from Apple, you're going to need one of the newer Macs.

Microsoft wants people using the OS, regardless of hardware. So most Windows 7 computers will be able to run Windows 8, and the better Vista machines will support it, too. Officially, Windows 8 requirements are fairly meager, so it'll be easy for people to do at-home upgrades. For the sake of a unified hardware experience, Apple has firmly moved away from that--and it's making the company mega-bucks.

Again, Microsoft wants to have the gropeable, touch-a-riffic new hardware and backward compatibility. It sounds like it's biting off more than it can chew, but Microsoft has never been this organized about getting a major initiative together, either.

Which will be more easily adopted by users?

Mountain Lion adds new interface elements and iOS-like features, but it's still not a big difference between the user experience Mac users are already accustomed to. New features brought over from iOS will make the transition between hardware a snap, and you can bet Apple knows that unifying the interface elements will make it easier to entice iPhone users who don't use Macs to finally make the transition.

Message, Notes, Reminders and other apps will auto sync through iCloud to your iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and Mac.

Unless Apple has something up its sleeve and pulls out a deep integration of iOS and OS X over the summer, then Mountain Lion will be easier to adopt. How could it not? Windows 8 is a fundamental change in how you interact with Windows. It's so big, it redefines what the term "windows" even means in a computing context.

That being said, the most challenging thing about Windows 8--the navigation flow in Metro--can be learned in about 10 seconds for either touch or keyboard-and-mouse. If people take to it, and it has good word-of-mouth, Windows 8 could get very big, very fast.

Which has better cloud integration?

iCloud figured prominently in the Mountain Lion Developer Preview, with automatic syncing across all the core apps. Certainly Windows 8 users will be able to sync and share their work, but where Mountain Lion excels is with a simple interface that doesn't get in your way. The aforementioned Document Library will show up right when you launch an app, giving you immediate access to your latest work within the app, for example. Apps like Notes, Messages, and Reminders sync up automatically across all your devices through iCloud.

Obviously, developers have not had a chance to use all the new cloud integration, but as we get closer to Mountain Lion's release, expect to see many other apps seamlessly syncing and saving through iCloud.

The lock screen has been enabled to surface content from your apps, including unread emails and calendar appointments.
The lock screen has been enabled to surface content from your apps, including unread e-mails and calendar appointments. (Credit: Microsoft)

Again, unless Apple is holding back--always a possibility--Windows 8 has the better cloud integration. You can sync your apps through the Windows Store. Accounts that you connect through one app, such as Mail, will also become integrated into other apps, such as Messenger or Photos. You can sync files via the SkyDrive app, and logging in with a Microsoft account will sync Internet Explorer bookmarks and history, and global Windows settings. Developers will be able to enable sync at-will, of course.

Which has better sharing options?

New Share Sheets in Mountain Lion make it extremely easy to share your work. A new Share button has been added to many of the core apps like Safari, and when you hit the button, Mountain Lion detects the type of file and lists the sharing options appropriate for the selected file. You'll be able to create Share Sheets and then pass on the content via Mail, a message, AirDrop, and popular third-party social-networking sites.

In this early release of Mountain Lion, the share button is limited to core apps like Photo Booth, Safari, Quick Look, and Preview. But Apple says the Share Sheet API will be available to developers as well, so we can expect many Mac apps to integrate the sharing features once Mountain Lion is released.

Mountain Lion Sharing
Hit the Share button in many of the Mountain Lion apps, and you'll get options to share what you're seeing onscreen with other people. The sharing feature detects the file type and gives you a list of appropriate sharing options based on that. (Credit: Screenshot by Kent German/CNET)

Share is an essential component of Windows 8, and is accessible from the Share "charm" on the right-side nav. To explain how this works, let's get technical for a moment. Windows 8 relies heavily on what Microsoft calls "app contracts," which allow developers to hook into sharing without having to code for specific API calls. This means that all the target app has to do is support the target contract--in this case, the Share contract. (Other contracts include Search, PlayTo, App to App Picking, and Settings.)

So, when you're in an app, tap Share and you'll be able to share what you're doing. Because of how Microsoft created its sharing tools for developers, apps natively "understand" how to share. If you're in IE10, for example, tap Share, and then Mail, it knows you want to share the URL. It sounds very similar to the Mountain Lion approach, but I get the sense that Windows 8 sharing will be slightly easier for users to find because the Share button is always in the same place. A minor difference, nevertheless worth noting.

About Jason Parker

Jason Parker has been at CNET for more than 13 years. He is the Senior Editor in charge iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.