Theres no denying it: We live in a Windows world. Microsofts operating system dominates over 90 percent of the current installed desktop market worldwide, while most of the remaining users run either the Apple Mac OS or Linux. These renegade users can be quite loyal and quite vocal. What do they know that Windows users dont?
The Mac has always enjoyed a reputation for having a great user interface, and it has become only more powerful and feature rich in recent years. Linux has existed mostly in the domain of programmers and tinkerers but has recently become easier to install and use, achieving a look and feel similar to Windows.
Linux and Mac OS developers are working steadily toward luring users away from Windows and toward their operating systems (OSs). In the following pages, we take an in-depth look at both desktop environments, paying particular attention to how they stack up against Windows XP. We also review five desktop distributions of Linux: Lindows, Lycoris, Red Hat, SuSE, and Xandros.
Most people use the operating system thats included when they buy their computers. Windows has become the standard on most Intel- and AMD-based systems, but Linux can run on the same hardware. And like Windows, Linux is frequently used on servers and special-purpose hardware.
The story of Mac OS is quite different: It comes installed on Apple Macintosh computers; Windows cant run on Macs, and Linux can be run on Macs only with considerable expert configuration. Those with older versions of Mac OS can upgrade to Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar ($129 direct, www.apple.com) and the recently released Mac OS X 10.3 Panther. (Click here for the full review.)
Like the Mac OS, Windows comes installed on the hardware of numerous manufacturers. You also can buy the OS separately. Microsoft Windows XP is available both in a Home version ($199 list; upgrade, $99) and a Professional version ($299; upgrade, $199).
Linux is open-source, so the software is available for free. Most end users, however, can get it through a commercial distribution, such as Red Hat, which includes a manual and support.
Elegance vs. Flexibility
Linux users have always emphasized the operating systems openness and flexibility. Mac users, on the other hand, have always focused on the elegance of Mac OS and touted its ease of use.
The flexibility of Linux has been coupled with complexity and a range of options often confusing to those approaching the OS for the first time. Multiple window managers, shells, and a bewildering array of applications have made the learning curve hard for the point-and-click crowd.
In fact, using the generic term Linux is somewhat misleading, since each distribution actually combines a Linux kernel with tools developed by the open-source community and another layer of tools and applications added by distributors such as Red Hat, SuSE, and others. Linux can easily be compared with an orchestra—a vast collection of interworking tools that becomes greater than the sum of its parts when directed by a skilled user/conductor.
Mac OS has taken a very different path. It is monolithic, unified, smoothly surfaced, and seemingly controlled by a single designer. As a result, Mac users never worry about which file system to choose or the best way to partition their drives, mostly because they often dont have choices. And with Mac OS X, users have experienced better performance and stability than with previous versions.
The developers of each OS have started to find more appeal among the masses by adopting the best aspects of the other versions. Various distributions of Linux now have the veneer of user-friendly GUIs, while Mac OS already has an attractive interface now supported by a FreeBSD Unix microkernel, itself an open-source project.
Until recently, the Linux installation process was a significant barrier for all but the most patient and technically experienced. With some of the latest Linux distributions, however, this barrier has been eliminated. For example, Red Hat Linux 9 Professional ($149.95 direct, www.redhat.com) has an easy installation process that comes complete with preconfigured settings and a graphical overlay that looks downright commercial.
Fortunately, more experienced users can still get under the hood and customize every aspect of the installation. Alternatively, the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM) system makes it reasonably easy to add new software after the OS installation (similar to Windows Control Panel feature Add/Remove Software). Still, Mac and Windows users have it easier by comparison.
Upgrading from an earlier version of Mac OS to a later one is probably the only time youll ever see the OSs installation process. Theres no peeking under the covers here: When you install Mac OS X, you get it as laid out by the folks at Apple. But once the OS is installed, experienced Unix programmers can write directly to the OS, using the Terminal utility.
The gulf between the Linux world and those of Windows and Mac OS becomes more apparent when it comes to hardware support. With no control over the hardware manufacturers, the Linux community strives to adapt to as many platforms and hardware components as possible. Most of the emphasis has been placed on Intels venerable x86 architecture, but Linux is also available for the PowerPC, as well as IA-64–based architectures, and others.
In particular, Linux has made enormous strides in peripheral support. Linux drivers are currently available for most common peripherals. Many of the drivers have been written by the Linux community, but increasingly, hardware manufacturers are starting to release drivers or at least providing significant information to make creating drivers much easier. Still, almost every peripheral ships with a Windows driver; finding Linux or Macintosh drivers is often harder.
Apple is obviously in much more control of the hardware that uses Mac OS X than other OSs. As a result, it can achieve a level of support that neither Linux nor Microsoft can. In some cases, Mac systems may be more expensive, but you know everything will work together and be supported by Apple.
In the past, Mac users have needed adapters to use off-the-shelf, third-party hardware. They still do in some cases, but Apple has standardized its machines so that users can buy the same peripherals as Windows users.
While pragmatists can find appealing features in both Linux and Mac OS X, theyre still unlikely to switch from Windows for one simple reason: There are far fewer commercial applications available for Mac OS and especially Linux. This has begun to improve, but the lack of such applications remains the Achilles heel for both Linux and Mac OS.
One major advantage Apple has over Linux is its relationship with Microsoft, which continues to make Mac OS versions of some of its most popular software packages, such as Microsoft Office and Windows Media Player. Microsoft Office for Mac OS is a bit different from the Windows version. It includes Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, but it uses the Entourage mail/calendaring package instead of Outlook (more on Entourage below). Other Microsoft applications (notably Access and Visual Studio) are not available for Mac systems. But Microsoft continues to release new versions of its Virtual PC ($129.99 direct, www.microsoft.com) emulation software.
Just as important, Apple has created its own suite of consumer multimedia software called iLife, which is extremely easy to use and much better integrated than its Windows counterparts. Apple has also made a special push in the digital-video world, offering its Final Cut Pro 4 ($999 direct; upgrade, $399) applications for professional and prosumer digital-video editors, as well as other professional third-party tools, such as Shake 3 ($4,950 direct), Logic Platinum 6 ($699), and DVD Studio Pro 2 ($499), all available at www.apple.com.
Such moves have limited the interest of some third-party companies to develop applications for Mac systems, but in areas like graphics and design, developer interest remains strong. Adobe Systems, Macromedia, and Quark all produce versions of their well-known products for OS X at the same time they do for Windows.
Linux boasts a huge catalog of software, most of it written by the open-source community. That often means that the software requires skill to find and install, and documentation is often sparse.
Though most commercial applications dont have Linux versions, the continual buzz surrounding Linux has convinced quite a few developers of hardware drivers and software to release Linux-friendly versions of their products. Examples of such hardware developers include HP, Lexmark, and nVidia. Also, many Unix applications run on Linux, and larger companies such as IBM and Oracle are pushing Linux development, offering new tools and server software.
Since Microsoft does not offer a Linux version of its popular Office suite, Linux users must choose from a number of alternative office productivity applications. In a homogeneous environment, such applications work perfectly well, and beyond that, many can both open and save files in Microsoft Office file formats using import and export filters. For example, Sun is pushing its alternative Office suite, StarOffice (priced per configuration, www.sun.com). StarOffice provides many of the same features as Microsoft Office for Linux and Solaris users. There is also an open-source version of StarOffice available, called OpenOffice (free download, www.openoffice.org).
None of the Linux office productivity suites, however, provide support for Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), which many companies use to create templates or to add specific features to various Office applications. The only way to use VBA with Linux is through an emulation program like CodeWeavers CrossOver Office ($49.99 direct, www.codeweavers.com). CrossOver was created out of the Wine open-source initiative, which was started in 1993 specifically to make Microsoft applications run on Linux without the use of Windows.
Both Mac OS and Linux users can find a host of compatible Internet applications. Until recently, Mac OS shipped with a version of Microsoft Internet Explorer, but Apple recently replaced IE with its own browser, called Safari. Safari offers some nice features IE doesnt, such as tabbed browsing, which lets you jump back and forth between multiple Web pages from the same browser window. The pages are anchored as tabs at the top of the browser. Safari also has easy-to-configure pop-up window blocking.
Although Microsoft recently discontinued development of IE for Mac OS (because of Safari), the company says it will make IE 5.0 available for the Mac indefinitely. Thats good news, because there are still some sites that display best in IE. Mac users have yet another option: Mozilla (free download, www.mozilla.org), an open-source browser also used as the basis for the most recent versions of Netscape.
In the Linux world, Netscape (free download, www.netscape.com) was the browser of choice for Linux users for a long time. But the maturation of Mozilla in the past 18 months has given Linux users a stable, full-featured, open-source option that supports most plug-ins (although installing plug-ins can be challenging). Additional support for Windows-centric plug-ins, called CrossOver Plugin ($34.95 direct, www.codeweavers.com), is available from CodeWeavers.
The situation is similar for e-mail clients. Mac OS X users receive Apples native Mail e-mail client, and Microsoft Office for Mac OS comes with Entourage X, which provides some compatibility with Microsoft Exchange Server.
All Linux versions lack Outlook altogether (though again, you can buy Outlook and run it using the CrossOver Office emulator). But there are many e-mail clients available, from the free and bare-bones Pine (www.washington.edu/pine) to Ximians feature-rich Evolution suite, which includes Ximian Connector 1.4 ($69 direct, www.ximian.com) and Ximian Desktop 2 Pro Edition ($99) for making a Linux machine act as a full Exchange 2000 client.
Finally, instant-messaging clients are available for both Linux and Mac OS X. iChat comes with Mac OS X and is compatible with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), so you can chat with AIM users. iChatAV is a new version that also includes support for videoconferencing and works with iSight, a FireWire video cam. On Linux systems, Gaim http://gaim.sourceforge.net) is the most prevalent IM client, despite its lack of file-transfer capabilities. But its compatible with other IM programs, including AIM, MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, or iChat. Yahoo! Messenger provides a Java-based client that will run on Linux and OS X, too.
Both Mac OS X and Linux have significant credibility when it comes to multimedia. Mac OS X users can choose from third-party music apps or use Apples iTunes, which provides connectivity to the popular Apple iTunes Music Store (an online download service). Linux users have a plethora of options for playing MP3s, including X MultiMedia Systems popular XMMS client (free download, www.xmms.org), an open-source multiformat audio player capable of playing MP3 as well as WAV, AU, MOD, and MID files.
By contrast, Windows XP comes with Windows Media Player 9, which is a solid, basic player with many useful features, but it can rip only WMA files. To rip MP3 files, you must buy a third-party plug-in, though many free, Windows-compatible music players include the ability to rip MP3s.
Mac OS X and Windows have a distinct advantage over Linux in the realm of private cinema. While software is available for playing DVDs on Linux, legal issues stemming from Linuxs open-source roots prevent unqualified support for playing commercially produced DVDs, mainly because of fears of theft and widespread sharing of the content.
Linux fares somewhat better with multimedia creation than with multimedia playing, but its still outpaced by Mac OS X, which includes iMovie, for editing digital film, and iDVD, for authoring DVDs. Apple also sells Final Cut Pro and Final Cut Express ($299 direct) for Mac users who need more advanced video-editing capabilities. A variety of packages is also available for audio editing, as well as many 2-D and 3-D graphics packages.
In Linuxs corner, there are numerous, admirable open-source efforts for graphics creation, including the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP, free download, www.gimp.org), and Blender (free download, www.blender3d.org) for 3-D image creation. A handful of commercial packages are also available, including Alias Systems Maya Complete 5 ($1,999 direct, www.aliaswavefront.com) and Pixars RenderMan Pro Server 11.5 ($3,500, https://renderman.pixar.com) and RenderMan Artist Tools 5.5 ($2,000), which also offers versions for Windows 2000 and XP. Most of these high-end applications, however, are used by special-effects studios. For the most part, the lack of off-the-shelf software for amateurs remains a turnoff for multimedia buffs.
With Windows, you again have a simple, no-frills video-editing tool that comes free with Windows XP: Windows Movie Maker 2. But to get the same level of features found native to the Mac platform, you must buy a third-party application such as Sonys Screenblast Movie Studio ($99.95 direct, www.sonystyle.com).
Choices, Not Always Easy
Choices, Not Always Easy Ones
As Linux desktops become increasingly slick and easy to use—and as more commercial software for Linux generally becomes available—the OS might finally start to take off as a desktop alternative. With its many new features, Mac OS X 10.3 (Panther) may finally gain the lift it needs to add some pep to the companys market share.
It would be foolhardy to claim that these changes tip the scales against the 800-pound gorilla called Windows, but they are sure to nip at its heels and perhaps persuade a few more souls to convert to the alternatives.