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Mac OS X Snow Leopard vs. Windows 7

Both Apple and Microsoft have released evolutionary--not revolutionary--new operating systems, but which OS is right for you? Let this in-depth comparison be your guide.


by Jeffrey L. Wilson on February 4, 2010

win7_vs_mac_sh.jpgBefore buying a notebook, many shoppers start with one fundamental question: Am I a Mac or a PC? Ad campaigns for Apple and Microsoft sling mud in both directions, without providing a clear picture of each platform's pros and cons. So, we've put aside the hype for these two operating systems with our hands-on, head-to-head comparison of Mac OS X Snow Leopard and Windows 7. Each company offers a number of fresh features that bring the two warring desktop environments close together when it comes to ease of use and raw performance. But there's a difference between capability and execution.

[The battle wages on! ReadOS X Mountain Lion vs. Windows 8]

For testing, we pitted a 13.3-inch Apple MacBook Pro (2.26-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce 9400M GPU, 5,400-rpm, 160GB hard drive) against an identically configured 13.3-inch Dell XPS Studio 13 so we could concentrate on the benefits and disadvantages of each operating system. We ran our standard array of performance tests on each notebook, comparing boot times, battery life, computing power, graphics performance, and a host of other factors. Consider this the ultimate OS score card.

Boot Time and Resume From Sleep


Winner: Mac OS X Snow Leopard

Windows 7 was hyped as bringing swifter boots to PCs, but the new OS can be just as molasses-slow as Vista. You'll find some Windows 7 notebooks that start up in less than 60 seconds, but most of them hover above the one-minute mark.

win7_vs_mac_multicore_sh.jpgOverallSystem Performance

Mac OS X Snow Leopard

We used Geekbench, an application that measures CPU and RAM performance, to gauge our MacBook Pro's computing prowess. It notched a score of 3,543 in Snow Leopard, and 2,789 when we used Boot Camp to run the program under a Windows 7 partition. Also in Boot Camp, we got a score of 3,207 on PCMark Vantage, which measures Windows performance. In addition, the system copied a 4.97GB folder of mixed media at a swift rate of 21.5 MBps on our LAPTOP Transfer Test (19.2 MBps within Boot Camp).

Windows 7

Our Dell PC notched 2,586 in Geekbench, which was about 200 points below the MacBook Pro's Boot Camp score. However, its PCMark Vantage tally of 3,374 was slightly better than the MacBook Pro's. It completed copying our 4.97GB folder at a decent rate of 17.8 MBps, but this was still far slower than Apple.

Winner: Mac OS X Snow Leopard.

Mac OS X Snow Leopard proved to have superior overall system performance. It also ran Windows 7 smoothly in Boot Camp.


Mac OS X Snow Leopard

Apple has chosen to push technology forward by only offering a 64-bit version of Snow Leopard; there won't be a 32-bit version. Cupertino has rewritten much of the underlying code to take advantage of 64-bit technology, which will mean snappier performance, compatibility with 32-bit programs, and support for a theoretical 16 billion GB of RAM.

Note: The cost of adding RAM to a Mac is far more than on a PC. Configuring a 13-inch MacBook Pro with 8GB of RAM added an extra $700 to the total cost; configuring a Dell Studio XPS 13 with 8GB of RAM was relatively inexpensive at $310. Lenovo asks for an extra $605 to upgrade from 2GB to 8GB of RAM, though it's still $95 less than Apple. You can, however, find deals on Apple-compatible RAM; at press time, we found Mushkin's 8GB RAM kit (DDR3, 1333-Hz) on for $519. For PC users, G.Skill's 8GB RAM kit (DDR3, 1333-Hz) sold for only $399.

Windows 7

Microsoft is somewhat reluctant to cut its 32-bit ties. Windows 7 is offered in both 32- and 64-bit varieties on the same disc. Like Snow Leopard, the 64-bit version of Windows 7 allows for massive RAM capacities (192GB), destroying today's relatively scant amounts that currently top out at 4GB in Windows' 32-bit version (which doesn't read more than about 3.5GB).

Winner: Tie.

We applaud Apple for moving computing to the next level, but frown upon the premium that they place on extra RAM. We also recognize that some Windows users have legacy hardware and software that may not work in a 64-bit environment. By offering a 32-bit version of Windows 7, Microsoft will help prevent stumbling blocks for a sizable portion of the computing public. RAM prices can swing wildly for PCs, so we recommend shopping around to find the best deals.

win7_vs_mac_sh.jpgBattery Life

Mac OS X Snow Leopard

Apple touts the fact that its machines offer long battery life without bulky extended batteries that mar the design. Our MacBook Pro lived up to these promises. The machine lasted 6 hours and 13 minutes in our LAPTOP Battery Test. When we installed the 64-bit version of Windows 7 onto the system using Boot Camp, the endurance dropped to 4 hours and 50 minutes. The latest generation of MacBooks posses batteries that are non-user replaceable. So if you need to remove it for any reason, you must visit a Genius Bar or mail your notebook to Apple. Because the company claims its batteries are good for a thousand charges, chances are you won't need to replace the battery during your MacBook's lifespan. However, unlike Windows PCs, you can't swap in a spare battery when you're on the go.

Windows 7

The Studio XPS 13's six-cell battery lasted 3 hours and 57 minutes on a charge. This was more than 2 hours shorter than the MacBook Pro's runtime, and nearly an hour shorter than the Snow Leopard Boot Camp runtime.

Winner: Mac OS X Snow Leopard.

To be fair, the endurance gulf is mainly due to Apple's long-lasting batteries than to Snow Leopard itself. However, since Apple owns the hardware and software parts of the equation, impressive endurance is a major element of the Mac experience. If you want a Windows notebook with lots of stamina, you can opt for a higher-capacity battery or a system with an Intel Ultra-Low Voltage processor.


Graphics Power

Mac OS X Snow Leopard

On Cinebench, which measures GPU performance, our MacBook Pro scored 4,653, which was nearly 2,000 points higher than the Dell. Transcoding video was swift: we converted a 114MB, 640 x 480 file from MPEG-4 to MKV (wrapped in the H.264 codec) using HandBrake in 4 minutes and 15 seconds. When we ran the 3DMark06 gaming benchmark on the MacBook Pro (within Windows 7 running on Boot Camp), it scored 2,174. While playing World of Warcraft, the system pushed polygons at a smooth rate of 31 frames per second.

In the (hopefully near) future, software developers will be able to harness the power of OpenCL, which will let notebooks tap into the multiple cores of a GPU to compute any form of data--not just graphics information--at an accelerated pace. Applications, however, have yet to be announced.

All MacBooks feature Nvidia GPUs that support graphics accelerated software, such as Adobe Flash 10.1. During our tests, a 1080p Nvidia PureVideo YouTube video chugged along at 15 fps with Flash 10.1.

Windows 7

Our Windows 7 notebook achieved a 2,688 Cinebench score, far below Snow Leopard's performance. Still, we converted the same video file from MPEG-4 to MKV in 4 minutes and 9 seconds, just a hair shorter than Apple's time. The Dell's 1,982 3DMark06 score was similar to Mac OS X's. World of Warcraft moved along at a solid 35-fps pace.

Microsoft has a new API called DirectCompute, simultaneously released with the Direct X11 graphics API, it allows consumer applications to execute between 5 and 20 times faster. However, Nvidia's CUDA platform already enables the GPU to do the heavy lifting during video editing and conversions when used in conjunction with applications such as Badaboom.

Our 1080p Nvidia PureVideo YouTube video played sluggishly at 15 fps under Flash 10, but rose to 22 fps under Flash 10.1.

Winner: Windows 7.

Although Flash 10.1 and Nvidia GeForce 9400M GPUs produced similar results on our Apple and Windows 7 notebooks, we declare Windows 7 the victor based on the number of graphics-accelerated apps available.

win7_vs_mac_desktop_sh.jpgDesktop Management

Mac OS X Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard's refinements make the Mac experience incredibly intuitive and fluid. You can now scroll Stacks when in grid view, and activate Expose from the Dock. Apple has even included desktop recording software in QuickTime, which may prove useful to users who need to demonstrate a particular action (unfortunately, the software also records ambient sounds, so you may need to leave your MacBook or MacBook Pro in a quiet area after pressing Start).

Windows 7

Microsoft has redesigned and cleaned up the formerly annoying taskbar to make it far more useful. You can drag installed program icons from the Start menu to the taskbar (which doubles as a Mac-like dock, but with cool reflection graphics), rearrange them by dragging them left or right, and get a thumbnail preview of an application by mousing over the appropriate icon. Right-clicking on the taskbar opens Jump Lists, an inventory of your recently opened applications you can quickly dart between. If you were to use an older Windows machine, you'd immediately crave the new additions introduced in Windows 7.

Advanced users will enjoy Peek, Shake, and Snap. Peek evolves the Show Desktop feature to let you swiftly minimize open windows; Shake allows you to close all open windows with a wiggle by shaking a window (the one under your control remains open); and Snap lets you drag a window to the edge of the screen to instantly resize it, ideal for comparing two documents or Web pages side by side.

Winner: Tie.

Apple's dock and desktop management tools have been a shining example of efficient simplicity, and Snow Leopard merely tweaks what users already love. Microsoft is playing catch-up, but Windows 7's desktop features are quite useful.

win7_vs_mac_multimedia_sh.jpgMultimedia and Gaming

Mac OS X Snow Leopard

QuickTime X, Apple's updated multimedia player, sports a cleaner interface and buttons that fade away when not in use. It also captures audio and video from a Mac's integrated mic and iSight camera, streams media more efficiently, trims video, and leverages the GPU to play back AAC and H.264 formats more smoothly than Leopard.

In addition, every Mac ships with iLife '09, Apple's excellent multimedia suite that includes GarageBand, iDVD, iMovie, iPhoto, and iWeb. GarageBand is an excellent tool for recording music or podcasts; iMovie is a simple (yet rich) video editor that allows you to upload video directly to YouTube; and iPhoto organizes your photos. Unfortunately, Apple still doesn't support Blu-ray, and its game library is vastly inferior to Windows'.

Windows 7

Microsoft's Libraries feature simplifies the process of finding media that may be scattered across different folders on your hard drive. The new Play To feature lets you select a song or playlist and send it to external wireless media players. Native AAC, DivX, H.264, and MOV support is built into the OS, and Windows Media Player takes up a far smaller footprint on the desktop. Now you can remotely access content on your home PC from another notebook or desktop also running Windows 7. Simply launch Windows Media Player, select Stream > Allow Internet Access To Home Media, and sign in with (or create) a Windows Live account. We had no problems streaming music and viewing photos from a remote PC.

One flaw with Windows 7 is its weak content creation package. Microsoft's equivalent to iLife '09 is Windows Live Essentials (available for Vista and XP), which includes Photo Gallery and Movie Maker. Photo Gallery is a competent photo managing program, and we found it easy to edit, rate, and filter pictures. Movie Maker is far more basic and bland, lacking such iMovie bells and whistles as image stabilization, and snazzy themes and transitions. However, Windows 7 supports Blu-ray playback and DirectX 11, which brings an exciting new level of detail to 3D games.

Winner: Tie.

Both operating systems contain well-rounded multimedia playback and satisfying features, but Windows Live Essentials can't compete with the functionality of iLife '09. Meanwhile, Windows 7 still dominates when it comes to gaming and Blu-ray playback.

win7_vs_mac_touch_sh.jpgTouch Computing

Mac OS X Snow Leopard

Currently, Snow Leopard's touch experience is confined to the touchpad, where you can use multiple fingers to pinch, swipe, and zoom your way through content. In addition, three- and four-finger gestures are possible on all Macs with multitouch touchpads.

Windows 7

Microsoft supports multitouch, but since it doesn't have the tight control over hardware and software that Apple does, individual manufacturers must install touchscreens and drivers to enable this technology. For example, the Acer Aspire 5738PG uses a special touch-enabled interface, but it suffers from a number of bugs and isn't truly compelling. Other touch notebooks, such as the HP TouchSmart tm2 convertible tablet, feature a much richer interface, complete with touch-friendly apps for Hulu and Twitter.

Winner: Windows 7.

Apple has multitouch capabilities across the MacBook Pro line, and it has done an excellent job of bringing this technology to the masses via the touchpad. For the moment, however, Microsoft is being more aggressive when it comes to touchscreen computing. Just keep in mind that not all Windows 7 touch notebooks are created equal.

win7_vs_mac_weapons_sh.jpgSecret Weapons

Mac OS X Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard has built-in Exchange support--a feature that Windows 7 oddly lacks. This gives Mac users access to calendar invitations, e-mail, and Global Address Lists using the Apple's default applications (iCal, Mail, and Address Book) instead of having to rely on Outlook. Business users can access critical data from one central place, which is a major convenience.

In addition, Snow Leopard includes Boot Camp, an application that allows you to run Windows-only software by partitioning your MacBook's hard drive so that you can install Windows 7.

Windows 7

Device Stage is a branded user experience created by individual vendors to help users dive into the full functionality of their gear. For example, plugging a Device Stage-supported phone into a Windows 7-powered notebook will allow you to see and interact with its contacts, e-mail, music, photos, ringtones, and video in an easy-to-read layout. Manufacturers can support older devices in Baseline Device Stage, a non-customized experience that appears in the taskbar.

Winner: Mac OS X Snow Leopard.

Apple has taken major steps to make the Mac a better fit for corporate environments, which we believe is a more vital development than Microsoft's Device Stage.


Ultimately, Mac OS X Snow Leopard is a far more streamlined operating system than Windows 7. It boots faster, has excellent software, and boasts outstanding performance. If you can swing the much-debated Mac Tax, you'll find that Snow Leopard is a very compelling option.

If you're a gamer or need very specific Windows-only programs, Windows 7 is enticing, but you can run the OS in Snow Leopard using Boot Camp. The only downside is that you have to purchase Windows 7 separately in addition to a relatively pricey MacBook (the cheapest model starts at $999).

On the flip side, a well-equipped Windows machine can be purchased for under $500, even though you won't have the ability to install Mac OS X. Overall, Windows PCs are great for bargain hunters, as well as media mavens who want to play games or watch Blu-ray movies. Those who want to actually create content, however, will find far more intuitive tools out of the box with the bundled iLife '09 suite.

Buy Snow Leopard at Amazon

Buy Windows 7 at Amazon

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