Linux Vs. Mac: Which Is The Better Windows Alternative?

If you're a Vista-wary Windows user who would rather switch than fight, should you move to a Linux distro or Apple's OS X? We asked a Mac fan and a

August 1, 2007

49 Min Read
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The switch from Windows XP to Vista has created a world of opportunity -- not only for Microsoft, but for supporters of competing operating systems. While Microsoft is hoping it can move its customers easily to a new version of Windows, Apple and the Linux community see the transition as a chance to demonstrate the advancement and advantages of their OSes -- and maybe steal some customers.

If you're one of those Windows users who are less than enchanted by what you've seen of Vista and you're thinking about switching, you face some tough choices that can make you feel like a pioneer. Is it a good idea to move to a Mac, with its easy interface, high level of safety and stability -- and higher prices? Or is it better to adopt a Linux distro, which is free (or, at least, inexpensive), supported by a range of imaginative developers -- and not quite newbie-friendly? Either decision forces you into new, unfamiliar territory.

For answers, we went to two writers who have a great deal of experience with Windows PCs but have recently experimented with moving to either a Mac or Linux. Mitch Wagner is an executive editor here at InformationWeek who has become an enthusiastic Mac convert, while Serdar Yegulalp, who has written extensively about Microsoft Windows, is now exploring the world of Linux and Linux distros. In other words, while both like to tout the advantages of their newly chosen operating systems, they are also well aware of the drawbacks.

In the following pages, they lead a guided tour of the two OSes, paying particular attention to eight important areas: Installation & Migration; Hardware Support & Power Management; Networking, Web & Wireless; Productivity; Entertainment; Security; Working With Windows (because we couldn't completely ignore Microsoft); and Stability, Backup & Disaster Recovery.

Which is the better OS? Only you can decide --but you'll make a more informed decision after you've taken this tour, and you'll discover you have some companions on your journey.

Introducing: Linux

Linux has gone from being a project for open-source enthusiasts to one of the most powerful and important forces in the software world. It's also now shaping up to be an increasingly viable choice as a desktop operating system, thanks to the effort of both the volunteer community and the companies that are banking on Linux to move them forward.


It is, admittedly, not for everyone. I know both experts and regular users alike who have switched to it, as well as experts and regular users who have tried it and stayed with other things (whether Windows, Mac or another flavor of UNIX). But Linux is unquestionably drawing in more people than it did a decade ago, or even five years ago.

Because Ubuntu is shaping up to be one of the most popular personal distributions -- thanks to its easy installation, configuration, and support community -- I've focused mainly on Ubuntu during my discussion of Linux in this article. That said, I've also tried to keep an eye turned towards how Linux distributions in general sizes up in each of these categories. Linux still faces huge odds -- the entrenched success of both Windows and the Mac, for one -- but the presence of distributions like Ubuntu, and the fact that they're available through major PC vendors now, are strong signs of change.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Introducing: Mac OS X

Up until the 1990s, companies like IBM and the Digital Equipment Corp. did it all. They designed their own chips, built their own system and storage hardware, wrote operating systems, provided applications, and provided service and maintenance for the whole thing.Mac OS X

Now, that business model is obsolete. Computer vendors specialize. Intel provides chips, Microsoft provides operating systems and applications, Dell and other PC vendors provide hardware, Oracle provides databases, and so forth.

And then there's Apple.

If you buy a Mac, Apple provides the hardware, Apple provides the operating system, and Apple provides key applications such as calendaring, e-mail, and address book. You can buy your Mac in many places -- but Mac fans prefer to buy at the Apple Store. You can get service in many places, but Mac fans prefer to get it from Apple. You can use a variety of music players -- but the iPod (from Apple) works so well, and makes it so easy to download inexpensive music from Apple's iTunes Store, that most people don't even think of looking elsewhere.

Apple uses this old-school business model (in fact, Apple sales are growing faster than any other PC vendor's) to build a highly innovative, stable, and integrated platform for consumer and business computing.

-- Mitch Wagner

Installation & Migration: Linux

One common complaint I'd heard about Linux was that the installation process was terribly complicated. The word was that if you didn't already know a fair bit about Linux (and not just operating systems or disk partitions), you faced an uphill battle.

That's changed drastically for the better: The installers for just about every recent breed of Linux, especially the desktop distros, are a lot easier to deal with than the old-school setup scripts. Today, you boot the installation CD (or DVD), and in many cases you can run a copy of the OS directly from the installation media without having to install anything. This is not only a good way to see if you are comfortable with the OS, but you can also find out if a given distribution supports your hardware without having to go through the trouble of actually installing it.

That said, if the install process turns sour, you may still need to do a bit of digging to find out what's wrong and why. InformationWeek editor Alex Wolfe had major problems getting Ubuntu to run on his notebook, and the amount of work he had to do just to get Ubuntu going left a bad taste in his mouth. My own experiences have been a lot more positive for the most part, but I know that I'm just one guy, and that there are bound to be other people who will have far more problems than I will.

One surefire way to save time and trouble -- although it's a pricey way to do it -- is to buy Linux preinstalled on a new machine. Dell has begun experimenting with selling Ubuntu as a preinstalled OS, and outfits like Penguin Computing and Ibex PC have been selling Linux as a preload for quite some time now. This drastically cuts down the amount of work needed to get up and running, much as it does when you buy a Windows box, and there's better assurance that the hardware you're using will work with the OS. That said, not everyone is in the market for a new machine, and I've noticed that one of the reasons people pop a Linux distro into any given machine is so that they can make use of older hardware in the first place.

If you're not ready to commit completely to Linux, there's always dual booting, of course. In my case, rather than set up up Grub or LILO -- two open-source boot managers -- I've set up Boot-It Next Generation (a very good commercial application) to handle that duty.When you install Ubuntu on a Windows box, one of your options is the ability to migrate documents and some program settings from a Windows user account to an Ubuntu account. These include IE, Opera and Firefox favorites and bookmarks, GAIM, AOL and Yahoo! IM settings, wallpaper, and your login avatar.

Other applications may not be covered -- if you plan on running Windows applications under Wine, for instance, the apps will probably need to be reinstalled from scratch and any settings migrated manually. There are some third-party programs to help migrate settings from individual apps (for Outlook, there's Outport.) It's a mixed bag that largely depends on what distribution you're migrating to and what sort of baggage you're bringing along.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Installation & Migration: Mac

How do you install OS X? Buy a Mac.

Unlike Microsoft and Linux, Apple doesn't support running the Mac OS on off-the-shelf hardware. You buy a Mac, and it comes with the operating system pre-installed. Apple integrates the operating system tightly with the hardware, and says that's necessary to achieve the Mac's great stability and ease-of-use.

Likewise, Apple takes pains to make setting up a Mac as simple as possible. When you buy a Mac, it comes in a box with a minimum of packing materials, and an envelope of documentation. You unpack the Mac; plug the CPU into the wall socket; plug the keyboard, mouse, and monitor into the CPU; and switch it on. It detects an Internet connection (if one is available), and walks you through a two-minute configuration and setup with an easy-to-follow wizard.

And that's it. You're set up.

If you're an ex-Windows user, you'll find that nearly all file formats are compatible between Windows and the Mac -- for example, Microsoft Office for the Mac files are perfectly interchangeable with their Windows equivalents. Just connect your Mac and PC (either directly via an Ethernet cable, or by connecting both to your network) , and drag folders from your PC to the Mac.

If you've got an existing e-mail application, the built-in Apple Mail app imports from Outlook Express, Netscape/Mozilla, and Eudora. If you store your mail on an IMAP or POP server, you can just download the mail to your Mac and you're good to go. Mail synchronization wasn't an issue for me -- both my e-mail accounts (Lotus Notes at work and Gmail for personal email) store mail on the server. You can import your contacts by exporting them from your Windows contact manager in vCard, LDIF, or structured plain text, and then importing them into the Apple Address Book. And you can import your calendar into Apple's iCal calendar if you can first export it to the iCal or vCal formats.

Looking to automate the process a bit? Move2Mac, priced at $50 from Detto Technologies, migrates documents, folders, spreadsheets, photos, music, files, IE favorites, your IE home page, graphics, databases, address book, and backgrounds from Windows to the Mac. And O2M from Little Machines will export your Outlook information into Apple Mail, Address Book, iCal, Microsoft Entourage, and other programs. It's priced at $10.Finally, for those who want a point-by-point roadmap to switching, Apple offers an online guide.

-- Mitch Wagner

Hardware Support & Power Management: Linux

One consistently thorny issue for Linux has been hardware support. Until recently, a lot of manufacturers typically didn't supply hardware drivers for Linux, so a good deal of hardware support has been provided by the Linux community -- with varying degrees of success.

Video cards are probably one of the worst culprits because so much of what goes on with the video card is considered proprietary, and the manufacturers are loathe to release source-code versions of drivers that might give their competitors hints on how to get a leg up. Most of the Linux people I've talked to are fonder of NVIDIA than ATI, if only because NVIDIA's closed-source Linux drivers seem to work that much better.

The user's mileage is almost certainly going to vary, but with the vast majority of the hardware I've owned or that's passed through my hands, I've been able to throw Linux at it and get it to work. But there are the exceptions, and getting the exceptions to work often take up as much time as everything else put together. One nice thing about Ubuntu is that the community surrounding the distro tends to be very closely-knit, so if you run into a problem there's a chance someone else has already reported it -- it's just that digging down to that solution and enacting it can be time-consuming.

Here's an experience from my own files. I own an HP LaserJet 1000 printer, a legacy model which uses a bizarre wire protocol that's not PCLand not PostScript, but a proprietary system created by Zenographics. Fortunately, someone reverse-engineered the whole thing and created a driver set for it, but I needed to follow very precise directions to download, compile and install the code to get it running. A version of this driver was included with Ubuntu 6.10, but it didn't work; I had to get the most recent version from the authors and build it according to their directions. (I am planning on eventually replacing this printer with something that speaks genuine PostScript -- it's just that right now I can't really afford it!)Power management is another thing where I've had great luck on one machine and far less on another. By and large, I've had better experiences on desktop machines than with notebooks. Part of the problem, I think, is that the implementation of power management tends to be a little flaky from machine to machine. When my Sony VAIO wouldn't suspend or resume correctly in Ubuntu 6.10, I found a number of VAIO-specific changes to make that were supposed to alleviate the problem, but none of them worked. The situation really only got better after upgrading to Ubuntu 7.04.

Experiences like this are less common with Linux now than they used to be -- for one, it helps when you're using hardware that doesn't employ proprietary standards -- but whenever you do run into them, they tend to be show-stoppers. But remember, if you're dubious about whether or not some given piece of hardware has proper Linux support, you can always pop in a live CD for a given distribution and see for yourself without risking your existing OS.

(One possible exception to this: disk controllers, especially RAID-enabled chipsets. For those, you probably just need to take the plunge to find out if they work properly.)

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Hardware Support & Power Management: Mac

You can have any kind of hardware you want -- as long as it's a Mac.Apple has a variety of systems to choose from, including high-power $2,499 Mac Pro workstations for high-performance computing; low-end Mac Mini for consumer computing (starting at $599); notebooks($1,099) for consumers and business; and the sleek, high-end consumer iMac, priced starting at $999.

I'll admit it: I was seduced by design, and chose an iMac (which has the CPU and display in a single unit, so it looks like a bulked-up picture-frame on a stand) when I bought my first Mac in February, 2007, rather than the more customizable and practical Mac Pro. If I had it to do over again, I'd buy the Mac Pro. But the iMac has been working hard for me, without many problems, for five months now.

My other computer is a PowerBook, which InformationWeek's parent company, CMP Technology, issued to me in June. It's an 18-month-old model with the older G4 processor and a 12-inch display.

At first, my heart sank when they put the iMac down in front of me. It's so tiny. Until that moment I shared the common wisdom that your notebook display should be as large as possible. But now I love my wee Mac -- when I'm at my own desk, I can hook it up to an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and get a lot of screen real-estate, and the PowerBook is far more portable than any other notebook I've used.

Apple produces a line of (somewhat overpriced) displays, and supports pretty much all external hard drives, keyboards, mice, printers, and other peripherals. Apple's newer models don't support serial, parallel, or PS/2 ports; they use USB and FireWire instead, so you might have trouble connecting older peripherals to your Mac. Most non-Apple periperhals are compatible with the Mac.Power management on the PowerBook is comparable to Windows notebooks; I can run for two or three hours with a power-hungry Wi-Fi connection running. You can customize power consumption by automating times when the computer, display, and hard drive go to sleep and wake up; you can also set the computer to start and shut down on an automated schedule.

One puzzling Mac shortcoming: The mouse. Apple is the company that made the mouse mainstream, back in 1984. And yet they won't come out with a multi-button mouse. Recently, they took a step in the right direction, with the Mighty Mouse, which looks like a one-button mouse but in fact mimics a two-button mouse by detecting which side of the mouse your finger is resting on when you click. It's still not as good as a decent multi-button mouse. Fortunately, Logitech, along with other mouse and trackball vendors, offer products that are Mac-compatible, so most Mac users throw away their Apple-issue rodents and buy an inexpensive third-party pointing device.

-- Mitch Wagner

Networking, Web & Wireless: Linux

Networking's one of those things that has become a lot easier with recent Linux distributions, but it all depends on whether or not your particular network hardware is supported. Here, I've had few difficulties: Both my notebook and desktop machines had their wired and wireless network interfaces recognized immediately in Ubuntu. All I needed to do was supply my wireless network name and password (or plug in the Ethernet cable), and I was off to the races.

Not everyone's NIC seems to work out of the box, though. As with any other piece of hardware, you're best served by checking Linux's hardware compatibility list to see if the particular NIC you're trying to use is supported or not.

For Web browsing, Ubuntu comes with Firefox pre-loaded (and Kubuntu has the Konqueror browser), so that's the vast majority of the Web taken care of right there. Working with sites that use IE-only technologies (i.e., ActiveX) is usually pretty tricky: most Linux folks either dual-boot or run Windows in emulation to get around that. There's another workaround I've encountered that involves using Wine , but it's not a sure thing.If you're coming in from Windows, you might feel that a few other things are missing, but in my opinion they're neither major nor essential. One is some kind of automatic wireless network profile detection system, which is something I did kind of get spoiled on in Vista. The other, which is apparently in the works right now, is some variety of Windows-style network connection sharing. I suspect this sort of thing isn't needed as urgently anymore thanks to the proliferation of cheap network-sharing devices, but it's nice to know someone is thinking about it.

One last thing many Windows people may not see is a firewall. Linux has a full software firewall in the kernel as a loadable module, but in most desktop releases it's not configured by default -- it's rarely needed. For one, the vast majority of network attacks out there are not aimed at Linux. Also, many of those attacks are aimed at services like SMB (Server Message Block, Windows' file-sharing protocol) that aren't installed or enabled by default unless you actually need them.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Networking, Web & Wireless: Mac

Networking is pretty simple. You plug in your cables or activate your Wi-Fi connection. You click on the appropriate control panel in the Internet & Network section of the System Preferences Tool. You check a few checkboxes. And you're ready to go. Bonjour, a Mac operating-system tool, allows devices on the network to conveniently share printers, bookmarks, routers, Webcams, iTunes music, iPhoto photos, and more.

The Mac automatically detects available Wi-Fi networks. If the Mac has never seen that network before, it prompts you to decide whether you want to log in, and then for a user ID and password, if needed. After that, the Wi-Fi node is on your safe network list, and you don't have to manually log into it. You can disable Wi-Fi access -- which Apple calls AirPort -- if you choose.Apple .Mac is the company's own Internet service, which integrates with the Mac. Users get a e-mail address, one-click Web publishing (including the ability to publish from iPhoto), file exchange, synchronization of the iCal calendar and the Mac Address Book between multiple computers, and file backup. Basic membership starts at $99.95 for one year, with up to 1GB of backup. But other than as a synchronization tool, I'm not a big fan of .Mac. You can get better services that do the same thing elsewhere, many of them for free.

The Mac runs five browsers (that I can think of), and they're all good. The two most popular are the native Safari, a basic, tabbed browser, and Firefox. Firefox offers the same user interface on Windows, Linux, and the Mac, which is why many Mac users who also use Windows like it. You can run the overwhelming majority of Firefox extensions on the Mac, and synchronize bookmarks using third-party utilities.

However, because I find Firefox slow and unstable on the Mac, I prefer Camino. It's based on the Firefox rendering engine, but lacks many of the frills and extensibility of Firefox. Camino also integrates with Mac utilities such as the Keychain for tracking logins and passwords, and has a completely native user interface, which is important to Apple purists. The final two browsers are Opera and OmniWeb, of which have their own followings.

Apple excels at remote access. It supports the VNC protocol for remote login: To use it, download one of many available VNC clients (I'm fond of Chicken of the VNC myself) and use it to log into any computer -- Mac, Windows, or Linux -- that supports the VNC protocol. You get a window in your Mac that looks like the desktop of the remote computer, and you can work on the remote computer through that window using your local mouse and keyboard.

When I want to work on my PowerBook but don't want to take the trouble to switch from my iMac, I use terrific open source software called Synergy, which works with the Mac, Windows, and Linux. Synergy lets you share a keyboard and mouse between multiple computers, with each computer having its own display. But, wait, there's more -- if I start the mouse in my iMac, and move it to the left, I'll find the mouse pointer on the PowerBook display, and I can work on my PowerBook. You can also cut-and-paste information from applications running on one computer to another.

-- Mitch Wagner

Productivity: Linux

Most any Linux desktop distribution comes with a broad swath of productivity software, either installed by default or available from the distribution repository. A good percentage of the time you can find some variety of application that covers your needs, and you won't have to pay a cent for it. You will have to make an investment of time and effort to get to know the program and to convert any existing data you might have -- and there may not always be a single migration step for certain things.

Ubuntu ships with the productivity suite, which provides about the same level of functionality for most people as Microsoft Office 2003. Unless you're doing something highly specialized that requires MS Office itself -- something coded in Office's macro language, for instance -- you can switch to OpenOffice without too much of a bump, since it interoperates pretty transparently with Microsoft Office documents. A few people have reported some conversion problems with documents that have really complex formatting, like equations in Word, but most of the "straight" Word documents I've worked with have come through without trouble. (If you've got a lot of documents to wade through, you can always batch-convert them first.)

I tend to think of e-mail, calendaring, and contact management as one thing -- possibly because on my Windows machine I'm a certified Outlook addict, so it's hard for me not to think of them as being handled all by one program. Mozilla's Thunderbird / Sunbird application suite comes pretty close, even though Sunbird itself is still a work-in-progress. That said, it's a work in progress on all platforms, not just Linux, so it's nothing specific to that OS. If you're already using those programs on Windows, it makes the migration process to Linux all the easier, too, since they use the same data formats on both platforms.

Keep in mind these are not the only options, either, just the ones I've worked with most closely: There's also Kontact, for instance, as part of the Kubuntu distribution.

I'd loosely group graphics applications in with productivity as well. Unfortunately, one of the big programs in this space -- GIMP, a raster-graphics tool in the vein of Photoshop -- is regularly and rightfully singled out for criticism. Anyone coming to it from Photoshop is likely to be aghast, not just because the interface is a mess (although they're trying to do something about that) but because of a lack of real professional features: no Pantone color matching, for instance, or proper CMYK support, both of which are essential for doing print work. I do like Inkscape, though, a really powerful and versatile vector-drawing tool that I grew fond of on the PC side as well.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Productivity: Mac

The Mac is all about productivity. It's got a wealth of productivity applications available to it, including the Microsoft Office suite (so you can share Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents with your less fortunate Windows colleagues). It's got built-in e-mail, address book, and calendar software that integrate with each other and other applications. And the user interface is designed for productivity -- it gets out of your way and lets you get your work done.

Apple has its own simple, basic personal-information-management software that will be adequate for most people: an e-mail application, Apple Mail; a contact manager,Address Book; and a calendar, iCal.

The calendar supports a standard file format called (wait for it) iCal that lets you share calendars with a wide variety of other calendaring software and Internet calendaring services. You can even subscribe to iCal calendars over the Internet to keep track of your company's meeting schedules or where your favorite team is playing.

Unfortunately, I had a terrible time synching iCal to my Palm Treo. Other people report the process goes quite smoothly, especially using Missing Sync software from Mark/Space, but it didn't work for me. I ended up permanently scrambling my calendar, and needing to re-enter appointments by hand, which was no fun. (Ultimately, I bought an iPhone, but since this is a rather expensive workaround, it's one that I don't recommend to most people.)You can buy third-party contact-management and calendar software for the Mac, such as Now Up-To-Date; Palm also has a version of its Desktop software which works on the Mac. Microsoft doesn't make Outlook for the Mac, but it does make Entourage, which does pretty much the same thing and connects to Exchange servers.

The Mac user interface is a productivity dream. It combines the best of three great systems: The original Mac, which goes back more than 20 years; BSD Unix, which is at the core of System X; and NeXT, the computer developed by the company (with the same name) that Steve Jobs founded in 1985 when he left Apple, and which was acquired by Apple in 1996, leading to Jobs's return.

It's hard to articulate in a few words why the Mac interface is great. It doesn't really look that different from Windows. The buttons are in different places, and the menu bar is at the top of the screen rather than at the top of each application window. But the Mac interface is streamlined in a million different little ways. Everything seems to take a few fewer keystrokes and mouse movements on the Mac. And the Mac doesn't throw up many of those little nag warnings that Windows produces.

But the Mac really takes off when you download Quicksilver. Quicksilver is a utility that lets you use your keyboard to do things like launch applications, open documents and URLs, manipulate files and data, run scripts, or send e-mail. It's almost as powerful as a command line, but far more intuitive.

-- Mitch Wagner

Entertainment: Linux

One common criticism directed at Linux is that it isn't much of a gaming platform. Sadly, this seems to be true, as many game developers simply don't see the Linux market as being big enough to be worth the effort. Consequently, a lot of the gaming that happens on Linux is either Windows games that are run in Linux via the Wine compatibility layer, or ports of games that aren't as complex.

Video and music are another story, though. Every distribution I've played with has some kind of music player already loaded: Rhythmbox in Ubuntu or Amarok in Kubuntu, just to name two of the most widely-used. There's also VLC, a player that's been ported to multiple platforms and handles most any kind of media you throw at it, although it's better suited to playing individual files than managing a whole disk's worth of media.

Ubuntu also has an iPod connectivity package, although I confess I have no iPod to try it out with. Support for other portable music devices is also spotty; unless someone's written something for your specific device, you're generally stuck mounting the device as a disk and copying files by hand.

A complaint I get a lot from people new to Linux is, "Hey, how come I can't play MP3 files?" Sadly, that's a patent issue, since Linux distributions typically can't include an MP3 codec by default. You can add MP3 playback after-the-fact, and it's not that difficult -- it's just that most people aren't aware that they need to do so. If you're starting a music library from scratch, you can always rip CDs to the open Ogg Vorbis format (which many portable media players do support) and skip any patent entanglements entirely.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Entertainment: Mac

The Mac excels at playing, creating, and editing music and video. As for games -- well, it excels at music and video.My favorite iMac entertainment feature is FrontRow. Images and video are displayed full screen and can be controlled using the Apple remote control built into the iMac. Using Bonjour networking technology, you can share your multimedia files with other Macs on a network.

To make this even easier, the iMac comes with a tiny remote control, about the size of an iPod Shuffle, that allows you to control audio, photo, and video playback. The remote control attaches to the edge of your iMac monitor using a magnet, like refrigerator magnets.

Everyone knows about the iTunes software and service, which lets you buy audio and video from the iTunes store, rip the CDs you already own, and download and play back audio and video podcasts. The chief problem with iTunes: Apple has crippled the thing with DRM, using technology with the Orwellian name FairPlay. that controls how often you can copy your files, and which devices you can play them on. For instance, the only audio players you can use to play FairPlay audio files are Apple's own iPods and iPhone, and the Motorola Rokr iPod/cell phone hybrid. If you've bought hundreds of dollars of music from iTunes, that's a powerful lock-in to Apple products.

There are plenty of other entertainment applications available from Apple. For example, iLife is the Mac application suite for creating music, video, and images. GarageBand allows you to record and edit music, burn CDs, or create podcasts. iMovie records and edits videos. And iPhoto organizes and does some simple editing of photos and other images -- although if you really want to do fancy editing, you'll want to shell out for Adobe's Photoshop.

As for games ... quite frankly, if you're a serious gamer, you might want to just get Windows. Many popular Windows games simply don't run on the Mac.However, some games do, including World of Warcraft and Second Life. And, if you're a die-hard Mac user and you want your games, there are workarounds: Parallels Desktop 3.0 for Mac runs Windows on the Mac OS, and the company says that the latest version will run many popular Windows games. Failing that, you can run Windows on the Mac using Boot Camp, which is in beta, but is pretty stable. Boot Camp is dual-boot software, which means you need to shut down the Mac OS and re-boot in Windows, which is an inconvenience. On the other hand, sometimes you just gotta blow stuff up, and re-booting is a small price to pay.

-- Mitch Wagner

Security: Linux

It's become something of a truism that Linux is more secure than Windows, but that doesn't say much for how secure it is on its own. In my opinion, no operating system is secure-in-the-abstract; there's degrees of security, and you choose the right degree based on need. But the security you can get out of the box in Linux is about right for a desktop machine -- and, in the opinion of at least one Linux expert I talked to, good enough for an Internet-facing server as well. And since many desktop machines talk directly to the Internet at large, that's not a bad level of security to try and rise to.

One key thing that Ubuntu does is insure that regular users run as, well, regular users, and not run as system administrators (i.e., root) unless they absolutely have to. In Ubuntu the root account isn't enabled by default, so you can't even log in with it -- you have to run as a regular user the vast majority of the time. Whenever you need to do something as root through the GUI, you'll get prompted for your user password. (Windows Vista implements a variety of this principle for its User Account Control feature.)

One of the other security-related things that newbie Linux users have to get used to is not only working with the command line, but understanding that not everything can be launched from the command line without an administrative context. So when command x doesn't work, they quickly learn that sudo x or su x will do the trick. If they've come from pre-Vista desktop versions of Windows, this may throw them a bit, but in my experience it doesn't take long to get caught up. (Also, many distros come pre-configured with an administrative command-line console icon, which saves you a step.)

Ubuntu checks for updates regularly -- not just for updates to the operating system but updates to any package that you've added from its repository. This is one of those features that I have a hard time not praising, because it covers everything you might conceivably be running -- provided you installed it from the repository, that is.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Security: Mac

The Mac operating system itself is extremely secure. It uses the Unix model for separating administrative functions, requiring admin access to make most modifications to the operating system. Viruses and worms that target Windows are virtually nonexistent on the Mac.

But don't get cocky. Reviewer John Welch effectively described how you can get yourself into trouble anyway.

For starters, Macs have these pesky human beings sitting at the keyboard, and humans do the dumbest things, especially when you put a computer in front of them. Welch writes: "Mac users are exactly as vulnerable to phishing and social engineering attacks as any other platform. If you voluntarily give out personal data, passwords, user IDs, etc., there's nothing an operating system can do to protect you from the results of those actions."

Software can protect you a little from social engineering attacks, but not a lot. Likewise, if you're logged in as root and install a Trojan, you can get yourself in huge trouble. The solution: Take measures to make sure your software only comes from legitimate sources, and don't log in as root unless absolutely necessary. Also, make sure you know how to secure third-party software you might be running on your Mac, such as PHP or MySQL, and turn off file-sharing if you don't need it.There are applications out there that can help. Apple's FileVault secures your home folder by encrypting the contents. You can also configure the Mac to require a password to wake it from sleep or sleep saver, disable automatic login, require passwords to unlock each secure system preference, and log out when inactive.

A utility called Keychain stores all your passwords to Web sites, encrypted files, FTP servers, and encrypted disk images. That's handy if, like me, you switch Web browsers occasionally. Alas, Keychain doesn't work with Firefox, but it does work with Camino and Safari.

The AirPort Wi-Fi utility, which is built into the Mac OS, stores your Wi-Fi passwords in conjunction with Keychain. When it encounters a Wi-Fi network for the first time, it prompts to ask you if you want to log in, and, after that, it'll add the network to a list of safe networks and log in automatically. This protects against "man-in-the-middle attacks," where an attacker sets up a rogue Wi-Fi access point, and sniffs passwords and other confidential information from hapless users who've unwittingly logged into it, thinking it was legitimate.

-- Mitch Wagner

Working With Windows: Linux

Interoperating with Windows seems to fall into roughly three categories: applications, data, and network connectivity. Data typically means user documents, and I've covered in previous sections how Linux applications can work more or less transparently with documents created in many common Windows apps.

The applications themselves are another story, though. If you're moving from Windows to Linux, it's almost inevitable that there are certain programs which you'll want (or need) to run that are only available on Windows. Linux provides a few ways to get around this. One method is to install Wine, an emulation layer for Windows programs that lets you run most Windows applications transparently in Linux. It's robust enough at this point that most anything you want to throw at it, from Microsoft Office to many popular video games, work as-is.Another method, if you have a spare copy of Windows to install, is to run Windows in a virtual machine via a program like VirtualBox -- but, again, this requires a whole separate copy of Windows (which will need to be activated).

Getting Linux to talk to a Windows network can be a major source of pain, especially if you're dealing with a mixture of different Windows clients. Most of the issues stem from authentication problems: either you don't have the right username and password on the Linux end, or you don't have a password (or proper access permissions) set on the Windows side. One fairly major complaint that surfaced recently was getting Ubuntu to talk to shared Windows Vista files and folders, but that problem's been addressed for the most part via an update to Samba, the component that lets you speak to Windows networks.

One very handy feature is the ability to mount Windows file systems and read them natively -- not just FAT or FAT32, but NTFS itself. The NTFS-3G project has created a powerful read/write driver for NTFS that's available not just for Linux but a number of other operating systems; the only things missing are full support for things like file ownership and access permissions (which really only matter when you're actually running Windows in the first place). This means you can mount external drives -- hard drives, USB flash drives, you name it -- that have been NTFS-formatted in Windows, and work with them natively. I've found that external NTFS drives in Ubuntu are nominally mounted as read-only to prevent disasters, but you can easily change this.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Working With Windows: Mac

Modern Macs, based on the Intel processor, run Windows. How's that for working with Windows? Currently, there are two options for running Windows on the Mac. You'll soon have three.As mentioned previously, Apple's free Boot Camp software allows you to run Windows as a native operating system on the Mac hardware. You'll need to dual-boot, meaning to switch operating systems, you have to shut down the OS you're running and re-boot into the other.

Parallels Desktop, on the other hand, allows you to run Windows on top of the Mac OS, and run Windows applications on the Mac. A feature called "Coherence" allows each Windows application to run in its own Window, appearing more like native Mac applications. Or you can run the Windows desktop in a window on your Mac, or run the Windows desktop full-screen. I reviewed Parallels version 2.0; version 3.0, recently released, adds several new features, including improved support for advanced Windows games and 3D design programs.

Finally, VMWare plans to introduce a competitor to Parallels in late August, called Fusion.

If you want to remote-control your Windows computer from a Mac, Microsoft offers Remote Desktop Connection as a free download. If you want to control multiple computers running multiple OSes from the Mac, you're probably better off running VNC software, covered in the networking section of this article.

You can network Windows and Mac machines together to share resources. You need to manually go into the Control Panel in Windows, and the Preferences tools in the Mac, and check boxes for file and printer sharing. I've had mixed results for this: File sharing worked well almost all the time, but I never got printer sharing to work right; it was easier to just unplug the printer from one computer and plug it into the other as needed.The Mac and Windows use the same file formats for just about all major document types, so once you've moved a document from one platform to another, you can easily open it. These include text files, MP3 audio files, Quicktime, PDFs, JPEGs, GIFS, and -- with the aid of third-party utilities such as the free VLC -- Windows Media video files.

-- Mitch Wagner

Stability, Backup & Disaster Recovery: Linux

Linux users extol the stability of their systems -- of all the things that seem to compel people to switch from Windows to Linux, it's either stability or cost. Linux systems run and stay running, and aren't taken out of action by something as simple as visiting the wrong Web page and getting infected with something. (Admittedly, these problems are being addressed in Windows, but once people get fed up enough to leave because of such things it's really hard to win them back again.)

Windows XP had the Ntbackup tool, and Vista has a backup utility that does some things well (there's full-system backup in Vista Ultimate), some things badly (what do you mean, I can't exclude a directory?), and other things not at all. With backup and restore in Linux, though, there's no one specific thing to use out of the box -- there's a plethora of projects and solutions you can pick from. The process of winnowing these down to the applications that fit your needs -- and then making them work for you -- can be a little intimidating if you have never done it before, so you will again need to do some legwork to get the most out of it all.

For example: If you want to back up to CD or DVD, for instance, there's multicd. For backing up specific files and directories on a schedule to a local archive, there's SBackup. For whole-system backup and restore, or if you want to perform bare-metal recoveries, there are whole standalone distributions you can use to accomplish that -- 4BAK comes to mind, as does Clonezilla.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Stability, Backup & Disaster Recovery: Mac

Macs really aren't prone to the kinds of system software problems that you see in Windows. You're extremely unlikely to find that your data files, applications, or system files have become corrupted. But you still need backups. Macs are susceptible to human error, hard disk crashes, theft, and Wile E. Coyote dropping an anvil on your computer. Mac users have several options.

The Apple .Mac online service includes backup -- but unfortunately, storage space available in .Mac is laughably small for backup purposes -- 1GB for $99.95 per year, upgradeable to 4GB.

My main backup is Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) from from, an inexpensive, format agnostic online storage service -- it costs $0.15 per gigabyte per month of storage, plus modest bandwidth fees. To make things even easier, I use Jungle Disk, an application which runs on the Mac, Windows, and Linux, and which makes S3 appear to your computer to be a local disk drive. Jungle Disk includes a backup utility that lets you copy local files and folders to S3.

Another option for online backup, Mozy, offers free online backup of up to 2GB of data, and unlimited backup for $4.95 per month. Previously a strictly Windows app, it's now available in beta for the Mac. I know a few people who've tried it -- some have reported flawless experiences, others were unable to get it to work.

For backup to another disk on your local network, Synk synchronizes the contents of any two folders. It's priced at $20 for personal use and non-profits, and $40 for use by for-profit organizations.The Lifehacker Web site has a good overview of Mac backup options, and instructions for using the Unix utility rsync (which is included in the Mac because Mac OS is a Unix-based OS) for backup. Apple plans to include a backup utility called Time Machine in the next version of OS X, code-named Leopard. It's not just a backup utility -- it remembers all the data and settings on your Mac for any particular day, and lets you roll back your machine to a past configuration.

-- Mitch Wagner

Conclusions: Linux

Linux gives you freedom on many levels: the freedom to tinker, the freedom to work without arbitrary constraints on your system setup, and the freedom to make decisions about nearly every aspect of your system.

Linux Fans Respond

For comments and suggestions from Linux fans around the Web, check out Linux Vs. Mac: Linux Fans Respond.

That freedom does come at a cost, though -- the cost of a certain degree of effort. I haven't yet dealt with a single Linux install that didn't require me to edit some configuration file somewhere. That said, the amount of effort required to get the Linux system you want (or need) has gone down enormously with time.

If the freedom to use your PC in as unhindered a way as possible is important to you, that's what Linux delivers -- although keep in mind it comes with a learning curve, one that is still flattening out rather slowly.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Conclusions: Mac

If you believe that open source is a moral choice -- and many people do -- then buying Apple is making a deal with the devil. Apple is arguably the most proprietary hardware / software company in the industry, despite Mac OS X's origins in BSD Unix, and the products' compliance with many industry standards.

Mac Fans Respond

For comments and suggestions from Mac fans around the Web, check out Linux Vs. Mac: Mac Fans Respond.

You think Microsoft locks users in? At least with Microsoft you can buy a PC from a huge number of big and small vendors, or build your own from components. With the Mac, you buy your PC from Apple, you buy your operating system from Apple, and you're also encouraged to buy your mouse, keyboard, display, audio device, and smartphone from Apple, all at an Apple Store where you can get Apple service.

But if you're willing to live with lock-in, Apple is a great choice for computing. Installation isn't a problem -- Apple does it for you. Networking is easy. Productivity is a dream. The Mac offers a broad variety of entertainment options. It's a secure platform. It interoperates well with Windows. It's highly stable, and offers solid backup choices for the data losses that are inevitable on any computing platform.

Right now, Apple is smokin', and its customers are happy. But if the Apple gets rotten and starts coming out with inferior products -- as it did in the '90s -- its customers will have the choice of suffering, or making the painful switch to another platform.

Until then, I'm sticking with the Mac. It's a great computer.

-- Mitch Wagner

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