Roughly every two years, I compare the latest versions of the 3 desktop Operating Systems with the largest market-share — Windows, MacOS X and Ubuntu.
A sort of “Desktop OS Battle Royale” where only one system can emerge victorious. Without further ado…
We’re going to be looking at the latest releases of these system — Ubuntu 13.10, Windows 8.1 and MacOS X 10.9 “Mavericks”.
Here’s how this is going to work. I’m going to go through a number of different categories, and declare a winner in each. Then I’ll tally up the scores and declare a single, ultimate winner.
At which point we will all make fun of whichever two systems lose. But, you know, in a really sportsman-like way.
Look and Feel
Let’s get the most subjective category out of the way, right up front. Aesthetics. Look and feel. Visual beauty and consistency. Let’s look at how the big three systems stack up.
Now, the traditional logic suggests that the most elegantly designed, cohesive system will be MacOS X, Windows will look slightly ugly and Ubuntu (being Linux) will be a complete crapshoot. I find the reality to be quite different.
The current release of MacOS X (aka “Mavericks”) I found to be a bit of a visual mess. Some elements look, in all honestly, quite beautiful. But everything in this system seems to clash with everything else around it — applications bundled with the system use wildly different design styles. It feels like Apple is trying too hard to shoehorn iOS into MacOS here. And the result is a strange Frankenstein of two systems that should never have been combined together.
Windows 8.1 is, on the other hand, quite elegant and beautiful looking. But it also suffers from that Frankenstein effect. With Windows 8.1 you basically have two different user interfaces — the elegant, tiled Metro and the traditional Windows desktop. The two look different as night and day and I found switching between them to be a bit visually jarring. Neither interface looks bad at all… just extremely different. Different metaphors. Different design aesthetics. Metro and the traditional Windows Desktop look like they could have been designed on different planets.
Which brings us to Ubuntu 13.10 and their Unity user interface. Which is both good looking and consistent. The individual visual elements aren’t, by themselves, any better looking than what you’ll find in MacOS X 10.9 or Windows 8.1… but they all work together quite nicely. Because of this the overall look and feel of Ubuntu is just so much classier and easier on the eyes.
Look and Feel Winner: Ubuntu 13.10
Ubuntu looks like it was designed by a single person with a vision of how it should look. Windows was designed by two people having a fight. And MacOS X was designed by one person with 57 different split personalities.
At first glance, this is a fairly simple category. How much quality software is available for each platform?
But the truth is, all three have a huge library of pretty amazing software (included with each system by default, available through the built-in software stores and simply available elsewhere on the internet).
Even categories of software that have been traditionally dominated by one particular platform now have viable options on all three. Graphic design work on Ubuntu? Software development on MacOS X? Absolutely. There are plenty of amazing applications out there for all three systems.
And with all platforms having a well designed software store (Ubuntu’s Software Center, Windows’s Store and Apple’s Mac App Store), finding that software is a piece of cake.
But, and here’s the cold, hard truth. There is still far more software for Windows. Granted, just like with any platform, much of that software is total garbage. But there is still a relatively gigantic library of high quality apps for Windows
Available Software Winner: Windows 8.1
There may be a ton of great software available for MacOS X and Ubuntu… but nothing compares to the sheer volume of choices available to Windows users.
Video games need to be talked about in a different category than productivity software. They’re simply… different.
And, traditionally, Windows has been king of gaming. Go into any computer or game store and you’ll find row upon row of games built for Windows. With maybe a handful of games for MacOS X… and, if you’re lucky, one box in the corner for Linux.
But things have been changing radically in the gaming world in the last few years. More and more titles have been appearing for Ubuntu (and Linux in general). Sales events such as the Humble Indie Bundle have pushed Linux gaming forward. And Valve’s move to bring Steam to Ubuntu brought a huge amount of gaming legitimacy to the platform.
Add on top of this Valve’s recent move into game consoles and systems (the Linux-based SteamOS) — bringing with it a large number of AAA titles to Linux-based systems — and it becomes clear that there is a major shake-up in the gaming world. The dominance of Windows, while still there, is clearly slipping.
Gaming Winner: Windows 8.1 and Ubuntu 13.10 (a tie)
At this point both Windows and Ubuntu have become viable gaming platforms. With Ubuntu (and Linux in general) making huge leaps forward. Leaving MacOS X in the dust.
Being able to customize your computer, to meet your needs and match your personality, is critical. For many of us, our computer is our main tool used for both work and play. And, just as we want to be able to wear our own clothes and cut our hair the way we want… having a customized computer is pretty doggone important.
Let’s not beat around the bush here. MacOS X is absolutely terrible at this. There was a time, in the long distant past, when MacOS was a fairly customizable system. Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case for many years. You can change your desktop wallpaper and move around a few icons. But, in the end, your Mac is going to look like everyone else’s Mac.
Windows 8.1 has at least some basic customization options beyond this (such as changing window colors). Which is certainly a step up from what’s possible on MacOS X. Still nothing earth-shattering. But better.
Which brings us to Ubuntu 13.10. Now, Linux-based systems have long been astoundingly good at customization — allowing you to install whole new desktop environments (such as KDE or GNOME) to help you to make your system look, and behave, just about any way you can imagine. And, in that regard, Ubuntu 13.10 still handily beats Windows and MacOS X in this area.
However. Ubuntu’s Unity interface itself is astoundingly un-customizable. How looks is how it looks. It is, by default, locked down — with very few options for customization — in a similar way to MacOS X. You can, of course, still install different desktop environments (rather easily, I might add)… but the stock user experience is surprisingly locked down.
Customizability Winner: Ubuntu 13.10.
Ubuntu 13.10 held on to this category. But only barely. If Windows had improved the customizability options a bit further… this category might have gone a different way this time.
There are two ways to talk about performance. There is raw number crunching performance (the kind you get with benchmarks) and there is perceived performance (how peppy a system feels when using it).
The reality is, all three systems are capable of crunching numbers quite well. And even performance of 3D gaming is excellent on all three (though with a slight edge going to Ubuntu and Windows depending on the benchmark).
So let’s talk about perceived performance for a bit. When you launch an app, how long does it take? When you open a file browser, how quickly do folders with large numbers of files appear? Does the system seem to lag and get bogged down when using it? These are pretty important questions — as they can make the difference between enjoying using a system… or wanting to throw your computer through a window.
The loser here is clear. MacOS X is just plain pokey compared to the other two. The “spinning beach ball of death” is a commonly understood metaphor for “sitting and waiting for your computer to do something” at this point. The cold, hard reality here is that MacOS X tends to just… lag. And freeze up. A lot. Even on extremely expensive hardware.
That’s not to say that all is perfect in the other systems. Ubuntu 13.10’s Dash (part of the Unity interface) can be extremely laggy and slow to respond. Even on high-end systems. Most of the rest of the system is far snappier than MacOS X… but the Unity Dash is a pretty critical part of Ubuntu. And its slowness is noticeable. And, often, aggravating.
Windows 8.1 is… wow. Actually quite snappy. In using the system, even on a low-end netbook, I very rarely had to wait for the user interface to respond. Apps launched quickly. Large amounts of files displayed in a snap. And there certainly was no spinning beach ball of death.
Performance Winner: Windows 8.1
I should note that Windows only takes this crown by a hair. Ubuntu 13.10 is right on its heels. MacOS X on the other hand… let’s just say Apple has a lot of catching up to do.
Being able to run a virtualized system is of paramount importance to so many industries. The benefits of being able to run, self contained, virtual machines with various systems is astoundingly useful.
And there are a plenty of great packages to run virtual machines (including VMWare and VirtualBox) on all three major platforms. Want to run Ubuntu on MacOS X? No problem. Want to run Windows on Ubuntu? No problem!
Want to run MacOS X on Ubuntu… uh-oh. We’ve got a problem.
Apple, in their infinite wisdom, have artificially restricted you from being able to run MacOS X in a virtual machine under another OS. Because, I assume, they hate us all and want our lives to be difficult.
Windows and Ubuntu? No problem. You can run them in any virtual machine you like, on any platform you like. Because putting an artificial restriction on that would be just plain silly. And mean.
Virtualization Winner: Ubuntu 13.10
While Windows runs great in a VM, I have to give this one to Ubuntu due to the free license. Because of this you can spin up as many Ubuntu virtual machines as you want without worrying if you have enough license keys.
The Final Verdict
Time to tally the scores…
Windows 8.1 : 3
Ubuntu 13.10 : 4
MacOS X 10.9 : 0
So… this is a bit weird. The scores are the same as the last time I did this (nearly two years ago). But the results in each category are not the same. Windows stole the performance crown from Ubuntu. And Ubuntu managed to tie with Windows in the Gaming space.
Which I find incredibly interesting.
Regardless. One thing is becoming crystal clear. MacOS X is simply not competitive with the other platforms at this point. And it’s been this way for a number of years now. While Windows 8.1 and Ubuntu 13.10 both have their drawbacks, both have some significant strengths as well. MacOS X simply lacks a clear reason why it would be used over one of the other platforms.
Time to declare the winner…
Ubuntu 13.10 Wins.
[Full disclosure: I use all three of these systems, extensively, in my work. However, my primary machine does not run Windows, Ubuntu or MacOS X most of the time. I tend to run openSUSE, Android and Haiku as my main systems. So I am very un-biased when it comes to the three systems in this little battle royale.]