I’m not a “Windows, yuck. OS X, yum!” kind of Mac user.
Though I prefer Apple’s desktop operating system over the alternatives, I am aggressively agnostic about such things. I love to dabble with other desktop operating systems, such as Microsoft’s Windows and Google’s Chrome OS. This gets me some ribbing from my Mac-geek friends, but I don’t care — I’m having fun and learning a lot.
So last month’s Windows 10 release was a cause for minor celebration. I had been using it for months as part of a “Windows Insider” public beta program that’s similar to Apple’s public beta programs.
I have also been running public betas of OS X 10.11 El Capitan, which has given me insight into how the operating systems compare. The question that has been uppermost in my mind throughout all this: what Windows 10 features would I like to see in El Capitan or a future version of OS X?
It’s not a long list. OS X is a mature and polished operating system with its own personality, so I have zero interest in seeing a Start menu grafted onto it for no good reason. Likewise, I can’t see any point in a Mac version of “TileWorld,” the playful word used by tech journalist David Pogue to describe those signature Windows squares and rectangles that display news updates, recent tweets, and other information in a widget-like fashion.
But Windows 10 does offer six features that make me think, “Wow, I’d love to have that on the Mac.” Prospects of this actually happening range from the near-inevitable to the all-but-impossible, depending on the feature. But it’s nice to daydream, isn’t it?
Siri, Meet Cortana -- While Mac users are still waiting for Apple’s voice-controlled personal assistant to migrate from iOS and watchOS to OS X, Windows 10 users are well ahead.
Microsoft’s Siri equivalent, called Cortana, has made the leap from the Windows Phone platform to the PC. Cortana (named for the famed female artificial-intelligence character in the popular Halo video games) is one of Windows 10’s marquee features.
Cortana, to be clear, is both a keyboard-driven and voice-controlled Windows assistant – think of it as Siri and Spotlight rolled into one. What’s more, Cortana’s voice features must be explicitly enabled in settings and, optionally, customized to one user’s voice. Even the “Hey, Cortana” verbal prompt is an opt-in feature.
Once that is activated, however, Cortana becomes incredibly handy. I can ask it (her?) for weather forecasts, cooking measurements, file types (such as spreadsheets or documents), driving directions, flight updates, time-zone conversions, and much more.
I can initiate Bing (but, apparently, not Google) searches for all manner of information. Bing shows me nearby restaurants, pulls up photos or videos related to a particular word or phrase (like “Amy Schumer”), and tells me the Eiffel Tower’s height or Nicaragua’s population.
If I ask Cortana to “Beam me up, Scotty,” the Scottish-accented answer is, “Sorry, Captain, I need more power.” (You might get a different answer since Cortana sometimes has more than one reply to a tongue-in-cheek query.)
Cortana even addresses me by name, once I’ve taught it what that is.
All this makes me pine for Siri on the Mac. I have to believe Siri for OS X is on the way – especially now that Redmond has one-upped Cupertino in this regard.
Window Snapping – For the longest time, Windows users have been able to position two windows side-by-side on their displays by dragging one to the right and the other to the left until each “snaps” into place.
Apple has at last built in an OS X split-screen option, called Split View, which make its public debut with the release of El Capitan. Split View is a smidgen more complicated to control than Microsoft’s implementation, but the end result is the same.
Ah, but Windows 10 has already upped the ante. Windows now permits snapping of four windows into a grid, which is useful on big monitors to create a dashboard of sorts. Windows 10 also allows placement of a half-screen window beside two quarter-screen windows.
This feature would be incredibly useful in OS X on a 27-inch iMac. But, again, I’d need to install Magnet or a similar utility to replicate the feature, at least until Apple enhances its Split View.
What’s more, Windows 10 provides a handy series of keyboard shortcuts for snapping windows into display halves or quarters. El Capitan does not.
Apple and Microsoft are on par with one feature: If you snap a window on one side of your display, you’re prompted to select among remaining windows for snapping to still-vacant areas.
Mission Control, Meet Task View -- Apple and Microsoft have been mimicking each other for years, and they’re still at it. The aforementioned Split View is an instance of OS X copying Windows. Likewise, some Windows 10 features are strikingly similar to OS X features.
For instance, Windows 10 has its own OS X-style Notification Center, which it calls Action Center. These are not identical; Action Center lacks Notification Center-style widgets but incorporates System Preferences-like features. But both provide notifications in a panel that slides in from the right as their core function.
Likewise, Windows 10’s new Task View is all but identical to the simplified El Capitan version of Mission Control. With one button tap, both toss up thumbnails of active apps and their respective windows. Within these thumbnail views, I can set up more than one desktop; these are “spaces” in OS X and “desktops” in Windows 10.
These software features are pretty similar, and of roughly comparable utility.
But Task View does have one feature I desire in Mission Control: each PC thumbnail incorporates a little clickable “x” that allows me to close it then and there. This is handy when I want to shut down a bunch of apps and windows quickly. While Mission Control lets me switch among open apps, it doesn’t let me quit them with a mouse click.
A News App (and Others) -- Apple has taken a couple of stabs at offering standalone news apps on its iOS devices. Newsstand was a bust, and is now being replaced in iOS 9 with the Flipboard-like News app.
Apple hasn’t announced anything comparable for the Mac, though. A later release would not be out of character; there are now Mac versions of the Maps and iBooks apps, which got their starts on iOS.
Meanwhile, on Windows 10, Microsoft is offering one of the best standalone news apps I have ever seen. Also known simply as News, it’s a revamping of an earlier app I did not like as much. The new version is vastly improved in appearance and functionality.
News items are shown as cards (not an original idea — Apple’s News and Google’s Newsstand for iOS and Android do the same), with customizable categories shown along the top edge. Swipe vertically to see more cards within a category, and horizontally to move among the categories. It’s not a revolutionary design, but it’s executed impeccably. I’m addicted to it.
What’s more, Microsoft has additional recently updated finance, sports and weather apps, which are great. But it is for some reason discontinuing also-excellent apps focused on travel, food and drink, and health and fitness (though the company continues to maintain Web sites devoted to these topics).
What’s more, Flipboard offers a standalone Windows version of its fab magazine-style news app (as well as versions for iOS and Android), but nothing yet for the Mac. Flipboard is also available in desktop form via any Web browser, but that in my experience isn’t quite the same thing as a swipe-and-tap native app.
Hopefully, Apple has a Mac version of its iOS 9-based News app in the works for future deployment.
A Touch-Friendly OS -- Windows 10 is an extremely touch-centric operating system, which I like. Windows was not always finger-friendly, but it has steadily undergone changes – some drastic, some subtle – in order to be more controllable with taps and swipes.
This has been a bumpy ride for Microsoft, to be sure. Windows 8 introduced TileWorld, designed specifically for touch interaction, but went too far in cutting or deemphasizing classic features. The popular Start menu got dropped, for instance, while users were forced to use a full-screen “home screen” that was TileWorld’s epicenter. Windows essentially became two operating systems in one, an arrangement that was widely panned and saw anemic adoption.
Windows 10 is a retrenching, with the touch tiles now integrated into a resurrected and revamped Start menu. The entirety of the operating system, ranging from the newfangled squares and rectangles to classic interface elements, is easier to manipulate with a fingertip.
Windows 10 will even shift into a touch-friendlier Tablet mode under some circumstances – like on a PC with a detachable keyboard when that physical input device is removed and only fingertip input remains.
This is why, whenever I have the choice of an iPad or a touch-enabled Windows device for use on my front porch, I’ve lately tended to pick the latter, since it is a “real” operating system, and not a limited mobile OS.
I’m not alone in this preference. Alex Lindsey, the TWiT and Pixel Corps tech personality, has repeatedly cited his use of a Windows-based Microsoft Surface Pro 3 in place of an iPad. Lindsey says he is heavily touch-reliant for drawing, annotating, and more, and he prefers to do this on a more-capable Windows PC than Apple’s tablet.
He daydreams, as do I, of manipulating OS X with his fingertips. That, of course, would require Apple to both rejigger its Mac operating system so it’s less mouse-centric and, more crucially, add touch screens to some or all of its Macs. I’m not holding my breath.
Game Streaming -- I am far from a hardcore gamer, so this part of the article pertains to my Xbox-addicted teenage son.
With Windows 10, Microsoft has introduced a “game streaming” feature. This lets Xbox One users access their consoles and much of those devices’ capabilities over home Wi-Fi networks via an Xbox app on their Windows PCs, with gaming controllers plugged into the computers.
I’ll quote Ars Technica here since its wording is priceless: “Is Dad hogging the TV? Take a laptop to the bedroom, sign into the same Wi-Fi network as your Xbox One console, and you can still shoot aliens in the face.”
Game streaming doesn’t work perfectly — at least not yet — with compromised video quality and other shortcomings. But this feature would make my teen perk up… were he to use a Windows PC. As if; we are a Mac household, of course.
There are obvious workarounds. We could install Windows 10 in a Boot Camp partition on any household Mac, for instance, and turn it into a full-bore PC for use with the Xbox One. Boot Camp was recently updated to be fully compatible with Windows 10.
But, to daydream again, what if Apple offered something similar? This is easier for Microsoft since Xbox One uses a version of Windows. I can only imagine the technical hurdles Apple would face in pulling off a similar feat. But Apple can’t be thrilled about Windows being installed on its computers, so what if it provided an alternative – in an alliance with Sony, maker of the PlayStation 4 console, perhaps?
I’m in la-la land here, of course, but it’s fun to speculate.
Great Artists Steal -- I fully understand Apple users’ sometimes-obsessive fondness for the Mac since I happen to share that passion. But I don’t subscribe to the “Mac rules, PC drools” philosophy I see expressed a bit too often for comfort.
Instead, I like to kick the tires on other operating systems, celebrate all that is good in them, and mull what lessons Apple could learn from its rivals.
That’s why my Windows 10 use in recent months was so enjoyable and enlightening. While reinforcing my preference for the Mac, it made me realize that we are living in a golden age of operating systems, with a number of compelling alternatives (including Google’s Chrome OS; see “Google Chromebook Makes for a Fine Auxiliary Laptop,” 24 February 2014).
Microsoft, facing more competition than ever before, is doing exemplary work on a number of fronts. Windows 10 embodies that effort, and I plan to keep using it regularly in the months to come. I hope Apple is also paying attention to Microsoft’s work, since Mac users could benefit from some of the features that have debuted in Windows 10. After all, it was Steve Jobs who said (perhaps incorrectly ascribing the quote to Pablo Picasso), “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”