2009 has been a good year for operating systems, or at least the past few months have been. Mac's latest operating system, Snow Leopard was released just a couple of months ago and this week two of the best operating system ever devised are released: Windows 7 and Ubuntu's Karmic Koala.
Microsoft's new operating system has a lot to make up for, namely Vista and the lack of a decent Microsoft operating system for almost a decade.
The fact that the most used Microsoft operating system is still Windows XP, which was launched eight years ago, demonstrates just how tough a job selling Windows 7 is going to be for Microsoft, especially after the Vista disaster.
So what's new in Windows 7? Very little compared to Vista, indeed some critics are calling Windows 7, a Vista service pack or update. Certainly Windows 7 is the operating system that Vista should have been and there are some great improvements.
This is the important improvement for most people. Vista had a tendency to turn their fast PC into a slow coach, making the user experience a frustration for most people. These issues have been fixed in Windows 7 and the operating system is very nippy, even on netbooks. Yes, Windows 7 even works on netbooks, something that Vista could never do.
Windows 7 boots swiftly, the desktop effects work brilliantly, even on a low powered netbook, and the suspend/resume is almost instant. Performance wise, Windows 7 is a joy to use, it is brisk, even with many windows open and even on our netbook we never noticed any lag.
In Windows 7 Microsoft have altered the taskbar, no longer does it display the number of open windows, instead it just displays a single icon for each application, which, when hovered over, displays thumbnails of the open windows. You can also 'pin' applications to the taskbar, similar to the quick launch area of XP and Vista, and they glow a different colour when they have an application window open.
Initially the new taskbar seemed like a great idea, but this quickly becomes annoying when you have two or more firefox or explorer windows open and have to hover over the icon, and then the thumbnail, and then click it the thumbnail just to get the window you wanted; only to have it revert back to the previous window when you didn't click it hard enough or in the right place!
Gadgets and Themes
Windows 7 has gadgets similar to Vista, except they are no longer in a sidebar by default, instead floating on the desktop in a similar way to those on previous versions of Ubuntu.
Windows 7 now also supports themes, something that has been promised since XP. You can now alter your theme and download new themes. There are also country specific themes included, in the UK theme you get desktop backgrounds of places like Stonehenge, Tower Bridge and the White Cliffs of Dover.
Another great feature is the slideshow, which changes your desktop background automatically after a certain period. This is another feature that should have been available years ago, and it is great to be able to choose your own pictures and have the desktop change periodically. Previously third party applications were needed to do this, indeed they still are in Ubuntu.
Although introduced in Vista, the program search in the start menu is also worth a mention. After using XP for many years this is a great time saver, simply start typing the name of a program and Windows begins narrowing it down to a few possibilities and then click the program you require. So simple and yet so useful.
Libraries are one of the changes that I found annoying at first, but have since found to be quite useful. Windows 7 automatically sorts your files into categories (or Libraries) of Music, Videos, Pictures and Documents. This makes it much easier to find files, however not so easy when sharing files as it can cause confusion as to actual file locations.
As usual Windows 7 comes in several varieties, the cheapest home retail version available in the UK is Windows 7 Home Premium. Don't be fooled by the 'Premium' in the title, this is the worst one available, yet it will still set you back about £100. If you want useful things such as the very good backup utility, drive encryption, remote desktop and Windows XP mode (to run your old XP programs), well that costs extra, about £50 extra!
To get all the features of Windows 7, one needs to stump up about £180.
Having used Ubuntu for many years, initially being drawn to it just as something different (it was a long wait from XP to Vista), it has to be said that many of their recent operating systems have been more than a little underwhelming. Indeed the last few appear to have been a step backwards in some cases.
Past disappointment and releasing their new OS at the same time as the top dog, meant that Ubuntu also had something to prove.
Performance in the last couple of Ubuntu operating systems has also been less than impressive, Intrepid Ibex 8.10 and Jaunty Jackalope 9.04 particularly, displayed degraded performance on laptops that had worked great under Hardy Heron 8.04 and Gutsy Gibbon 7.10.
Karmic Koala 9.10 however is the fastest Ubuntu has been for a while. Boot time is very fast, boot time on this laptop was just under a minute on Gutsy Gibbon 7.10, but it hasn't been near that since. Running 9.10, this laptop boots in around 30 seconds. Suspend/Resume is also much quicker, indeed resume is almost instant, faster even than Windows 7. Shutdown is also super fast.
The desktop effects that worked flawlessly on even low powered laptops in the Hardy Heron 8.04 days, have suffered from inexplicable CPU spikes and lags since, but now seem to be on top form again.
Karmic Koala has made Ubuntu swift again, very similar to Windows 7, but even so it has to be said that Windows 7 is still smoother; the long speed advantage that Ubuntu has had over Windows (and that always amazed Windows users) may finally have ended with Windows 7.
Gadgets and Themes
As usual Ubuntu is far more customisable than Windows, with more gadgets and far more themes than Windows 7 (Ubuntu even has Windows 7 style themes). However it is a shame that Ubuntu's gadgets, or screenlets, are not installed by default, but at least like everything else on Ubuntu, it is easily installed.
Like other versions of Ubuntu, 9.10 offers the ability to change the desktop effects, but again this isn't installed by default, but once installed the user can choose from many, many different effects for closing, opening or minimising windows.
Sadly there is no option for timed desktop background changes like on Windows 7, at least without installing additional software.
Arguably the best piece of software on Ubuntu is Gnome-Do, this is like a cross between Windows program search and Google Desktop Search, but better than both. With a simple keyboard combination (Super/Windows Key + Spacebar) a box pops up that can do everything from simply finding a program as you type its name to searching for files, definition of words or even posting to Twitter.
Once again this isn't installed by default but is available to install. Installation is pretty simple however, Ubuntu have replaced the Add/Remove program with Ubuntu Software Store which allows the user to search for software and install it with a single click. Future versions will also allow developers to sell their software via the store but at present only free software is available.
This makes things even easier than before, and with the added bonus of an Installed programs list, it means that Ubuntu users can finally keep track of what is installed and uninstall all those programs that were installed, used once and promptly forgotten all about. A great move by Ubuntu, but something that has been possible in Windows since its earliest days.
Obviously Ubuntu is free, but to give a basis for comparison it comes in only one variety - Ultimate. Ubuntu Karmic Koala offers encryption options during start up, such as creating an encrypted home partition, Remote Desktop software by default, and simple backup and Windows XP emulators can easily be installed, all for free.
Karmic Koala also offers 2GB of cloud storage with Ubuntu One, again installed by default and also free.
Windows 7 Vs Karmic Koala
Ubuntu's new operating system is its best yet, it is fast, slick, and seems to get Ubuntu back on track, however other than in performance, it differs little from other versions of Ubuntu.
Windows 7 basically is an updated Vista, but it is also arguably Windows best ever operating system. Both Windows 7 and Ubuntu 9.10 offer the best performance and stability yet seen from their respective series, but Windows 7 seems to edge it in terms of speed and stability, having never crashed on our netbook.
The let downs in Windows 7 are the lack of ability to alter or customise the Aero settings, which, although they look great, quickly become boring, and cannot compete with Ubuntu effects like Burn, Paper Airplane or Beam; and the fact that the Home version is lacking some vital components, particularly XP mode, which you'd expect in a £100 OS.
Apple were able to offer their great operating system Snow Leopard for just £29.99, yet Microsoft, who control 90% of the PC market, charge £100 for their bog standard version.
This is a great offering from Ubuntu, but it also has to be said that Windows 7 is also a great operating system and shows that Microsoft have really raised their game, and we have the likes of Ubuntu and Apple to thank for that. However Windows 7 doesn't feel like a complete operating system, and not just because of the things missing from the home version.
Ubuntu 9.10 too feels like it is still unfinished, and doesn't quite feel as polished as Windows 7.
Overall I'd say that Windows 7 just edges it as the best operating system around, but when you take into account the cost to upgrade, the fact that it doesn't include any Office or other useful software for free, Ubuntu 9.10 seems the better option.
Vista has 20% of the desktop market, XP about 70%, so Microsoft is going to have its work cut out tempting those users to upgrade, especially with such steep pricing. These are tough economic times, so forking out around £200 on a new OS and assorted software, or more on a new computer with Windows 7, is likely to be viewed as an unnecessary expense, particularly if their current computer is running fine.
Add to that Ubuntu's excellent Karmic Koala being free, and Microsoft may have shot themselves in the foot yet again with their exorbitant pricing policies.