Review by The Vic Viper

"Despite numerous issues, it is still the best choice for most computer users and gamers"

Windows Vs Macs Vs Linux

The three most commonly used operating systems on personal computers are Windows (current version is XP w/ Service Pack 2), Mac OS X (10.3 now, with 10.4 out sometime soon), and Linux (with too many variations to count). Each of these operating systems has a lot of advantages, and many disadvantages, so it's really a matter of personal preference as to which on is best.

Windows XP - Windows XP does a lot to add the security and stability that Windows ME lacked, as well as support almost every piece of software and hardware available. The user interface of Windows is basically the same as it has been since Windows 95, though it has a slightly more artsy look to it. However it is still Windows, except the borders are rounded and has better coloring. XP still has the look and feel of a system designed by engineers who couldn't care less about cosmetic appearances. However, the applications are very straight forward and condensed so you get done what you want and move on. Windows can be greatly customized to look however you want, even to the point where you can't recognize it as Windows anymore. Unfortunately this is not particularly quick or easy, and you generally have to rely on third party tools to do this.

Personally, I like the user interface of Windows a lot more than that of Mac OS X and any Linux desktop environments that I have come across. I prefer having as much information on screen as possible without having it obscured by colorful borders, fancy icons with no labels, and big pictures that take up three times as much space as a list would. The biggest drawback to Windows' GUI is that it does not have a built in terminal window like Linux revolves around and Mac OS X has buried in the utilities folder. There are some third party clients like Cygwin that do a very good job of mimicking Unix's terminal, and even uses the Unix commands instead of the old DOS terminology.

In terms of security Windows still has many issues, but many of them are preventable. Viruses are always a concern, however there are several great virus protection applications (some of which are freeware), so if you keep one of those running and don't do stupid things like open random email attachments, then it's really not a major issue. Service Pack 2 has a built in firewall, which is effective, if somewhat annoying at times. Whenever an application connects to the internet for the first time it asks you if you want to allow or block it. If you choose to allow it, the firewall will not bother you about it again. Apparently some people have trouble getting their online games to pass through the firewall, but if it's too much of a problem the firewall can be disabled very easily. Windows XP also integrates very smoothly with third party antivirus and firewall applications, so there really should not be any problems with the new Security Center.

Most of the current security problems revolve around malware (the overarching term to describe spyware, adware, and crap like that). A lot (but not all) of these comes through Active X controls built into web pages (handled better with in IE by Service Pack 2 and completely eliminated in alternative browsers) or by downloading malicious freeware off the net. As long as you run malware removal programs regularly, don't download free screensavers and mouse pointers, and avoid installing any Active X controls (besides Windows Update) it shouldn't be a big issue. The other two operating systems are immune for the most part so you don't have to do anything which is certainly an advantage over Windows, but it shouldn't be enough to deter people from using Windows.

Stability-wise XP is fantastic; I have not had a single Blue Screen of Death and only a handful of issues with random program slowdowns and mishaps since installing Service Pack 2. Most of these seem to be related to Automatic Updates downloading things without asking, but after disabling that I haven't had many problems. XP is very good about isolating non-responsive programs so that an application crashing will not take down the entire system with it. Obviously if a critical system application crashes badly everything goes, but I'd say about half the time Windows can restart a crashed system program.

While XP has done wonders for improving the countless security holes and stability issues of the previous versions, many of the problems are due to the way the core system is designed. The Unix operating system (which Linux and Mac OS X are based on) isolated users and applications from each other and the OS kernel. This gives the operating system an inherent security by limiting what malicious code can do; an application only has the privileges of the user running it (applications actually have their own privilege levels so it may even be less than that of the user running it), so if the user can't mess with the system, neither can viruses or worms that get through a user's account. Windows does not do this (though XP tries with their Data Execution Prevention-aka DEP), but since Windows gives almost all types of applications administrative rights, meaning a hacker or virus that hijacks the web browser can access the entire system. DEP tries to analyzing what an application is doing and block it from accessing parts of the system it should not, but it doesn't always work very well. Sometimes DEP will block critical system applications like Windows Explorer from working.

The one field in which Windows wins hands down is in software and hardware compatibility. If a piece of commercial software is being designed for only one platform, chances are it will be Windows. If it is being developed for more than one platform, chances are it will come to Windows first. This is due mostly (well, probably completely) to the fact that the Windows user base is so many times larger than the competing operating systems. Windows also has much better hardware support than Macs in the sense that there is more competition, and therefore more choices and lower prices. Mac operating systems only work on computers made by Apple, however Windows machines are made by tons of vendors, with countless companies making motherboards and two highly competitive companies making the CPUs. Other hardware such as hard drives, keyboards, mice, graphics cards, optical drives, etc. are equally compatible (and equally easy to install) on both Windows and Mac OS. Linux has more hardware availability since it can be compiled to run on basically any architecture out there, from personal computers and workstation terminals to PDAs. However Linux lacks the plug and play abilities of Mac OS and Windows.

Windows certainly has its problems; however it is slowly getting better. Many of these problems can be dealt with, though it will take both user and system resources to get rid of. The larger issues are not a concern because generally home users aren't a major target of hackers making the biggest issues problems of the Windows Server, not the home operating systems. Personally I find that the user interface and software/hardware compatibility makes using Windows well worth the small effort it takes to run malware removers, an antivirus, and a firewall.

Mac OS X - The newest operating system from Apple is based on the UNIX kernel, which means it has all of UNIX's amazing security and stability issues. In many ways Mac OS X is UNIX, but with a very well designed desktop environment and better hardware management. Programs can still crash, however when they do they can almost always be forcibly killed, and unlike Windows where it can take several tries to abort a program, it generally works instantly. System applications rarely crash, unless you do something to them, however the operating system makes it really difficult for a user to mess with the system applications. Mac OS X is much more stable than Windows XP, and it does not create conflicts between its own system applications like XP's DEP does. Near-guaranteed stability is the number one reason to use Macs instead of Windows.

Viruses and spyware are almost non-existent, which means you do not have to bother with the anti-virus and malware removal tools that you have to use on Windows. Since no OS X browsers support Active X controls, the only malware you can get online is minor things like tracking cookies and other things that can be removed simply by clearing the browser's cache. While this is a real convenience, as I said before, it's not a huge deal to protect your computer in Windows, so these issues should only for you consider using Macs instead if you are really worried or can't guarantee that Windows's protective software will be used (for instance you share the computer with others or you are managing computers used in a school or office).

The user interface is okay, though I prefer Windows's UI and many of Linux's over OS X's UI. Instead of using a Start Menu, all of the commonly used applications are placed in a bar along on the bottom of the screen, as are any open applications, kind of like a combination of Windows's taskbar and quick launch bar. Shortcuts can also be placed on the desktop and any application can be accessed from the Finder (which is basically like the Windows Explorer, except without the folder tree on the left).

Software availability is the single biggest drawback to Mac's operating systems. Because Apple's computers use a completely different architecture than Windows the software is not compatible (though a few programs come on hybrid discs containing both versions). For the basic applications like the calculator, DVD player, and so on, Apple has created their own version, and most of the major applications like MS Office, OpenOffice, Firefox, Photoshop, AIM, and so on have Mac versions. The biggest difference is in the games, where many do not come out for Macs or come much later than the Windows version.

Mac hardware is excellent, however there is almost no choice in what hardware you can get. The only hardware that can run a Mac operating system is a computer made by Apple, and they generally only have one system for each model. There is a bit of customization you can do when buying a Mac, however you cannot build your own and there is no where near the number of choices you have with a Windows computer since there is only one manufacturer of Mac hardware.

As for the other hardware, such a keyboards/mice, external hard drives, flash cards, USB devices, and so on, Macs are pretty much 100% compatible with everything out there. Almost every Mac has USB and Firewire ports, and OS X has most drivers included, so there are no problems with compatibility.

If it wasn't for the lack of software availability for the Mac and the somewhat annoying user interface, then Mac machines would be great. However, while Macs have a lot of potential, they have yet to surpass Windows machines in terms of usefulness.

Linux - Linux's user interface is hard to describe, since there are tons available (called Desktop Environments). Some of which mimic XP, others mimic OS X, and many others add their own flavor. Linux relies mostly on the terminal window as opposed to icons, shortcuts, and other GUIs. This is a great way to quickly access programs and files. Linux is extremely secure and stable for the exact same reason why Macs are, so I won't get into details here. Combining the stability/security of Macs with the interface of Windows and UNIX makes an amazing system. Linux can also run on any type of machine, so there are no hardware compatibility issues in that sense.

The hardware issues come from adding devices such as hard drives, flash drives, etc. Linux does not automatically mount devices like the other two operating systems do, so you'll have to go in and set it up yourself. Printer and videocard support does exist, however you are limited in what brands you can use and you will generally have to use drivers that aren't from the manufactures themselves.

Software support is by far the worst of the three systems. Almost none of the major commercial applications support Linux in anyway. However there are almost always free alternatives such as OpenOffice instead of MS Office, Gaim instead of AIM, Firefox instead of Internet Explorer, Gimp instead of Photoshop. In many cases these programs will work just as well as the commercial versions, except they are free. Linux is a great way to have a fully functioning system for a very low cost. The only problem is with games, since very few games are ported to the Linux operating system. There are many freeware games you can get, but few of these have the quality of commercial games. If you don't want to use a computer for gaming, then Linux is a viable alternative.

Linux would be a great operating system, except for the fact that it is really hard to set up unless you are good with computers. If you know what you are doing and can get past the steep learning curve, then you should defiantly look into Linux. Mac OS X is good for professional graphic designers, musicians, and people who do not like maintaining a system like you have to do with Windows. Linux is more for the tech people who like messing around with there computers, programmers, and for people running servers. Windows is for everybody else and gamers.

User interface – Windows
Security – Linux & Mac
Stability – Linux & Mac
Software - Windows
Hardware Choices – Windows & Linux
Hardware Setup – Windows & Mac

Windows PCs as Gaming Machines

Reviewing gaming on Windows-based PCs (what I'm referring to when I say PC in the rest of this review) as a whole is not the easiest task because no two PCs are exactly the same. Sure you could take the easy way out by pointing to screenshots of upcoming games that were taken on computers than 99% of us could never afford and claim that those images are what Windows games are like. But that is no different than pointing to the price tag of the most expensive computer around and saying that's how much it cost to play a game, when obviously it's not true for the vast majority of PC gamers.

So how good do PC games look? That depends solely on one thing - how much money you are willing to spend on it. If you are willing to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a PC, then the PC will undoubtedly be more powerful than this generation, or even the next generation, of consoles. A game running smoothly at 1600 x 1200 pixels is absolutely amazing, and a game running at a modest 1024 x 768 is still impressive. In terms of graphics, if the PC can run the game smoothly it will look good as long as the resolution is decent. No console will ever be able to compete with a top of the line PC in terms of technical power, however the vast majority of people do not have a top of the line PC.

The PC is great for certain types of games such as First Person Shooters, western RPGs, simulations, traditional adventure, and online games. In terms of selection, FPS and western RPG games, consoles (especially the Xbox) are beginning to catch up. While it excels in certain genres of games, other genres have a small or non-existent library. Very few Japanese RPGs, shoot-em-ups, fighting games, platformers, etc are on the PC.

However the PC still has a larger variety of specific genres, plus several other advantages over consoles. The first is having a keyboard and mouse for controlling, which in my opinion is preferable over controllers. This is really just a matter of opinion, but a mouse gives FPS games much better accuracy and smoother movement. Having a keyboard also makes controlling the game much easier since there are so many more keys on a keyboard than a controller, meaning that many commands that would require a combination of buttons to be pressed on a controller can be handled with a single keypress on a PC. People who prefer a controller over a keyboard/mouse for whatever reason have a wide variety of controllers, joysticks, and other input devices to choose from, while consoles are generally limited to one or two proprietary controllers or low-quality third party controllers. PC controllers come in all shapes, sizes, prices, and from many different companies. You can even use an Xbox controller on a PC if you want.

The ability to mod the game adds so much value to a game that it is almost incomprehensible. Games with really good editing tools let you basically make an entirely different game, so rather than buying one game for $50 you can get hundreds of games for the same price. The editing tools for games like Doom 2 let people have complete control over the source code, so some mods bare absolutely no resemblance to the original game, with abilities, level systems, and lighting effects that didn't exist when the original game came out now included. That's just the amount of enjoyment you can get from downloading the mods (all of which are free and legal); actually making your own game and knowing others are enjoying it is even more fun than playing somebody else's creation.

The ability to make your own games is another huge advantage of the PC. Because you don't have to pay any licensing fees or get specific development kits to make a game, anybody with programming skills can produce a reasonably fun game on their own. Obviously a single person will not be able to create the greatest game of all time after taking a few Java or C++ courses, but they can still make a fun game. With the invention of Macromedia Flash, it has become possible to make games with only a basic understanding of computer programming and a guide book. Of course, many of the games on the internet are pretty pathetic, but there are games out there that are as much fun, if not more so, than some commercially sold games.

Another advantage of the PC over consoles is the ability to emulate console, handheld, and arcade games almost perfectly without any type of hardware modifications. The ability to play old games that have been forgotten by the mainstream or were never released in America to begin with is great. Emulators now exist for Atari, NES, SNES, Master System, Genesis, GameBoy Advance, GameGear, and almost all arcade games. You can't exactly run out and by a new NES when your system finally bites the dust a decade and a half later. Thanks to the wonders of emulation, classic games will not be forgotten and even people with low end PCs will be able to play these games.

If you are an online gamer, then a gaming quality PC is a must have. Almost all online PC games are free, with the exception of some MMORPGs, though there are more than enough free MMORPGs to keep people happy if they aren't too picky. For online gamers, the PC offers a wider range of games with better online service. Consoles are starting to catch up when it comes to online gaming, and in some ways Xbox Live has surpassed PC online gaming. The biggest problem with playing online PC games is the cheaters, and all cheaters are banned from Xbox Live, which is worth the $50 a year it costs. Online gaming is also more popular among PC owners than console owners, so there is less of a chance of an online community becoming deserted. How much fun an online game is depends heavily on the community of players, and if a game is unpopular, you will have nobody to play with.

While the PC does not have an advantage over consoles when it comes to game selection, you will be very hard pressed to find somebody who would claim that Windows PCs don't kill the Mac and Linux operating systems in terms of gaming. While it has gotten better over the years Mac computers generally get their games ported from the PC much later, if at all. Many of the big name games will eventually go over, but it may take several months, and some never get ported at all. So Windows computers get more games faster (not to mention the hardware costs less) than their Mac using counterparts.

Linux is even worse than Windows for gaming (though better for almost every other kind of software support). Since so few people use Linux as their personal computers, and many that do dual-boot with Windows, it really isn't' worth the publishers' time and money to bring a game over to Linux. Even if you do decide to use Linux as your primary operating system, it is a good idea to keep a copy of Windows around even if it is just to play games on.

The biggest disadvantage of the PC is the cost of optimizing it. Getting a gaming quality PC is going to cost a lot of money, and there is no way around it, even by buying hardware used or is a step or two below top-of-the-line. Even a computer than has the bare minimum specs needed to play currents games will cost more than twice the price of buying all three of the Next-Gen consoles. Buying a low end PC may barely work for games now, though the will probably play worse than on a console, but in a year or less your gaming PC will become obsolete as new games take advantage of the newest hardware. What is considered top of the line right now will become standard in a year or two and today's standard will become obsolete. The time between when newer consoles are released is usually four or five years by comparison.
Building your own PC can greatly save money and is not very hard for people who understand computers; however this takes time and people who do not have much computer knowledge may not feel comfortable attempting the process. Either way, if all you want is to play games then it is much more cost effective to buy multiple consoles.

Of course, this is just talking about PCs and how they relate to gaming. PCs are used for many different things, so if you are the type of person who uses a computer a lot for non-gaming tastes, it may be in your interests to own a powerful computer regardless of how much PC gaming you do. This is what I ended up doing, and it has served me well. I have a great computer, and even though I don't own a lot of PC games, when one does come out that I want I can easily run it.

The fact that you have to optimize it is another disadvantage to PCs. Consoles almost never has to be upgraded, and a launch model console will still be compatible with games released for it five years down the road. Consoles are a one time purchase, while PC hardware is a continuous drain on your bank account. Most upgrades are not too expensive, assuming you don't need a completely new computer, but for every new hard drive, graphics card, or sound system you have to buy, that's three or four games you have to wait to get.

PCs are also much more prone to problems than consoles due to the fact that they are not dedicated gaming machines. Even if the game can run smoothly there can be conflicts with other programs or the operating system, causing your game to crash. PCs can have twenty or so programs running in the background, even if you are not doing anything at the moment. Games take a lot of computer resources to run, especially graphically intense ones, and with the additional burden of running other programs in the background along with the game, PCs are more prone to slowdowns and crashes than consoles.

The division between consoles and PCs are quickly becoming blurred as consoles become more and more computer-like. Consoles now have hard drives, USB/Firewire ports, network adapters, keyboards/mice, and so on. Many PC games are now being ported for consoles, so many games that you would never think of seeing on a console ten years ago are on Next-Gen consoles. It's not quite at the point where consoles have become low-end PCs but with a more diverse gaming library, though in the next couple of generations it will probably reach that point.

PC games are absolutely fantastic; they play great, look great, and the best PC can out do the best consoles, but at a heavy price. A gaming quality PC is expensive, and you could probably get every console ever made for less than a single high-end PC, and a mid- or low-end PC will become obsolete in a matter of years. There are many things that make it worth while even if you don't have the best PC possible, such a free games (and I don't mean pirated software), emulation, mod patches for commercial games, online support, the ability to make your own games, and a large library of certain genres. There are many other genres that are just not supported by PC developers the way they are by console developers, so consoles should not be completely forgotten about. Owning a decent computer and all three consoles is the best way to go, assuming you have the money for it. For gamers who just don't want to spend that kind of money, then consoles are the way to go, especially since now many PC games are going to consoles such as the Xbox.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 02/28/05

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