macOS vs. Windows: Which OS Really Is the Best?
When it comes to performance, security, specific tasks, and more, which of the two leading desktop operating systems reigns supreme? We break it down feature by feature.
By Michael Muchmore May 30, 2019
I dread the disgruntled comments, emails, and tweets I’ll get because of this comparison, but hear me out. There are folks on both sides of the OS war who probably just aren’t aware of what the other side has to offer.
In the spirit of full disclosure, like more than 80 percent of the desktop and laptop world, I am primarily a Windows user. I am, however, an iPhone devotee, and as a software reviewer, I have lots of experience on Macs. I’m not a Mac or Apple hater by a long shot.
Rather than just framing this as an argument for one side or another, I’ll simply work my way through the standard operating system features, comparing Microsoft and Apple’s offerings along the way. Yes, each category will have a winner, and we’ll tally the points up in the end, but your choice of OS involves much more than just features, hardware and software support, and capabilities. It involves what the people around you use, your ecosystem (including your smartphone and tablet), your business needs, and your personality.
Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section at the end of this article, whether you're a Windows or a macOS fan. Let us know why you're in your particular camp.
Both OSes offer clear and polished setup processes. You can use both without signing in to an account with Apple or Microsoft, but both offer a richer experience if you do. You’ll miss out on syncing machines, voice assistants, app roaming, messages, and a whole lot of other goodies by not signing in.
Microsoft lets you install the OS with your voice using Cortana. Apple installs updates through the System Preferences instead of in the Mac App Store. Both automatically recognize and install drivers for standard hardware peripherals such as mice, keyboards, and storage.
Logging In and Getting Started
Both systems offer login options that go beyond the traditional act of simply signing in on your desktop. If you have a MacBook Pro with a Touch Bar, you can easily sign into your Mac using your finger. Or you can log in with your iPhone or Apple Watch if they are close enough to the computer.
But Windows 10 offers Hello with several biometric login options. Face login is probably the coolest, and is available on most higher-end PCs, including all Surface devices. Windows Hello also supports fingerprint readers, available on laptops such as the HP Spectre 13. If you don’t have hardware that's compatible with either of those features, Windows will also accept a PIN.
Once you’ve booted the OS, Windows has the Start button and menu to access your most-used apps, settings, and documents. There's nothing similar in macOS, but you can pin frequently used apps to your Dock, head to the Applications folder, or set up your desktop with icons for your most-used programs and files. You can also use Launchpad icon to page through and start apps.
Winner: Windows 10
Apple offers some great computer hardware options, but the selection is dwarfed by the massive availability of a diverse array of Windows PCs. And that's not to mention nontraditional options like the HoloLens, VR headsets, and the Raspberry Pi, which can all also run Windows 10. There's also a more diverse array of Windows-friendly peripherals available.
As for internal components—things like the CPU, graphics card, and storage—there’s no contest. Windows gives you a lot more leeway in configuring a system with the components you want, and more flexibility to upgrade later.
Winner: Windows 10
Both operating systems offer a wealth of built-in utilities and apps. You get decent mail clients, calendars, calculators, photo and video viewers and editors, screenshot tools, voice recorders, and web browsers, and apps for maps, cameras, news, weather, and contacts.
Microsoft throws in nifty Sticky Notes, Skype, Translator, and Xbox gaming apps. But macOS includes a superior video editor, a preview utility, and a streaming music service. It also throws in the awesome GarageBand music composition app and a full productivity suite.
Third-Party Software Compatibility
Both platforms have had time to develop rich ecosystems of software and services. Custom business applications are more likely to be supported on Windows, and macOS is prevalent in creative fields. That said, you can find plenty of good general business software for Macs, and Windows actually boasts more options in some creative areas, such as video editing and photo software.
Both operating systems offer app stores that manage installation and updating, but sadly the app developers haven’t given the attention to these desktop stores the way they have to their mobile counterparts. On a related note, I still find it odd that some macOS apps makes you drag a disk image to the Applications folder, and that's just one of at least three different ways to install apps on a Mac. Windows app installation is more straightforward.
Both operating systems offer decent leeway for customization, but we are past the days of drastic interface overhauls. That said, both OSes offer choices in desktop backgrounds, screen item sizes, and screen savers. Dark modes are the new rage, and both Mac and Windows offer them. Mac’s version is a bit more systemwide, with some older Windows dialogs still not darkened. The Windows 10 May 2019 Update adds a Custom option, which lets you decide whether you want dark or light mode for system elements, apps, or both.
Both OSes come with excellent, plug-and-play multiple monitor support, though Windows offers a bit more control. With Windows, you can span program windows across the multiple screens, whereas in macOS, each program window can only live on a single display. If you’re truly gung-ho on interface customization, I recommend Linux, which offers a selection of completely different user interface shells.
The search box in Windows 10 displays at all times, and typing in it pops up a panel with file, app, and web results. My Mac-loving colleagues swear by Apple’s Spotlight feature, but I’ve never found it satisfactory. Both search features will do math; show you the weather, stock prices, and sports results; or find nearby Thai restaurants without breaking a sweat.
Both OSes also now let you search with your voice, with Cortana on Windows and Siri on macOS (see the AI Helper section below). With the May 2019 Update, Windows follows Apple's strategy of separating the voice search from typed searches, separating out the Cortana icon from the search bar.
Alternate Input: Touch, Pen, and Dictation
Apple finally introduced some touch capability in macOS, but it’s only available on certain Macbook Pros through the Touch Bar. Windows 10 has always had full touch screen support, and it offers a Tablet mode that lets you switch between using the screen and keyboard for inputs (provided, of course, that your laptop is equipped with a touch panel). There’s a good selection of convertible laptop/tablets on the market to take advantage of this. I use my Surface Go exclusively as a tablet.
Pen input is another win for Windows. The support for styli on touch screens is robust, with incredibly good handwriting-to-text conversion. You can use a pen anywhere you enter text.
You can use your voice for text input in any app in both OSes. To do this in macOS, you have to specifically enable it. Once voice dictation is turned on, you can access it by double-tapping the Fn key. In Windows 10, just hit Windows Key-H (for hear) and you're off and dictating. Both work in any text field.
Winner: Windows 10
Voice AI Helpers: Cortana vs. Siri
Cortana arrived on Windows 10 a good year before Siri made it to the Mac, and is still more capable in a few important ways. Both can open apps and web pages, tell you the weather, change system settings, do math, control smart home devices, set reminders, send emails, and search the web. Both can be invoked by voice. But Siri can’t log out of or shut down the computer, something I find very useful at the end of the day when I’m walking away from my PC. Cortana can now even send requests to Amazon's Alexa.
Winner: Windows 10
Mobile Device Integration
Windows has been making great strides in integrating the OS with mobile devices. Apps for iOS and Android let you pick up on one device where you left off on another, even letting you send a web page from your phone to your PC’s browser. Android devices in particular are well served by Windows with the Launcher and Your Phone apps, which let you share documents and web pages and conduct SMS messaging across devices.
Despite these promising initiatives, Apple’s integration between macOS computers and iOS-running mobile devices beats what Windows offers. The macOS Notifications panel lets you send text messages by syncing up to a nearby iPhone, all your photos can be shared across devices in Apple Photos, you can transfer almost anything with AirDrop, and you can even engage in video calling with FaceTime between devices. Apple Watch is yet another piece of the integrated ecosystem that Windows can’t match. For example, you can unlock your Mac when your watch is in proximity, and the same notifications flow to both.
Taskbar vs. Dock
One of the most frustrating things for me about macOS occurs when I click on a running app’s Dock icon, and its window doesn’t appear on the screen. That's because macOS is more document-based, while Windows is program-based. So when you click on an app's icon in the Dock, you may just see its menu at the top, but no program window. In Windows, tapping a taskbar icon always brings up the associated program.
The macOS Dock has made strides over the past few years, with its nifty mouse-over magnification and Mojave's new feature that displays the icons of recently used apps. But the Windows taskbar is more functional. Hover the mouse over a taskbar button and you’ll see a thumbnail miniature of its program window. Taskbar Jump Lists let you see recent files opened in the app or jump to frequently needed actions in that program.
Winner: Windows 10
Desktop and Window Management
This take could just be due to my greater experience with Windows, but whenever I work on a Mac, I’m frustrated by how program windows are managed and arranged. As mentioned in the Taskbar vs. Dock section, clicking on a Dock icon doesn’t always open the program’s windows.
Microsoft's OS makes it easier to arrange windows on the screen. Want an app to take up exactly half the screen? Snap it to the left or right edge. How about have it display on a quarter of the screen? Snap it to any of the screen corners. If you run apps side-by-side, the border between them can be resized. If you want to show or switch to the desktop behind any running apps, click to the very far right of the taskbar. The conveniences go on.
Both operating systems let you create multiple virtual desktops. Windows now combines the desktop switcher with the Timeline feature (as shown in the screenshot above). This does clutter the Task View screen, but it can be damned useful if you're trying to get back to a webpage or document for which you've forgotten the location.
And finally, my favorite Windows window-management trick: Hold and shake the mouse key on a window title bar to minimize everything else.
Winner: Windows 10
File Explorer vs. Finder
In recent Windows updates, the File Explorer has improved, with Quick Access being a favorite new feature. This makes it easy to find the last file you saved, no matter what it was or where you saved it. The Finder’s Recents folder does the same thing. Window’s File Explorer contains standard libraries for common file types such as Documents, Pictures, and Music. These are sort of metafolders to which you can add any other relevant folder. macOS doesn’t offer a similar capability.
One macOS feature that Windows lacks is the ability to have multiple tabs in a Finder window. Finder also lets you quickly preview files in the Preview utility. Both display previews of documents on the right side of the Explorer/Finder windows, let you choose which app to open a file with, and let you easily share files with a right click.
Hardcore gamers don’t even need to look at this section. While there are plenty of excellent games available for macOS, and there’s even a version of Steam for the platform, Macs typically don't allow the level of internal component customization that's possible with PC Gaming.
When it comes to game selection, there are many more top-level titles on Steam that are compatible with Windows than macOS. Even PlayStation games are available on Windows through Sony’s PlayStation Now service, and you can stream games to your PC through the Xbox app. With Play Anywhere, games you buy on the Microsoft Store can be loaded on either your PC or your Xbox console, including exclusives like Cuphead, both Forza series, the Halo series, Gears of War, and Sea of Thieves.
The Windows 10 Game Bar, summoned with Windows Key-G, lets you record or stream your gaming activities to Microsoft’s Mixer community. Even Ubuntu is getting stronger support for Steam games than Macs, with Steam Proton offering support for more than 2,600 Windows games.
Winner: Windows 10
Security and Stability
This one is another no-brainer. Windows PCs have fallen prey to far more malware than Macs in the recent past, including ransomware, spyware, botnets, and good old-fashioned viruses. But Microsoft is constantly beefing up its security, pushing Windows Defender updates, and even introducing anti-ransomware measures.
Macs have a much cleaner record, but they’re by no means immune to vulnerabilities. Just look at the recent Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities, which affect both operating systems. Our security guru, Neil Rubenking, strongly recommends using antivirus software on Macs.
Both operating systems offer built-in VPN support, and all of PCMag's top VPN service choices are available on both platforms, so that category is a wash.
And then there’s the issue of stability. Macs win on this count, too, mostly because Apple controls the hardware ecosystem (third-party drivers are a major cause of instability on Windows PCs). We’ve even seen blue screens on Microsoft’s own Surface computers. Those looking for the ultimate in stability, though, should check out Linux.
Both operating systems include a good deal of support for users with disabilities, but Microsoft has consistently made more of a priority of this. Both have screen magnification, text narration, Braille support, sticky and slow key entry, and voice input, but with Windows, a blind person can set up the system by voice. Microsoft has even added the ability to control the computer with your eyes, as shown in the photo above.
Microsoft has American Sign Language support by videophone and a free BeMyEyes app that "connects blind and low vision people with volunteers for visual assistance through a live video call." At a Microsoft Build conference, one of the company's developers, who is blind, demonstrated an AR app running on the HoloLens that described people's emotions to him in real time based on their expressions, using the company's Seeing AI technology. The company has even published a Seeing AI app for Apple's iOS.
The May 2019 Update of Windows 10 goes even further, adding accessibility improvements like a new dashboard and more languages for Narrator, and drawing using only the keyboard in Paint.
Winner: Windows 10
Apple macOS or Windows 10?
We’ve tried to be fair and objective, and as you can see from the sections above, in many cases the two operating systems are at parity. And you'll have your own priority weights based on your OS needs. If gaming is everything to you, for example, then Windows is a no-brainer. If you're a creative type, then you’re likely better off with a Mac. So, without further fanfare, here's the final score tally:
Apple macOS 3
Microsoft Windows 10 9
Do you agree?
Are there other categories that should have been included in our evaluation? Let us know in the comments.