The big three operating systems

The next two months will see the release of three new operating systems, one each from Apple, Microsoft and Ubuntu, kicking off with Mac OS X Snow Leopard this week.

That will be followed in October by Microsoft’s Windows 7 and Ubuntu’s 9.10, also known as Karmic Koala. We take a look at some of the features that will make up each of these operating systems.

Snow Leopard

Apple’s OS X 10.6 operating system, or Snow Leopard, is expected to go on sale later this week in South Africa. The first big change for Mac owners will be the Intel-only support from Snow Leopard. This has been a long time in the coming but now it is official.

Also under the hood all native OS X applications have been rewritten to cater for 64-bit systems, which will give applications such as Mail, Quicktime, Finder and Safari a speed boost.

On the desktop, one of the more significant additions is that of Microsoft Exchange support which has been built into the core Mac OS X applications.

Support for Microsoft Exchange will be built into Mail, iChat and Address Book, OS X’s main communications tools.

Apple has also re-written QuickTime for this release and says that the player is now significantly faster than previous versions. The new QuickTime X also allows users to publish their movies directly to their YouTube account.

Following a growing trend in the supercomputer world of harnessing the power of graphics processors to boost performance, Snow Leopard includes a new technology called OpenCL. Using OpenCL, application developers will be able to harness the unused power of high-end graphics processors to speed up their applications, even non-graphics ones.

Graphics processors are able to crunch significant amounts of data which is usually used to render 3D applications and the like. By using OpenCL developers will be able to re-direct the power to boosting everyday application power.

Snow Leopard will also include Safari 4, Apple’s latest web browser.

Windows 7

Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system, the successor to Vista, has been in beta form for many months now and has already won over many users that have tried it.

Windows 7 is winning praise from beta reviewers for a number of features the company has implemented successfully. Among these is a less intrusive user account control which now, instead of constantly warning users of impending problems, allows users to configure how detailed and frequent they want warnings to be.

Windows 7 is also slimmer and trimmer than Vista. While Vista included every possible desktop application by default, Windows 7 will ship with a restricted set of applications and allows users to download additional tools only if they want them. The desktop has also been streamlined and is less resource intensive than Vista.

With the netbook market in its sights Microsoft has also improved boot times and is actively targeting start-up times of 15 seconds or less. Desktop users won’t benefit from these improvements much but portable laptop users will welcome it. 

Microsoft has also included a number of multimedia improvements in Windows 7. Among these are Windows Media Player 12 which includes better features for managing media files. This is done with a dual-mode approach: the Library view and the Now Playing view. Microsoft has separated the two roles and enhanced each of them.

Using the Library view users have access to all of the media management tools including categories, playlists and ratings. One of the nice features of the Library view is the ability to list all media types in a single tree view, making it easier to manage them in a single place.

Users can also share multimedia across their home network in Windows 7.

Microsoft has made it easy to set up a HomeGroup and browse and search for media files on all of the computers in the group. One of the best features is the ability to play media files from one PC to another. So even if all a user’s media files are on one machine they can use the “play to” features to play the media on another PC with better audio equipment, for example.

Ubuntu Karmic Koala

Also scheduled to be released in October, Ubuntu Karmic Koala is destined to be compared with Windows 7 which will be released around the same time.  Which means that Ubuntu has a lot to prove.

The first thing users, hopefully, will see is a new theme for Karmic which will make it feel a little more contemporary. The problem is that a new theme for Ubuntu has been in the pipeline for the past two releases and apart from some minor tweaks has largely been insignificant.

The thing this time around is that Windows 7 really does look the part of a modern operating system with its transparency, floating desktop widgets and aqua-toned desktop. Ubuntu on the other hand looks a little dated and, as Apple has proven, looks do count. When he first announced Karmic Koala, Ubuntu chief Mark Shuttleworth said that the release would have “a designer’s fingerprints all over it” which hopefully materialises this time around.

Better audio is expected from Ubuntu 9.10 and again this is going to be a critical proving ground for the Linux upstart. Audio handling on Linux has been famously bad over the years and as multimedia becomes an increasingly important part of the modern desktop, audio failings become increasingly noticeable. This is even more the case since Windows 7 includes Windows Media Player 12 which not only makes it easier for users to manage their media files but also makes it easy to stream multimedia over home networks.

Ubuntu Karmic must live up to its promise of making audio “just work” in order to remain in the game.

Faster boot-up times are also on the agenda with Ubuntu team having said that they hope to achieve boot times of less than 20 seconds with the release of Ubuntu 9.10. And more recently developers laid out plans to reduce that to sub-10 seconds with the release following Karmic in April 2010. With those speeds users can certainly expect faster startup times in Karmic with more improvements to come.

As far as Windows 7 goes, Microsoft is targeting startup times of around, or even less than, 20 seconds in ideal conditions. If Ubuntu can drop its times down to just 10 seconds by early 2010 then it will have a big lead over Microsoft.

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The big three operating systems