Love it or hate it, Microsoft Windows is the world’s most dominant operating system. But when you look at some of the hot features found in competitors such as Linux and Mac OS X, both XP and Vista can seem a little incomplete.
From automated installation tools such as Linux’s application repositories to intuitive interface features like Apple’s Cover Flow and Expose to basic media capabilities such as ISO burning, Windows often falls short on built-in goodies.
And some features that other operating systems offer by default are available only through a require a premium-version license in Windows.
I took a good look at a variety of OSs – Mac, Linux, Unix, BeOS and beyond — and rounded up a list of favourite feature, few of which come standard in any version of Windows.
I even considered the operating systems of yore, recalling some cool features that Microsoft still hasn’t caught on to. Some of these capabilities aren’t available for Windows at all, owing to the OS’s design. But you can add most of them to your copy of XP or Vista right now, and I’ll show you how to get them.
1. Virtual Workspaces
Available on: Linux, Mac, Unix
Linux users have long enjoyed the freedom to keep large numbers of applications running simultaneously–without being overwhelmed by screen clutter–thanks to the power of virtual workspaces.
In a typical Linux installation, at boot time four workspaces spring into existence automatically, signified by a little map on the control panel in the corner of the screen. As the user opens more programs, thumbnail icons of them appear in the workspace switcher, indicating which program windows are running in each workspace.
To change workspaces, the user simply clicks the appropriate area on the workspace switcher or uses a keystroke combination such as Shift-Right Arrow to move between them.
With multiple workspaces comes the ability to organize the Linux desktop environment by task, by application type, by priority, or any other way you care to slice it. It’s particularly handy for keeping a handful of applications out of sight and out of mind, without having to shut them down. For instance, I like to keep my messaging and communications apps in a separate workspace from my document-creation programs as a way of staying focused while I work.
Apple added this concept to OS X with the launch of Leopard in October 2007, although Leopard’s Spaces feature lacks dynamic thumbnails (something its Linux forebears offer) in the Dock icon.
To get workspaces on Windows, however, you’ll have to do some downloading. XP users have an easy solution with the Microsoft Virtual Desktop Manager, a free download from Microsoft’s PowerToys collection. For Vista, you must turn to one of several third-party utilities. My favorite among them is a freebie called Dexpot, which offers a wide variety of configuration options.
2. Simple Remote Access
Available on: Mac
Nothing quite matches the feeling you get when you sit down at your office desk, boot up your PC, and realize that the most recent version of the document you’ve been working on is stranded 50 miles away on your home machine.
If both of your computers were Macs running Leopard, you could use Back to My Mac (coupled with Apple’s US$99-per-year .Mac service) to fire up a connection to the remote computer, grab whatever files you need, and even navigate the other machine’s desktop as if you were sitting right in front of it.
If either of your PCs are running Windows, however, all the .Mac accounts in the world won’t help you. Instead, try GoToMyPC At a base price of around $20 per month ($180 per year) for one PC, this service ain’t cheap. But it does give you unfettered access to your Windows computer from any Web browser.
3. Friendly Screen Sharing
Available on: Mac
When Mac OS X Leopard hit shelves last year, it came with a handy little upgrade in iChat (Apple’s homespun AIM client) that lets two Leopard users share screens with each other on the fly.
Want to show your friend or colleague what you’re looking at on your display? Just share your screen with them. Or ask them to share their screen with you. It’s free. You get an exact view of everything they can see, as well as the ability to control their mouse pointer and click around as needed.
It’s a great way to fix your mother-in-law’s computer without actually having to go visit her. (Not that you would mind, of course.)
Windows Meeting Space, built into Vista, offers similar functionality but only over a local network, so sharing your screen with a remote relative isn’t an option.
Fortunately, Microsoft is beta-testing a new app, called SharedView that lets you start a screen-sharing session with anyone (as long as they also have SharedView installed). To share your screen in Shared View, you launch the application, click Start a new session, copy the invitation text, and paste it into an e-mail to your recipient. That person then joins your session by either clicking the link in the e-mail or launching SharedView on their PC and entering the session name and password.
4. Multitouch Trackpad Gestures
Available on: Mac
Beginning with the new generation of MacBooks, all Apple laptops support at least some multitouch trackpad gestures. You can use two fingers to do cool things such as scroll up and down, resize objects on the screen, swipe your way through Cover Flow menus. MacBook Pros recognize more gestures than low-end MacBooks do, but all models respond to two fingers on the trackpad in one way or another.
Of course, Apple managed to accomplish that feat because it makes its own hardware and software. Microsoft, on the other hand, makes only software and a few accessories. However, some laptop vendors, such as AsusTek, are beginning to ship their portables with multitouch trackpads and the drivers required to make them work.
We’d like to see multitouch become standard on all Windows laptops over time–with support for multitouch gestures built directly into Windows. Microsoft does appear to be working on this functionality for Windows 7 but in the meantime you’ll just have to keep an eye out for it with every laptop purchase.
5. Audio Recording and Editing
Available on: Linux, Mac, Unix
While it isn’t, strictly speaking, a feature of Mac OS X, Apple’s Garage Band software ships with every new Mac. With it, you can compose music on your computer’s keyboard, or attach external devices to your Mac to assemble a home recording studio.
This makes podcasting particularly easy, as you can capture and edit speech and music, and apply a polished sound to your amateur efforts.
Meanwhile Linux offers its users a vast array of open-source recording tools to choose from.
In comparison, Windows Sound Recorder is a sad one-trick pony that does nothing but collect noises from yhour microphone. Fortunately you can add smart audio tools to Windows with Audacity.
This freebie enables you to record your own audio, edit and splice additional sound clips into a podcast, and tweak audio settings. When you’ve finished creating your podcast in Audacity, use Easypodcast to fill in the metadata that will make your podcast easy for listeners to find.