Linux Vs. Mac: Which Is The Better Alternative To Microsoft Windows?

If you're a Vista-wary Windows user who would rather switch than fight, should you move to a Linux distro or Apple's OS X? We asked a Mac fan and a Linux advocate to lead a guided tour of each OS.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

July 19, 2007

6 Min Read

Networking, Web & Wireless: Linux

Networking's one of those things that has become a lot easier with recent Linux distributions, but it all depends on whether or not your particular network hardware is supported. Here, I've had few difficulties: Both my notebook and desktop machines had their wired and wireless network interfaces recognized immediately in Ubuntu. All I needed to do was supply my wireless network name and password (or plug in the Ethernet cable), and I was off to the races.

(click image for larger view)LinuxWired and wireless networks alike have become easier to configure and get running thanks to a number of no-nonsense configuration tools. view the image gallery

Not everyone's NIC seems to work out of the box, though. As with any other piece of hardware, you're best served by checking Linux's hardware compatibility list to see if the particular NIC you're trying to use is supported or not.

For Web browsing, Ubuntu comes with Firefox pre-loaded (and Kubuntu has the Konqueror browser), so that's the vast majority of the Web taken care of right there. Working with sites that use IE-only technologies (i.e., ActiveX) is usually pretty tricky: most Linux folks either dual-boot or run Windows in emulation to get around that. There's another workaround I've encountered that involves using Wine , but it's not a sure thing.

If you're coming in from Windows, you might feel that a few other things are missing, but in my opinion they're neither major nor essential. One is some kind of automatic wireless network profile detection system, which is something I did kind of get spoiled on in Vista. The other, which is apparently in the works right now, is some variety of Windows-style network connection sharing. I suspect this sort of thing isn't needed as urgently anymore thanks to the proliferation of cheap network-sharing devices, but it's nice to know someone is thinking about it.

One last thing many Windows people may not see is a firewall. Linux has a full software firewall in the kernel as a loadable module, but in most desktop releases it's not configured by default -- it's rarely needed. For one, the vast majority of network attacks out there are not aimed at Linux. Also, many of those attacks are aimed at services like SMB (Server Message Block, Windows' file-sharing protocol) that aren't installed or enabled by default unless you actually need them.

-- Serdar Yegulalp

Networking, Web & Wireless: Mac

Networking is pretty simple. You plug in your cables or activate your Wi-Fi connection. You click on the appropriate control panel in the Internet & Network section of the System Preferences Tool. You check a few checkboxes. And you're ready to go. Bonjour, a Mac operating-system tool, allows devices on the network to conveniently share printers, bookmarks, routers, Webcams, iTunes music, iPhoto photos, and more.

(click image for larger view)MacApple supports the VNC protocol for remote login. This is Chicken of the VNC, one of many available VNC clients. view the image gallery

The Mac automatically detects available Wi-Fi networks. If the Mac has never seen that network before, it prompts you to decide whether you want to log in, and then for a user ID and password, if needed. After that, the Wi-Fi node is on your safe network list, and you don't have to manually log into it. You can disable Wi-Fi access -- which Apple calls AirPort -- if you choose.

Apple .Mac is the company's own Internet service, which integrates with the Mac. Users get a e-mail address, one-click Web publishing (including the ability to publish from iPhoto), file exchange, synchronization of the iCal calendar and the Mac Address Book between multiple computers, and file backup. Basic membership starts at $99.95 for one year, with up to 1GB of backup. But other than as a synchronization tool, I'm not a big fan of .Mac. You can get better services that do the same thing elsewhere, many of them for free.

The Mac runs five browsers (that I can think of), and they're all good. The two most popular are the native Safari, a basic, tabbed browser, and Firefox. Firefox offers the same user interface on Windows, Linux, and the Mac, which is why many Mac users who also use Windows like it. You can run the overwhelming majority of Firefox extensions on the Mac, and synchronize bookmarks using third-party utilities.

However, because I find Firefox slow and unstable on the Mac, I prefer Camino. It's based on the Firefox rendering engine, but lacks many of the frills and extensibility of Firefox. Camino also integrates with Mac utilities such as the Keychain for tracking logins and passwords, and has a completely native user interface, which is important to Apple purists. The final two browsers are Opera and OmniWeb, of which have their own followings.

Apple excels at remote access. It supports the VNC protocol for remote login: To use it, download one of many available VNC clients (I'm fond of Chicken of the VNC myself) and use it to log into any computer -- Mac, Windows, or Linux -- that supports the VNC protocol. You get a window in your Mac that looks like the desktop of the remote computer, and you can work on the remote computer through that window using your local mouse and keyboard.

When I want to work on my PowerBook but don't want to take the trouble to switch from my iMac, I use terrific open source software called Synergy, which works with the Mac, Windows, and Linux. Synergy lets you share a keyboard and mouse between multiple computers, with each computer having its own display. But, wait, there's more -- if I start the mouse in my iMac, and move it to the left, I'll find the mouse pointer on the PowerBook display, and I can work on my PowerBook. You can also cut-and-paste information from applications running on one computer to another.

-- Mitch Wagner

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