Some of the coolest OS features are nowhere to be found in Windows XP or Vista. Here are 18 brilliant features that Microsoft should beg for, borrow, or steal--plus tips on how you can add many of them to your PC now.
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 intuitive interface features like Apple's application dock and Cover Flow 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-- such as 64-bit processing and business-networking tools--require a premium-version license in Windows.
We took a good look at a variety of OSs, from the Mac to Linux to PC-BSD and beyond, and we rounded up a list of our favorite features--few of which come standard in any version of Windows. We even considered some operating systems of yore, and recalled a couple of cool features that Microsoft still hasn't caught on to.
Some of these features simply aren't available for Windows at all, owing to the way the OS is designed. But you can add most of them to XP or Vista with the help of third-party applications, and we'll show you how to get them.
Available on: Mac
It's an elegantly simple idea, and it has been available on the Mac since 2003. When you want a clear view of all the application windows that are open at any one time, you just press F3, and a ittle feature called Expose arranges them all as thumbnails spread neatly across your screen. Click one, and it pops to the front while the rest snap back into position behind it.
With the release of Windows Vista, Microsoft deployed a feature called Flip3D that attempts to simplify window management in a slightly different way. Flip3D lets users flip through three-dimensional renderings of whatever windows are open on the desktop, but it doesn't offer nearly the same instantaneous visibility that Expose does.
Fortunately, a few downloads can add Expose-like thumbnails to your Windows machine. One little tool called iEx for Windows does the trick for free; but the installation is a little awkward, as you have to drag the downloaded files into the correct folders on your PC. A more refined program, TopDesk, installs automatically in XP and Vista--but it will set you back $20 after the 14-day free trial.
2. Virtual Workspaces
Available on: Linux, PC-BSD, Mac
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.
3. Back to My Mac
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 $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 $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.
4. 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, a Web tool called LiveLook allows you to share your screen in moments, no matter what operating system you or your remote pal happen to be running, and it doesn't require an IM session to launch. Just log in to LiveLook.net and click 'Show My Screen'. LiveLook will give you a unique session ID number to share with your friend. When they enter it at LiveLook.net, they'll immediately see your screen. After the 14-day free trial, LiveLook jumps to a hefty $40-per-month fee, or to a pay-as-you-go plan priced at 2.5 cents per minute.
5. Time Machine
Available on: Mac
Apple's Time Machine backup utility is one of the coolest new features in Leopard; with its help, backing up all of your files to an external drive is idiot-simple. Better yet, it lets you quickly recover an older version of any backed-up file, so you can undo all of your horrible, horrible mistakes.
Windows XP, and most versions of Windows Vista, have no such feature. Sure, they have a backup utility built in, but it's nowhere near as easy to work with as Time Machine is, and it will do nothing to help you track down lost versions of your important files. But three versions of Vista (Ultimate, Business, and Enterprise) do come with a utility called Shadow Copy, which lets you retrieve older versions of your files by right-clicking the file and choosing 'Restore previous versions' from the context menu.
What few people know is that cheaper versions of Vista (including Home Basic and Home Premium) do record the necessary data for Shadow Copy to work--they just don't give you access to that data. A free utility called Shadow Explorer can set that data free, letting you roll back to an earlier version of just about any file on your hard drive, without forcing you to buy an expensive OS upgrade you don't need.
6. ISO Burning
Available on: Mac, Linux, PC-BSD
Mac OS can do it. Linux can do it. PC-BSD and just about every other modern OS can do it. But for some reason, Windows can't burn an ISO disc image to CD without a little third-party help.
If you want to burn a CD image on occasion, but you don't want to buy premium disc-burning software, try Alex Feinman's free ISO Recorder. Available for XP and Vista, ISO Recorder adds disc-image burning to your context menu whenever you right-click on an ISO file. It's a lean, simple utility that does just what it's designed for and nothing more. ISO Recorder is available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions for Vista, and the Vista versions support DVD burning in addition to CD burning.
Available on: Mac, Linux
There's no shortage of applications and Web sites waiting to help you sort through your to-do list--but for my money, nothing beats a good, old-fashioned sticky note for sheer visibility. Macs have long come with an application called Stickies that adds the functionality to your desktop, letting you stick notes anywhere, color-code the virtual paper, and set the fonts to your liking. Many Linux distributions come with a utility called TomBoy Notes, which takes the Stickies idea to the next level by integrating hyperlinking functions that make the notes great for brainstorming, too.
Technically speaking, Windows Vista now includes a similar feature in the form of the Notes gadget in the Windows Sidebar. This widget applet is a poor imitation of its Mac and Linux counterparts, however. For a sticky-note app that really pops, try Stickies for Windows. This simple, free, open-source program lets you customize your notes to your heart's content, and stick them anywhere on your desktop.
8. Podcast Capture
Available on: Mac
Another great feature introduced with Apple's Leopard operating system is Podcast Capture, a utility designed to make podcasting a quick, simple affair--that is, if you also happen to have access to a Mac OS X server running the more robust Podcast Producer software. It's a cool idea, but even Apple's execution hardly serves the needs of the common podcaster, since almost nobody has access to a Mac OS X server. Still, all new Macs come with Garage Band preinstalled, which does an excellent job of creating podcasts using the Mac's built-in hardware.
Fortunately, you can add fast, easy podcast creation to your Windows PC (or your Mac, for that matter) with Audacity. This free application lets you record your own audio, edit and splice additional sound clips into your podcast, and tweak the quality settings so you can strike the perfect balance between audio fidelity and file size. When you're done recording your podcast in Audacity, use EasyPodcast to fill in the metadata that will make your podcast easy to find in the vast sea of podcasts on the Net.
9. Software Repositories
Available on: Linux, PC-BSD
In a perfect world, you'd never have to leave your chair to find great software for your PC. You'd just pop open a magic software-finding utility and click a few options, and then any application you needed would install itself instantly. That perfect world already exists in Linux, which has long offered software repositories as an easy way for users to find and install new programs.
In Ubuntu, for instance, a utility called Synaptic Package Manager lets you browse through large online software libraries (called repositories) to locate and install applications and utilities as required. Select one and mark it for installation, and it will automatically install when you click Apply. It will even automatically grab any other files that its installation depends on, without requiring you to do any extra work.
Linux distributors can do this because nearly all of the software in their repositories is free and open-source; they seldom have to worry about license restrictions hindering their efforts. In the Windows world, however, things are more complicated. A melange of licensing types, ranging from freeware to shareware to trialware and even a little open-source, makes it difficult for anyone to build a reliable software library with the click-it-and-get-it functionality that Linux users take for granted. Until someone builds a massive library of self-installing Windows applications, we'll have to depend on sites such as Download.com, Tucows, and, of course, PC World's Downloads library.
10. Desktop Cube
Available on: Linux, PC-BSD
Some of our favorite OS features aren't so much practical as eye-poppingly cool. Take Linux's Compiz Desktop Effects, for example. We wouldn't say that turning your desktop workspaces into a rotating cube, painting fire across your screen, and making raindrops fall onto your desktop have a lot of mission-critical business value. But that doesn't mean we don't love these features.
With the release of Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon in October 2007, Desktop Effects became a standard feature in Ubuntu. Now any Ubuntu users with a supported graphics card can spin their cubes, wobble their windows, and unleash lots of other eye candy.
Jealous Windows users demanded similar features, and Otaku Software responded. But the Windows version is more modest. Otaku Software's DeskSpace lets you turn your desktop into a four-workspace cube like the one offered in Linux. You can adjust the transparency levels, rotation speed, and mirroring effects, and you can even drag application windows from one side of the cube to another. But that's about the extent of DeskSpace's power. And unlike Compiz, which is free, DeskSpace will set you back $20 after the initial 14-day trial.
11. Application Dock
Available on: Mac
The centerpiece of every Mac desktop is a little utility called the Dock. It's like a launchpad for your most commonly used applications, and you can customize it to hold as many--or as few--programs as you like. Unlike Windows' Start Menu and Taskbar, the Dock is a sleek, uncluttered space where you can quickly access your applications with a single click.
Now you can add a simple application dock to your Windows PC with Stardock's ObjectDock. ObjectDock sits atop your Windows Taskbar and behaves just as the Mac's Dock does, complete with a magnify effect that enlarges icons as you hover over them. It can also hide your Windows Taskbar from view, giving your system the same sleek look that Mac users love. The standard version is free, but a $20 Plus version adds more animations, tabbed docks, the ability to have more than one dock on the screen, and other options.
12. Automated Screen Shots
Available on: Mac
Taking screen shots in Windows has never been as easy as it should be. Sure, it starts out simple enough: You press the Print Screen key, and the current view instantly copies to the Clipboard. Where it goes from there, however, is another matter entirely. It's up to you to open up Paint or another image editor, paste the captured screen into the app window, and then save it. What a pain.
On the Mac, however, things are easier. When you press Command-Shift-3, an image of the entire screen view instantly saves to your desktop. Press Command-Shift-4, and the mouse pointer turns into a set of crosshairs that you can drag over the area you want to capture. You can grab as much, or as little, of the screen as you like.
You can improve Windows' screen-grabbing prowess with a $15 utility called Better Screenshots. Better Screenshots lets you assign any hot-key to capture whole screens, partial screens, and even full-motion on-screen actions. It then automatically saves them to any folder you wish, in a format of your choosing.
13. Multitouch Trackpad Gestures
Available on: Mac
Beginning with the new generation of MacBooks, all Apple notebooks now 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, and more. Some Macs can do more than others, but all now recognize two fingers on the trackpad in one way or another.
Apple accomplishes this, of course, because it makes its own hardware. Microsoft, on the other hand, makes only software. However, some PC notebook vendors, such as AsusTek, are beginning to ship their notebooks 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--but for now it's something you'll have to keep an eye out for with every laptop purchase.
14. Cover Flow
Available on: Mac
We all absorb information in different ways, and some of us do better at handling visual information. That's the main appeal of Apple's Cover Flow, which lets Mac OS X users browse through their folders, files, music, and other data visually. By sliding the scroll bar or tapping the arrow keys on the keyboard, you can flip through your files one at a time, viewing each object as a large, helpful thumbnail, rather than seeing everything as a mess of small, obscure icons.
Vista has made strides in improving the Windows Explorer interface, but Windows has yet to integrate anything as dynamic as Cover Flow. With a free utility called Harmony, though, you can add Cover Flow-like browsing to Windows. Harmony works only with iTunes-generated cover art, and it doesn't integrate into Windows Explorer. Nevertheless, it's a simple, free way to add a little Cover Flow-style action to your Windows Media Player experience.
15. Pre-Installed Web Server
Available in: Mac, Linux, PC-BSD
Not everyone needs to host a Web site on their own PC. But some people do, whether it be their personal blog or just a few pages they wish to share on their internal network. And when people do set up a Web page on their computer, they usually choose Linux or Mac OS X for the job, because some versions of Windows don't come with a built-in Web server.
In Windows Vista Home Premium, Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate, you can install Microsoft's Internet Information Services. From the Control Panel, click Programs and Features, then choose "Turn Windows features on and off" from the left pane. In the Features list, check Internet Information Services and make sure Web Management Tools and World Wide Web Services are also checked.
If you're running Windows XP Home or Vista Home Basic, however, you'll have to download and install Apache HTTP Server. Once installed, Apache lets you host Web pages, complete with SSL encryption, from a folder on your Windows PC.
16. POSIX Compliance
Available on: BeOS, Mac, Linux, PC-BSD
Outside of the Windows desktop, much of the world's software is written to conform to a Unix-based standard called POSIX. And any operating system that complies with the POSIX standard can run most software written for Unix, including the dizzying array of free, open-source software written for Linux. Linux and PC-BSD are inherently POSIX-compliant. The Mac is, too, because it's built on BSD. Even the defunct BeOS supported POSIX standards. But Windows does not.
While users of Vista Enterprise and Ultimate editions can in theory add a Microsoft version of POSIX compliance known as "Subsystem for Unix-based Applications" to their PCs, our experiences with this feature yielded more frustration than fruit. A better way to add POSIX to any XP or Vista installation is to run Cygwin. This free Linux emulator installs in seconds, and it supports a variety of popular Linux-based programs that have been rebuilt specifically to run with Cygwin. It also functions as a Linux command prompt, allowing you to run Linux command-line utilities in Windows. Though Cygwin won't give you full support for all Linux software on your Windows PC, it will open the door to some basic Linux features.
17. Standardized Menu Ribbon
Available on: Mac
Navigating through application menus in Windows can be a crapshoot, because Windows lacks a unified menu ribbon for all its applications. In Mac OS X, application menus are completely standardized. Nearly all Mac programs have the same ribbon of menus running across the top of the screen, consisting of the Apple menu (which is roughly equivalent to the Windows Start menu) followed by the Application menu options. Because this interface is standard across all major Mac applications, users always know where to look for certain important controls.
Since Mac programs are designed with such a menu ribbon in mind and Windows programs aren't, there's no perfect way to add this feature to Windows. But with Stardock's ObjectBar you can come pretty close. ObjectBar is a skinning utility for the Windows Start menu and Taskbar. Once installed, ObjectBar's MacPC skin will turn your Windows Taskbar into a Mac-style menu ribbon. It even duplicates the menus of most Windows applications, so you can control them from the top of the screen as you would in Mac OS X. (The menus will still be available within your apps, too, however.) ObjectBar currently works only for XP, but a Vista version of is expected soon.
18. Single-File Applications
Available on: Mac
Nowhere is Microsoft's reputation for bloat more visible than in the Add/Remove Programs control panel. The very existence of this tool is a sure sign that Windows applications have become too large and unwieldy for many users. On the Mac, however, few programs consist of more than one file. And removing a Mac application usually consists of nothing more than dragging that program to the trash.
To attain the same level of simplicity on a Windows PC, you'd have to try running portable applications (see Scott Dunn's article "Carry a PC in Your Pocket"). Of course, doing so would force you to sacrifice some of the robust features you might prefer in your favorite Windows programs, so we don't recommend it. Unless Microsoft takes a radical turn in designing the next version of Windows, you can expect Windows software to become more complicated, not less.