Everyone likes a good "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" commercial, but how do you really decide between today's operating systems?

All the major OSs run on Intel chips, so the playing field has leveled quite a bit. Running multiple operating systems on each computer you own, be it a Mac or a PC, is no big deal these days. Why choose just one?

The field may have leveled, but it's not flat. The OSs still differ in many ways, not all of which are on the surface.

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We help average users — people with enough tech savvy to install and an own OS and serve as tech support to friends and family, even if they don't consider themselves tech gurus.

How do they choose between Mac "Leopard" (Mac OS 10.5.1 after the first automatic update), Windows XP SP2, Windows Vista (pre-Service Pack 1), and Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon (Linux)?

Easy. Let us pick for you.

PRICE

Mac OS 10.5.1: Four out of five stars
Windows XP: Three stars
Windows Vista: Two stars
Ubuntu: Four and a half stars

It's hard to beat free, but there are varying degrees of freedom.

Ubuntu, in all its forms (such as Xubuntu and Kubuntu, with their differing desktop designs), is open source, and that means it's free for anyone to download and install.

You pay nothing — but you do have to contend with the labor of burning the downloaded ISO disk image to a CD-ROM before you can run it. (Some Linux distros, as they're known, are commercial. Linspire 6.0, for example, is $39.95 direct.)

The current version of Mac Leopard costs $129 direct, or $109.99 at Amazon, where you can also still buy 10.4.5, aka Tiger, as well. With Apple, users pay every year (or so) to get a major upgrade.

Microsoft provides its major Windows upgrades, called Service Packs, free of charge. Paying more for Mac OS upgrades is a bit galling when you've already paid a premium for the hardware.

If you're buying Windows at retail, even if you don't consider the prices high, they still can be confusing. The lowest price for a retail copy of Windows today is Vista Home Basic at $199 for the full version, or $99.95 for the upgrade. (You can find it for as low as $49.99 on Amazon.)

But there are four more versions of Vista (Home Premium, Ultimate, Business, and Enterprise) shooting as high as $399.95 list. That's ridiculous.

Compare Vista with Windows XP Professional at retail. The list price is $299.99 ($278.99 on Amazon). The upgrade is still $199.99 by itself. The XP Home full version lists for $199.

So Microsoft isn't giving it all away, even if you can find great bargains online. But in the end, how many people really pay?

"I don't know anyone who has ever actually purchased a Microsoft operating system," says Sascha Segan, PC Magazine's handheld analyst. "Everyone gets Windows already loaded on OEM [original equipment manufacturer] PCs, and it's just assumed to be part of the price of the PC."

He's not wrong. Of course, getting XP this way is becoming difficult, as Microsoft pushes its OEM partners to preinstall Vista.

Advantage: Ubuntu

INSTALLATION

Mac OS 10.5.1: Five out of five stars
Windows XP: Three stars
Windows Vista: Three and a half stars
Ubuntu: Three stars

Few PC Magazine staffers advocate installing a new OS directly over an existing OS. A clean install, where you wipe the hard disk out first, is almost always preferable.

Your new OS will perform better, but you may wipe out some settings — and you'll have to reinstall all your applications.

Oliver Rist, our PC Mag Labs networking analyst, says Vista is "a clean-wipe upgrade only," especially when the upgrade is from XP.

"Microsoft and upgrades just don't go together," he says. "There's no reason Microsoft couldn't do much, much better in this department. As a clean install, however, Vista is noticeably easier than any previous Windows version, including XP."

A clean install of XP could take an hour, but Vista is faster, even though it takes up more disk space. Vista is also better at handling system resources, such as giving back RAM it's not using — but you need high-level hardware to get the most out of it.

Ubuntu installs have a mixed track record with our staff. Associate editor Jennifer DeLeo's update from 7.04 (Feisty Fawn) to the current 7.10 lost sound, connectivity to the Internet, and more — and this was on a Dell computer that came with 7.04 preinstalled. But others have encountered no problems.

Contributing editor Edward Mendelson believes that planning ahead is key for an Ubuntu upgrade. "Create a separate hard disk partition for your /home directory for your data and applications. When it's time to upgrade, you can wipe out the system partition and install a new one, and your /home directory will still be there."

Ed also advocates using Ubuntu LiveCDs, which let you run Ubuntu from a bootable CD-ROM without installing it to the hard drive. They're a great way to access an unbootable Windows PC so you can recover all the data. And they're a great way to give Ubuntu a free try, no strings attached, if only to see whether it recognizes your hardware.

Rest assured that if it runs okay from a LiveCD, it's going to be fine from the hard drive.

Ubuntu can create a dual-boot installation with Windows on your hard disk. It even handles the disk partitioning for you. And it doesn't take a lot of time to install, either — usually under half an hour. Just don't try to mess with the partitions afterward.

One staffer (okay, me, Eric Griffith) did that with Partition Magic and found himself with a system that wouldn't boot XP or Ubuntu. A clean installation of XP and then another of Ubuntu cleared up my laptop problems, however.

The clean-install exception is the Mac OS. Most users don't have to wipe out Tiger to upgrade to Leopard. Apple provides an "archive and install" feature in which apps and data stay the same, but your system software is brand new.

Despite whatever other potential shortcomings Leopard may have (especially before running an automatic update), the installation is a breeze.

Advantage: Mac OS 10.5.1

INTERFACE

Mac OS 10.5.1: Five out of five stars
Windows XP: Three stars
Windows Vista: Four stars
Ubuntu: Two and a half stars

There's no more subjective aspect of an OS than its looks, which affect how you interact with it.

That said, most agree that the Mac OS, while not perfect — dragging CDs to the Trash to eject? Huh? — is the easiest to master.

"When I recommend a new computer to anyone these days, as long as they don't need the cheapest possible machine, I tell them to get a Mac," says contributing editor Neil Randall. "That way, I know I won't be pestered about setup issues, things not working, and so forth — at least not very much."

Vista's interface is not radically different from XP's — just enough to set it apart.

For instance, there's the Aero user interface with its smart icons and translucent effects (which aren't far different from Mac OS's Aqua interface tweaks), and the new sidebar of desktop gadgets.

ExtremeTech.com editor Loyd Case says he can't live without the breadcrumb navigation now found in the Windows Explorer shell, and that "the XP Start menu seems primitive in comparison with the Vista Start menu."

And Ubuntu? Even those with major Ubuntu issues, like Jennifer, still love the interface. The default GNOME desktop environment is clean and well organized, and not hard for a Windows user to get used to.

"It's kind of like a cross between Mac and Windows," Jennifer says.

Indeed, the argument has been made that Ubuntu steals the best bits of both.

The Ubuntu core, however, is a text-based OS — something Windows spent years getting away from. And unfortunately, you still have to use terminal input to install software or configure settings far too often, even more often than you had to use DOS command lines in Windows 3.1.

Until Ubuntu can do away with the terminal for all but the most geeky uses (as the Unix-based Mac OS does), it will never become an OS for the masses.

Advantage: Mac OS 10.5.1

BUNDLED SOFTWARE

Mac OS 10.5.1: Four and a half out of five stars
Windows XP: Two and a half stars
Windows Vista: Three and a half stars
Ubuntu: Four stars

All the OSs score high (and XP fares decently), but for extremely different reasons.

What Apple offers with the iLife bundle "simply blows the doors off anything it's compared with on the PC platform in terms of ease of use, integration, and accessibility," says Sascha.

But he also admits that it's limited. iLife is about your personal lifestyle and improving it — organizing pictures, making videos and collecting music are the hallmarks.

To get work done, you'd need to buy, directly from Apple, the separate iWork ($79) or Microsoft Office for Mac 2008 ($399.95 list).

Ubuntu addresses productivity more automatically. The Gutsy Gibbon distro installs the third-party OpenOffice by default, making it the only OS here to offer a full office suite out of the box (so to speak).

Some argue that Ubuntu gets too much credit for this distinction, since Ubuntu developers didn't create OpenOffice (or Firefox or GIMP or any other auto-installed, bundled application).

But there's nothing stopping Apple and Microsoft from including a freeware office suite such as OpenOffice, except the desire to sell their own suites.

Windows Vista has no lack of bundled software, but it runs the gamut in usefulness. Improvements in programs — among them the slick Internet Explorer 7 (especially slick when compared with Safari on the Mac, a bad browser), Windows Mail and Vista Calendar — give it an extra leg up.

Its Windows DVD Maker and Movie Maker even compete quite well with iLife on the Mac. Vista is the first Microsoft OS to include anti-malware software: Windows Defender.

But is that a plus or a minus? (More on that under Security, below.)

Most of the bundled software with Vista is available in some way as a download for XP. But by itself, XP has absolutely the weakest software bundle.

Not surprising, since it has essentially the same collection today that it shipped with in 2001.

Advantage: Mac OS 10.5.1

THIRD-PARTY SOFTWARE

Mac OS 10.5.1: Three and a half out of five stars
Windows XP: Five stars
Windows Vista: Four and a half stars
Ubuntu: Four stars

The market for Linux software is all third-party — and a lot of the best is included at installation (as noted previously).

The way you install most other programs in Ubuntu is by using package managers connected to Internet servers. Package managers put almost every major open-source program you'd want at your fingertips and install them without resorting to the terminal.

Ed Mendelson considers this a major advantage for Linux, describing it as "vastly better" than software installation methods for Mac or Windows. (See monkeyblog.org/ubuntu/installing for how to install anything Ubuntu-related using package managers.)

But Ed also describes Ubuntu as "fragile" — push it with too much software or hardware and it cracks.

As Linux distros like Ubuntu get more notice, the third-party software will only continue to increase. Notice, however, may not equal popularity.

Look at Dell's sales of PCs with Ubuntu, for example. It sold only 40,000 in six months — that's a mere 220 computers per day.

Compare that with Dell's usual six million PCs sold every six months, most with Windows. It's not going out on much of a limb to say Windows has the clear lead.

Among all OSs, XP has the market-share lead of 78 percent, according to Net Applications. Who wouldn't write software to run on it?

Whether they make commercial software or freeware, developers who want to have users usually write for Windows. It continues to be the OS of choice because of the software options available.

A year after launch, Vista has almost caught up to XP, but not quite. And in several cases, programs that worked on XP do not work on Vista, requiring you to buy a Vista-specific upgrade.

Windows' biggest advantage is Microsoft Office, which is still the most-used office suite. It's the gold standard every productivity suite is measured against, though competition is fierce, even from online apps.

Alas, Office will likely never be bundled with Windows, unless Microsoft wants to go back to antitrust court.

Software titles for Mac have also multiplied over the past few years. Companies like Adobe frequently offer Mac and Windows software right on the same disc. If you can't find it for your Mac, you probably don't need it.

What about games? While most serious gamers do gravitate to consoles, they still spent a billion dollars on PC games in 2006.

And if you are a PC gamer, there is only Windows. Mac and Ubuntu aren't even worth consideration.

Advantage: Windows XP

DRIVERS/HARDWARE

Mac OS 10.5.1: Three and a half out of five stars
Windows XP: Four and a half stars
Windows Vista: Three and a half stars
Ubuntu: Two and a half stars

The massive Windows install base means that more vendors make hardware and drivers that work with it. Windows' market share puts it way ahead in terms of working with mobile phones, PDAs, and media players.

"Handheld vendors leave Mac support up to third parties," Sascha says, and the drivers could be of dubious quality. (Apple doesn't care about handhelds outside of iPhone and iPods, anyway).

Even after a year, Vista still has a ways to go in this regard. That's been the case with any major new version of Windows, however: Vendors don't make drivers for preexisting hardware until the new OS version has enough users to warrant the development effort. Enterprise users have it even tougher than home users.

Mac is a more closed system, so vendors making hardware for Macs are more likely to know what works on all Mac systems. Yet even in this age of ubiquitous USB ports, you can't always find a Macintosh driver. (Dell has several printers with no Mac support, for example).

Luckily, Apple includes a number of drivers for hardware like printers and scanners with the Mac OS.

Though Ubuntu has made great strides compared with what users put up with in its early days, when you could virtually guarantee you'd have one or more pieces of hardware that wouldn't function, it's still nowhere near the levels of hardware compatibility that Mac and Windows enjoy.

Advantage: Windows XP

NETWORKING

Mac OS 10.5.1: Four out of five stars
Windows XP: Four and a half stars
Windows Vista: Four stars
Ubuntu: Two and a half stars

No OS can claim perfect networking, but experience again wins out.

Windows XP spent the past six years getting networking among XP systems just right (even if it had to kludge wireless networking support as Wi-Fi grew in popularity).

The use of Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) in particular brings a no-fuss, no-muss approach to getting products to see one another.

Then along came Vista. Microsoft completely rewrote the networking stack, and Oliver Rist believes that, in so doing, Microsoft improved wireless but screwed up once-reliable wired networking.

More than one person here has seen previously rock-solid Ethernet connections with XP drop repeatedly with Vista.

But early reports on Vista Service Pack 1, which should be out by the time you read this story, claim that SP1 fixes these issues and even improves network speed threefold. (See go.pcmag.com/vistasp1 for a review of SP1.)

Wireless networking has been a bright spot for Vista from day one. Mac OS Leopard took some serious drubbing (including from PC Magazine) for breaking networking that was easy to use and seemed to work without a hitch in Tiger.

An update to 10.5.1, however, alleviates the problems. Mac OS also supports UPnP, and Mac and Windows systems talking to each other hasn't been a problem for a while — though it's hardly as simple as it should be.

Ubuntu's lack of open-source drivers for various networking hardware weighs against it here. Installing a Linux distro and expecting your Wi-Fi card to work is a big gamble, though when it works, it works very well: You won't have trouble getting online.

Finding shared resources on the network, such as printers or file shares, can also work, but finding and using are two different things.

It's probably not a big problem for a true tech nerd, but who has the time to waste?

Oliver says, "This is one of those areas where Linux suffers from the designed-by-nerds-for-nerds syndrome. They simply assume too much knowledge on the part of the end user."

Advantage: Windows XP

SECURITY

Mac OS 10.5.1: Four out of five stars
Windows XP: Three stars
Windows Vista: Three and a half stars
Ubuntu: Four stars

Is the Mac OS or Ubuntu more secure than Windows?

Our security analyst Neil J. Rubenking says, "There are vulnerabilities in Mac and Linux just as there are in Windows. The Core Impact penetration tool I use for attacking firewalls includes exploits for all kinds of platforms. But the bad guys get the best return on investment attacking the biggest target."

That target is Windows.

That's why Microsoft has no choice but to include anti-malware tools such as Windows Defender and offer its own antivirus solution, even if those tools barely measure up to what you can find from McAfee or Norton.

Security is also why Windows annoyingly asks twice before you can install software on your own computer.

There are anti-malware tools for Mac and Ubuntu, but who needs them?

Sascha Segan says that until somebody massively infects or exploits one of these platforms, he can't bring himself to care too much about not having security tools on Mac OS X.

He feels that vendors "trumpeting theoretical threats that have never been detected in the wild is just FUD" — an acronym for sowing seeds of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

But desktop analyst Joel Santo Domingo points out that "Macs and Linux can be carriers — they can hold infected binary files on their hard drives but can't transmit the malware unless there is an active transfer."

So to ensure that your OS will play nice with others, it can't hurt to use antivirus on any OS. As for phishing scams, that's more social than technological.

As Joel observes, "You can't breed out stupid or naive."

The bottom-line question is: Which OS keeps you safest?

Printer analyst M. David Stone puts it this way: "Let's say I came up with a new OS tomorrow with no security features. If hardly anyone adopted it, those who did would be almost completely safe from attack. No one would bother attacking it."

Therefore, the safest OSs are certainly Mac OS and Ubuntu. For now.

Advantage: Mac OS 10.5.1/Ubuntu

THE VICTOR

Mac OS 10.5.1 (Leopard): Four out of five stars overall

In our First Looks review of Leopard, we gave it a great score (4.5), and despite some disagreement — you expected complete unanimity? — we again found it worthy (with a final score of 4).

Mac OS 10.5.1 is the product to pick for our mythical average user who wants something secure, easy to install and easy to master.

That you can also run Windows and Ubuntu on today's Intel-based Macs — enabling you to use all these OSs on the same PC — is just gravy.

Pick the Best OS for Your Life

We're under no illusions that our choice of a top operating system is going to change how most of our readers do their computing.

What you use on your PC comes down to a lot of things: your comfort level, what's forced upon you by the IT staff at work, philosophical beliefs, economic status, you name it. It's impossible to quantify what makes a perfect OS — but that didn't stop us from trying!

If the OS you have already works for you, don't rush to change. Sure, we like the Mac OS, but switching to it from Windows means buying new hardware.

If you're happy with XP, don't rush to Mac, or even Vista just because it's new. XP has a lot of life left — until 2014, at least, when Microsoft will stop supporting it. But you can still use it after that.

And Ubuntu: There's no reason not to try it, since it's free. Just be careful. Back up your data first, in case something goes kerflooey.

Contemplating a change? First consider what kind of user you are. Here are our suggestions:

WEB SURFER
Any OS. You don't need anything fancy to browse the Web and send e-mail.

OFFICE DRONE
Windows. Get things done with minimal fuss.

GAMER
Windows. Millions of gamers can't all be wrong. (Or buy a Nintendo Wii.)

PHOTOGRAPHER
Windows. All cameras work with it, and the imaging tools are plentiful.

VIDEOGRAPHER
Mac OS. It's what the pros in Hollywood prefer.

ARTIST/MUSICIAN
Mac OS. The other artsy people will laugh at you if you use anything else.

TECH DO-IT-YOURSELFER
Ubuntu. You'll get the most satisfaction from taming this somewhat wild beast.

OPEN-SOURCE SUPPORTER
Ubuntu. Not lining the pockets at Apple and Microsoft just feels good.

Copyright © 2008 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.