Despite the claims of either operating systems' acolytes, both Windows and Mac OS X are very capable OS's that, at least functionally, are more similar than they are different. Put a lifelong Windows user in front of a Mac and it'll only take them minutes to figure out how to get around the user interface (something Apple has counted on for its Switch ad campaign). But we will concede that there are some UI features unique to each OS that do help enhance the computing experience. These are more prominent in Mac OS, of course, as Apple prides itself in developing elegant features that are both practical and visually pleasant. The good news for Windows users, though, is that these features have made their way over to Windows with the help of third-party software. Here are four of the best Mac OS's Aqua UI features that can be emulated in Windows with free utilities.
Editor's Note: We originally ran this story in March, but are bumping it up to include in this week's posts spotlighting our love for Windows and Mac OS.
The Mac OS Dock is appropriately the anchor of the Mac user interface. It's where you can get immediate access to favorite programs, open files with specific apps, and quickly browse document folders. Windows's Start Menu is cumbersome by comparison, though the Windows 7 Taskbar goes a long way to making up the difference in functionality (and even surpasses the Dock with Aero Peek). However, you still can't drag a file to a program shortcut in the Taskbar, and it doesn't provide the same animated notifications as the Dock. Rocketdock has long been the preferred Dock emulator, and with good reason. It's a fully customizable application launcher that is functional enough to replace the Taskbar, and its docklet Add-ons add even more useful features. The Stacks docklet, for example, gives you the same pop-up file browser as the Mac Dock, while others display real-time system information in a variety of visual styles.
Windows users have long been accustomed to using the Alt+Tab shortcut (and now Windows+Tab shortcut) to switch between active programs. But Alt+Tab is still a multi-keystroke operation; you have to continuously tap the Tab key to cycle between windows. Mac OS's Exposé feature is arguable easier to use. One shortcut key (F9) arranges all open windows in a dynamic configuration so you can see them all one one screen. The Switcher utility emulates Exposé rather well in Vista and Windows 7, and is configurable to work with any desired keyboard or mouse shortcut. Its one caveat is that it only works with Vista and Windows 7 when Aero is enabled, so Starter edition users are out of luck.
All Macbooks now come with multi-touch trackpads, and though memorizing a whole set of multi-finger touchpad gestures is an arduous task, there's one we simply cannot live without. Two-finger scrolling is invaluable for web browsing and document editing, and it's shameful that this feature isn't built into Windows. Instead, Windows notebook users often have to use a virtual scroll slider on the right side of their touchpad.
Fortunately, if your touchpad is made by Synaptics (most touchpads are) and has multi-finger support, you can easily enable two-finger scrolling with a small utility. Just download Two-Finger-Scroll and launch the program as an Administrator. You have have to uninstall your existing Synaptics drivers and install the latest version to get this working. Enable the load at startup option to turn on two-finger scrolling automatically when you boot up.
Technically, you can try Cover Flow out on a Windows PC without any hacking. That's because it's built into iTunes. But if you want to use it to browse files in Windows Explorer, that's a little bit trickier. Explorer Cover Flow is a Windows Explorer extension that runs as a new toolbar. It does a good job rendering a smooth preview of images and other folder content, though it requires some minor configuration to look like Apple's product. You also have to manage it as add-on in IE, and it only works with 32-bit versions of Explorer. Vista 64-bit has a 32-bit Explorer compatibility mode in the C:\Windows\sysWOW64\ directory, but we weren't able to get this working on a 64-bit Windows 7 machine.
Wish List: Spring-loaded Folders, Time Machine
There are still a few Mac OS X features that you just can't get in Windows, because third-party software just isn't available. The feature I want most is Spring-loaded folders, which lets you open and navigate through folder trees just by dragging files and hovering over folder icons. It's extremely useful for quickly moving files from your desktop to a deeply-nested folder. Some Windows Explorer replacements, like Magellan, have this feature, but it only works in a Explorer window and not your Desktop. Stardock used to offer a Spring Folders program for Windows 95 and XP as a part of its Object Desktop suite, but discontinued it after Vista was released.
The other notable omission is Mac OS's Time Machine. Windows 7 has a built-in backup software, and many third-party backup options exist (including Microsoft's Windows Home Server), but none of the one's we've tried matches the simplicity and at-a-glance functionality of Time Machine. Of course, if you know of a comparable alternative, share it in the comments below!