macOS High Sierra vs Windows 10 comparison

In this comparison of Windows 10 and MacOS High Sierra we look at how both operating systems compare. Many of the features we will cover aren't specific to the new version of macOS - over the years Apple has added many features to Mac OS X, now known as macOS, and High Sierra gains only a few changes that users will really notice (it's an update that mostly happens under the surface).

Similarly Microsoft launched Windows 10 in 2015 but various changes have appeared since, and new design changes are expected soon. So expect us to update this article again soon to reflect them.

For those who are interested specifically in new High Sierra features read more here. In summary they include the following:

  • New file system - the new new APFS file system should increase security and bump up file transfer speeds
  • Photos - new advanced editing tools and the ability to turn Live Photos into Gifs
  • Safari - the ability to turn off auto playing videos and stop ads chasing you around the web
  • Notes - the ability to use tables in the Mac version of this popular iOS app and Pin important Notes
  • Siri - more ‘natural’ language and a more friendly personality
  • Spotlight - search for flight information

Does Windows have these features? We look in detail at the software that comes bundled with both operating systems below.

First we will look at the basics. How do MacOS and Windows 10 compare?

Update cycle

MacOS (previously known as Mac OS X) has been updated regularly since it first arrived on Macs in 2001. Apple frequently issues minor updates, but more significant changes come once a year, usually in the autumn.

Windows 10 was released in July 2015, and, like macOS it has regular updates. You won’t be seeing a Windows 11 because Microsoft sees its OS as a service and therefore issues features update for it, rather than completely overhauling it.

Design

Let’s face it, Apple is famed for the design of it’s hardware so the expectation is that the software design will be similarly beautiful. Microsoft, on the other hand, tends to be though of as, dare we say it, a bit boring and functional. Does the design of Windows 10 reflect this? We’ll take a look below.

MacOS design

The last time the design of macOS (or rather Mac OS X) changed significantly was in Yosemite, when it had an overhaul, at the hands of Apple’s design guru Jonathan Ive, to bring it into line with iOS.

Design-wise, the macOS has changed little since then. High Sierra is identical to Sierra, and Sierra was virtually identical to its predecessor El Capitan, and that to Yosemite.

In terms of the look and feel, macOS is designed for high res Retina displays. The majority of Macs these days feature displays with high resolutions and the interface takes advantage of that with little touches that wouldn’t look as good on a lower-resolution display, such as elegant, thin typefaces and transparency effects.

Some interface elements are semi-opaque, allowing a blurred-out version of whatever is behind the window to show through.

Other features include a Dark Mode, which allows you to darken the menu bar at the top of the screen as well as the drop down menus that appear from that, and the Dock. You can also change the highlight colour for text selections, and the colour of buttons to a less eye catching graphite. This is all enabled by a checkbox within the General System Preferences pane.

It didn’t exactly answer the prayers of those who wanted to make their Mac more emo but it does make the Mac interface a little more comfortable to use at night.

There are also various design touches that make the most of a small display. For example, you can hide the Dock, or move it to the side, or hide the menus at the top of the screen. In Yosemite Apple moved the traffic light buttons for close, minimise and full screen mode onto the same level so that the height of the window title bar could be cut. So, for example, in Safari the three buttons are on the same level as the next/previous button and the address/search bar.

Several interface elements were flattened in Yosemite. For example, previously the Dock had a 3D look, but now it’s flat with transparency, and as a result looks simpler and more modern.

Windows design

Windows 10 was Microsoft’s overhaul of the Windows operating system interface that answered a lot of the complaints of those who weren’t happy with the company’s changes in the previous version, which was tablet-oriented.

In terms of design it lacks the clean modern look of macOS. Perhaps not for long though.

There is a design refresh on its way, according to leaked screenshots that appeared in early 2017. Apparently the changes - known internally as Project Neon - will include more animations, and blurring elements. This new ‘Fluent Design System’ will mean that Windows 10 will soon look very different.

There will be new 3D elements, as well as more light, depth, motion, and the UI elements will also scale to remain usable across different devices.

Other changes coming in the redesign apparently include the minimise, maximise and close buttons being incorporated into the window itself, perhaps in a effort to reduce the space taken up by these interface elements, as in the case of MacOS.

The design overhaul is expected to arrive with the next Windows 10 update, the Fall Creators Update (codenamed Redstone 3), scheduled for an autumn 2017 launch.

We’ll update this when we see the final result!

User Interface

We’ll look at the differences between the user interfaces of MacOS High Sierra and Windows 10 here. Specifically the way you interface with the operating system, rather than the design.

In some ways the interface you prefer is probably the one you are most familiar with. If you have been using a Mac for years you may feel lost on a PC, and vice versa.

MacOS UI

Back when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak invented the Macintosh they had a philosophy that the interface should be really intuitive. As a result the Mac interface has always been really simple to use, as well as being elegantly designed - like the Mac that runs it.

You interface with your Mac mostly via the Dock, which can house shortcuts to your favourite apps and frequently accessed folders; the menu bar at the top of the screen; the Finder file browser; and Spotlight search.

There are other interface elements that you can use, such as Mission Control, for viewing everything you have open at a glance, and LaunchPad, which shows you all your apps.

Say you want to open an app, you can either click on the icon in the Dock, search for it using Spotlight, open it via LaunchPad, or ask Siri, Apple’s voice activated assistant to launch it.

Looking for a document you have been working on? Again, you can search using Spotlight, use the Finder file browser, find it in a Smart Folder, or Open Recent.

Wondering if it’s the file you were looking for. You don’t need to open it, you can get a Quick Look by clicking on it and pressing the Space bar.

One of our favourite new features in Sierra was the ability to share your Desktop and Documents folders across multiple Macs. So if you were working on something and saved it on your Desktop on one Mac it would be accessible from the Desktop on another Mac you were signed in on.

Alternatively you can allow the app you are using to save it into a folder associated with that app. So if you open the Pages app (Apple’s word processor) on any of your Apple devices you can easily access a document you have created in that app.

If you are really particular about your filing this might sound like it’s not organised enough, but if is so easy to find things that you really don’t need complicated filing systems to make it work. That said, if you really like to keep things in order you could assign a particular Tag when you save something to make filing and finding things really easy. You can then create Smart Folders which include everything assigned with that Tag - and since files can have more than one Tag it can appear in more than one folder without being duplicated.

Other differences in the way you interact with the Mac compared to the PC include the keyboard - with the Command key on the Mac essentially replicating the Control key on the PC. People will say that Macs have one button mice, but that’s not strictly true - you can right click on a Mac mouse or trackpad. But there are further differences to that method of interaction.

For example, the TrackPad on a Mac laptop allows you to use various gestures to interact with the Mac. Sweeping fingers across, or using pinch to zoom, in a way reminiscent of the way you use an iPhone.

In fact a few generations ago Apple switched the way that a mouse scrolls on its head, just to bring the Mac in to line with the iPhone interface. So now you push up with your mouse to move down the page. Once you get use to this it’s logical, but it can really confuse you at first.

Windows UI

Disclaimer: We don't use Windows and we aren’t as familiar with the interface as we are with MacOS. We will do our best to compare the way the Windows interface works with the way that the MacOS interface works here with a little help from our colleagues on PC Advisor.

Where you have the Finder on MacOS you have File Explorer on Windows 10. This allows you to browse and open all the files you have stored on your PC. Quick Access is a useful feature that automatically populates with your frequently accessed folders and recent files, you can also automatically pin things to it to make it easy to find things. To get a similar effect in the Finder on the Mac you could add a file to the Favourites bar, but it isn’t self populating in the same way as on Windows.

As with the Finder on the Mac there is a Preview feature that lets you see an image or view a video without having to open it. The implementation of this isn’t as neat as on the Mac though. It’s a particular view that you have to choose in the File Explorer: Preview Pane.

The Windows Control Panel lets you change settings. It’s similar to System Preferences on the Mac. Windows 10 introduced the Settings app which lets users customise and configure their system. It strikes us that Control Panel is more for fiddlers, while Settings is more for those who might cause damage to their PC if they delved too deep. Of course Apple makes it much more difficult to delve into Settings beyond the ones accessible in System Preferences, unless you have a working knowledge of Terminal.

One of the big criticisms of Windows 8 was Microsoft’s adoption of the Ribbon interface. It was designed to simplify menus. Of course people hate change, and it seems that it was too much change for some. Who has time to re-learn how to use Word and Excel, for example. But the point was it was intended to bring common actions to the surface and make it easier to find certain features.

macOS Sierra vs Windows 10: Start menu

Another feature that people were critical of in Windows 8 was the disappearance of the Start Menu. Critically, in Windows 10 the Start Menu returned.

The Taskbar in Windows is the strip at the bottom of the screen that includes shortcuts to your favourite apps, the Start Menu, and Search. It’s a little bit of the Mac Dock, and a little bit of the Mac menu bar. It takes up a lot less space than both, but we like having everything a click away, it strikes us that everything is pretty much buried in this set up.

Windows 10 also uses Tiles. These are a little like shortcuts to elements of different apps. A little like Dashboard Widgets in the Mac OS or Glances on the Apple Watch.

There is a Full Screen mode in Windows 10, just as there is in MacOS, but Windows also adds the option to “Snap” up to four apps per screen, with each occupying a quarter. When you’ve snapped an app you can also see a tab view of some of the remaining open apps so you can fill your entire screen. We think it’s a little like a cross between Expose (which allows you to see thumbnails of all your open apps) and the mode that allows you to arrange two apps side-by-side in a shared Full Screen mode on a Mac.

Integration across mobile and desktop

Our laptops and desktops aren’t the only devices that we create things on these days so it’s essential that all our devices work well together.

Here we’ll assess just how happily our Macs and other Apple devices play together with their differing operating systems compared to the Windows devices that all share the same OS.

MacOS and iOS

There might be two operating systems: iOS and MacOS, but that doesn’t mean that they are foreign territories. One of the things we love about macOS and iOS is the way that the two operating systems link all our Apple devices together. This is described as Continuity by Apple and it's a feature that's been around for a few years.

Essentially it means that all your devices are linked. This means that you can access anything on any device. This could be an email that you started drafting on your iPhone on the way to work but want to finish on your Mac - once you arrive in the office you can simply open Mail on your Mac and finish the email you were composing due to Hand Off, a technology that ‘shares’ the incomplete email to your Mac without you having to do anything.

Similarly if you have a webpage open on your iPhone when you switch to your Mac you can automatically open the same page there.

A related feature that arrived in Sierra still amazes us a year later. If you have Bluetooth turned on, and you are logged into iCloud, when you copy text on your iPhone you can paste it into something you are doing on your Mac.

There’s also the fact that you can send and receive text messages on your Mac - this is set to become even better in High Sierra as the messages will be stored in the Cloud (which means that everything will be in sync across all your devices). You can also make and receive phone calls because your iPhone can route them through to your Mac.

Speaking of continuity, here's one way in which your Apple devices can work together to enhance your security.

With the launch of macOS Sierra, you can unlock your Mac with your Apple Watch. Get within a certain distance of your Mac while wearing an (unlocked) Apple Watch, and the Mac will detect your approach and unlock: no more typing in lengthy passwords.

This is a handy feature, although the number of people who actually own Apple Watches is still relatively small. We're hoping that Apple will enable Touch ID-equipped iPhones to do something similar with their fingerprint scanners, or that a future Macs, like the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar does now, will have a fingerprint scanner of its own.

macOS Sierra vs Windows 10: Apple Watch unlock

Speaking of the finger print scanner, another great feature that brings is Apple Pay, which can now be used on your Mac as well as your iPhone, although the best inplementation is on the MacBook Pro with its touch ID equipped Touch Bar.

No such features on Windows quite yet, but it looks like that could change in the near future: Windows Central reports that the company plans to add the ability for Microsoft Bands, Windows Phones and other certified devices to unlock a PC. However, it should be noted that other third-party devices accomplish the same feature - but this would be considered as an additional purchase.

Windows and Windows Mobile

A while ago Apple’s CEO Tim Cook suggested that it is better not to try and create a “toaster-refrigerator”. He told analysts in 2012: “"You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but you know those things are not going to be probably be pleasing to the user.” He was taking a dig at Microsoft and Windows 8, which was designed to work on desktops, laptops and tablets. Cook believed that tablets needed a different interface because they would be used for different things.

As much as we love iOS we do think that when it comes to some professional uses the iPad is a little held back by the fact that it doesn’t run MacOS. Would there be more creative apps for professionals, for example, if Apple hadn't insisted that they run on iOS?

The irony is that when it comes to apps Windows tablets are limited when compared to iOS and Android. People want to run fun apps on their tablets and there just isn't the selection in Windows.

Where Apple has Continuity, Microsoft has Continuum for Phones, which essentially turns smartphones running Windows 10 into desktop PCs when you connect them to a large screen. You will see a full version of Windows, but it will be powered by your phone. Don’t get too excited though, it seems there are very few phones out there that are capable of such things. And it certainly doesn’t help that when it comes to mobile devices the Windows phone environment is pretty empty.

So does Windows benefit from the fact that it’s the same software on all your Windows devices. Maybe if you have a Windows tablet and a Windows phone. But if you do you are in a minority it seems.

Bundled software

Critics praised the improvements to Windows 10's bundled software over Windows 8. However, it’s our opinion that the apps that come with Windows aren’t a patch on those that come with the MacOS.

There are lots of apps that ship as part of MacOS but rather than cover all of them we will compare the photo editing and web browsing offerings for each OS.

Photo editing: Photos vs Photos

Photos is the editing and photo library app for Macs and iOS devices and it looks set to become even better in High Sierra, with new more advanced editing tools including professionally inspired filters, Colour Curves and the ability to turn a Live Photo taken with your iPhone into a Gif.

Thanks to Photos in the Cloud you can access all your photos on all your devices - and if you make an edit on one device that edit will be rejected on all your devices. (To use this service you will need to pay for extra storage in the Cloud, but iCloud storage isn’t expensive - find out how much iCloud Storage costs here).

Like Photos on the Mac the Windows Photos app lets you store, share and edit photos. As with Photos on the Mac the Windows app is a companion app to the one you might use on a Windows tablet or mobile phone.

It strikes us that the Photos app on Windows isn't as feature rich as Apple’s Photos app but whether that matters to you depends on how much of a budding photographer you are.

Web browser: Safari vs Edge

There are so many alternatives to both the Mac and Windows web browser that the choice of operating system. If you want to use the popular Chrome or Firefox you can.

If you were to stick to the browsers that ship with the operating systems though you'd be looking at Safari or Microsoft Edge (which replaced Internet Explorer). How do they compare?

As we mentioned at the beginning one of the new features in Safari in High Sierra is the ability to stop videos auto playing and stop ads from following you around the web (like when you look for a holiday and then all the ads everywhere you go are trying to sell you a holiday).

Old, but still good, features in Safari include a Reader view that allows you to strip out ads from the page (Apple hates ads), the ability for sites to send you notifications within the browser, a Reading List that you can save to look at later (and even browse offline), and lots of ways to make it quick and easy to visit your favourite sites - you can Pin them to the top of your browser, save them as a Favourite, or as a Bookmark.

If you’ve not been using Windows you might not even realise that Internet Explorer is no longer the default browser. Microsoft literally went back to the drawing board with its web browser, before it launched Windows 10 - that’s how bloated had IE become. Now Windows users have a new browser called Edge, which took over from IE when Microsoft introduced Windows 10.

As with Safari there is a combined URL and search bar. Speaking of search, unsurprisingly Microsoft makes the default search engine its own Bing. Unfortunately Microsoft doesn’t make it very easy to switch away from Bing, and based on the fact that Bing isn’t exactly a popular search engine it must be the case that many users are choosing to use a different browser.

There are some good features in Edge though. For example, it offers a reading view which is similar to Apple’s Reader view which strips all the ads and distractive elements from a page.

As in macOS there is also a Reading List feature that allows you to save things to read. However, unlike the Mac Reading List feature you can't refer to these pages when you are offline.

Edge also integrates with Cortana, Microsoft’s Siri-like virtual personal assistant. We’ll look at that next.

Voice assistants: Siri vs Cortana

Sierra's single biggest new feature is probably Siri - as has been rumoured for years, Apple's voice-control tech, previously available on iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and Apple TV, has come to the Mac.

Having the ability to search through documents using Siri is extremely useful and handy; you can use natural language, specifying various parameters to apply to the document search, and Siri's search results sit afterwards in the Notifications pane from where they can be dragged and dropped into applicable apps, and generally manipulated at your whim.

macOS Sierra vs Windows 10: Siri

Read more: Complete guide to Siri on Mac and How to troubleshoot common Siri problems

Microsoft's equivalent of Siri is called Cortana, a system that fields and interprets natural language queries in both speech and text. This has been available on PCs since Windows 8.1, but it gets upgraded in Windows 10.

All the Cortana features from Windows Phone are now in Windows 10. So you can ask (or type): "What's the weather going to be like this weekend?" and get a forecast, or "Remind me to finish my tax return tomorrow night" and receive a reminder at the appropriate time. And this can be tied to people and places too: "Remind me to ring Jim when I get home", and so on.

macOS Sierra vs Windows 10: Cortana

Cortana has a Daily Glance with your meetings, the weather, information about your commute, sports scores and suchlike. If you allow it, Cortana can also access information from emails, such as flight numbers, and warn you if there's a delay or heavy traffic on the way to the airport.

Finally, Cortana can identify music playing, set alarms, record notes, play specific music, launch apps and give you directions on a map. We think it's great, and one of Windows 10's biggest draws.

In terms of features, Siri and Cortana are roughly on a level right now. For our thoughts on their respective speed and accuracy, however, take a look at our comparison review: Siri vs Cortana vs Google Now vs Amazon Echo Alexa.

Privacy

Apple generally has a good reputation when it comes to user privacy - its public refusal to back down when the FBI wanted its help breaking into a passcode-locked iPhone contributed to this - and it doubles down on privacy with a new feature that is available with macOS Sierra (and iOS 10): differential privacy.

In fact, it would be more accurate to state that differential privacy is an existing field of study that existed long before Apple took an interest; in this OS you see that field's developments incorporated into Apple's software.

Differential privacy is a mathematical approach to privacy that introduces random elements to harvested data sets in such a way that it becomes impossible for a researcher (in this case, Apple itself) to determine the preferences or behaviour of any single user.

Back in the 1960s, a coin flip would be used to add randomness: a researcher might ask, "Are you a member of the Communist Party?" The subject would secretly flip a coin. If it came up heads, they always answer "yes". If tails, they answer truthfully. This gives them plausible deniability, as neither the researcher nor any other party knows if the actual answer is truthful. With enough answers, the noise of that randomness can be calculated and removed to produce a relatively accurate distribution.

Differential privacy is effectively a modern, more complex version of the same idea. Instead of flipping a coin, a system adds sophisticated random values that produce a result that can't be reverse engineered.

For a much more detailed analysis of the concept, our colleagues at Macworld US have written an article: How differential privacy can crowdsource meaningful info without exposing your secrets.

macOS Sierra vs Windows 10: Privacy

Microsoft, meanwhile, has faced some questions over its approach to privacy. Much has been made of 'spyware' issues in Windows 10, and rightly so.

Windows 10 is the most connected, cloud-focused OS Microsoft has released. For the most part, this is a good thing: your settings, wallpaper, start menu configuration and other things can be synced across all your devices; Cortana needs to access personal data if you want to use its full capabilities, and OneDrive integration means your files are accessible from any computer, tablet or phone.

But negating these advantages is the issue of privacy. Among other ominous warnings, Microsoft's 12,000-word EULA says "we will access, disclose and preserve personal data... such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders" in order to "respond to valid legal process, including from law enforcement or other government agencies", to "prevent spam or attempts to defraud users", to "operate and maintain the security of our services" and "if we receive information indicating that someone is using our services to traffic in stolen intellectual or physical property of Microsoft".

That may sound worrying and certainly doesn't compare well to Apple's policies and track record. The good news, however, is that you can opt out of most features. You can choose to use a local instead of a Microsoft account, and if you use Microsoft Edge, you can set privacy options online to disable personalised ads and ad tracking. We'd prefer all these settings to be off by default, of course.

Compatibility

It's all very well talking about features, but can your system run Windows 10 or macOS High Sierra, or will you need to buy a new Mac or PC in order to install them?

macOS High Sierra system requirements

High Sierra has the same system requirements as its predecessor, Sierra, so Macs dating from 2010 or later should be able to run macOS High Sierra; a few 2009 models are allowed, too.

More specifically, High Sierra is compatible with:

  • MacBook (Late 2009 or later)
  • MacBook Air (2010 or later)
  • MacBook Pro (2010 or later)
  • Mac mini (2010 or later)
  • Mac Pro (2010 or later)
  • iMac (Late 2009 or later) 

For more, see Will my Mac run macOS High Sierra?

Windows 10 system requirements

Windows 10 also has the same system requirements as its predecessor, Windows 8.1.

  • 1GHz (or faster) processor
  • 1GB RAM for 32-bit; 2GB for 64-bit
  • Up to 20GB hard disk space
  • 800 x 600 screen resolution or higher. DirectX 9 graphics processor with WDDM driver

Price

macOS High Sierra is a free update for anyone on a compatible Mac, and it will remain free for the lifetime of the product. Mac operating systems have been free since the launch of OS X Mavericks in 2013.

Windows 10 was also a free upgrade until 29 July 2016 (from Windows 7 or 8) - but now you'll have to pay £99.99 for the Home version of Windows 10 and £189.99 for Windows 10 Pro. These are also the prices if you're upgrading from an Windows Vista or earlier.

This makes macOS High Sierra favourable, given that it's a free upgrade and doesn't cost any money for most users - apart from the actual cost of the Mac, of course.

The UK Tech Weekly Podcast team discuss Windows 10 and the end of its free upgrade period - among other things - in their 25th episode, embedded below:

The UK Tech Weekly Podcast comes out every Friday. Follow them on Twitter for links to new episodes.

Availabilty

macOS High Sierra will arrive in September 2017 and will be available through the App Store - just search for "High Sierra" on your Mac. For more on this, see How to update a Mac.

Windows 10 launched in July 2015. You can download it here: Windows 10 Home or Windows 10 Pro

OUR VERDICT

A lot of PC users have got angry about Windows 10, mainly because of how heavy-handedly Microsoft has been pushing people to make the upgrade. Which is a shame, really, because Windows 10 is good: to quote our colleagues at PC Advisor - who should know - it's the best Windows yet. The new features combined with the familiarity of Windows 7 make it very attractive, and it's even better if you have several devices which can run Windows 10 - particularly a phone - because of the tight cross-device integration.

However, based on our experience of High Sierra, it's still Mac all the way for us. Maybe that was predictable all along, but High Sierra and it's predecessors delivers on features - Siri is still a highlight, even if voice control on desktop is one area where Apple is catching up with Microsoft, while Apple Pay, Apple Watch unlocking and the ability to copy-and-paste across devices are clear wins - and the interface, despite Windows 10's strides forward remains far more intuitive, in our eyes at least.

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