macOS Sierra vs Windows 10 comparison

Which is the better desktop OS: macOS Sierra or Windows 10?

Mac vs PC. Apple vs Microsoft. It's one of the oldest rivalries in technology. Which side are you on?

It probably won't come as a surprise, given the name of the website, that Macworld is firmly on the Apple side of the fence, and let's be clear before we get any further that this comparison is written from that perspective. We can hardly claim to be neutral. But while we probably won't be throwing out our iMacs and MacBooks at the end of this article, we can appreciate good software design regardless of its company of origin, and we aren't afraid to point out the areas where Apple has fallen behind its rivals or where there is simply room for improvement.

In our macOS Sierra vs Windows 10 article we propose to offer a clear, fair and factually detailed comparison of the interface, user experience and features of macOS Sierra, Apple's upcoming desktop and laptop OS, and Windows 10, which has been out for a little while. Read next: macOS Sierra tips.

Updated 3 October with general updates.

macOS Sierra v Windows 10: Design & interface

Design-wise, macOS Sierra is virtually identical to its predecessor, El Capitan. The 'flattened' visuals originally brought in for Yosemite are still present; they weren't popular at first but most of us have got used to them.

macOS Sierra vs Windows 10

There are a couple of differences in the Mac OS interface.

For one thing, you'll be able to use tabs, for example, in a wide range of first- and third-party apps, rather than just web browsers. (Maps, Mail, TextEdit and all three iWork apps support tabs - any third-party app that supports multiple windows.) It's a small enhancement but a highly logical one, and has made the bulk of commonly used apps more convenient for multitasking.

macOS Sierra vs Windows 10: Start menu

Windows 10 includes more major interface tinkering, including one biggie: the Start Menu is back. And it's improved - so much so that it may even make Windows apps useful.

On the left you'll see a list of most-used apps, as in Windows 7. At the bottom there's an 'All apps' shortcut, plus shortcuts to File Explorer, Settings and - conveniently - shut down and standby.

Microsoft has kept the Windows 8 Start screen functions on the right, with resizable Live Tiles that let you check unread mail or Calendar appointments. The Start Menu is customisable - you can resize it, and rearrange the tiles, create groups of tiles, and revert to the Windows 8 Start Screen should you wish to. 

macOS Sierra v Windows 10: Features

Both macOS Sierra and Windows 10 include - and are being marketed on the basis of - a raft of new features. Here are a few of the highlights, but there are far more than we can deal with here: check our individual reviews for more.

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.

Unlock your PC or Mac with another device

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 Mac will have a fingerprint scanner of its own.

macOS Sierra vs Windows 10: Apple Watch unlock

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.

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.

macOS Sierra v Windows 10: Compatible systems

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

macOS Sierra system requirements

Macs dating from 2010 or later should be able to run macOS Sierra; a few 2009 models are allowed, too.

More specifically, 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 Sierra?

Windows 10 system requirements

Windows 10 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

macOS Sierra v Windows 10: Price

macOS 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 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.

macOS Sierra v Windows 10: Release date and download links

macOS Sierra was luanched 20 September 2016 and is available through the App Store - just search for "Sierra" on your Mac. For more on this, see How to update Mac.

Windows 10 launched in July 2015. You can download it here: Windows 10 Home | 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 Win 10 is so 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 Sierra, it's still Mac all the way for us. Maybe that was predictable all along, but Sierra delivers on features - Siri is a particular 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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