Differences in maintaining Windows and OS X?
February 2, 2005 9:11 PM   Subscribe

I haven't been able to find a clear, simple answer to this seemingly simple question : what is the maintenance comparison between Macintosh and Windows?

Does the Mac OS performance degrade over time (say, six months) as it does with Windows? Do you have to periodically re-install the OS or defragment the drive? Security issues aside, the inevitable system performance downgrade of Windows is the only real reason I'd switch. Anyone use both?
posted by dong_resin to Computers & Internet (29 answers total)
 
I use both.

Problems on Windows accrete from registry damage and fragmentation.

Problems on Mac OS X accrete from file system damage, fragmentation, and permissions problems.

Registry damage can only be fixed by reinstalling Windows.

Most file system damage accretion can be addressed up front by formatting Mac drives with the HFS+ Journaled file system.

Fragmentation can be addressed on both platforms by putting lots of memory into the computer.

Occasional permissions issues can be addressed by running Disk Utility after a software update.

Mac OS X might need reinstallation once every year and a half, on average. By that time, you'll probably have applied the next OS X version update, anyway.
posted by AlexReynolds at 9:22 PM on February 2, 2005


MacOSX (journaled) utilizes Adaptive Hot File Clustering; less fragmentation occurs. I know this is the case, but I'm not as sure what it means.

Windows: Antivirus updates (often) malware updates (often) Mac has (currently) no need/equivalency.
posted by filmgeek at 9:33 PM on February 2, 2005


Disk Utility is a godsend for Mac OS X, i find, altho i've also had kernel panics (i had to wipe the whole hard drive and reinstall). I have more problems with X than i ever had with Systems 7 thru 9 tho. On the whole, it's not much maintenance at all, i don't think.
posted by amberglow at 9:34 PM on February 2, 2005


No, the Mac's performance does not degrade over time, but it has been my experience that Windows's doesn't either. I'm still using the install of XP Pro that the company put on the machine when I started at my current job two years ago. It's fine. The Mac has a a lot less (i.e. no) spyware or viruses to speak of though, which is a common cause of slow Windows machines.

I don't believe I've ever reinstalled any Mac OS to fix problems. Certainly not any version of Mac OS X.
posted by kindall at 9:38 PM on February 2, 2005


It's pretty hard to break OSX unless you start upgrading pre-installed unix stuff.

filmgeek is right. When OSX access a file less than 30mB, it defrags it automagically if the system isn't too busy. The "Optimizing System Performance" section of installers defrags everything it installs. (I know a bit more than flimgeek, but I'm not really sure either)

Journaling basically makes a log of all writes to disk before doing them. Because of this, if you have a power fault the likelyhood of disk problems is much less than on Windows.

Anyone know how permissions get screwed up? (other than `chmod -R +rxw /`) It's not really a problem though.

No viruses, spyware, etc. /tmp is also cleared on reboot.


I would only want to reinstall OSX because I've used Fink and built my own perl (both unix stuff), screwing up some things in the process. Nothing I can't handle though.

The only thing I consider maintenance (and do) for my powerbook is rebooting it every so often and system updates. All the rest is really optional. (I used to use Windows for everything, now just for games)
posted by easyasy3k at 9:46 PM on February 2, 2005


MacOSX (journaled) utilizes Adaptive Hot File Clustering; less fragmentation occurs. I know this is the case, but I'm not as sure what it means.

Under OS X 10.3, both HFS+ and HFS+ Journaled actively defragment files smaller than 20 MB in size. Files larger than 20 MB can fragment.
posted by AlexReynolds at 9:55 PM on February 2, 2005


I agree with Kindall, I havent reinstalled Windows XP since 2 years ago, when the hard drive died. Configure it with a fixed page file, and to automatically defragment every week (including the boot files), and fragmentation is not a problem. How much memory you have doesn't really affect this.

Use Firefox, Thunderbird, a firewall, and a virus scanner, and spyware and security in general should not be a problem.

One other thing that does slow down windows is that many applications automatically load at startup, or as an explorer extension, which does make it bloated and slow. If you dont allow this, it should be fine.
posted by Boobus Tuber at 9:56 PM on February 2, 2005


I also got a couple years out of XP, and only had to reinstall because of a complete HD failure. For a couple years prior to the laptop (and for this year following the new HD) Win2K has been just fine.

It is my observation that the only reason Winboxen deteriorate is because of the actions of the user. I don't use OE, don't use MSIE, don't open attachments without being completely sure they are entirely legit, and don't install pirated crap. Ergo, I don't ever have problems.

(oh, and I also run a software firewall in addition to the router firewall, and I do not run fulltime antivirus software. I'm pretty convinced Norton et al do more damage than good.)
posted by five fresh fish at 10:33 PM on February 2, 2005


a firewall, and a virus scanner, and spyware and security in general should not be a problem.

God, I should hope not. (The problem is that you have to DO all that so security shouldn't be a problem. And don't forget to update those virus definitions...)

My experience with windows is mixed. I find that users who constantly add crap software will eventually have problems. So I agree with fff about it depending on the user.

I have no idea about macs, but I just bought one, so I guess I voted with my money.
posted by justgary at 10:46 PM on February 2, 2005


I've got to echo what everyone else is saying here. The maintenance is comparable, so long as you follow best practices with Windows. XP has really changed the Windows experience; it's much less flaky than previous versions. I'm a UNIX guy at heart though, so I love OS X (which beats any Linux distribution for ease-of-maintenance hands-down).
posted by mr_roboto at 11:21 PM on February 2, 2005


"seemingly simple question"

Each user has specific requirements, different patterns of use, and different skills to predict, detect, and repair problems. Probably a more valid question for commercial/server use?

I used macs for 8 years, PCs these days. The registry and virus/malware seem to be de facto weaknesses, and I can't think of an equivalent mac deficiency. Sure, follow best practice, but best practice on a PC might look a lot like maintenance to a Mac user.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 11:57 PM on February 2, 2005


AlexReynolds nailed it in one for me, there can be simple answers after all.

Windows defragmenter chews up harddrives over time, I've noticed a performance downgrade every time I've ever used it, on every windows box I've used my whole life, even the 3.1 machine that never went on the internet, and never got any viruses.
posted by dong_resin at 12:48 AM on February 3, 2005


I find I reinstall Windows about twice a year, but it's almost always out of choice (for example, the system is running fine right now, but I've had it with XP, so I'm going to be reverting in a week or so). Every time you install something, the registry gets a little more bogged down, so the "best practice" is to install a fresh OS, then install all the programs that you'll actually use. Enter in all the serial numbers to get them operational, then clone the entire HD so you can get everything back up and operational in a couple of hours should you decide to.

and I do not run fulltime antivirus software. I'm pretty convinced Norton et al do more damage than good.

Well, they'll cut your performance down at least 10% for starters. Just scan files manually when you download them. If you're not constantly exposed to strange files, you've gotten rid of IE/OE, there's no reason to be so paranoid.

Windows defragmenter chews up harddrives over time

Windows defrag is perhaps one of the most useless piles of codeshit ever written. Just wanted to get that off my chest.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:08 AM on February 3, 2005


One other thing that does slow down windows is that many applications automatically load at startup, or as an explorer extension, which does make it bloated and slow. If you dont allow this, it should be fine.

This is a great point. While securing Windows is often difficult, this is one step that I highly recommend. It cuts the most common path of infection for malware. If you have Windows 2000 or XP Professional (home, i'm not sure about)... then go to Start, Run, mmc, Console>Add/Remove Snap-in, Add..., Group Policy, Add, Finish, Close, Ok.

Then in the left-hand pane, expand to Computer Configuration> Administrative Templates> System. Here, activate the two options Disable the run once list and Disable legacy run list.

Then expand User Configuration> Administrative Templates> System> Logon/Logoff, and enable the same options as above.

What you're doing is cutting off that section of the registry where programs can add themselves to start up with your system. With the options enabled as described above, the registry can contain anything it wants, but it's ignored. This is great for you, because it's the most common method for malware authors to add their programs to your system at runtime. Run Once is even worse, since that part of the registry dictates programs that should run, then be removed from the registry list. They can do serious damage and essentially leave no trace.

Of course, if you still have some things that need to run at startup, like trackpad drivers, printer helpers, or other stuff, then just visit the Run these programs at user logon policy, and add them yourself.


Though I'm new to macs by about four months, I have not had any kinds of problems other than Disk Permissions, which, as mentioned above, Disk Utility can fix for you. I had these problems after using Fink to install new system software, so it doesn't surprise me.
posted by odinsdream at 7:10 AM on February 3, 2005


One of my favorite comparisons between a regular user's experience with OS X and XP is this:

To remove an application on OS X, you just drag the application into the trash. Empty trash. DONE. Maybe, if you want, search through Finder for anything with the application name in the file and trash those too. Regardless, you won't be breaking anything by trashing or keeping those remaining files.

If you tried that with your XP machine, chances are very good that something goes wonky. Even if you use the recommended "Add/Remove Programs" option in Control Panel, you may still encounter problems. "Do you want to delete xxxx.dll, which may or may not be shared by another program?" "Uninstaller cannot be found" "Some files could not be removed" etc. One thing that recent XP to Mac switchers can't get over is how easy and painless it is to delete files and applications!

By now you've heard about the lack of spyware, adware, and viruses for Mac OS X. That should be a big plus for most casual users out there. Yes, if you are a smart Windows user - not using IE, not using P2P programs, securing Outlook, using a antivirus software - you can avoid most problems but those are all things you *don't* have to even think about on a Mac. Even the savviest Windows user might get some nasty spyware just by clicking on a link in their Instant Messenger buddy's profile.

One last thing: Mac machines hold their value exceedingly well - Windows machines don't hold a candle to them. I sold my 14 month old 12" Powerbook for $1200. If you tried to sell your 14 month old Dell notebook, I don't think you'll be even close to getting $1000 for it.
posted by moxyberry at 8:03 AM on February 3, 2005


Not much to add, anything I'd have said has already been brought up.

I find it interesting, though, that (IN GENERAL) Windows gets messed up the easiest by a clueless Joe User type, whereas OSX gets messed up the easiest by a power user or semi-power user.

Your typical Joe User doing basic email, web browsing, music listening and word processing (and _nothing else_, no system administration of any kind) on a Mac can probably use the same machine for years without noticing any problems; try doing THAT on Windows.

Conversely, a power user on a Mac will probably have all sorts of 3rd party extensions that have the potential to gum up the works, not to mention the fun fun fun that can come with Fink screwing something up (happened to me just the other day!). On Windows, a power user will use the correct software packages (e.g. Firefox, Thunderbird) and will keep a firewall, virus scanner and Ad-Aware handy, thus ensuring that their machine is actually fairly stable and useful.

There's a number of holes in this observation, but overall I think it's mostly correct ;)

On preview: OH GOD YES. Application management on OSX is on a completely different plane of *existence* compared to that of Windows or Linux. I <3 OSX.
posted by cyrusdogstar at 8:05 AM on February 3, 2005


you can avoid most problems but those are all things you *don't* have to even think about on a Mac. Even the savviest Windows user might get some nasty spyware just by clicking on a link in their Instant Messenger buddy's profile.

While true, I'm one of those few people that actually likes the Windows interface better. Not the god-awful theme'd XP. Just the standard 2000 interface. I like being able to tweak things through a well-designed interface (kind of like KDE, but nary a command-line to be seen). I figure I'm saavy enough to keep my system clean, and anyway, I can get a fresh OS from scratch in under two hours with all the programs installed.

But for people on either ends of the spectrum--those who can't be bothered, or those who want to REALLY get into the nitty-gritty--the Mac offers a really attractive interface (both hardware and software), and now (with the Mini) price-point.

I WISH Microsoft would ditch DLL-hell and keep only the most basic interfaces public. It would probably halve the size of the registry. But oh-fucking-well, thanks anyway, Mr. Gates.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:48 AM on February 3, 2005


To remove an application on OS X, you just drag the application into the trash. Empty trash. DONE. Maybe, if you want, search through Finder for anything with the application name in the file and trash those too. Regardless, you won't be breaking anything by trashing or keeping those remaining files.

This is not entirely true. There is a small minority of specialized applications which put items into the System and Library folders. Deleting items from the Applications folder leaves these system-level items behind.

Examples include Norton Antivirus and pretty much any software that relies on a software or hardware copy protection scheme (some expensive molecular biology applications, most commercial digital audio applications, at least).

That said, these are in the minority and whatever is left behind is generally harmless.

If you do an Archive and Install of a newer operating system (say, going from Panther to Tiger, when it gets released) then these items get left behind in the Previous Systems folder, which is the equivalent of a clean-up job.
posted by AlexReynolds at 9:52 AM on February 3, 2005


Does the Mac OS performance degrade over time (say, six months)
On OS X, I make it a point to reboot once every couple of weeks or so--usually during that interval, there will be a memory leak that slows things down. So in that sense, performance on OS X can degrade over time (I'm one of thos Mac power users with all kinds of 3rd-party extensions).

In the sense of permanent slowdowns that can only be reversed by reinstalling the OS? I'd have to agree with easyasy3k -- if you've been rooting around in the terminal and doing low-level stuff, you might get in over your head, but other than that, probably not.
posted by adamrice at 10:08 AM on February 3, 2005


I don't have much MacOS experience, but I think the problem is the user, regardless of OS. If you overload your computer with crap, it'll slow down. If you remove the crap, it'll be faster. My experience with my one Windows XP computer is that it has experienced zero performance degradation over time (2 or 3 years), despite many applications and games being installed.

I don't have any AdWare or viruses though, so maybe that's my problem. :)
posted by knave at 10:11 AM on February 3, 2005


Application management on OSX is on a completely different plane of *existence* compared to that of Windows or Linux.

There isn't so much a fault of Linux in general, but rather particular distributions/package managers, no? There is a distribution, GoboLinux, that deals with this.
posted by bachelor#3 at 10:15 AM on February 3, 2005


knave, not always true: My ex had a Windows laptop from Toshiba that came with a software restore disc containing XP. When she installed it, she couldn't get on the internet long enough to even get to WindowsUpdate.com before the system was infected with a virus (worm?). She's hardly computer illiterate, but she can't help that her resource cd doesn't have the latest service packs slipstreamed into it either. The system should not be designed to fail miserably if the user isn't an expert. OS X is designed with security in mind, as is Linux.

Sometimes it's a nightmare to get windows secured without having some kind of hardware firewall and a good bit of knowledge about what to block initially so you can at least get the updates installed.
posted by odinsdream at 10:21 AM on February 3, 2005


Linux is too heterogeneous to say "Linux is designed with security in mind."

Some distros, yes. Others, not so much.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:32 AM on February 3, 2005


Linux is secure because it's obscure. I get about 6 emails a day from the Gentoo security mailing list about security flaws in various packages... It's really hard to say that Linux software is somehow more secure than any other OS. It's just that there are many more Windows computers to infect.

Anyway, when I was speaking about my Windows computer, it is behind my firewall (which happens to be a computer running Linux). I would not run a Windows computer plugged directly into the ether...

I wasn't trying to say Windows is secure, BTW, just that if you keep it clean, it doesn't slow down. (Unless you want to start talking about 95/98.)
posted by knave at 3:38 PM on February 3, 2005


The "Optimizing System Performance" section of [OSX] installers defrags everything it installs.

I thought I should debunk this, because it's simply not true. During this long and laborious process, the installer is doing no defragmentation. It's updating the shared object file prebindings in Mach-O executables on the system.

This makes things load faster, since dynamically linking the shitload of .so files that a modern application uses is rather time consuming -- better to do the heavy lifting once, up front, rather than every time you fire up a program. The downside to this is that when you update a heavily shared component, a lot of other things suddenly have broken prebindings. This is why "Optimizing System" takes so damn long sometimes.

In any case, to address the original question: In the overall view, Mac OSX is so amazingly more robust than Windows over time that it's barely worth making a comparison. The hardware is well controlled, and has far fewer driver compatibility issues. The underlying system is NextStep and BSD UNIX; both are rock solid, industrial strength, production quality codebases. The Slashdot nerds are absolutely correct when they make such a big stink out of Windows being so flimsy by comparison with a well-written UNIX. It really is. The last truly solid version of Windows was NT 3.51, which was very stable on supported hardware. It's been a rocky road ever since, and it's only recently that Windows has started to move back towards that high-water mark.

In terms of day to day maintenance, it's difficult to make a comparison. The average Mac OS machine (or any modern UNIX box for that matter) needs next to no regular maintenance on the scale that Windows does. Reinstalling the OS is a rare event indeed, not the kind of thing you do every three months as with Windows. Nearly all drivers are packaged with the OS itself, and revised with it. Driver maintenance is practically nonexistent by comparison. Filesystem performance degrades much, much more slowly over time compared to NTFS, since the HFS+ catalog is better maintained than the NTFS MFT, and it utterly outclasses FAT. Damaged preferences are a bit of an occasional pain, but require only that a file or two be deleted. Compared to unfucking the Windows registry, this is impressive. Conversely, permissions issues on Mac HFS+ volumes are more common than ACL problems on NTFS -- though this is largely due to a great many broken application installers and less a problem with the underlying system.

In a nutshell, all the crap you think of as periodic maintenance on Windows simply doesn't exist on OSX.

One caveat, however, is that if "Classic" -- old architecture Macintosh -- applications are used, the reliability of the system goes down the shitter. Prior to OSX, the Mac OS (which is fired up for "Classic" applications) was widely and justly ridiculed for its reliability. It depended heavily on easily corrupted database structures on the filesystem, wasn't particularly robust in the filesystem department in the first place, used an utterly laughable driver architecture, and had horrible hack after hack in place to retain compatibility with applications written in the mid-80s. Once you bring these crufty old mechanisms into play, the Mac OS is quite a bit less solid.

Of course, Windows has similar problems, though robustness has obviously improved somewhat in recent years as backwards compatibility starts to be dropped.

Linux is secure because it's obscure.

I call bullshit.

I get about 6 emails a day from the Gentoo security mailing list...

Gentoo isn't intended to be secure, it's a platform to play with the latest and greatest bleeding edge version of everything. I get about 4 patches a year to Debian stable. Slackware stable is nearly as solid. It's all in the maintenance and testing -- the quantity and quality of which you can get from Linux and BSD UNIX that isn't achievable with Windows simply because Microsoft only has one testing and maintenance regime, a sales release cycle, and security is not a significant part of it.

if you keep it clean, it doesn't slow down.

The effort of keeping a Windows system "clean" is considerably higher for the average user than it is on other operating systems. Proper building and installation of Windows for long term production use is a major undertaking, requiring much forethought and insight into the system's inner workings and the filesystem's foibles. This is not the case for OSX, and somewhat less so for the larger class of UNIX systems.

Properly building a bulletproof Windows system is something you can spend all day on when starting from an empty disk, a blank build plan, multiple disk spindles, a fat stack of drivers, and installation media. It happens by default on every Mac.

That, more than the frou frou designer computer cases and the candied GUI, is what makes the Mac worth paying a little extra for.
posted by majick at 7:48 PM on February 3, 2005


My powerbook has been on continuously for the last month and a half. It works just fine.
posted by c13 at 9:02 PM on February 3, 2005


My dual G4 PowerMac has been on nearly all the time for the last 2.5 years. Software Update runs in the background once a week and occasionally prompts me to restart. I did a clean install of OS 10.3 when it came out and had migrated fully by the next day.

My work Windows 2000 box runs a nightly virus scan; it's never found a virus. I update the software whenever I remember to. The process takes up to an hour. The machine is slow and crashes or corrupts memory frequently enough that I save hundreds of copies of files-in-progress, and probably spend 2 or 3 hours a week backtracking through these to find the last non-corrupted file.

I'm quite careful about not installing crapware, frivolware or malware onto either machine.

Mac disks pretty much don't fragment under 10.3, by the way. The OS is keeping its eye on you.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:47 PM on February 3, 2005


Thanks for the extensive answers, ikkyu2 and majick- very helpful.
posted by dong_resin at 5:37 AM on February 4, 2005


Ok, well somehow I and my girlfriend have managed to have Windows computers with uptimes of months (usually going down because of a power outage, rather than a crash). Windows XP is a pretty damn stable environment. Just don't use IE or Outlook, and use a hardware firewall/router (good advice for any computer user, regardless of OS).

I'm not trying to knock MacOS or anything, because my experience is too limited to make a call (even though my experience was an iBook that was slow as shit and crashed hard every couple days -- running OSX jaguar).

Thanks for "calling bullshit" majick, but there are plenty of more respectful ways to disagree.
posted by knave at 11:01 AM on February 4, 2005


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