Are you ready to turn toward OS alternatives that offer a chance to distance yourself from the Microsoft hegemony? As I discussed last week in Alt.Windows, Part 1: Evaluating the Microsoft Alternatives, a large segment of the computer-using world is starting to look beyond the cozy confines of the Microsoft monopoly to examine alternatives. This week, I take a closer look at two such alternatives: Mac OS X and Linux.

Alt.Windows: Mac OS X

Lauded by its fans for its stunning simplicity and spartan UI, Apple Computer's Mac OS X provides an inspiring combination of security and functionality, albeit one that requires a bit of technical know-how and a deep pocketbook. Mac OS X only runs on Apple's Macintosh hardware, which—until recently—was an expensive option compared with low-cost PC clones. However, in January 2004, Apple introduced the Mac mini, which somewhat changed the competitive landscape.

 Starting at just $500, the Mac mini offers a previous-generation Power Mac G4 processor, which is roughly comparable to a Pentium III on a PC. Like most Apple products, the mini's style and appearance are what set it apart: All the Mac mini's components, except for its power supply, are stuffed into a tiny box that's just 6.5 inches square, 2 inches tall, and weighs less than 3 pounds. You might think of the Mac mini as an iBook without a monitor, keyboard, or mouse device, because that's almost exactly what it is.

And that's how Apple got the price down to $500--that and a paltry 256MB of base memory, about half the RAM you really need to use Mac OS X. But assuming that you have an extra keyboard, mouse device, and monitor lying around or don't mind using a splitter to share those devices between your PC and the Mac mini, Apple's mighty mite is a fairly inexpensive way to sample the company's stable and brilliant Mac OS X.

Crisp UI

Unlike Windows, Mac OS X offers a simple UI that "doesn't get in your way" with wizards, dynamic task-oriented UIs, or any of the other niceties that Windows XP users take for granted. For this reason, Mac OS X is most appropriate for people who are already familiar with computers and don't mind learning a slightly different way of doing things.

Graphically, Mac OS X is excellent, with a hardware-driven display that takes full advantage of the system's capabilities, rather than dumbing it down for the least-common denominator, as do today's Windows versions. Crisp, clear, and compelling, the Mac UI is often correctly cited as the system's strong point.

Security Through Obscurity

There's more, of course. Because Mac OS X is literally based on a UNIX core, the system is secure and stable. The real reason Mac OS X is safer is that few hackers even bother attacking the system. That's because the Mac OS X user base—at about 15 million people or less than 2 percent of the overall market—is so small. (By comparison, more than 180 million people use XP Service Pack 2--SP2.) A smaller market means less incentive to hack, so the hackers stay away. Sounds good to me.

Amenities

One of the best reasons to sample Mac OS X is the excellent suite of digital media applications that you get free when you purchase any Mac. Dubbed iLife, the suite includes a photo-management application (iPhoto), a movie editor (iMovie HD), a DVD movie creator (iDVD), a music-management application and online music store (iTunes), and a music-recording package (GarageBand)—all of which are top-notch. Indeed, many of these applications, especially iMovie and iDVD, are much easier to use and more full-featured than any Windows-based competitors.

Mac OS X also comes with other well-designed software packages, including a calendar and scheduling application (iCal); a phone, PDA, and Mac synchronization package (iSync); an email client; and a Web browser. Quite literally, Apple gives you everything you need, right in the box.

As with Linux, however, Mac OS X is lacking in a few areas. For example, application support is spotty, especially if you're a gamer. But with Apple now selling less-expensive hardware, there are fewer reasons to ignore the Mac than ever before. Indeed, rather than switch, as Apple would like you to, my advice is to use a Mac alongside your PC and see how it goes. You might be surprised how well everything works together.

Alt.Windows: Linux

If Mac OS X is the older, more sophisticated brother of Windows, Linux is surely its world-traveling cousin—less refined and elegant in some ways but bursting at the seams with experience and tradition. Based on UNIX design philosophies, Linux is UNIX done cheap, compatible with the PC hardware you already own. As a result, Linux is easier to test and evaluate than Mac OS X is because you can download and install various Linux versions, for free, and wipe out the ones you don't want, leaving your Windows installation intact.

 Free As In Beer

The big advantage to Linux is that it's free. Numerous Linux distributions are available from a variety of vendors, and although you'll have to pay for some products, such as Linspire and Novell's SUSE LINUX, many others, such as Red Hat Linux's Fedora and Ubuntu Linux, are free for the taking. The "freeness" of Linux relates more to the availability of its programming source code than it does to price. Vendors can charge for Linux products, but they must make the source code to those products—and any changes they provide—available to others in the Linux community.

Improving User Experience

In the early days— about 3 years ago—Linux was an up-and-comer for desktop users, with stable underpinnings but a fairly unattractive user experience. Today, with modern desktop environments such as GNOME and the K Desktop Environment (KDE), that's all changed. Virtually every Linux distribution includes at least one of these environments, and many include both. KDE tends to be shinier and more Mac OS X-like, whereas GNOME is subtler and more Windows-like. Both offer excellent interfaces.

On a related note, Linux offers far more UI customization than either Mac OS X or XP, so it's a good system for tinkerers who like things just so. You can change virtually any part of the UI and even make it look almost exactly like Mac OS X or XP, if that's your thing.

Most Linux distributions also ship with a range of software products, including office productivity applications, email clients, and Web browsers. In fact, most Linux distributions ship with far too many options. I'd like to see more simplified distributions that supply just the highest-quality applications of each type.

Secure and Stable

Because of its UNIX-like architecture and constant public code reviews, Linux is highly secure and has fared well in the server world. It's also rock solid, with few required reboots, even after applying most patches.

Linux is still off the map for most users, however. Virtually no commercial software exists for Linux desktop users, and the technical requirements of learning and mastering a UNIX-type system are still beyond the skills of most Windows users. But that's part of the fun. You can experiment with Linux without blowing away Windows and gain valuable knowledge and experience in the process. Even if you eventually end up sticking with Windows, you'll still be better off as a result of your exposure to this rapidly improving open-source solution.