Recently, I read a post about how easy it is to clutter a Mac’s menu bar with various status indicators and icons. When watching people give presentations on MacBooks with a real-world payload of software installed, you do almost begin to expect to see ridiculous menu bars like this one:

mac-status-menu-icons

Reading that post definitely brought back memories of the two years that I used my now-mothballed MacBook Air. Not only was my menu bar littered with icons, but there was even one nondescript update app’s icon that I never was able to eliminate from my menu bar.

Frankly, it was beginning to remind me IE with too many toolbars installed.

ie-too-many-toolbars

Now that OS X can finally maximize windows, there’s room for this!

Dealing with that situation on my Mac was particularly annoying because I was already accustomed to a better way of handling those icons.

Dating all the way back to Windows XP, Windows users have been able to easily hide superfluous system tray icons. In recent versions of Windows, it has even been as simple as dragging those icons in and out of the hidden icons popup.

For example, here’s what my system tray looked while I was writing this post:

windows-8-system-tray

Most of those programs do have legitimate functions, so it’s nice to have two-click access to them and for them to be able to display notifications if necessary.

Launch and search

Since Windows Vista, the fastest way to launch a Windows program has been to hit the Windows key, type a letter or two of the program’s name, and press enter. As long as you let the indexing service do its job in lulls while the computer is idle, those searches are instant, so launching programs was quick and easy.

That worked well enough for finding programs already installed on your machine, but a newer Windows feature I’ve really appreciated as I’ve begun using my new laptop is Windows 8.1’s new integrated launch and search.

When I start using a new computer, I immediately install a few key programs and then install the rest as I run into a need for them. So, I’m coming up with misses when I try to use Windows search to launch the programs I haven’t installed yet.

For example, here I am today trying to run one of my favorite development utilities that I hadn’t installed on the laptop yet, Beyond Compare:

windows-8-beyond-compare-search

Attempting to launch a program before it’s installed usually points you in the right direction to find and install it in Windows 8.1.

Even though I didn’t have Beyond Compare installed yet, Windows 8.1 makes that situation relatively smooth. While I did have to type the entire name of the program, instead of just the first couple letters, hitting enter took me to a page of aggregated search results that included this link to the Beyond Compare website as the first web result:

windows-8-beyond-compare-search-result

Those six deep links at the bottom of that search result in the screenshot above are active links into the site, so I was able to click directly on the “Downloads” link to jump directly into where I really wanted to be.

After running the installer, a quick search for be finds Beyond Compare now:

windows-8-beyond-compare-search-after

On the Mac, I tried using Spotlight and then bought Alfred based on suggestions from my Mac using Twitter friends, but neither ever worked as smoothly as what comes built into Windows.

Little things that add up

It’s not just the major features that I missed. There were a handful of basic Windows features that were glaringly absent when I switched to my Mac.

Don’t make me click

When I’m focused on being productive, I try to avoid using the mouse for anything that can be done with the keyboard instead. For that reason, I’ve always appreciated how almost everything in Windows that can be done with a mouse also has a keyboard shortcut.

For example, here I am installing Beyond Compare after I downloaded it in the last section:

If my hands are already on the keyboard, I'm navigating through this by pressing Alt-a, Alt-n.

Alt-a, Alt-n quickly navigates to the next step. No one reads EULAs anyway…

Even the radio buttons allow me to operate them directly with the keyboard. Especially if you’re stuck on a laptop without an external mouse connected, a quick Alt + a, Alt + n is always quicker than pointing and clicking twice.

In contrast, something that truly perplexed me during my time with OS X is how an operating system derived from UNIX could be so keyboard-hostile.

Using OS X on my MacBook Air, I quickly found that many UI elements were simply only accessible via the mouse. Even trying to tab through options and using enter/space to select them didn’t work most of the time.

Shut the front door

As a consultant, my computers hold keys to many castles. Clients trust my machines in various ways, ranging from passwords saved in my browsers to IP-based firewall exceptions. So, I take security very seriously. One aspect of that is that I always lock my computer. Even if I think I’m only going to be away for a few minutes and even if I’m alone in my home office, I never leave my machines unlocked when they’re unattended.

That’s not much of a burden though, because pressing Win + L is all it takes to lock a Windows PC from anywhere in the OS at any time.

When I got my Mac, it surprised me to find that there was no keyboard shortcut for locking the machine. In fact, I had to jump an extra settings hurdle just to enable the ability to flip to a lock screen at all (ironically, via yet another menu bar icon).

It’s a small thing and there are workarounds to make a Mac lock when you press its three-key shortcut to sleep the display (and more complex workarounds to assign a reasonable keyboard shortcut to that), but it was yet another straw.

Quickly launching commonly used programs

Another nice feature introduced way back in Windows Vista is being able to “pin” programs to the taskbar and then launching those pinned programs by pressing the Windows key and a number key. Win+1 launches the first program you have pinned, Win+2 launches the second one, and so on.

Pressing Win+1 launches Chrome, Win+2 launches Outlook, and so on.

Pressing Win+1 launches Chrome, Win+2 launches Outlook, and so on.

The fact that there was nothing like that for the OS X Dock bewildered me.

As was often the case during my time with the Mac, I sifted through documentation and search results about OS X keyboard shortcuts, assuming such an obvious feature must exist and that I just wasn’t aware of how to use it, but was met only with disappointment. As was also common with my Mac days, there was a paid utility that added the keyboard-launching feature to the Dock, but I was already accustomed to .

Conclusion

My point isn’t that Windows is perfect or that OS X is all that bad. For example, I do wish Windows shipped with a better CLI and I haven’t found anything better than OS X’s Exposé for quickly finding one window out of dozens.

However, Windows did spoil me with key features that I immediately missed and never fully replaced when I tried to use a MacBook for a couple of years.

For that reason, I’m always perplexed by the seemingly conventional wisdom about Windows being a clunky old dinosaur that people only use if they don’t know better or if they’ve forced to at their soul-crushing corporate jobs. When I mention that I prefer using Windows, a lot of people have responded with disbelief or even disdain, which can be frustrating.

In reality, modern versions of Windows are powerful, productive, and a pleasure to use. The examples in my post are just a few of many things that Microsoft gets right in the UX department.

So, don’t be surprised that many of us prefer Windows.