X
Home & Office

The Great Vista/Mac Showdown: Vista wireless and networking is catching up to Mac

Networking is the most prevalent and little understood aspect of computing today. Ask the average user what networking protocol they use is, and you'll get a shrug or, perhaps, the answer "DHCP.
Written by Mitch Ratcliffe, Contributor

Networking is the most prevalent and little understood aspect of computing today. Ask the average user what networking protocol they use is, and you'll get a shrug or, perhaps, the answer "DHCP." Mac OS X has hidden a lot of the complexity behind a wireless connection manager on the Desktop that made switching from one network to another a one-click matter.


 
 Image Gallery: Follow a step-by-step comparison of the two operating systems' wireless networking management utilities in this gallery of screen shots.  

 

But Vista takes a big step forward by collecting a variety of network-related preferences in a new Network and Sharing Center that does a good job of putting all the choices about network connections in context.

Here's the step-by-step comparison screen shot gallery of the two operating systems' wireless networking management utilities. We start with the easy one-click change of networks in Mac OS X that has set the standard for ease of use since Airport appeared.

In Microsoft's XP operating system, mousing over the wireless icon in the Tray revealed information about the connection. This round goes to Vista on the strength of its improvements and the promise of the Network and Sharing Center. Vista's view is richer, albeit only graphically so.

Right-clicking the wireless icon in the Vista Tray reveals a different set of options, some recognizable from XP, but others that open new services associated with the wireless connection. You can still disconnect from the current network or repair a problem with that connection. Connect to a network opens a list of available networks similar to that in XP.

The interesting improvements in Vista's wireless support are behind the Network and Sharing Center option at the bottom of the menu. That last option, Network and Sharing Center, in the menu displayed when right-clicking the wireless icon links to preferences and network information that helps the user stay on top of the risks of, and services available through, a Internet Protocol network. 

Windows Vista brings all the control panels and preferences related to networking into a single view. From this window, one can examine the network and its components in a graphical map, set network preferences and all sharing and networking services available.

What Vista fails to do is take the next step, which would make network-specific and collaboration preferences available in this view. In other words, it could and should (from this user's perspective) link these preferences to workgroup permissions.

Network discovery, a service that exposes the computer to other network clients, is a basic on/off preference. File, media and printer sharing controls, as well as a separate password protection preference can be controlled here. Handy links to all shared files and folders are displayed. This view is useful compared to the Mac's networking preferences because it relates so much information to the connection the user is choosing to open. Microsoft could capitalize on this with substantial improvements in the first Vista service pack. 

From the Network and Sharing Center, you can create network profiles for specific networks as "public" and "private." A public network setting makes the system relatively closed, preventing discovery by other computers. On a private network, somewhat confusingly, the computer will be open to discovery, because the network is presumably better trusted than a public one.

Let's do remember that Apple doesn't do everything gracefully. The Network Location profiling tool in Mac OS X carries many of the vestiges of a purely technical view of networking. For users wanting to understand their options, this is not simple stuff. Vista makes the first step in this process clearer by offering a "customize" option by the name of the network in the Network and Sharing Center. In Mac OS X, one is presented this option as part of a generic network preferences pane. 

Suddenly, after choosing to create a new location, OS X presents a dialog asking for a name for the new location. And the cryptic—from a security perspective—that "All users of this computer will be able to choose this location in the Apple menu without entering a password." That doesn't explain what this means for general security, only to other Mac users. Apple needs to take this aspect of its OS much further. 

Look, I was networking editor of MacWEEK way back before the Mac OS had any Internet Protocol capability. But 15 years later, Apple should be doing more for the network naive user than asking for the DNS server addresses in the first screen for a connection. Airport Extreme is a sophisticated system that should mediate between the user and the network better than this. It's the kind of intelligence that Mac people pay a premium to get from a system.

Apple still makes the switching of networks easy, but Vista has caught up on that count and is now doing a better job of contextualizing sharing and security questions than Mac OS X.

This round goes to Vista on the strength of its improvements and the promise of the Network and Sharing Center.

Here's hoping Redmond takes this particular feature and runs with it as a key to ease of use. 

This is part of my continuing series comparing Vista and Mac OS X. Here are the earlier installments:

 

Editorial standards