THE influence of tablets has led to lighter, thinner, instant-on laptops and now new touch gestures and apps are on the way with Windows 8 and Mountain Lion - the next version of the Mac operating system. Apple also previewed iOS 6 last week - an update to the iPad and iPhone's software features.
- WINDOWS 8 (three stars)
Microsoft recently launched its Release Preview - a near final version of Windows 8 - and I'm in two minds about whether I like this unique two-for-one take on operating systems.
Microsoft has grafted the tiled Metro interface first introduced on its Windows smartphones on top of the familiar Windows desktop to create a new operating system for tablets and PCs. The idea is that it will be much easier to use touch gestures for the former and equally easy to use a mouse to point-and-click on the latter.
But in trying to satisfy the needs of two sets of users, Microsoft risks not doing a good job for either of them. Dyed-in-the-wool PC users will quickly realise that the tablet's Metro interface is now their default view: to get to the desktop, you have to click on an app tile. Once the desktop is opened, there is the disorienting discovery that the familiar Start menu button is now gone. Lists of programs, search and access to file directories can be conjured up in other ways, but there is nothing to match the clear and familiar starting point of the conventional Windows.
Microsoft seems determined to change our ways on this - there is no option to restore the Start button or to choose the desktop as the default view. It appears to be banking on users being familiar enough with smartphones, apps and touchscreens to adapt to this new way of doing things - there is also a smartphone-like lock-screen that has the time and date writ large, diary reminders and an icon to alert you to waiting e-mails.
Still, the Metro Start screen is certainly eye-catching and easily customised. The apps have live updates scrolling within their tiled icons and I arranged them to suit my needs with changing news headlines, currency rates and stock prices, and the weather. I added more games, apps and news sources from the online store, which is no match for Apple's App Store but fast improving.
There is no app yet to give you back your old Windows desktop, so sticking with Windows 7 will be the safest option for those not yet ready to take Metro's tiled path.
- OS X MOUNTAIN LION (four stars)
Apple has chosen a different path to Microsoft - keeping its OS X operating system for Macintosh computers separate from its iOS one for the iPhone, iPad, Apple TV and iPod touch.
But the iPad software is having a growing influence on the Mac, that is a better fit. The latest Mountain Lion version of OS X, available next month as a $20 digital download, sees apps such as the Game Center, Messages and Notes transferred to the Mac.
The iPad's Airplay Mirroring video transfer capability is an important addition. This allows whatever is on a MacBook's screen to be mirrored on a larger TV screen, with an Apple TV box acting as the intermediary.
Additional features, revealed this week, include Power Nap, which keeps a Mac up to date as it sleeps, and Facebook sharing integration - a move sure to get plenty of Likes.
- iOS 6
Available in the autumn, the next version of the iPhone and iPad's operating system, iOS 6, features big improvements to Siri, the voice-recognition personal assistant. It can answer sports and movie questions and you can tell it to open an app. A new maps app, with full turn-by-turn directions and ability to fly over spectacular 3D cityscapes looks particularly impressive.
A new Passbook app will keep electronic loyalty cards and tickets in one place. It knows to bring up your Starbucks card when in the coffee shop, lets movie tickets be scanned on screen and can update you on flights and change a boarding pass with new gate information.
- ASK THE TECH EXPERT
THE PROBLEM: Should I back up in the cloud or locally?
THE ANSWER: I do both. I save files and recent photos and videos in Dropbox's cloud service, which aggregates such files from all my devices. This gives me some feeling of security if I'm lax in regularly backing up my main computer.
I have also organised all my photos and videos, the files that take up the most memory, by month and year folders on a second drive on my PC, which I periodically back up to an external drive - this also makes them easily available for viewing on the go.
© 2012 The Financial Times Limited