Windows 10 vs macOS High Sierra: who's winning in the desktop OS market?

What do you want on your laptop?

Windows 10 and macOS High Sierra

The Microsoft vs Apple rivalry has been running since the mid-80s, and is still going strong. Both Windows and macOS have come a long way since then, as has computing in general, but it's still one or the other when it comes to the operating system on most computers.

As we tear into the year 2018, we thought it was time to put these two venerable OSes up against each other once again, to see who has the upper hand on laptops and desktops. Of course, your mileage may vary – so read along and see if you agree with our conclusions.

Design and polish

MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro

Apple has always had the upper hand here, and it continues to be true: macOS just looks nicer than Windows, on the whole. That's not to say Windows 10 is an ugly OS – it certainly beats Windows 7 and Windows 8 – but overall we find ourselves preferring Apple's OS.

Operations like launching programs, switching between virtual desktops, and checking notifications all look more elegant and stylish on macOS. Windows, in contrast, comes across more utilitarian and functional. Apple doesn't get everything right, design-wise, but most of its choices are easy on the eye.

The needle is moving a little bit – consider how much nicer the new Windows 10 Settings pane is to the old Control Panel, for example. We also prefer the way Windows lets users snap applications to the side of the screen when compared with the macOS alternative. Windows 10 does have some strong points from a design perspective.

Windows has been hampered a little by its need to make its apps and menus work on tablets as well as in the traditional desktop environment, and while the gap is closer than some might think, we still reckon Apple wins this round.

Apps and features

Surface Book 2

Surface Book 2

The integrated apps that come with Windows, from the mail client to Microsoft Edge, are still very much works in progress – they come with enough to cover the basics, though not much else, even if Microsoft is adding new features and extra polish all the time.

Compare that with macOS, which throws in a very capable mail client, calendar app, contacts manager and web browser, not to mention a full office suite and a home movie-making program in the form of iMovie. Microsoft's Office apps remain paid-for extras on top of the operating system itself, though you can access lightweight versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint in a web browser.

Both Microsoft and Apple are improving their cloud offerings after a stumbling start, though neither OneDrive or iCloud offer the same breadth of features and quality of interface that Google Drive and Dropbox do. iCloud is a slightly slicker option, though OneDrive can do a bit more and work with more devices, so it's about even here.

As for Siri vs Cortana, again it's about honours even. Both are well integrated into their respective OSes, both can manage your daily life and look up queries on the web, and both can control various settings and local searches too. There's not a huge deal to choose between these assistants on macOS and Windows.

Devices and compatibility

macOS High Sierra

macOS High Sierra

Microsoft's attempts to make Windows 10 work on desktops, laptops and tablets has led to some rough edges in the software, but it also means Windows is available on a much broader range of hardware than macOS – tablets, 2-in-1s, convertible laptops, and so on. It easily adapts to a tablet mode and can be used with a stylus too.

macOS, in contrast, limits itself to traditional laptops and desktops, with no touchscreen support (just occasional Touch Bar support). That might suit you just fine, of course, but it's worth pointing out that Windows 10 is available on, and works with, a broader range of form factors.

Windows also wins in terms of compatibility too – it's equally happy working with an iPhone or an Android phone, whereas macOS is very much designed to work with other Apple hardware and software. If you want to go all in on iCloud, Apple TVs, and HomePods, then macOS has plenty to offer; if not, you might run up against some problems.

Let's not forget gaming either, where Windows is the obvious choice, whether you want to connect up an Xbox One or run games on the Windows machine itself. Windows also wins out as far as support for virtual reality and VR headsets goes, at least up to this point.

Desktop OS verdict

Windows 10 and macOS High Sierra

Windows 10 and macOS High Sierra

We could write ten times the number of words we have on Windows 10 and macOS High Sierra and still not cover everything there is to talk about when it comes to these two juggernaut operating systems. Hopefully though we've provided a useful overview: and to be honest, both Windows and macOS are now at a very, very impressive level.

In our opinion, macOS remains top in terms of the polish and style of its software, the intuitive way in which you can move around the operating system, its (usually) seamless integration with everything else Apple makes, and of course all the applications you get thrown in with it.

On the other hand, Windows is available on a lot more different types of devices, can offer better compatibility with kit that isn't made by Apple, and is the clear winner in terms of games and VR. It's also a touch more customisable and flexible, in the same way that Android is more customisable and flexible than iOS.

Ultimately, these two operating systems have now progressed to the stage where specs and features matter less, and your own needs and experience matter more: the right OS (and the right laptop or desktop) for you depends on what you're already comfortable with and what you want to do with your computer, rather than any huge differences between Windows and macOS.

David Nield

Dave has over 20 years' experience in the tech journalism industry, covering hardware and software across mobile, computing, smart home, home entertainment, wearables, gaming and the web – you can find his writing online, in print, and even in the occasional scientific paper, across major tech titles like T3, TechRadar, Gizmodo and Wired. Outside of work, he enjoys long walks in the countryside, skiing down mountains, watching football matches (as long as his team is winning) and keeping up with the latest movies.