Want to give yourself a really good headache? One of those lie-down-in-a-dark-room-with-an-ice-pack-on-the-forehead affairs? Try installing two brand-new operating systems on two different computers at the same time. Nothing causes cranial pain more quickly, as I discovered when I got my hands on the two pieces of software that will soon rule our lives: Windows XP and Mac OS X (pronounced oh-ess ten). These are the next-generation operating systems for PCs and Macs, respectively. Windows XP, to be released later this year, is currently out in beta, a trial, bug-testing format. The debugged OS X is on store shelves now, which means it ties your brain into slightly fewer knots.
First the good news. Both systems are phenomenally stable and virtually crash free (say goodbye to the blue screen of death, PC users! No more freeze-ups for Mac fans!). They're also much nicer to look at than their predecessors. OS X wins the beauty contest with translucent menus and more gee-whiz effects than a Hollywood blockbuster, but the new Windows has its share of cool colors and eye-candy icons.
New computer users who buy machines with these systems preloaded should have a relatively stress-free experience. Microsoft and Apple have made navigation a breeze. They've grouped control panels together in a way that actually makes sense, and both give you more options than you'll ever need for arranging your files and folders. No, the headaches are going to come when veteran users install one of these beauties and then try to lead their computer lives as if nothing had changed.
You see, both systems are built on computer code never before seen by home users. That's what makes them so stable. It also puts them in potential conflict with every program and peripheral device you own. In this respect, Windows XP is by far the worst offender. A few seconds after XP's installation, the tiny piece of software that controls my high-speed Internet connection went on strike. That meant no e-mail, no Web and lots of hyperventilation. I couldn't listen to music, since the PC no longer recognized the external hard drive where all my MP3s were stored. And some of my favorite games went berserk, apparently because my machine had fallen out with its own graphics card.
Of course, this is why pencils have erasers and operating systems have betas. Microsoft promises to make XP compatible with any device you can imagine by launch day. Then again, the brightest lights in Redmond couldn't fix my problems over two days of lengthy conference calls.
I had a better time with Mac OS X. But that's probably because I didn't have occasion to do any of the following: burn a CD, watch a DVD or use a service called AOL. (When each will work with OS X: later this month, this summer and later this summer, respectively.) My Mac headache--a doozy--came when I tried to set up a wireless Airport connection between my OS X machine and the other Macs I own, which run OS 9. You guessed it: more conference calls to fix it.
In truth, neither operating system is ready for prime time. My advice is to give even OS X a miss until a revamped version arrives later this year. Install it in the meantime, and you might face another tough choice: Advil or Tylenol?