This is shaping up to be the autumn of new operating systems. The latest version of Mac OS X, Snow Leopard, ships to customers this Friday. Windows 7, the follow-up to the much-maligned Windows Vista, hits store shelves in late October. Neither operating system is going to drastically change the way you work.

Windows 7 builds upon Windows Vista and smooths out Vista’s rough spots, though it also brings a number of new end-user features to the table (such as the re-worked taskbar). Meanwhile, Apple’s focus with Snow Leopard mostly involves new under-the-hood technologies with subtle refinements and fixes. But there is plenty to say about how Apple’s next big cat and Microsoft’s lucky number stack up against each other.

Managing Your Files

Snow Leopard file management

Snow Leopard’s Finder and Windows 7’s Explorer have strikingly similar interfaces: Both have quick search fields in the upper-right corner, path bars (OS X’s is optional and can be switched on in the View menu), and sidebars giving you easy access to various common locations on your computer.

Windows 7 file management

Windows 7 introduces a new feature to the mix: Libraries. A library is best defined as a way to view the contents of several folders all in one place. For example, the Pictures library pulls together the contents of the My Pictures and Public Pictures folders by default. You can add or change the folders tied to any particular library, of course.

Nothing in Snow Leopard directly compares with Windows' libraries. The closest OS X feature is saved searches (known as Smart Folders), but a saved search pulls together files based on search criteria, not location. You can’t, for example, create a smart folder containing all photos from only two folders. On the other hand, Windows 7 libraries can’t be combined with saved search results.

Both Snow Leopard and Windows 7 allow a large icon view. Windows 7 supports icons up to 256-by-256 pixels. Snow Leopard one-ups Windows 7, though—the Finder can display icons up to a seemingly absurd 512-by-512 pixels (512-pixel icons were around in 10.5, but the Finder could not take advantage of them outside of Quick Look and Cover Flow view).

Snow Lepoard applications