From time to time I am asked which operating system is the best in my opinion. This is a tough question to answer as there is no definitive answer. All your choices have their technical merits but, you really shouldn’t select an operating system based solely on its technical merits. You should instead select one that best suits your usage case. To that end I have done my best to summarize the pros and cons of each operating system from the point of view of the average end user. This overview is intended to be part of a larger series of articles I am working on to help you determine which is the best computer for you. A question I get asked a lot more often.
Lets address your operating system choices in order of market share, just to be objective.
First we have Windows XP Windows 7. It’s about everything and nothing.
Update: Since I originally wrote this article Microsoft has introduced Windows 7 to the world. What a difference a few months makes. Windows 7 makes up for everything Vista did wrong and them some. It is certainly the best OS Microsoft has produced since XP and some might say Windows 2000.
And its not a disappointment this time around like it was with Vista. Besides improving the interface they have revamped most of the built in applications, simplified wi-fi networking management, gotten rid of the annoying security prompts, gave it better battery life, and made major improvements to the task bar. It will even run on lower powered hardware like netbooks.
Unlike the Vista launch most of the hardware compatibility problems have been resolved. Windows 7 is based on Vista so all the work manufactures put into updating their drivers to Vista will still apply.So most of the problems controlled by Microsoft that are outlined below have been resolved. The problems related to existing in the Windows based eco-system are still there.
What about Windows Vista? Stay away from Vista. But isn’t Vista the latest and greatest from Microsoft? Latest, true. Greatest, no.
There are two major reason to stay away from Vista. One, corporate America has pretty much passed on this operating systems due to software incompatibilities, cost, and lack of benefit. Second, a major lack off legacy hardware support. What business wants to buy a new computer for everyone just for a fancier interface and find out that they have to replace everything else, printers, digital cameras, scanners, just to make it all work together again? For that matter, why would you? Unless you don’t have any legacy hardware or software, just stay away.
If you need proof of all these problems, all you have to do is look at Microsoft’s support policy for Windows XP. Windows XP was suppose to reach end of life in the middle of 2007. Since then, due to the backlash from vendors and consumer problems, that support has been extend to June of 2008. Now the rumor is that support will be extended, again, to 2010. Why 2010? That’s when Microsoft plans to release its next version of Windows.
So why use Windows XP? Well Windows XP is still the most widely supported operating system and dare I say it, the most stable product in the Windows family. You’ll never have a problem finding hardware, software, or support for a Windows XP system. Windows XP also still has the most support for running your custom business applications. The last reason to select XP over other alternatives is gaming. If gaming is a major consideration you are practically locked into choosing Windows XP.
So, at this point, you are probably saying to yourself that Windows XP is for you but, hold on, being the biggest has its dark side. For one, Windows is targeted for malware more than the other operating systems. Due to the architecture of Windows, when that malware gets into your system, it can do more damage and be harder to remove than other systems. Windows is general more unstable than its counterparts. I’d love to lay the blame for this entirely at Microsoft’s feet but, that would be unfair. The sheer magnitude of configurations options means that there really can’t be rigorous quality of assurance testing for every scenario that might come up and they can’t be blamed for that. What they can be blamed for is continuing an architecture that allows the failure of one system to affect the rest of the system.
An example of Windows inherent instability might be when you accidentally unplug your camera, mouse, printer, whatever, from you computer while it is in use. Instead of just the programs using that device locking up, your whole computer locks up and needs to be rebooted. We have all had this experience. We also all blame Microsoft solely for the problem. That isn’t exactly fair. The root cause of the lockup was the device driver, written by the manufacturer, being unable to handle this unexpected event. Where Microsoft shares the blame is not being able to keep this single, poorly written, device driver from affecting the whole system.
If I made this same mistake in Linux, and I have, I would probably just lose the ability for the application I was using to talk to the device I had disconnected. It is a very rare event that the whole system would lock up. In any case, to fix it, all I would have to do is reconnect the device and restart the application. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t an example of better drivers being written for Linux. If, in this example, the driver was better than its Windows counterpart then my application wouldn’t need to be restarted. It is an example of the underlying architecture of Linux being able to handle this unexpected event better than Windows.
- More then 80% of the desktop computers in the world run some sort of Windows operating system.
- You won’t have any trouble finding hardware and drivers.
- You won’t have any problems finding support.
- Most widely supported operating system for games.
- Large shareware and freeware application library.
- The most prone operating system for spyware and virus applications.
- You are going to need support.
- General instability due to the shear number of possible configurations.
- Poor security.
- Limited access to the library of free open source software.
Second, we have Apple and its OSX operating system. It’s about the content baby.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit, that I am a recent Apple convert. After using Microsoft Windows since Windows 286, just over 20 years, both personally and professionally, I’ve had enough. Maybe I should do one of those switch commercials?
For most of Apple’s history there were two major reasons to stick with Windows over Apple. Hardware and software choices. Since Apple moved to Intel based system a few years back both of those reasons have been negated.
Since Mac OS X is based on UNIX, most software packages written for BSD or Linux can be recompiled to run on it. Projects such as Fink, MacPorts and pkgsrc provide pre-compiled or pre-formatted packages. Since version 10.3, Mac OS X has included X11.app, Apple’s version of the X Window System graphical interface for Unix applications, as an optional component during installation. Up to and including Mac OS X v10.4 (Tiger), Apple’s implementation was based on the X11 Licensed XFree86 4.3 and X11R6.6. All bundled versions of X11 feature a window manager which is similar to the Mac OS X look-and-feel and has fairly good integration with Mac OS X, also using the native Quartz rendering system. Earlier versions of Mac OS X (in which X11 has not been bundled) can also run X11 applications using XDarwin.
So with OSX you have the entire open source catalog of software open to you plus the native OSX software library. Certainly, lack of software choice is no longer a problem.
The second reason, a lack of hardware support, has pretty much gone away with the introduction of common hardware interfaces such as USB and firewire. It use to be that hardware, such as scanners and digital cameras, all had different hardware interfaces, such as serial and SCSI connections, that required the manufacture to write a driver specifically for for each operating system. Since the introduction of common standards, like USB, the operating system vendor can now write a common driver for all these devices.
An example of this would be my first digital camera which had a serial interface and thus would only work in Windows. My second digital camera connected to my computer using USB. The camera presented itself to the computer as a USB hard drive, which every operating can use. Even though I have upgraded my camera several time since then, that old camera still works with my new Apple Macbook Pro laptop.
Of course you can still find Windows only hardware but, it is getting harder. If you bought your scanner, camera, camcorder, or printer in the last few years there is no technical reason not to consider Apple OSX.
So with the technical reason out of the way, why would you want to consider OSX over Microsoft Windows?
First, it’s just easier to use. Of course this is a subjective statement so I suggest you visit an Apple store and try it for yourself.
Two, it is more stable. Again that is a subjective statement as well but, it has been my experience and the experience of people who bought Apple systems based on my recommendations, that over all, they are having less support issues. I can personally state that these individuals don’t come to me with questions about how to fix their systems anymore. If they do ask me a question, it is more likely to be related to how to do something new like, how do I create a DVD of my kids using iMovie.
The reasons for this are probably two fold. One, Apple has a higher degree of control over the hardware design of its systems leading to a generally more stable product. Two, OSX’s UNIX base (which has been under development a lot longer than Windows) and UNIX security model lead to a much more stable operating system. You won’t have the virus and spyware problems you are probably use to by now on Windows.
Third, Apple’s core strength is content creation. Mostly people use a computer to create something else not just to play with the the computer itself. This is where Apple and OSX excel. In general, Apple systems come out of the box with more features and programs for creating content than any other system. There is a reason why most bands use Pro Tools on OSX to create their music, why every print application is created with Adobe Photoshop and Indesign on OSX, and why a lot of video is produced with Final Cut on OSX. Apple’s OSX just does a better job of helping to create and manage content.
- Easier to use for the non technical.
- Content creation is its strength.
- More secure than Windows due to its UNIX base
- More stable than Windows due to Apple’s tighter control over the configuration options and its UNIX base.
- Almost no spyware or virus applications.
- More powerful than Windows due to its UNIX base.
- You have almost complete access to the enormous library of free open source applications.
- More expensive upfront than other choices. Some would say this is offset by less maintenance required over the life of the system.
- Less support. You have to goto Apple for all your hardware problems.
- Less hardware choices than Windows. For your average user this isn’t much of a problem. All the common hardware types will work.
- More complex than Windows due to its UNIX base. This really isn’t a major con because OSX does a great job of hiding this complexity from the end user.
Third we have Linux. It’s all about choice man.
I know what you are thinking. Isn’t Linux that command line operating system my 15 year old and the technical support people at work rave about? That’s way too much of a learning curve for me. Well, that is true but, Linux also is that user friendly cable box under your T.V., that kiosk in the mall that tells you where the GAP is, and the operating system that runs your TomTom GPS navigation system in your car. Odds are you are already using Linux and don’t even know it.
For a long time Linux has had a two faced image problem. At one end you have the appliance like consumer gadget market that is using Linux to make extremely easy to use consumer electronics like your Tivo or TomTom. On the other end you have the majority of the world’s top ten super computers that also run Linux. It is this end that has gotten most of the main stream media attention over the years.
Linux still has room in the middle of these two extremes for you. Even here there are two ends of spectrum. At the low end, you have systems like the Asus Eee PC which, by default, runs a restricted version of Linux that even your grandmother can use. At the other end you have the web server that served you this page. You also have every option in between.
Typically you are going to want a Linux distribution (of which there are many) that approximates the ease of use of Windows and OSX. For the last couple of years the most popular choice has been Ubuntu. Ubuntu’s main focus, since its inception, has been to make Linux easier to use for the masses and I’d have to say, they have done a great job. If you have ever used a computer before then it won’t take you very long to get up to speed in Ubuntu. One of the great advantages of Linux over Windows or OSX has been its lower hardware requirements. If your current computer is less then five years old then I can pretty much guarantee that it will run Linux. Maybe not with all the fancy graphic options but, it will be usable.
Another great advantage of Linux is that you can try it on any hardware without actually installing it by using a live CD. With a live CD, you can run Linux on your current computer just by booting off the CD. The operating system is loaded into memory and run off the CD and it won’t affect anything else on your system. When you are done testing, you simply take the CD out of your drive and reboot. Go get the Ubuntu Live CD here and check it out. Of course, Ubuntu isn’t your only choice. Google Linux Live CD and check out the other options.
- Runs on just about any hardware. It is a misnomer that Linux lacks the driver support of Windows and OSX. Linux actually has the broadest driver support of any system. I don’t see Windows running on your TomTom. What is true, is that the latest and greatest hardware doesn’t come to Linux first if the manufacture choose not write Linux drivers. For most things this isn’t a problem for the same reason it isn’t a problem for OSX. Just be aware of the issue before running out to buy the latest add on.
- More options than any other system. This is a pro and a con. If you want to change anything in Linux you can. The only limiting factor is your desire to figure out how.
- Way more secure than Windows XP and even OSX.
- Everything is free. Although please donate a little something to your favorite projects.
- If you choose to, you can always be on the cutting edge of computer science. All the new ideas in development on college campuses across the world are tried on Linux first and then the best of those filter down to Apple and Windows but, what’s best is subjective so Linux leaves you with a choice, while Apple and Windows limit you.
- Full access to the free open source library of software. Great full featured, compatible, and free replacements for your proprietary software.
- Linux management, for example patch management, is much easier. Typical one command or wizard has to be invoked in order to update everything vs. Windows where you have to get OS patches from Microsoft and third party patches from each individual vendor.
- The latest and greatest hardware is typically slower to reach Linux.
- The shear number of options can be daunting to a non-technical user. Although, like OSX, the distribution you select will determine the level of complexity presented or hidden from the end user. For instance, my mom would have no problem using Ubuntu but, only the uber techies among us would opt for the Gentoo Linux distribution.
- Limited support for proprietary applications. Although you can use Microsoft Office for Windows on Linux by using an open source version of the Windows application programing interface called WINE, I wouldn’t recommend it for the non-technical user. Instead use Open Office, which comes with the Ubuntu distribution, for creating documents compatible with Microsoft Office.
- Limited vendor support. This is getting better. Dell now offers systems with Ubuntu pre-installed and those sub $300 Walmart PC’s that they couldn’t keep in the stores were from Everex. As for software support, even though this is under cons, I can’t really say this is a bad thing. In 20 years Microsoft has never answered a question when I have bothered to call them. I may spend hours searching their knowledge base to find an answer to my question. On the other hand, Linux has a massive community of people willing to help. A quick search of the Ubuntu forums will generally reveal an answer, and if not, then a quick post to the forum normally gets a response.
Basically, for all its pros and cons, Linux comes down to choice. If you can think it, you can probably do it.
So which OS is the best?
Like I said at the beginning of this article it depends on your usage. If you want to be compatible with the office and play games, it is Windows. If you do nothing but content creation all day long, want general compatibility with the office, or are a less technical user, than it is OSX. Finally, if you have a budget, need both a restricted system for one user and a powerful system for another but, it has to be the same computer, than it is Linux.
Each one has it best use. I’m a perfect example. I wrote and developed this web site on OSX. I have a Mac Mini in my bedroom that I used to watch movies. I also have my entire home automation system running on OSX.
Then there is Linux. I have a Linux based VOIP (Voice Over IP, think vonage) server running my home phone, a Linux based DVR recording my T.V. and a Linux based file server to back it all up.
Finally, there is Windows. Well, I use Windows at work. I have a XBox for video games.