Operating Systems Galore
Long ago, when I was taking a college course in Machine Language, one of my assignments was to submit a paper about processors. First off, I should point out that the paper I wrote was not--by any stretch of the imagination--my best writing. In fact, it was the worst, and I still feel remorseful for submitting it to my professor.
However, I did quite well on the oral presentation. Actually, part of that success came by accident--my laptop crashed and had to be rebooted, so I quickly ad-libbed the first bit of the speech. I was quite proud of that bit of work.
While the assignment itself was a partial success, it did open my eyes to the fact that were were many different types of central processing units on the market.
Years later, I thought I'd bring something to light. Let's see if I can make this question as specific as possible for the sake of one's sanity. Especially since a lot of modern equipment can have an operating system.
Here's the question: How many different operating systems for use on a desktop PC for everyday use, that are popular and currently supported, are there? One? Two? Is it two? Microsoft Windows and Apple OSX (OS Ten). Is that right?
No. There are actually several different operating systems available. But, before I name some of them, I thought it would be tremendously helpful to explain what an operating system is. Quoting from Wikipedia's entry:
“In computing, an operating system (OS) is an interface between hardware and user, which is responsible for the management and coordination of activities and the sharing of the resources of a computer, that acts as a host for computing applications run on the machine. One of the purposes of an operating system is to handle the resource allocation and access protection of the hardware. This relieves the application programmers from having to manage these details.”
An Operating System is not an Application like Microsoft Word or a Utility such as AVG Anti-Virus; software that only performs certain tasks or has certain roles. The Operating System is the link between you, the user, and the hardware and other software, the desktop PC, that you use. Without it, that shiny new PC is little more than a paperweight. For the User (you), a secure, well-written and thought-out Operating System makes the difference between going about doing daily tasks and wanting to throw a PC out the window.
Currently (avoiding broad terms), there are three different popular operating systems available for desktop PCs today: Windows, Unix, and Linux. Yes, there's also Amiga, Be, ChromeOS and Solaris, but these don't share the popularity or development of the three I'm going to discuss in this article.
Okay, what about Apple OSX? It's actually on that list. OSX is based on Unix and uses proprietary technology that was originally created by NeXT (which Apple purchased in 1997) to make it not only stable and secure, but very easy to use.
Linux is not actually an operating system in and of itself, but a generic term for Unix-like Operating Systems (that are Unix compatible) that are based on the Linux kernel (the “brain” of the operating system) originally created by Linus Torvalds in the early 90s. Unlike Windows, OSX and Unix, Linux is open-source. Meaning that it is free to use, distribute, and modify.
Windows requires no introduction. Their large global market share speaks for itself.
Which brings me to the point of this post: what Operating System would be a good choice for everyday use? That can be difficult to answer, but I want to see if I can point you in the right direction and talk a little about the three since I've had experience using and maintaining them all.
Let's start with Microsoft Windows. Today's current offerings, XP, Vista and Windows 7, are actually all stable and fairly easy to use Operating Systems. Windows is compatible with a variety of hardware, it's fairly easy to setup and use, and lot of popular applications and games run on them. Properly configured and maintained, Windows can be a very stable and secure Operating System to use.
“Properly configured and maintained” is the major caveat for any Operating System, especially for Windows.
Out-of-the-box--especially for an un-patched version of Windows--if you connect a Windows machine, without configuring it or setting up the most basic protections or patching it, to the Internet, you will soon find yourself getting lots of pop-ups and very sluggish performance. Partly this is because Windows has a lot of services and features on by default that you will likely not need or ever use. Also, by default, they give a User full access rights to do anything on a PC (Vista and 7 have fixed this by requiring confirmation or a user to enter their password, which is also true of OSX and Linux), which isn't always needed unless you are making system-wide changes every single day.
One of Windows' biggest strengths, its large market share, is also its greatest weakness. Because of its wide-spread use, Windows is a common target for criminals who steal data and hijack computers for other crimes. Without patching a system (downloading and installing updates) or using basic protections, you are essentially doing the equivalent of leaving your home's front door unlocked in a bad neighborhood.
Another disadvantage would be cost. If you buy a computer pre-installed with Windows, the license fee is included with the cost. But, if you wanted to build your own computer and purchase a copy of Windows, it's not going to be cheap.
Versions of Windows 7 for OEM builders (where you only can install Windows on one machine and its stays with that machine for its life), starts at roughly $150 for an online retailer for the Home version, and goes up to $300 for the Ultimate retail version. During the operating system's support period, they will provide free updates which are easily obtained and installed through its Automatic Update utility. This is valuable and easy-to-use feature that everyone who has Windows should use and not ignore.
However, if you want upgrade to the next version of Windows, you'll have to purchase an upgrade, or buy the new version. Again, upgrade costs are likely going to be about the same as what I described above. Also, that upgrade may or may not work well, or at all, on older hardware, which would require you to shell out more money to buy newer hardware.
What you get out of Windows is a large base of applications software and the ability to run a variety of services and content that may not be available on other platforms. Of course, Microsoft is not going anywhere any time soon. They have good technical support, and a large amount of support documentation available on the Internet if you run into any problems and are savvy enough to solve them on your own.
Apple OSX (Operating System Ten)
Like Windows, Apple OSX is a proprietary operating system. It is pre-loaded on every Apple computer they sell. Unlike Windows, OSX only runs on Apple-branded hardware, and doesn't have the same range of hardware compatibility as Windows. Apple maintains very stringent controls over what its Operating System can run on. This can be both good and bad. Let's start with the good.
By limiting what hardware is compatible means better quality control and stability. By not having to worry about maintaining a wide base of hardware compatibility, you can focus more on improving what you have, and that can make for a much better User experience all around. There are no extra drivers to download and install, and no fiddling. You literally plug something in and it just works.
Here's the bad. If you want to run OSX legally, you have to buy an Apple-branded computer to run their operating system on. Yes, you can hack OSX to run on non-Apple hardware, but it's a violation of Apple's EULA, and I'm not going to explain how to do it here. Some existing peripherals that you have may not work on your Apple computer because there are no drivers available for it.
Also, each new version of OSX drops support for certain older hardware. Those with older Macs with PowerPC processors will not be able to run the latest version of OSX, or even newer versions of Apple's applications. This forces you to upgrade your hardware as well. Also, unlike generic PC hardware, you'll pay a premium.
If you use Apple's iTunes store for purchasing content, such as Music and Videos, in the case of the latter, you'll be locked into iTunes for being able to play that content back. Being locked into a platform can make it difficult and expensive to switch. If support is eventually dropped, all that content you bought may be unplayable. The same caveats about costs and upgrades apply to OSX as well.
But, there are several advantages to OSX. It is the easiest and most intuitive mainstream Operating System available today. It's extremely stable. You won't need to worry about viruses or malware because they simply won't run on OSX, so there's no need for Anti-Virus or Anti-Malware software (at least not yet, but that's another story). There's a lot less configuration and setup needed to secure your system. Plus, the GUI is simply beautiful and well-organized, and offers a lot of useful and fun features. Their hardware is also beautifully designed and offers features and build quality that may justify the higher cost.
The greatest advantage to OSX is that you can run Windows and Linux on top of it at near full speed, and run games and other applications with a piece of software called Parallels for Mac. It allows you to install other operating systems and run them on top of OSX. So, you can run Windows and Linux without touching OSX and have the best of all three worlds on the same computer with full hardware support (especially important for gaming, which requires the use of graphics hardware).
Or, you install and run Windows or Linux and boot into them. It's known as creating a dual- or triple-boot system, where you can have two or more Operating Systems installed on the same hard drive and be able to boot from one of them.
So, what would you want Linux for? Well, for starters, an Operating System that uses the Linux kernel, such as Ubuntu, has some advantages of its own.
It's even more stable and secure than either OSX or Windows. From first time you install it, it is setup by default to make sure you can't make system-wide changes unless you want to. It can run on older hardware, and usually quite happily because it typically needs less resources.
For certain Distributions--Operating Systems that use Linux as its base and builds on top of it with its own building blocks, like Debian or Mandriva--upgrades are free. Even better, updates are not limited to the Operating System and certain applications (like Apple's and Microsoft's offerings), but any application you have installed. So, you won't have to go to other sites hunting down patches and installing them on your own (although there are some exceptions).
Like OSX, you can actually run Windows on top of Linux or setup a dual-boot system. You can even run certain Windows applications and games on Linux without Windows, especially older applications that may no longer run in newer versions of Windows.
Unlike either OSX or Windows, you choose what software gets to run, you choose what services you want. If you want to look under the hood, you can look at the actual source code (the raw code before it is compiled); something that you can't do with other OSX or Windows unless you're an employee or sign a NDA. You can free change existing source code, compile and use it, or even submit it online. If you're a programmer, you can contribute to a very large and well-established community of volunteers.
Although its out-of-the-box setup and ease of use has improved dramatically over the past few years (especially with Distrubutions such as Ubuntu or Linux Mint), Linux has its share of disadvantages.
Some features of certain hardware that are supported by Windows or OSX won't be available in Linux, or won't have the same functionality. A lot of companies that write drivers for their hardware usually won't provide source code, especially major graphics chipsets made by ATI and NVidia. So, you may have to use some proprietary elements to get certain functionality, but these are usually free and easy to get. Again, it's your choice whether to use them or not.
Media content that has DRM (Digital Rights Management) from iTunes or other providers won't be playable on a Linux system. Certain services that require you to install a client are usually limited to Windows or OSX (this is slowly changing).
If you run into problems, there's no technical support line to call. You'll usually be on your own finding a solution to a problem by visiting forums and chat rooms. You may even need to use the command-line to make some changes or fix certain problems, but this usually won't be the case for someone who just wants the basics.
Despite this, Linux is a very stable and secure offering that is getting increasingly easier to setup and use, is actively developed, has a lot of software that's usually free to use, and you're not locked into using certain applications or hardware. If you're technically savvy, you can probably thrive on Linux.
So, there you have it, three Operating Systems with their own advantages and disadvantages. Again, with proper setup, configuration and maintenance, any of the three will prove stable, secure, and handle day-to-day tasks very well. Linux and Windows support a wide-spread range of hardware and have large base of software.
Here's the bottom line. If you want widespread compatibility with today's applications and mainstream services, Windows is still a good choice. For the novice user who simply wants something that works, looks great, is very easy to use, and doesn't have to worry about viruses and malware, check out OSX. For the technically savvy who doesn't want to worry about viruses and malware, doesn't want to spend lots of money, and wants more freedom, give Linux a try.