Choosing a Popular OS
There are three families of operating systems for regular users in modern computing: macOS, Windows, and Linux (which includes Google’s Chrome OS).
Each platform has a distinct set of benefits and challenges. While it is possible to agonize over the vagaries of deciding on one, I hope to provide guidance that might inform less experienced, less tech-savvy, or indecisive users’ decisions. If you are the kind of person who builds software from source, this post is not
primarily addressed to you. My purpose is to simplify the situation, not to reiterate the endless array of options that has bewildered people for the past decade.
Table of Contents
The Linux family
• Chrome OS
• Linux Mint
macOS is distinct from your other options in that your choice of an operating system is made when you buy your computer. macOS is designed, intended, and licensed for Apple hardware, and it is difficult, inefficient, and in violation of the license agreement to run it on anything else. And from the perspective of an Apple hardware owner, since the chief advantage of a Mac is and always has been the operating system, it usually makes little sense to get it if you expect to run something else full-time.
Macs are marketed as being simpler and easier to use than their alternatives. A famous IBM study
found that Mac corporate users are more productive, are more satisfied, and save money compared to Windows users, statistics that only agree with what all long-term Mac fanatics already believed. Apple’s customer loyalty has become legendary in the computing world, and there are reasons why it came about. Modern Macs also offer the advantage of being part of the so-called ‘Apple ecosystem’, offering superior synchronization with iPhones and other iDevices, which is helpful to many people.
There are, however, two substantial general downsides to the Mac as a platform. The first problem is that Apple has nearly complete and exclusive control over your system. I don’t necessarily mean this in the Orwellian sense, of a major tech corporation spying on you; Apple’s considered to be relatively buyer-friendly in that area. However, the newer the machine and the operating system, the less ability you have to customize it or upgrade it. If you don’t like the way it comes out of the box, or if they change something in an update, you’re stuck with it. If you do have a hardware or software problem, you’re left to Apple’s mercies to fix it. If it works fine for years, forced obsolescence is a significant feature of the Apple world.
This ties into the second problem: Macs tend to have a higher price than the alternatives. The least expensive Mac you can get directly from Apple as of this writing (4/26/22)
is $649, not including shipping. Even used Macs tend to retain their value quite well. While you might save money in the long run, the entry cost may be prohibitive.
Windows has been the market share leader in desktop operating systems since the mid-90s. It has almost always been ‘good enough’ in any specific area that you want to name.
Microsoft has a record of being concerned with backward compatibility and legacy applications. You can still run some early-90s programs on modern Windows PCs, which is unusual for any notable operating system and stands in stark contrast to Apple’s regular forced abandonment of ‘obsolescent’ software.
If it is not the most customizable system, it is still very much so. If it is not the most stable operating system, it is more stable than it is given credit for, and harder for users to mess up than a system that assumes competence. If it is not the most intuitive system, it’s adequate; the chances are that after 25 years, you already know your way around it.
There is something to be said for being consistently no less than second or third-best, but Windows is also first-rate in several areas. Windows has the largest community and support base of any desktop operating system. It is the #1 platform for computer gamers, with a catalog larger, better-supported, and generally better-performant than the alternatives. "Quantity has a quality of its own", but with ready access to cutting-edge graphics hardware, you don’t have to choose between the two. Driver support is as good as it gets on the PC’s ‘open architecture’. Generally, for any piece of third-party local software that you can name, Windows receives top development priority. These are all significant perks.
The main problem with Windows is not Windows, but Microsoft. Their essentially monopolistic practices have survived to this present day. Moreover, their reputation for delivering unstable software has not notably improved. While the news articles about updates destroying your computer are overdone and unlikely to describe a situation relevant to your case, it’s neither as stable as some of its competitors, nor as much as it should be. They have a weaker reputation for user privacy and security than most of their competitors. Finally, they have a habit of spontaneously making changes that no users wanted, sometimes solely to benefit themselves, other times apparently for no reason but to see things change. Few other developers are as egregious in this respect as Microsoft.
The Linux family
Although there are dozens of operating systems, Linux distributions are the only mainstream alternative that regular computer users would find easy to take full advantage of. There are a myriad of paths you can take, but at this time, and for simplicity, I am going to distill it down to two, a proprietary distribution and a free one.
If you want something in this division that is easy to use, isn’t going anywhere, and is supported by a major tech company, Chrome OS may be for you. Google has devised a lightweight and capable Gentoo Linux-based rival to macOS and Windows. The educational market used to be firm Macintosh territory, but Chromebooks have conquered it. I can attest Chrome OS may be the most Mac-like system I have ever used that wasn’t actually a Mac. Besides the standard ‘web applications’ so many people have gotten used to, current Chrome OS devices can run standard Linux programs well, and also offer decent support for Android apps.
There are minor problems with Chrome OS, but its ultimate issue is that it is from Google, a company that has picked up one of the worst reputations for ethics in the tech industry. It emphasizes cloud storage because Google is a cloud storage provider. You cannot expect much privacy because Google is an advertising and search company. Whenever your personal interests and Google’s interests diverge, you have little reason to doubt that theirs will win out.
Google is probably more competent than Microsoft in their implementation of software, but that is not reassuring if you believe that they have nefarious intent. The chances are that nothing they do will significantly impact your life, but it is understandable if this bothers you.
Although most Chrome OS installations are built into the eponymous ‘Chromebooks’ (or sometimes Chromeboxes/Chromebases), you can deploy a Chrome-like operating system to your own Mac or PC. CloudReady is currently available, and is expected to be succeeded by Chrome OS Flex in the near future.
If you are a regular person who wants to use a free, non-corporate operating system, there are clear and compelling reasons to try out Linux Mint.
It features most of the best aspects of other Linux distributions, without being susceptible to people’s agendas (corporate or otherwise). It has an established community, and has stood the test of time. It is famous for being a newbie-friendly form of Linux. The dev team seems to recognize they have got a good thing and are willing to stick with it, rather than making radical and unnecessary changes every couple of years. The system requirements are reasonable. I have used it myself and was better pleased than I expected. While no Linux distribution is perfect, this seems to be a sensible choice that you should find generally reliable for the foreseeable future.
Depending on your machine, you might find hiccups with driver support. Older Macs, for example, are known for requiring special wifi drivers that need to be installed separately. Even if it is unnecessary, it rarely hurts to check to see if your hardware has any special needs in advance. There are usually discussion threads about these kinds of problems, and if your machine does have trouble, someone has probably already walked someone else through a similar difficulty.
Now that I've evaluated the respective traits of each of these platforms, I will give synopses of why you might use them.
If you have money, and either 1) own an iPhone, 2) don't play many video games, and/or 3) view your computer as an appliance, get a Mac.
If broad software compatibility is important to you, including but not limited to gaming, you should probably stick with Windows.
If you have a low budget, don't have extensive processing needs, and/or don't despise Google, try a Chrome device. (If you have an Android phone, you probably don't despise Google.)
If you value customization, and freedom from 'big tech' and artificial end-of-life dates, opt for Mint.
If you have any questions or comments to make about this list, feel free to drop a message by my usual address!