A computer buyer’s guide: The operating system

Welcome to this second installment of our series about purchasing the computer that’s right for your work needs. Today’s topic may come as a surprise: after all, most people will use whatever operating system comes preinstalled in their computers, especially if they buy pre-built machines, but this choice should actually be one of the very first ones you should do. The operating system you’re running will dictate which programs you can run, what user experience you’re getting, how much troubleshooting you may need when catastrophe strikes, and so on and so forth.

An operating system, also known as OS, is a collection of software that works as an intermediary between the user and the computer itself. Moreover, it handles how the hardware (the physical components inside the computer) communicates with the software (the programs), determines which programs should be given priority when running, and manages the power state of the computer.
It generally includes a kernel, the first thing that’s loaded when the computer is powered on that handles input and output, controls the processor and generally has complete control over everything that happens in software, device drivers for allowing devices attached to the computer to work as intended (most of the times, at least), and a file system structure to organize the data contained in the computers mass memory.

Nowadays, there are three major operating systems, each tailored to a different audience and better suited for one task or another. Even if you’re buying a pre-built machine and don’t plan on replacing the preinstalled operating system, it’s important for you to know that there are alternatives. Only then can you make an informed decision.

Windows

The Windows logo adopted since version 8.

Windows represents by far the most common desktop operating system, in large part thanks to Microsoft’s previous business relationship with IBM in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, which allowed the then Seattle-based software house to get a huge foothold in the desktop market. That history is very interesting and full of plot twists. Clint Basinger actually made a video about this not too long ago and I suggest you have a look at it if you have ten minutes to spare. To give you a perspective on how ubiquitous it is, in May 2016 78.9% of computers connected to the Internet used one version of Windows or another to surf the web.

A common misconception among many users is that Windows is “free” because you get a copy whenever you purchase a computer. This is clearly false: Microsoft is a for-profit corporation and, as such, cannot afford to give anything for free. Remember: businesses are not charities and their main aim is the pursue of profit, provided they abide by the law (and yes, I know they don’t always do that, but that’s why there’s laws in the first place). Big-brand system builders, known as OEMs, strike deals with Microsoft to purchase huge volumes of licenses to install on their machines. These licenses are called OEM licenses (what a creative name!) and differ from retail ones you can buy in a store because they’re tied to the motherboard of the computer they’re installed in. This, in turn, prevents you from migrating the operating system to another computer, unless you’re replacing the motherboard therein.

With the release of Windows 10, Microsoft simplified their operating system lineup, which now consists of four main editions, plus other four N variants available in the EU and other countries, summarized in the table below:

Windows 10 Home Windows 10 Pro Windows 10 Enterprise Windows 10 Education
Pricing: 135 € Pricing: 279 € Pricing: N/A (Volume licensing only) Pricing: N/A (Volume licensing only)
The most common version of Windows to come preinstalled in computers bought from chain retailers, it’s aimed at people who use their computers at home and in very small businesses. If you’re a reader of this website, this is very likely the version you’re after. It includes all the features of the Home version, plus a few additions that are useful in enterprise environments, such as:

· Hyper-V virtualization technology

· Bitlocker file encryption

· Remote desktop host

· Up to 2048 GB of RAM, as opposed to the 128 GB cap of the Home edition

· Joining a Windows domain

· Joining a Microsoft Azure Active Directory

· Windows Update for Business

If you don’t know what any of those are, it means you don’t need the Pro edition.

Only available through Volume licensing, it includes all of the features of Windows 10 Pro, plus a few more advanced features useful in corporate environments, the most important of which is the so called Long Term Servicing Branch, previously known as Extended Support. Similar to Windows 10 Enterprise, with the only difference being the lack of availability of the Long Term Servicing Branch. You’re not likely to encounter this edition anytime soon, since it’s only available for educational institutions such as schools and universities.

The N variants are identical to their non-N counterparts, the only difference being that they don’t come with Windows Media Player and other multimedia programs preinstalled, although the user can install them manually if he or she so desires. Their existence is mostly the result of an EU law.

OS X (soon to become macOS)

OS X is available for free, but only on Apple computers.
OS X is available for free, but only on Apple computers.

The only way to acquire OS X legally is to purchase an Apple computer. Until a few years ago, Apple computers were sold with a specific OS X version and users could upgrade to a newer one for 39 € and receive it as a DVD, but with the release of version 10.9 Mavericks, Apple started giving away the operating system upgrade for free as a download. This has in part to do with the fact that Apple started phasing out the inclusion of optical drives around 2013, the same time as the release of Mavericks.

There are only two edition of OS X: OS X and OS X Server. The first comes preinstalled on all Apple computers and it includes functionality that’s useful for general purposes. OS X Server is available as a 19.99 € upgrade from the Mac App Store and is useful in business or education environment where the system administrator wants to restrict access to specific applications or to provide web services to a network of Apple computers, just to make a few examples.

People commonly think that there is a clear-cut distinction between Macs and PCs, but this is no longer true. In the ‘90s, Macs used processors based on the Power architecture, designed and manufactured by IBM. Power processors were arguably more powerful than what Intel offered back then, and proved rather successful with content creators such as video editors, sound engineers, and the likes. But by the turn of the 21st century it had become apparent that IBM processors’ evolution was stagnating, compared to the spectacular advancements made by Intel, which had released their Pentium line of processors just a few years prior and were in full swing.

In the mid-2000s, Apple announced they were discontinuing Power-based MacIntosh computer in favor of new models that used the then-new Core Duo processors by Intel. Starting from the 2006 models, Macs have become architecturally very similar to other PCs, so much so that you can even install a copy of Windows on your Mac using BootCamp, a utility that guides you through the installation process and fetches all the drivers you need.

With that said, you should purchase a Mac only if the software you intend to run on your computer is available for this platform. It is counter-productive to purchase a Mac, that in most parts of the world is a very expensive computer, and then having to invest more money on a copy of Windows or a virtualization solution like Fusion or Parallels because the programs you need don’t run on your brand-new Mac.

It should be noted that, starting with version 10.12, OS X will be renamed macOS to bring it in line with other Apple operating systems, like iOS, tvOS, and so on.

Linux

Tux, the mascot for the Linux kernel.
Tux, the mascot for the Linux kernel.

To be completely accurate, Linux is not an operating system per se. Rather, it is an operating system kernel that handles how the software interfaces with the hardware. Linux was created in the early ‘90s by then computer science student Linus Torvalds. Back then, Torvalds grew interested in operating systems and had started looking into the MINIX operating system, an experimental piece of software that was very popular in academic circles back then. Its licensing scheme annoyed Torvalds, because it only allowed using it for educational purposes. He decided to create a clone of MINIX and license it in a way he saw fit. Thus the Linux kernel was born.

Since Linux is not an operating system, it is up to other organizations to create an operating system that uses it. These operating systems are called distributions and at their core, they comprise the Linux kernel and a way to install and manage applications, called a packaging system. Most distributions, or distros for short, include other programs, but the user is free to remove them and replace with other applications, if he or she so desires.

Linux distributions are based on the concept of FOSS, an acronym for Free and Open Source Software, that basically entails that the user must be free to study the source code of those applications and provide his own improvements. This is in theory. In practice, most Linux users don’t contribute toward the development of software for the platform and instead enjoy using FOSS free of charge.

Free and Open Source Software is not always free of charge, though. The most successful open source firm, Red Hat, charges an annual fee for using their distribution, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which includes the ability to install the software and phone or email support. But if you don’t want to purchase a copy of RHEL (because they’re very expensive) you can always install CentOS, which is RHEL without the Red Hat logo.

If you, like 99% of people, come from Windows and want to give Linux a try to see if it suits you, you should be aware that it’s a different experience than the one provided by Windows. For starters, software for Linux is not usually distributed by websites, but rather through a packaging system that searches one (or more) centralized software database, called a repository, and downloads and installs the relevant packages. This can be done either through a graphical application, or by command line.

Secondly, even though all operating systems have some form of command line interface or another, some hide it better than others. Windows and OS X users may never need to use the Command Prompt or Terminal, but you can bet your ass that using the Linux Terminal is almost a daily occurrence. And the Terminal takes no prisoners. It will make you cry, will make your life miserable and alienate your friends and family. Okay, I’m being overly dramatic, but it is true that the Terminal is not the most user-friendly thing out there.

And this brings us to the very steep learning curve newcomers to Linux face. Sure, on a surface the GUI seems easy to navigate, but troubleshooting many problems can be a real pain. Your best bet when it comes to troubleshooting is to ask your distribution’s community, but even then the results are not guaranteed.

Thankfully, compatibility with Windows programs is getting better and better thanks to a program called Wine, which translates Windows calls to calls that Linux can understand, albeit with a small penalty hit. You can check the degree of compatibility with your applications here. I want to make a small note here: despite what many websites claim, Wine is not “an easy way to use Windows programs on Linux”. It still requires a lot of fiddling with a slew of setting in order to get many programs to run.

If you’re just starting out, a great distribution to try is without any doubt Linux Mint. Other popular distributions are Debian, Ubuntu, and Fedora.

Should you get the latest operating system or stick with a previous version?

Having an operating system with the latest bells and whistles is all well and good, and if you can, this is the route you should definitely take. For some of you, however, this isn’t the case. You may need to run old legacy applications that are fundamental for your workflow and that aren’t compatible with newer versions of your operating system of choice, or may not like the default privacy settings of the latest operating system (I’m looking at you, Windows 10). Running an older OS isn’t something you should exclude and there are plenty of good reasons to. Fortunately, both Microsoft and Apple offer some kind of support for their previous operating systems.

Windows’ life cycle distinguishes between two types of supportMainstream support lasts for 5 years since the original release of  that particular version. During this period, the operating system’s update will include security updates, new features, and complimentary support (i.e., phone or online support by Microsoft itself). Extended support lasts for the 5 years following the end of mainstream support. During this period, the operating system will only receive security updates. Things are a bit different for Enterprise customers, but the requirements for qualifying as an Enterprise customers are very strict and they need to pay a premium for the privilege.

Apple only releases updates for the two latest versions of macOS. Customers running (as of September 2016) Mavericks or older versions will not receive any updates.

In the Linux world, things vary wildly. Some distributions, like Debian and those based on Debian, strive for reliability and will only release updates if they’re sure the will not introduce issues. As a result, major updates for Debian are only released once every three years or so. Others, like Slackware, try to give their users the latest features as soon as they’re available. Distributions like these are known as rolling releases and have no traditional versions to speak of.

About Andrea Luciano Damico 126 Articles
Andrea Luciano Damico is a freelance translator from Italy. Among his interests are linguistics, technology, video games, and generally being a chill guy. He runs Let's Translate.it and Tech4Freelancers.net.