The Key Tradeoff

The Quick Version

If you choose an alternative to Windows there will be some things that you cannot do, things that would work on Windows (but probably not the things you do every day). In return you get to avoid all the Viruses and Junk Software. For most people, in a home environment, it's worth the trade off.

What next? Read What Shape?

Key Points

1. Windows is very flexible and will do almost anything.

2. Windows has huge security problems that make it a poor match for home computing.

3. Unless you need Windows you would be better off with a safer (if slightly more restrictive) system.

Photo by zentilia/iStock / Getty Images

If you don't pay attention to anything else I write, this is the one bit where you need to sharpen your pencil and get focused.  

The key trade off:

Windows can run everything, the alternatives are immune to attack.

Bizarrely neither of those statements is exactly true, but I am going to use them as a useful metaphor for understanding the current state of affairs, because even if they're not perfect, they're both nearly there.

This trade off is key to understanding your path forward. Here goes:

Windows can run everything, mostly

Photo by Simon Ingate/iStock / Getty Images

Because Windows has had such a dominant market share for so long, it was the obvious choice for anyone writing software and making hardware. Engineer wakes up in the morning and thinks "Do I create a widget for the platform with 95% market share, or one of the others?". He then looks at his mortgage statement and gets cracking producing something for Windows. "So", you say, "my path is obvious, I must purchase a Windows computer so that I never close off any possibilities in the future". But hold on there. You don't get that advantage for free. The flip side is that Windows has huge security problems.  So you can run all the things that you want, but you get to run all the bad stuff out there as well.

I did say "mostly" in the title of this section, because things are moving. Although the above logic has held true for a very long time, PC sales are now in decline. As the alternatives get more and more popular, developers of new software are motivated to write software for them and them only. There are plenty of products now that only work on an iPad, for example.  

The alternatives are immune to attack, mostly

OK, no computer is completely immune to infection (unless you encase it in concrete and bury it in a disused mine, with an armed guard and specially trained attack crocodiles, but even then...). However, there are relative levels of risk. There's not much argument amongst geeks that Windows sits at the bottom of that hierarchy (we are back to the whole huge industry of crime built on top of the Windows thing). Certainly there are good reason to rate Windows higher for all sorts of other criteria, but not security, especially in a home environment. The designers of newer types of computers were able to look at that and think "There's no way that's happening to my system, even if it means I have to sacrifice some functionality.", and they have locked their systems down tight (some tighter than others). Have a look at Security Hierarchy, where I give a league table showing the relative strengths.

The point is, if you use Windows you are highly vulnerable to attack, if you use the alternatives you reduce that risk dramatically. It's not like I'm saying you are half as likely to get malicious software on an iPad (for example) than a Windows PC,  I'm saying you are tens of thousands of times less likely (maybe more). It's on a different planet.

What things can the alternatives not do?

That's a bit of a moving target because the manufacturers of these things keep adding new abilities, also each type of computer will have different limitations. What's important is they can all do the main tasks that take up most of peoples' time on a home computer.  Things like emailing, surfing the Internet, editing Word and Excel documents and managing picture collections.

An example of something you can't do with an iPad (or Chrome or Android) would be ripping a CD (that's putting a CD into the computer and turning it into music files that you could then send to a iPod). Another might be plugging in your Sat Nav to update the maps. Generally speaking (and this is not absolutely true) you can do pretty much anything on a Windows machine, roughly the same list of things on a Mac (with a few exceptions) and all the normal everyday things on any of the others (iPad, Chrome OS, Android).

Sometimes there are work arounds for these limitations and I have covered some of these in these pages. Sometimes there is no work around, it just doesn't do it. The obvious answer is to insist you have Windows, but think carefully before you go down that route. These limitations have little impact on most people most of the time, but Viruses and Junk Software, that's another matter. There is a plague of those out there on Windows affecting hundreds of millions of people. That's the trade off.

So, if you hit something that your alternative won't do, don't slap your forehead and say "I should of got Windows", think "oh well, at least I don't have to deal with the cesspit of security problems on Windows".

You know that old adage about you being more likely to be killed driving to the airport than on the plane, so stop worrying about flying! I just read the latest statistics on that. In the western world the number is 800 times. You are 800 times more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport than on your flight. Seriously, why are you worrying about the flying or not being able to run something on that computer? You're missing the point! The elephants in the room are the drive and the computer infections. That's where you need to put your focus.

By the way, I was just re-reading this page and since I wrote it (only a week ago) a new trend has emerged for Windows tablets costing only $99 (see the Windows Laptop page for more details). So if you have one last task that is pulling you back to Windows, these things are now cheap enough to grab a tablet for just that one thing and keep your main computing on something safe. This game moves fast.


Offer Mr & Mrs Normal two options:

  1. You can have a computer that does everything, but is highly susceptible to attack from criminals from all over the world who want your money and don't care if they hurt you in the process.
  2. You can have a computer that can do all the things you do regularly, which protects you from the criminals, but is no good for video editing or plugging in new and exotic devices. 

That is exactly the sort of conversation I do have with Mr & Mrs Normal. They take option 2.

Most Geeks find this hard to accept. They always choose option 1. The alternatives are too restrictive a box for their needs. They want to be able to do everything, even the things no one has thought of yet. For many of them only an idiot would have anything but a full function computer that's open to the world. It's another example of people recommending what is right for themselves, not what is right for the person who is going to use it.

What Next?

Read What Shape? so we can get you on the road to finding the right computer for you.

But this is all nonsense!

The slaying of myths and misunderstandings

There's a staggering amount of misinformation and urban myth doing the rounds on the subject of home computers, often nonsense that is most definitely against your best interests. So let's prepare you for when someone "who knows about computers" comes knocking by covering the popular hogwash in advance.

BUT Microsoft will fix SecuRity in Windows!

Really? It's been a problem for 30 years and despite spending billions on R&D every year it is not only yet to be fixed, it is an expanding problem fuelling an criminal industry making billions of dollars a year. The truth is, they can't fix it. Fixing it would break all the programs that currently work on Windows. It is that legacy of programs especially created for Windows that helps Windows sell. So Microsoft have painted themselves into a corner. They cannot fix it, if they could they would have done it years ago. See Security Hierarchy if you want all the techie details as to why.

But iPads can't print!

I do see an awful lot of misinformation about the abilities of different systems. iPads not being able to print is a classic one. It's simply not true. iPads, iPhones and even the little old iPod Touch, can print to a printer that knows how to talk the standard "AirPrint". Most (but not all) modern wireless printers have this facility. If you have an older printer, budget US $79 - UK £71. to get a new one that does AirPrint. Don't do what I have seen some people do: choose their computer based on which one is compatible with some ancient old printer they bought years ago for $30 and now you couldn't give away to charity. Seriously people do that, they just cannot bring themselves to trash equipment that is still working, no matter what the great benefits).

But my Android phone / Chromebook cannot print!

Yes it can, you just need a printer that supports Google Cloud Print. Again, most modern printers can do that (including the one listed in the previous paragraph).

But my device cannot scan!

Yes it can, most modern all-in-one printers can scan to email, dropbox and all sorts of other cloud services. Manufacturers often provide apps to make the process simpler. The only combination of computer and printer I have seen a problem with is the modern Canon printers and Chrome OS devices. Canon have neither an app nor scan to cloud, which is a shame, because they make some very good printers that do everything else. The work around is to scan to SD memory card and then read that on the Chrome device, or just grab the Epson (US $79 - UK £71) above if you have Chrome OS, it scans just fine via email.

But my device cannot create and edit Word and Excel files!

Yes it can, don't confuse confusing the program (Microsoft Word) with the file format (.doc or .docx). People are used to separating those two things with pictures. You have pictures on your computer (often .jpg format) and you can use all sorts of programs to access them, edit them, email them, print them, all sorts. You don't have to have a piece of software from "Jpg Incorporated" (if such a company even existed) to do something with the pictures. It's getting that way with the Word and Excel files. Even your smartphone can access and edit an Excel spreadsheet with the right app (there are typically several free ones in the app store) and Microsoft need never have written a program to allow it. Read Word, Excel & PowerPoint for the full details.

But I don't know what I will want in the future

True enough, but none of this stuff is forever. New technology will emerge all the time. The creators of new things are very aware of Windows' fading fortunes. That's why there is such a huge investment in the alternatives.

Please can I have the phone number of the yoga girl in the picture above?

No, stop emailing and asking me that question. She's a very sweet young lady who is happy with nothing but a Chromebook and an apple. She is not interested in your attentions.

Your Comments

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