WHICH OPERATING SYSTEM?

The Quick Version

Choose carefully. Don't buy your next computer on habit, buy it because you've thought through the issues here. Get it wrong and you will be exposed to the same sort of risks that are plaguing everyone else: computer infections and data loss through lack of backups. Get it right and all that nonsense will just melt away without you having to do a thing.

What next? Read What Shape?


Key Points

1. There are more options than just Windows and Mac. Things have moved on.

2. iOS (the system that runs the iPad and iPhone) is the safest of the lot.

3. Chrome OS is best for keyboard and mouse (and is very cheap).

4. Amazon Fire has some great bargains.

5. Mac is the best option if you have to have a full function computer (but it's pricey).

6. Android is very tempting, but has some security problems.

Photo by Riccardo_Mojana/iStock / Getty Images

It all used to be so simple: Windows or Mac. Now there are all sorts of options for home computers and some have fantastic advantages. 

Let's start with a definition: What is an operating system? It's the software that makes the computer work. Not the software that you use to actually do things, like a word processor or an email program, an operating system is the guts of the system, it's what puts images on your screen or fetches data from the hard drive. It's the operating system that fundamentally defines what any computer is like to use and what it is able to do. 

More famous than this month's reality TV star is Windows. Everyone has heard of the operating system Windows and knows that it runs on computers from all sorts of manufacturers (like Dell, HP, Lenovo and many others). But there are other operating systems, like iOS (that powers iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches), or Chrome OS (on Chromebooks and Chromebases and Chromeboxes).

Why does any of this matter? It's like buying a car, you get different advantages with different models. Buy a massive 4x4 and it could be great for crossing fields and hopeless for fuel economy. A problem I see over and over again in my day job is people buying the wrong operating system and getting in a terrible mess as a consequence (see Windows or Not? for more details). So don't start your search for a replacement computer by comparing different specs of laptops, start with Windows or Not?, then read this page and when you are done have a read of What Shape, where I look at individual machines.

For now, let's take each operating system in turn and explain why you might want it (or not):


Why choose iOS?

iOS is the name of the operating system that runs on iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches. It comes from Apple, but is not the same thing as Mac OS, which is used on the Mac Desktops and Laptops (see below for more details for Mac OS). 

Points for: Excellent Security, Excellent Hardware, Automatic Backups

If you want to stay safe on the Internet, the best possible choice you could make is to get an iOS device (iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch). Some folks find that hard to believe. How can this little device be more secure than a much bigger computer with mains power and anti-virus software! Well it can. If you want all the techie detail as to why, look at this: Security Hierarchy

Also on the plus side, the hardware it runs on is all beautifully designed and built. A real feeling of quality.

iOS comes as standard with an automatic online backup called iCloud. This automatically takes the photos you take, the documents you write and the settings on the device and sends them to the Apple mothership (not so they can look at it, it's all encrypted so they can keep it safe for you). On many occasions I have seen people lose, break or have stolen an iDevice only to sign in to a new model and have iCloud restore up everything as if nothing had happened. It's like there are magic pixies looking after you. Truly marvellous. 

Points against: Will not run everything, fiddly for some tasks

iOS devices will not run every task you can possibly run on a Windows PC, but it will probably run far more than you might think (I covered this in more detail in The Key Trade Off). The important thing is that it does do the types of things that most people use a home computer for, even the ones that most people have convinced themselves are not possible (editing Word documents, plugging in a keyboard, printing etc).

There are some tasks that although you can do them on iOS, it's fiddly because of the fact that it is a small touch screen. The obvious example is spreadsheets. A mouse and keyboard is simply a better match for that task because of the precise pointing the mouse can do. Check out an LG Chromebase if that is your priority.

Summary

Choose iPad if you want a less formal way of using a computer. Something you can wander around the house with, dipping in and out when you want. Forget about waiting for it to boot, forget about viruses, forget about backups, just pick it up and use it.

Who's it best for?

Folks who consume more content than create it, but that probably covers most of us in a home computer environment. That's not to say you cannot create content on it, plenty of people do. Just that it's optimised for consuming.

The One to Get

I have an whole article on Which iPad to select, there are a lot of options, but don't worry, I will guide you through them.


Why Choose Chrome OS?

Chrome OS is an operating system created by Google. You might have seen the Chrome browser (an alternative to Internet Explorer) on Windows or Mac. Chrome OS takes that to an extreme and just does everything in the web browser. The net result is you end up with an operating system that is simple, robust and closest to what you are used to if you grew up on Windows (in many ways closer to traditional Windows than what Windows 8 has now become).

If you have been paying attention you will have noticed that Google have two operating systems (Chrome OS and Android).  Why so? Chrome OS has been optimised for a keyboard and mouse type of machine and Android for a touch screen (phones and tablets). 

Points for: Excellent Security, Great Value for Money, Automatic Backup

Again, another operating system that has waved goodbye to all those nasty Viruses and Junk Software. Excellent Security.

Boy these things are cheap. About $160 for a desktop, $200 for a laptop and $300 for an all-in-one, or very roughly half the cost of a Windows machine and a quarter the cost of a Mac. There are other arguments as to why those other machines might be worth the extra, but Chrome machines have their own plus points too. These prices are a killer bargain if the machine matches your needs.

The backups on the Chrome operating system are the best I have seen on any system. Everything you do is constantly being backed up to Google. And I do mean constantly. A bad person could smash your Chrome machine with a large hammer half way through you writing a document and the document would be safely stored at Google right up to the last word you typed. It's not a once a week or once a day thing, it's constant. All machines are mortal, but this makes sure your data lives forever.

Points against: Will not run everything, no midsize or large laptops, always need the Internet

You can't do everything on Chrome OS that you can do on Windows or Mac, but for the average person at home, you can do all the things you want to (see The Key Trade Off for more details).

The Chrome market has focused on creating small laptops and an all-in-one. Good as those machines are, there is a curious gap in the line-up for mid size and larger laptops. No one is making them, I assume because they know they have a killer advantage on price and that is where all their focus is going. The largest is HP's 14" Chromebook. If you want anything bigger look at the Chromebase, big screen, great value.

Summary

Wow these are good value! If you want to replace Windows, but are worried about it all being different, this is the one to go for. Sure it's different, but not as much as the other options. You might be tempted to get Windows because it's what you are used to. Before you do that, read my extensive rant on that topic on the Windows or Not? page, where I explain that Microsoft have changed the current version of Windows to make it different to what you are used to. In many ways, Chrome is more similar to the traditional Windows than the current version of Windows (Windows 8.1) is.

Who's it best for?

Folks who want a mouse and keyboard experience. The all-in-one is a good match for someone who wants a big screen.

The One to Get

For a laptop grab the HP Chromebook 14, for an All-in-One the LG Chromebase, for a desktop the Acer Chromebox.


Why Choose Amazon Fire?

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Amazon make their own tablets. They are good too. Although they use the Android operating system (see below), they have changed it a lot so that you would never know. That's a good thing on a couple of levels, first the security is better and secondly they deal with keeping files in the cloud in a better way, neither of which they get enough credit for. However, their killer advantage is price, some of their range is really cheap, but good.

Points for: Great Security, Great Price, Great Support

Another good one for security (see the Security Hierarchy for details as to why).

The basic Fire only costs $99. That's great value. If you need a computer today, a price that low is hard to beat. Of course at this point you will say to me "but I have seen an android tablet for $30" and I am sure you have. The problem is, whenever anyone hands me one of those super cheap Android tablet they have always been garbage, slow, unresponsive and just unpleasant to use (ok, maybe I am being unfair to some super cheap tablet that is out there somewhere, I can't discount that possibility, there are untold different manufacturers, but so far, every one I have seen is garbage). The basic Fire is the cheapest tablet I have used that is actually quite nice. It's only downside is the screen is small for a tablet at 6". But hey, you asked for cheap and good and this delivers.

They even do a kids version at $149. If the kids smash it within the first two years they will send you another one. The Fires' have never had big market share, I suspect that this product might be the one to change that. Providing they can get the message of what they are offering in front of parents (and grandparents), I think this could sell well.

Some of the items higher in the range are more expensive, like the HDX 8.9 and has a similar price to an iPad. The screen is fabulous, I keep one myself for watching videos, but for that money, most people would be better off with an iPad.

If you do spend the extra for a HDX version it has one amazing feature: the "Mayday button". Let's say you have a question about your Fire. You click the Mayday button and within a few seconds you are connected to a nice young person in a call centre whom you can ask questions. You can let them see your screen and give them permissions to control the tablet. They don't even charge for it. It's marvellous! (here's their AD TV showing you how it works). You may well have had a poor experience calling up other call centres for help, but this is very good. They know what they are talking about and are keen to help. No other manufacturer has anything close to this. Amazon really don't get enough credit for this either. If you are at all worried about using a tablet (and not too shy to ask for help) this is great.

Points against: Will not run everything, Limited app store, Fiddly for some tasks

It won't do everything (see The Key Trade Off for details), but it will do all the things that a normal person does with a computer at home.

Under the covers, the Fire is based on Android (see below for more on Android), so you would think that Fire would run all the same programs as Android. Instead they run their own app store and are more fussy about what apps are allowed in. From a security point of view this is great, there just doesn't seem to be any bad software getting on to the Fire. But from a "I want that app" point of view it can be irritating when things you can see everybody else has, you cannot get.

Who's it best for?

Folks on a budget.

The One to Get

Fire HD 6" $99 or the Fire HD Kids Edition $149. If you need a bigger screen grab an iPad.


Why Choose Mac OS?

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For most of the last 30 years this would have been a very short website. You either had a Windows or a Mac. There're both still here, but now there are lots of other options too.

Points for: Will run almost everything, great hardware

Mac's principal advantage is that it is a full function computer, meaning you can run just about anything on it. The only type of machine that is more full function would be Windows computer, which has attracted more support from companies writing software and making hardware, simply because it has a much much larger market share. However, Windows has an enormous disadvantage in terms of security. Although Mac security is not perfect, it's vastly better than Windows.

You are going to love how these things look. Definitely objects of desire.

Points against: High cost

Last time I looked, Apple had $160 billion in cash reserves. That's more than any other company in the world and about 3 times as much as the entire US government (and Apple doesn't have any debt, unlike the said government). How did they get that way? By charging a lot of money for their stuff. Does that mean they are overpriced? Nope. In business things are only over priced if people don't buy them. Clearly not an issue for Apple, at least in the phones, music players and tablets. Macs are actually quite a small part of their revenue.

Anyhow, expect to pay roughly double what you pay for the same configuration on a Windows machine. Is it worth the difference? I think it is if you have some applications that won't run on iOS or Chrome OS. Having seen the plague of Viruses and Junk Software on Windows I find it very difficult to recommend Windows for home use. The cost of sorting out an infection can be so much higher than paying for the more expensive Mac in the first place.

Having said all of that, some people simply cannot afford a Mac or choose not to spend that much of their disposable income on technology. In the old days that would have meant they had to have Windows, now there are lots of good options that are much cheaper.

Who's it best for?

People who have software that they absolutely need and it will not run on iOS or Chrome OS.

The One to Get

If you are sitting at a desk get an iMac, if you need to move around, MacBook Air, if you want the cheapest version get a Mac Mini.


Why Choose Android

Android is the face that launched a billion smartphones. Almost all the smartphones (other than the iPhone) run the Android operating system. Samsung Galaxies, HTCs, Sony, so on and so forth, all Androids. Almost all of the non iPad tablets are Android too. The landscape is shaping up like it did with desktop PCs. Apple take the high end, high price units and Android takes the mass market (just like Microsoft did with desktop PCs). People who don't follow technology walk into shops, see Android is cheaper than iPhone, don't really understand how they are any different and buy Android. Is that the right call? Sometimes.

Points for: Great Value for Money, Huge Range

The cheapest iPhone you can buy is a 5c at (US $320 - UK £350). The Moto G is a fantastic phone at (US $179 - UK £145). Is the iPhone better?  Yes, in many ways it is. Would most people notice the difference? Not so much. Sure if you have specific things you need to be of a high quality (like wanting a better camera) the iPhone would win. But if you want a bargain that is competent at everything, the Moto G shows just what great value Android can deliver.

The same is true when it comes to the size of the range. Although Google creates the Android software, they give it to all sorts of manufacturers who do all sorts of things with it. The result is a choice of thousands of different phones and tablets, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. That fierce competition breeds a lot of innovation and low prices.

Points against: Weaker Security

The one thing that worries me about Android is its security. That comes from two keys points: it's very open and Google have been slack letting things into their app store. In more detail:

Google created Android to be very open to developers who want to change it and add things to it. That's been great for innovation. Android is a place where lots of new features and ideas appear first. Unfortunately it also makes it much easier for criminals to do their work as well. This is not theoretical, there have been a number of attacks in the wild.

Secondly Google have also not been strict about what gets into their app store for Android (known as Google Play). They have let in bad software, and software is far less restricted once it is on the device than it is on iPhone. So once it is in it can be hard to remove.

I think it's sad that Android is mirroring the way Windows developed all those years ago. Being very open, criminals take advantage of that fact. Geeks tend to like Android because they can do more fancy things with it. Normal people like it because it's great value.

Who's it best for?

Folks on a budget and geeks who want the latest innovations and lots of flexibility.

The One to Get

For a bargain phone get the Moto G (US $179 - UK £145). If you want to use your phone as your main home computer, get the massive Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (US $870 - UK £406). If you want a tablet get the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 (US $317UK £259).


Why Choose Windows?

Why choose Windows? Because you have not been paying attention. Only joking.

Points For: Will Run Everything

It's the swiss army knife of operating systems. It will do just about anything. That's because it has been around forever with an overwhelming market share. That's changing now, it's market share is falling and other options are emerging, but there are still things that only run on Windows. If you have such a thing, you are stuck with it no matter what the downsides.

Points Against: Huge security problems, it's all changed, not the best value

You are probably bored with me banging on about security by now, but it really is a plague sweeping the nation (one more time: Viruses and Junk Software). It's highly likely you don't have to put up with this nonsense because you can probably do the things you want on one of the safer alternatives (See Windows or Not?).

Who's it best for?

Folks who don't have a choice because they have to have something that only runs on Windows.

The One to Get

Click here for a laptop, click here for an all-in-one and click here for a desktop. If you are not sure what type of Windows Machine you want, have a read of What Shape?



Summary

Choose carefully. Don't buy your next computer on habit, buy it because you have thought though the issues here. Get it wrong and you will be exposed to the same sort of risks that are plaguing everyone else: computer infections and data loss through lack of backups. Get it right and all that nonsense will just melt away without you having to do a thing.

Next Step?

If you have read Windows or Not? (very important) and this page on Which Operating System, then you are ready for the third and final question What Shape?


Photo by Image Source/Digital Vision / Getty Images

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.

Windows or Mac are the only answers!

For the last 30 years you either had Windows or Mac and that was that. Now we have all the options above, there are plenty of people who have not lifted themselves out of the old rut (Windows/Mac, Mac/Windows). Remember, technology moves at a far faster rate than public perception. All this stuff has moved on. The sales of Windows PCs are in sharp decline. The sales of Macs have grown, but not anywhere near enough to make up the gap. Something else is happening here. People are turning to the alternatives (tablets, Chromebooks etc).  You can see it in the sales figures.

Sometimes Windows is the correct answer, sometimes Mac is the right answer and sometimes it's one of the newer systems.

Why no Ubuntu, Windows Phone, Windows RT?

At this point someone is standing up at the back of the room and asking why his favourite operating system did not get a mention on this page. This is not a comment on the quality of these other systems, it's all about market share. All those other systems have things about them that I really like (I even use them for some purposes). However, they have less than a 1% market share for home computers in the western world. That not 1% each, that’s combined.

If you were to walk into your local computer superstore and ask for a Ubuntu laptop (for example), the chances are you would walk out with a Windows laptop and some general advice about how to find Ubuntu on the Internet, download it and install it. Whatever it’s merits, that moves it into the space for enthusiasts. It’s like making your own furniture. Some people do that very well and enjoy it as a hobby, most people don’t. This website is aimed at normal people, not the folks who would have the interest to search out things outside the mainstream. Hence the sad omission of some interesting things.


Your Comments

Don't be shy, say what you think. The comment system below is there for anyone to ask a question or make a point. Especially don't hold back if you are a normal person just trying to make sense of it all. It's easy to get the opinions of geeks on geeky matters, much more interesting to hear how this works out for you or what bits need more explanation. No such thing as a silly question, jump in.