Choosing the best operating system – Windows, Linux, MacOS: ITReviews.com Buyer’s Guide review

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Whether you’re buying, building or upgrading a PC, there’s one crucial choice to be made: what operating system to opt for. Windows 7? Home Premium or Ultimate? Linux? Or maybe a Mac? Fear not, IT Reviews is on hand to unravel what can seem like a confusing list of options.

This guide deals with the major OSes used by desktop and laptop computers. For mobile OSes such as iOS and Android, used by smartphones and tablets, check out our mobile OS Buyer’s Guide.

Your choice of operating system can make a crucial difference to what you can do with your computer, how easy it is to use – and in some cases, can even affect the type of computer you buy. IT Reviews will talk you through choosing the right operating system for you, helping you to get your hands on the software you need at the best price – and avoiding expensive mistakes.

What the operating system does
If the motherboard and processor form the brains’ of a computer, the operating system or OS is its mind’ – the bit that’s responsible for enabling all of the components within to speak to the outside world.

The operating system is the software that runs your computer. It shapes the layout of your on-screen desktop’, the system of menus you use to access programs, and even the way data is filed away on your computer’s hard drive.

Ubuntu 10.10

Versions of Linux such as Canonical’s Ubuntu (above) are apopular choice among those who want to avoid Microsoft products.

The choice of operating system you make will depend a lot on your budget and what you need to do with your PC – plus your opinions on the leading OS maker, software giant Microsoft.

If you last upgraded a few years ago, the chances are you bought one version or another of Microsoft’s Windows Vista. An attempt by the company to update from its ageing but well-regarded Windows XP platform, it’s generally considered to be something of a failure: ignored by business and hated by the general populace, Vista was something of a mis-step – and if you get offered a copy cheap, you’d do well to walk away.

The good news is that Microsoft has learned from its mistakes. The latest operating system to come out of the company, Windows 7, fixes many of the complaints users had with its predecessor. Much of the unnecessary stuff has also been stripped away, meaning Windows 7 runs significantly better on lower specification hardware.

Windows 7 box

The three flavours of Microsoft Windows 7: Ultimate, Professional and Home Premium.

What type of user are you?
For those on a tighter budget, or who fancy using an operating system that’s based on freely available open source’ code rather than proprietary systems, there’s always Linux. Traditionally developed for servers, Linux has made a number of leaps forward in recent years on desktop PCs – thanks largely to the work of distributor Canonical and its version of Linux, called Ubuntu.

If you’re buying an operating system on its own, always look at the different options available. Off-the-shelf, boxed retail’ releases can be extremely expensive. But there is another option, in the form of the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) editions designed for PC maunfacturers.

While not strictly meant for consumers, these plain-boxed OEM editions do find their way onto the market in various online stores, and offer a significant discount on the price of Windows boxed retail versions.

Those who already own an older version of Windows have yet another option, as they’re eligible to buy an upgrade licence at a significant saving.

As with any shopping spree, the first thing to do is to identify your requirements and budget. Are you a budget, mainstream, or premium user? Read on, and we’ll help you track down the right operating system for you.

BUDGET
As a budget user, you’re on a shoestring. You need an operating system in order to make your shiny new (or existing but upgraded) system run, but you’ve spent up on the components and can’t afford any of Microsoft’s top-end offerings.

There are two paths to take when choosing an operating system on a budget, and they depend entirely on the software you need to run on a daily basis. Look at the packages you use, and see if alternatives are available for Linux. If you mostly use office packages, web browsers, and other basic tools, then you might be able to swing an operating system for free.

Linux is a free, open-source operating system – meaning that its users are free to develop their own versions, customising the software in any way they see fit. While that makes it incredibly flexible, it also means that there are a vast number of different versions available to choose from – and as they all have no monetary cost attached, it can be difficult to pick one from the crowd.

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By far the most successful of the desktop Linux distributions is Canonical’s Ubuntu. Designed to be easy to install and use even for non-technical users, it has gathered a cult following in recent years. If your software choices don’t tie you to Windows, it’s an excellent choice.

Even if you do need Windows software, a free add-on package called Wine allows certain software to run within Linux under a compatibility layer’ – and as it’s free, it’s always worth testing before shelling out on a commercial OS.

If you’re buying a system with an operating system pre-installed, keep an eye out for Windows 7 Starter Edition. Although uncommon in the UK, some netbooks come with this extremely cheap OEM-only release installed – and while it’s limited, it’s usable for basic computing tasks.

Sadly, Microsoft has chosen to keep Windows 7 Starter exclusive to manufacturers and developing nations – meaning that you can’t buy a copy yourself for a home-built computer.

MAINSTREAM
A mainstream user does everything the budget user does, and more. Perhaps you play the latest games, need support for Windows-only software packages, or you’ve just got a bit of money left over in your budget for a shiny new OS.

There are two versions of Windows that mainstream users might consider, and the decision rests entirely on whether you use your PC on a corporate network.

If you’re a home user, and you’re not buying an OS for a laptop that you’ll be taking to work, there’s really only one choice: Windows 7 Home Premium. Replacing Windows Vista Home Premium as the OS of choice, the latest release of Microsoft’s popular OS fixes many of the problems people had with its predecessor.

Windows 7 Home Premium includes most features users would expect from an operating system, including support for DirectX 11 which – when coupled with a compatible graphics card – unlocks vastly improved visuals in modern games.

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There is one area in which Windows 7 Home Premium is lacking, however: corporate networking. If you connect your system to a Windows Active Directory Domain, you’ll find that the Home Premium edition is totally unsuitable for your needs. Instead, you need Windows 7 Professional.

As the name suggests, Windows 7 Professional is for business users – in particular, those who connect their systems to Active Directory networks. In addition, it includes a virtualised Windows XP compatibility mode missing from the Home Premium edition that helps to ensure that even outdated software runs without a hiccup.

The difference in price between the two versions can be steep, so make sure you pick the one that best suits your needs. If you’re not buying for work, you’ll almost certainly want the cheaper Windows 7 Home Premium.

PREMIUM
A premium user wants it all. You don’t want to have to pick between different versions of Windows, you just want to buy one that covers every eventuality. Thankfully, Microsoft has developed a version of Windows with you in mind: Windows 7 Ultimate.

Combining the features of Windows 7 Home Premium and Windows 7 Professional, the Ultimate release is – as the name suggests – all-encompassing. Popular among power users and gamers alike, Windows 7 Ultimate includes every feature you could ever need from an operating system – and its black packaging is sure to impress if you stick it on a shelf.

Sadly, there is – as always – a trade-off involved. Ultimate costs around twice as much as other versions of Windows 7 – but if you’re looking to get the most out of your hardware, it comes highly recommended.

If you’re a premium buyer with plenty of hard disk space, there’s another option to look at in order to give yourself even more options: dual-booting. Although ordinarily a PC would only have a single operating system installed on it, some power users choose to have two or more – choosing which one they want to run depending on their requirements at the time.

…And what about Macs?
While Windows-based PCs are the most common computers on the planet, there are those who choose a different path: a Macintosh, running Apple’s latest operating system, Mac OS X.

Unlike Windows and Linux, you can’t buy Mac OS X as a standalone operating system. In order to use it, you need to buy an Apple computer – a Mac Pro, Mac Mini, or Apple’s laptop computers, the MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air.

What Mac OS X lacks in flexibility it makes up for in stability. When Windows falls over, it’s often due to the fact that a user has a combination of hardware that the developers weren’t able to test. By limiting Mac OS X to predefined hardware platforms, Apple is able to make the OS less likely to randomly crash.

Mac OS X also has a reputation for security, being seen to be less prone to viruses and other digital nasties. While some of this is purely down to its extremely small market share compared to Windows, there is evidence to suggest that the design of Mac OS X – and, specifically, its roots in an open-source project known as BSD – does make it harder to infect than Windows.

Many Windows programs don’t work under Mac OS X, and gamers are especially hard done by – although this has changed in recent years with companies including Half-Life developer Valve pledging support for the platform.

MacOS X Lion

The latest version of Apple’s MacOS X, Lion.

If you’re not tied to Windows by legacy software requirements, and you don’t mind paying a premium for Apple’s prettily-designed products – known by some as the ‘Apple Tax’ – a Mac OS X system is certainly worth considering.

Dual-boot systems
Although you’re unlikely to want to buy a second operating system, many people choose to add a free, open-source option to the list – giving them the choice to experiment with a new operating system while having a tried-and-tested commercial version to fall back on.

If you want to give dual-booting a try, the easiest way is to download Canonical’s Ubuntu Linux Live CD. It’s free – in every sense of the word – and could unlock features of your system that you never even guessed were there.

For Mac users who want to sully their hard drives another OS – Linux, perhaps, or even the dreaded Windows – Apple supplies a utility called Boot Camp which enables them to do exactly that.