Desktop operating systems group test review

the Sparc OS on x86
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Professional edition: £38.84 . Persional edition: Free download (42MB)

Most computer owners in this country run Microsoft Windows 98 at the moment. However, Microsoft is sending out mixed messages about the way forward. Currently, Windows ME and Windows 2000 Professional are possible upgrades, with Windows XP somewhere on the horizon promising a completely revamped user experience.

But upgrading to Windows ME and Windows 2000 is likely to involve a hardware upgrade for many users, and hardware upgrades have a tendency to escalate into complete system replacement. Because of this, we’ve taken a deep breath and decided to compare the alternative desktop operating systems on the market. This market is alive and kicking, with many interesting and completely viable systems itching to show Microsoft a thing or two. What better time to round them up for a mammoth group test?

The way we see things, the major operating systems are currently Microsoft Windows ME, Windows 2000 Professional and Linux for the PC, and Mac OS as the dominant non-PC OS. Frustration with operating system software can make users passionate, and often one-sided. But if the best of the current crop of operating systems were compared fairly, which one would really stand out as a winner? Is such a task even possible? Are we mad to even try? Perhaps.

Regardless, here we take a look at the latest desktop operating systems from Microsoft and Apple, and compare these with Linux, BeOS, and Sun’s Solaris 8 Personal Edition.

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BeOS 5 Personal Edition is a free download and is worth a go, since it only totals 42MB for a plush multimedia-oriented operating system. A UNIX-derived OS, BeOS enjoys a devoted following and has some great features, especially for those involved in multimedia content creation.

In many ways, Mac OS X owes something to BeOS, which has great stability and a colourful and well-designed interface. Indeed, BeOS is a superb operating system in many ways, with quick boot times and impressive multimedia features.

The download edition has its drawbacks, since it takes up 512MB on a hard disk. It’s not possible to define an install partition greater or less than this amount. But then, the downloadable version of BeOS isn’t designed to be a replacement for the operating system currently in use, but more as a trial. The Pro version provides full control over partition sizes.

Of course, the 42MB download file doesn’t carry with it everything you might need, but we were amazed by what Be has managed to pack in. In terms of devices, users will find quite good support for multimedia-oriented devices such as sound cards, video capture cards, etc. Printer support is also very good, with drivers for many consumer inkjet printers. For extra software, some additional downloading is necessary. www.BeBits.com is a good place to start looking.

BeOS may be a lesser-known operating system, but it has a great deal going for it and represents a simple way to use another operating system on a PC without doing any damage to an existing Windows installation.

OS 9.1 is the final version of the ‘Classic’ style Mac OS (as Apple has dubbed it). It represents the pinnacle of stability and user-friendliness of the old-style operating system.

However, this isn’t saying much. OS 9.1 is just the old system with a few enhancements and some re-coding to make way for OS X. It has the same problems that have plagued Apple for years. Macs running OS 9.1 or earlier probably crash just as often as Microsoft Windows-based PCs, due to poor memory management and too many loaded extensions, among other reasons.

As an upgrade, Mac OS 9.1 doesn’t represent very good value. The simple reason for this is that it’s actually included free with Mac OS X for compatibility with older applications, since Mac OS X is currently a bit starved of third party software.

Our advice? Buy Mac OS X and get OS 9.1 free. This way, you can set up a dual boot system easily and either boot into OS 9.1 or run it from within OS X.

For many home computer owners, Windows ME represents a logical upgrade from Windows 95 or 98, and it’s true to say it does have more features and a great deal going for it in general.

Windows ME has, though, received criticism for being basically a revamped version of Windows 98. Indeed, if users have Windows 98 already, Windows ME is an upgrade of dubious value since some key components such as Windows Media Player can be downloaded free of charge from Microsoft’s Web site. Given the cost of upgrading, for most users more RAM or another system component upgrade would be money better spent. Some users might also feel that Windows ME is a ‘crippled’ version of Windows 98 since some old features such as the command prompt and the ability to copy DOS system files to a floppy disk have been removed.

It’s mainly for customers buying a new PC that Windows ME has its advantages. In the world of the PC, there are many different possible configurations of hardware, and while ME might not support all of them directly, hardware vendors will nearly always have written software drivers to support it, so if users want to get the best from consumer hardware such as digital cameras, scanners, printers, etc., Windows ME is still going to be the one to go for. Additionally, when it comes to gaming, Windows ME is hard to beat, with a new version of DirectX providing even better support for 3D acceleration and other functions.

This all boils down to an argument about the inevitability of Microsoft software. If users buy a new PC, the chances are that it will now come with Windows ME pre-installed by default. ME has some good features, but its success is somewhat predetermined by the success of Microsoft. For more information about Windows ME, see our earlier stand-alone review here.

OS X is Apple’s biggest release since the iMac. Some upgraders might (possibly) say goodbye to Mac OS 9.1 with tears in their eyes, but we suspect that Mac OS X will replace it in their affections rather quickly.

Although the OS is in its infancy, planned updates and work by key application vendors such as Adobe, Macromedia and Microsoft should allow OS X to become a serious operating system in no time at all. It’s worth noting that OS X will run quite well on most compatible Macs. We ran it very successfully on an old beige G3 machine with 160MB of RAM. Therefore the move to Mac OS X probably won’t involve a hardware upgrade for most Mac owners.

Based on a BSD UNIX system, OS X represents a radical departure for Apple and provides much needed credentials of stability. The fact that it is POSIX-compliant also means that many UNIX applications can be ported to the Mac, which should mean that third party application development is more varied and rapid than was the case with OS 9.

Apple has taken a sensible approach to the UNIX origins of the new OS. Rather than altogether ditching the underlying command prompt, it has chosen to keep it available, which may in the long term tempt some UNIX/Linux users to the Apple platform. Apple will in time support not only the favoured Apache web server and various other server-oriented products, but also the tools of the designer such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Flash, and it is for this reason that we expect it will become the OS of choice for multimedia and web content developers.

Not a company to pass over the marketing potential of the UNIX origins of the OS, Apple has names for all the key elements of OS X. The UNIX element is called Darwin (we suppose the reference to evolution is an acknowledgement of the length of time it’s taken Apple to release this OS…). The trendy and very flash user interface is dubbed ‘Aqua’, and features a number of interface features that we expect will be copied by the competition before long, such as scalable icons rather than the usual fixed sizes.

You might be able to tell that Mac OS X gets us excited. Expect bugs to be found early and ironed out quickly, and key applications such as Adobe Photoshop to be available by late summer. Before long, this OS will be pre-installed on new Macs, and we expect it will be well received.

Linux has been developing at a rate of knots since its inception. Currently, so much software is available that many distributions ship with multiple CDs or even, in the case of SuSE, a DVD. The amazing thing about Linux is that nearly all available software is under the General Public License, which means that the software itself is in most respects free, while Linux remains one of the most stable and reliable operating systems available.

With its roots in UNIX, Linux has a reputation for being complex. While sterling work has resulted in highly usable graphical environments such as KDE 2 in recent times, the strict interface guidelines provided by Microsoft don’t exist, and so many users will find some applications alien. This is a strength as well as a weakness for Linux since it increases innovation and choice just as much as it detracts from initial ease of use.

Of the many varieties of Linux available, some cater for Windows users wishing to dip their toe in, such as ZipSlack, which can be installed in a DOS partition or run entirely from a ZIP disk. Some provide user-oriented environments that have been designed to make Linux feel like home to ex-Windows users, such as Corel Linux, Caldera and Linux Mandrake. Some just give everything and leave users to figure it all out, such as SuSE Linux, and some are more server-oriented, such as Turbo Linux and RedHat.

For the adventurous, Linux can provide nearly everything that Windows can in terms of productivity applications, and can also offer a growing number of games. We would recommend Linux Mandrake to users itching to try something a bit different on their PC. It represents great value and supports a wide range of hardware with simple configuration. Linux continues to gain popularity for many good reasons, and it’s an inexpensive software solution, but it is still best suited to those with some technical ability.

It’s easy to get caught up in the notion that Microsoft owns the entire desktop market, but there are many companies out there who would see things differently. There’s a great number of capable desktop operating systems available, and Mac OS X shows that these are not restricted to the PC platform. In fact, we would expect that Mac OS X will tempt many users over to the Mac platform since it is proof that an OS and hardware combination can be robust, technically advanced and stylish all at the same time.

As we said from the start, it’s easy to get over-passionate about an OS, and while the currently available flavours of Windows may not be exactly perfect, they don’t crash as much as they used to and they offer the best breadth of hardware compatibility for the simple reason that hardware vendors normally see Microsoft customers as their target market, and so write drivers for this platform before any other.

Given the availability of some of the operating systems reviewed here, it’s worth trying some out. It’s perfectly legal to copy a Linux distribution from anyone since the software is under General Public Licence. Solaris 8 is available as a download if you have a fast enough connection, and BeOS will take about three to four hours on a 56Kbps modem connection.

As we’ve said, if users want to stick with Microsoft for hardware support, for familiar ease of use and so on, then Windows 2000 has to be the way forward until the next version, Windows XP is with us. Otherwise, we’d recommend three options, as follows.

First, the inquisitive approach; install BeOS. We believe BeOS has the ability to win hearts, with a great interface and an elegant, multimedia-oriented approach.

Second, the determined approach; install a Linux distribution such as Linux Mandrake. Some users may never look back, but it requires some time and effort.

Third, the radical approach; ditch the PC and buy a Mac in the summer, with Mac OS X installed. Now there’s a hardware upgrade that got out of hand…

Windows NT made a name for Microsoft in the corporate and business markets, and Windows 2000 is an extensive upgrade to this operating system. But besides offering a high level of stability, Windows 2000 provides features such as plug and play, USB, DirectX and better power management support. Consequently many games designed for Windows ME or 98 will also run quite nicely on Windows 2000, and it is ideal for laptops thanks to the new plug and play features.

Windows 2000 is a considerable OS, but compared to Windows NT, it’s easy to install and not at all daunting. Users with average abilities should experience little difficulty. The documentation supplied in the retail pack is more extensive than the pamphlet that comes with Windows ME and is easy to follow, albeit aimed at the more technical user.

There are two key issues with Windows 2000. Firstly, it is an expensive upgrade, and will often require more RAM to function satisfactorily. Our installation, with a few apps running such as anti-virus software, takes up a cool 110MB of RAM before any applications are loaded. Microsoft does say on the box that it will run in 32MB RAM, but we certainly wouldn’t recommend that. Given the current low price of RAM, there’s never been a better time to buy, but it all adds up.

An additional consideration is that users might wish to install Windows 2000 in a dual boot configuration to leave Windows 98 intact, and this will require extra disk space, possibly necessitating a hard disk upgrade as well.

The second problem with Windows 2000 is that it can and does still crash, despite having a more solid foundation than Windows ME. Compared with many UNIX variants, Windows 2000 is far from stable.

That said, Windows 2000 still represents a more stable and more professional operating system than Windows ME or Windows 98, and if users have invested in software such as Microsoft Office, it makes some sense to stay with Microsoft software. So if money is no object, Windows 2000 represents a solid choice for the desktop with a predictable future and excellent support from third party software vendors.

Sun is currently the number one server vendor in the US, but does not control the desktop market. Solaris is also traditionally an operating system that runs on Sun’s own hardware, just as Mac OS runs on Apple hardware. The question here is, can Solaris 8 cut it in such a competitive desktop operating system market?

Sun has obviously taken a leaf out of the Linux book. Solaris 8 may not be under General Public License, but it is available as a freely downloadable ‘personal’ operating system, and what’s more it runs on Intel hardware as well as Sparc, so users don’t need a Sun workstation to run it. However, when it comes to installation, Solaris 8 is text based and long-winded, in the way that Linux distributions used to be before simplified graphical installations brought them up to date.

Once installed, Solaris 8 boots directly into a graphical environment (CDE), but it’s fairly spartan in the default installation. For it to be useful, most users will want to download some extra software such as StarOffice, which is available from the Sun Web site. In the future, Sun plans to use the Gnome graphical environment that is currently available for Linux, and Linux programs compiled for the Intel platform will run on Solaris using a program called lxrun, so expect to see more commonality between Solaris and Linux in the future.

Nice though it is to see the renowned Solaris 8 available as a free download, it is more technically challenging than many Linux distributions on the market, and is perhaps best left to those with some prior experience of UNIX or those with a lot of time and patience.

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