Showdown at the OS Corral
The question of what’s the best operating system has been rolling around since, well… since there was more than one operating system. I won’t bore you with ancient computer nerd history, but I will speed up the timeline and remind you of the Mac vs PC ads of the early 2000s:
Still fun to watch.
These days, Windows and Mac OS still rule the world of mainstream computing. Huh, that’s funny. It’s almost like there are really only two political parties in the U.S. and — okay never mind. Moving on.
Over the years, I have seen some heated battles over which operating system is the best. Internet forums suddenly turn into Westerns, with Windows die-hards and Apple fans squaring off in the center of town, hands poised over their holsters, ready to fire. I’m going to play the part of the Sheriff who steps into the middle of the showdown and tells everyone to go home, because hasn’t there been enough bloodshed already?
The truth is that the best operating system is the one that’s best for you. If that sounds like a chickenshit non-answer, please bear with me. I promise I’ll explain.
I’m also going to propose that there aren’t only two choices. There’s a third choice, and while it has a tiny sliver of the OS market it’s still valid. These days, you actually have three choices of operating systems to use:
- Mac OS
I’m going to walk you through the pros and cons of all three, and hopefully help you make a decision on which one is best for you. Grab yourself a sarsaparilla and let’s get to it!
Windows is still the most widely-used OS in the world. Most offices and educational institutions today still run on Windows. Why is that? The simple reason is that it’s just familiar to most people who have ever worked in an office. It’s easier to get support for Windows because it’s so common. It’s also easier for IT to manage a bunch of Windows PCs than it would be if everyone used something different. It’s like driving a Honda versus a BMW. Just about any mechanic can fix your Honda, but you’ll probably have to take your Beemer to a specialist — and it will be more expensive.
That’s the office, but what about at home? Windows can be a good choice for users who like to handpick their laptop or desktop. It can run on any PC, so you have a much bigger choice in the computer you use.
There’s also the comfort in using software like Microsoft Office that so many others are using. You don’t have to reformat your Word doc or PowerPoint for another Windows user, but sending it to someone on a Mac can make it look awful.
Windows is also great for gamers. Most gaming platforms like Steam are made for Windows first, then adapted for other operating systems. Some games won’t run on anything but Windows without a lot of noodling around that most people don’t want to do.
If there’s one complaint I’ve both heard and experienced since the 1990s, it’s the dreaded Windows update. Thankfully, the latest versions, Windows 10 and 11, don’t stop you while you’re trying to boot up — that was a nightmare for many years. Still, when Windows updates in the background — which is frequently — it can drastically slow down your game or work.
Security can be a big issue when you run Windows. Partially this is because it’s so ubiquitous that it’s easier for hackers to write malware for it. The other issue is that malware can make changes to your system without you even knowing about it.
Let’s talk about privacy. Like most of the big tech companies today, Microsoft wants to collect as much info as possible about you. It’s not to steal your identity, they just want an easy way to sell you more stuff. In Windows 11, there are multiple settings to disable in order to keep your private information from being collected. The worst is the setting that collects your keystrokes (!) and sends the data to Microsoft — ostensibly so they can improve their products. It’s enabled by default and you would never know it existed unless someone besides Microsoft told you about it (you’re welcome).
If you can fine tune the privacy settings, make sure you’re implementing the best security practices, and adjust your update schedule to times when you’re not working, then Windows could be a great choice for you.
It’s impossible to talk about Mac OS without talking about hardware. That’s because Mac OS only runs on Apple devices. Unlike Windows, you don’t have your pick of whatever computer you like the most — by default it has to be a Mac. That said, Apple makes some of the most powerful and well-designed computers on the market today. The new M2 processors make everything you do run super fast.
If you’re coming from Windows, working in Mac OS can take a little orientation time. But once you’re acclimated, you’ll probably feel like something’s missing — in a good way. For example, it’s easy to find system preferences with only a couple of clicks. You don’t have to go hunting for settings or use the search bar to find what you need. The interface is clean and intuitive. There are also features that make it easy to sync up with your iPhone and Apple watch, if you use those devices.
Security is built in to the system. It’s very difficult (not impossible) to get a virus using Mac OS. In fact, if you try to install new software that doesn’t come from the Apple app store, you’ll get warnings and will have to enter your password to approve the installation. For that reason it’s harder for hackers to sneak malware past you.
The flip side of that security is the challenge of installing software that isn’t from the app store. There can be several security hoops to jump through. In fact, with some apps you even need to go into your computer’s BIOS and change settings there and then restart. If that sentence made your eyes glaze over, then imagine what a pain the actual process can be.
Every time Apple updates its OS, they throw in even more cool features like Handoff and FaceTime picture-in-picture. That’s nice, but what also happens is that in just a few years your computer can become obsolete, not being able to upgrade to the next level. If you love being on the cutting edge and buying a new system fairly often, then it won’t a problem for you. If you like to invest in a computer for the long term and have the ability to install more RAM or a bigger hard drive later on, then you’ll be disappointed.
If you like things to “just work” out of the box and you’re already in the Apple ecosystem with an iPhone or Apple watch, then Mac OS might be perfect for you.
Linux is the hardest choice to talk about. Not because it’s not a good option, but because there are so many versions of Linux that I can’t fit every experience into this article. Linux isn’t an operating system all by itself, rather, there are many flavors — or distros — of Linux where each one is a little different from the others. Some people even switch distros frequently just to try out new ones, called distro-hopping. Which is pretty cool when you think about it.
The good news is that all of these different flavors of Linux are free. You can try as many different ones as you like and never have to buy anything. The most popular distro and the one that I would recommend for someone new to Linux is Ubuntu. If you’re familiar with Windows, it won’t take long to get acclimated to the new desktop environment.
Linux runs on any PC or Mac (made before the M1 chip). Like with Windows, you can choose the laptop or desktop that’s best for you, or even install it on your existing computer. Most distros let you try it out on your machine before installing it, and you can even install it alongside your current OS so you can use both.
Linux is typically more secure than Windows or Mac OS because most hackers don’t bother to write malware for it (although it does exist). There are so many distros and such a small percentage of users compared to the others that it’s not worth the time. Aside from that, most distros come with built-in or easily installed firewall and virus protection software.
Privacy is also much better with Linux. The only distro I currently know of that asks for any private info is Ubuntu — and they ask you during installation so you can say no before you even get started. In the Linux and open source world, privacy is taken very seriously. Since no one is trying to sell you anything, there’s no reason to collect your data for future marketing purposes.
The hurdle for a lot of people in using Linux is the learning curve. While the latest version of Ubuntu Desktop is very user-friendly and intuitive, Linux can be finicky with some hardware. In some cases you may have to find drivers to get your wi-fi card working, for example. If you’re not tech-savvy, that can be a challenge. There are support forums, and people in the Linux community tend to be very helpful, but there’s no customer service number or Genius bar. You’re on you’re own.
Do you use Adobe software? You can forget it with Linux. Adobe doesn’t make apps for Linux (yet). You can find alternatives which can be just as powerful, but you’ll have to learn how to use them. The great thing is that most of the software you can find for Linux is free. In fact, I can’t think of anything I use that cost me any money. Many of the apps you probably use are available in Linux, like:
- Chrome (Chromium)
There are even apps like Open Office, which is almost exactly like using Microsoft Office. But you will have to do some digging sometimes and get familiar with how to download and install software for Linux.
If you love privacy, flexibility, and customizing your computer— and don’t mind a learning curve — then Linux is probably for you.
Which OS do I use?
All of them. But that’s because I’m a nerd — and I have to help clients who are using all kinds of machines and operating systems. I have a shelf full of PC and Mac laptops, but my every day computer and OS is Linux-based. My laptop is from System76 and the distro I use the most is Pop! OS, which is based on Ubuntu.
We’ve come around full circle to the question, which OS is best? Hopefully my answer, “The best one for you,” has a lot more depth to it now. If not, or you have questions about any of the OS’s I’ve talked about here, let me know in the comments or get in touch.