What is an operating system?
An operating system (often referred to as an OS) is a set of very low level programs that directly control your computer’s hardware - from memory chips and hard disks to speakers, monitors, keyboards, mice and any other kind of peripherals you can plug in.
What are the most common OS installed on computers?
There are various operating systems made for all kind of devices. We will talk about the most common ones - Windows, macOS, Linux.
Microsoft Windows is currently the most popular and widely used desktop operating system. According to StatCounter.com, Windows is used by 74% of desktop users (as of February-March 2019). This OS is most likely what you are going to have preinstalled on your laptop or any kind of prebuilt computer. The current version is Windows 10, and the oldest supported version is Windows 7.
- Popularity leads to a big third-party software collection
- Easy-to-use UI familiar to most people (common concepts haven’t really changed since Windows 95)
- Rich support for third-party hardware
- Good for enterprise environment (active directory, group policies and management accounts)
- Long term support, (at the time of writing this article in March 2019, Microsoft still supports Windows 7 released July 2009, pretty much 10 years ago) which means you don’t often have to do a major OS upgrade to use latest software and technologies.
- Paid. Windows is not a free OS, and even if you got it with your computer, you paid some amount of money to Microsoft via the computer manufacturer.
- Proprietary and overall closeness. Being a closed ecosystem means people are not entirely able to know what does the OS really does with your computer. This also means security professionals and programmers are not easily able to find and report bugs and security flaws.
- Malware. It is generally much easier to catch malware while using Windows than on any other OS
macOS is an operating system made by Apple for their Mac computers. According to the same source, it’s the second most popular desktop OS with 13% market share. Latest current release is 10.14 “Mojave”, oldest supported version is 10.12 “Sierra”
- UI/UX. Apple always pays special attention to the UI/UX design of their products so all system apps and most first-party software share a consistent UI design, therefore looking organic and complete.
- Apple ecosystem integration. MacOS supports most internet services from Apple (iCloud, iMessage, Siri, iTunes, Apple Music etc) and hardware (native support for all iDevices), making it work really well with all other Apple devices you own.
- Has a lot of professional grade software for content creation (video/audio/graphic editors, wide support for various cameras, microphones and musical instruments).
- Unix-like. MacOS is based on a BSD kernel which is Unix-like, therefore giving programmers a big set of possibilities to use software developed for other Unix-like systems, as well as providing them with a familiar command-line terminal interface.
- Can officially be used only on Apple computers.
- Proprietary and closed. Same as Windows.
- Has a lot of limitations (most of which can be overridden though)
- Has a smaller application library than Windows
- As a result of being exclusive to Mac, doesn’t have very much users so software developers (especially game studios) are less interested in the platform.
Well, to be honest, Linux is not exactly an OS. It’s an OS kernel - a tiny subset of an OS that does most basic operations, so what we are going to talk about here is an average Linux distro - a packaging of a big amount of software built on top of the Linux kernel that is enough to provide a user with desktop experience. Main desktop Linux distributions are Ubuntu (and derivatives), Red Hat (most remarkably Fedora), and Arch Linux. In the desktop OS market, Linux doesn’t really have a big share, but it dominates on the market of servers (most websites run on Linux servers), embedded devices (Smart TVs, multimedia players etc.) and mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, smartwatches).
- Free. Linux is open-source, as well as most of the software for it, meaning you can download and use it for free, legally .
- Unix-like OS. Same as with MacOS, Linux provides you with a Unix-like shell interface to use command-line utilities making it very popular among programmers and other people in computer sciences.
- Really big space for customization. Unlike most other OSes, on Linux OSes the GUI is just a set of programs (desktop environment, window manager etc) which can be easily replaced with the user’s preferences as well as most of DEs have heavy customization abilities.
- Open-source. Unlike Windows and macOS, anyone can access the code of most components of the OS therefore can find and report (or even propose a fix) for issues which makes the system more secure and transparent.
- Low hardware requirements. You may have heard about “an ancient computer revived and doing today’s tasks with the help of Linux”. There are a lot of distributions designed specifically for old and low-end machines yet still feature the modern technology and support the latest software.
- Good generic software support so the user in most cases doesn’t have to install any drivers for their computer to use all the features.
- Software support.
- The main reason most enterprise users don’t switch to Linux is because most enterprise grade software is for Windows only.
- Despite most software having an open-source alternative, the alternative often can’t provide all functions of the proprietary app, or is overall limited in any other way. This can be sometimes overridden using Wine or a virtual machine but sometimes even that fails.
- Most games do not support the platform. Although most games can be played using various compatibility layers, it is definitely not the choice for an avid gamer.
Can I change my computer operating system?
You can choose to use a different OS on your computer. To do so, you just need to get ahold of installation media for the chosen OS and install it. You can look up how to do that online.
Your smartphone is also technically a computer - so it also runs an operating system. Although there is not as much mobile OSes as for desktop there still are a few choices available, mostly being Android, iOS, Windows Phone
Android is the most popular mobile OS at this moment. According to StatCounter.com’s Mobile Market Share, it is currently used by 74% mobile users. You get it with pretty much all mobile phones (except iPhone and Microsoft/Nokia Lumia phones) and most tablets. It was made based on Linux kernel by Google in 2008 as a competition to Apple’s iPhone OS. The latest version is Android 9 “Pie”.
- Free and open source meaning any manufacturer can use it
- Common for all devices so apps released for Android, unless it uses some specific hardware of little device range, will behave in a similar way on various devices.
- Gives user a big space for customization
- Has lots of freedom
- As the OS is available for all kinds of devices it is, hard for developers to optimize their software to run good on all variety of hardware.
- Open nature leads to minor and overall reduced system security.
iOS (known as iPhone OS before versions 4.x) is an OS made by Apple back in 2007 for the first iPhone. It is internally MacOS with a different UI shell. It is the second most popular mobile OS after Android with about 23% mobile market share. Latest version is iOS 12.
- Tight integration with Apple services
- High level of end user’s security with a locked down proprietary bootloader and closed OS
- Clean and intuitive UI/UX design
- Closed source OS
- Only available for Apple devices
- Has lots of limitations
Windows Phone was a mobile operating system from Microsoft used on Nokia Lumia and Microsoft branded phones and eventually licensed to other manufacturers, like Samsung and HTC. On the 24th January 2018, Microsoft announced that they stopped the development of the platform and will stop support in December 2019.
Can I change the OS on my mobile device?
Yes, you can. It’s tricky but some workarounds help you boot on a different OS (e.g. SailfishOS, postmarketOS) even though they don’t support all devices and are often unstable.