Which Operating System is Best? Well, Depends…

Which Operating System is Best? Well, Depends...This series of posts started with the hope that I could provide a few simple tools to people to use in the everyday battle of making decisions. Decisions can range from simple ones like which socks to wear to whether to buy a house (or get married as someone did recently — congratulations to Diana and Chris!).

Many decisions are compounded by seemingly unrelated events. Today let us consider various operating systems. Selecting one is truly a more complex decision than simply buying a computer with the latest Windows version pre-installed — if you want the best, whatever that is.

A club I belong to has a monthly Q&A session where the conversation can range from esoteric to trivial. One member asked what seems like a simple question. He has an XP machine that apparently did not pass the Windows 7 compatibility test for some reason. He asked if he should scrap it and get a new one, or try to update his reliable, but aging beauty.

While I prepared to suggest he scrub the hard drive and install Linux, one of the other members suggested that he wait for Windows 8 to be released. The point of this suggestion was that Microsoft dearly wants to get its large enterprise customers to migrate upward from XP. Windows 7 (and Vista before it) has hurdles to the conversion that businesses have taken into account. Many decided staying with XP is more profitable (applied decision theory at work!) than upgrading. For that reason, he argued, Windows 8 will not be as restrictive in the demands it makes on the hardware, and maybe the older machine could be updated by skipping a couple of generations — wait and see.

Several people, including me, pointed out the difficulty of continuing to update XP in the present environment. Microsoft has stopping supporting it, and one must be careful of third party providers because you might get something extra — and undesired — with your update as I did recently when re-installing XP on a client’s computer.

So here is the conundrum: live with XP until life becomes unbearable; live with it until Windows 8 is released and see if it can be installed on the obsolete system; scrap or donate the old machine and buy a new one. A variation of the last option would be to buy a new computer with Windows on it and install Linux on the old one as a learning experience. Substituting Linux for Windows can work wonders, but there is no free lunch. He would have to invest some time to get the benefits. Is that best for him?

If you think about these options for a bit you will realize that we do not have enough information to make a decision. The various suggestions are all good and maybe even best under some conditions, but we need to know more. For instance, what is the member’s budget? If buying a new computer is trivial, that biases the decision one way. How computer literate is he? If he is totally uncomfortable with learning a new operating system (and I know people who thought the change from Vista to Windows 7 was too difficult!), then sticking with the old machine is favored at least for the time being.

For me, it would be a no-brainer. I have other computers around the house and office with several operating systems on them. I have no more difficulty going from one to another than a musician has changing instruments. So I would either install Linux and donate it or keep it as is and donate it. But it is unfair for me to expect an average person off the street to have the same background and familiarity with systems that I do (and I do not claim to be an expert — I am a self-taught guy who enjoys tinkering). The best solution for him is probably something else.

Note that none of the discussion so far considers which operating system is “best.” That is because, in this case, “best” is not a well-defined concept. I cannot say which alternative is best for the person asking the question. The most I can do is to lay out the rational alternatives and the various tradeoffs. Then a rational person could combine that input with his own preferences, budget, and other parameters to reach a better decision than I could impose on him — if he is willing to make the effort.

But, of course, that is not how it works. Most often a client will come to me and ask which computer is “best” to avoid making that mental effort of deciding. The client does not mean what is best for him or her, but just best, which assumes there is a best that is true for everyone. Now I have no interest in offending clients, so how should I respond? In general, I punt by asking more questions back. “What do you use your computer for? How much do you want to spend? Do you need the mobility of a laptop? Are you willing to invest some time becoming more computer literate?”

Sometimes they listen and think. Other times they interrupt and ask, “But which brand is best?” About that time, I throw up my hands and tell them to buy whatever is on sale and looks pretty. It does not really matter much which one because any will last long enough to become obsolete.

If you wonder why none of the answers to the question of what to buy was “Get an iPad,” look at this short video. You do not need to speak German to get the idea. The kids gave Dad an iPad. He likes it.

CC licensed Flickr photo of Commodore 64 screen shared by Phillie Casablanca.

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  • Joe Izzard

    Many would argue that this one is better than this one because…. and they wouldn’t even think about the other side. (I know, most of my friends hate Apple full stop, When I ask why they just say because it’s Apple.) This post doesn’t. It does consider all possibility’s. Good Job!

    • Sdeforest

       But I do not like Apple–only because of its price and locked garden mentality.  Other than that, it is wonderful.

      • Dvanraes

        This comment comes before me often being a Mac OS fan working in a windows world. They have a high up front cost which I won’t debate however the long term ownership tends to level the costs for me anyway. As for the walled garden, I’d argue that unless you are a developer this doesn’t mean much for most. All OS’s are fairly locked down, Linux less so but MS is just as bad. The ecosystems on all three platforms have their pluses and minuses. It then becomes a very important part of this process to evaluate what the user is actually wanting to do before credibly being able to answer them. What’s great for me is most often NOT great for someone else. if you are being sought out by friends and family for your expertise then I find it a disservice to hem to simply spew my preconceived notions and brand bias

  • Karl Entner

    Being a tech head myself. I The questions about which is better will always be out there on which Operating system is better. Whether its windows, Mac OSX, or Linux. It’ll depend on what you want to do with the machine itself. And how old the machine is as well. If the computer is old enough where it cannot use windows 7 as an example for a client. I would suggest something like Linux and help them get into using it. Myself I haven’t used OSX a lot over here. So I went and got a used Mac Mini to learn off of for OSX. Its a couple of generations old but it does the job that I need it to do to learn OSX. 

    • Sdeforest

       Good comments.  One more important parameter is the skill of the client–or state of computer literacy–and desired usage.

  • http://www.mstechpages.com/ Dustin Harper

    Better? That’s very relative. What’s better to game on? Still a tossup depending on what games. A lot of games are PC only. Mac has Steam, now, though. I’m a Windows guy, myself, but I’m sure for some people, a Windows PC is a POS, hard to use, can’t get anything done pile of dog crap. For me, Mac’s offer the basics. But, to be honest, I’ve never gone past the basics. I’m sure you can do a lot more with them, I’ve just never taken the chance to do it. For some (web servers) Linux is the best. I don’t mind IIS, but I’ve used Linux/BSD web servers for a long time. They fit the bill perfect for everything I need to do. My PC has Windows 7, which is the best OS for me. It’s familiar, has all the programs I want/need on it, easy to use yet powerful enough to let me make it do what I want it to do. So, my best OS is Windows. I have friends that can’t do anything on Windows and require a Mac to do any work. Their best is Mac OSX. Depends on the job for which OS (tool) you use.

  • Jonathan Wakeman

    This will help when I need to make a decisions.

    • Sdeforest

       Hope so.  Thanks

  • Sdeforest

     Exactly the right answer–depends.  Windows is certainly there, but Linux has charm.  I tend to avoid Apple things in general simply because they cost more, but I certainly do respect their products

  • Mark Squires

    It’s strange that there’s no mention of buying a second-hand PC or laptop, the price is usually half that of the cheapest Dell. A local PC shop would usually supply a 3 – 6 month warranty inclusive too.

    • Sdeforest

       Good point.  It should have come up, but I guess we just missed it.

  • ‘Tis Moi

     “One more important parameter is the skill of the client–or state of computer literacy–and desired usage.” …and there you have it.

    I serve a lot of older folks & basic home users and I can tell you that they don’t do much with their computers (compared to us geeky-sort).

    The basics are: email (generally only online, like hotmail, gmail, etc), web browsing with some banking/online shopping (though some are still hesitant), Skype, mini-editing and printing of photos, word processor & spreadsheets, some music listening, some games (like solitaire, etc- not WoW!)…Anyhow, all that to say~ XP’s capabilities would suit them perfectly until such a time as it is simply no longer supported or cannot run current software. After that?

    Linux. For these people there are many very nicely polished distributions with everything included to do all the above. So far, my favourite is Mint, because of included software & easy to use software/package management (not to mention great community support!). At this point, if MS goes forward with Metro, Linux will actually become the OS that the general population will see as recognizable & familiar. IMHO- thanks for the great article Sherman!


    • Sdeforest

       Thanks for the kind words.  Several people have mentioned Mint, and I have used it, but one only has so much time.  I have about a dozen DVDs with various distros of Linux.  For general purposes, I use Ubuntu, but Mint is great.  There is only so much time.

  • Thebig G Unit

    It’s kinda the same as the old playground arguments surrounding Commodore 64 and Spectrums or Amstrads. The best is what you know and what works best for you. Commodore was the best by the way, lol.

  • Arawyn Wallace

    I have an external HD 500GB that I use for backup. Can this drive be partitioed to give me both bootable Win7/Win8 and Linux? What would be the best version of Linux? (I do Zazzle. Squidoo and affiliate marketing.) I’ve been on the Information Super-Highway since it was a Goat-Track, but I fallen seriously behind.

  • http://arnabsdiary.com Arnab Das

    personally speaking, i’ve found that all OSes have specific uses. i for use use ubuntu on my pc as NAS. and my laptop runs windows. since all the work is done on the laptop i barely notice the limitations of ubuntu. also since ubuntu is currently one of the most secure OSes, it makes sense to make it a part of NAS.

    • Sdeforest

       I always use Ubuntu is public locations because of security concerns.  My laptop dual-boots

  • http://arnabsdiary.blogspot.com/ Arnab Das

    personally speaking, i’ve found that all OSes have specific uses. i for use use ubuntu on my pc as NAS. and my laptop runs windows. since all the work is done on the laptop i barely notice the limitations of ubuntu. also since ubuntu is currently one of the most secure OSes, it makes sense to make it a part of NAS.

  • Mayotta

    Amigia was the best for so many things right now I think pretty much all of them suck bad its just a matter of if I can use them with the suck.

  • Sdeforest

     Just because all of them are bad toes not mean one is not the best.

  • Sdeforest

     If you are not up on Linux, I suggest you look at their Windows installer.  This enables
    Ubuntu to do a sort of poor-man’s dual boot without worrying about partitions.  Then you can play with it until you decide if you want to go the true dual-boot route.

  • Sdeforest

     Well said,  my feelings exactly

  • frozen_dude

    After trying alot of OS’es, *I* found that for *my* needs, and which was most fun to use for *me*, was actually Gentoo Linux [http://www.gentoo.org/].
    Which most people who try it for the first time usually say that it is a nightmare to do anything in. And it also has *no* installer, you have to use text-commands to partition, copy over files, install a boot loader, configure a kernel, and edit a lot of files in /etc, all manually.
    NOT something I would install on someone elses computer and support, unless they would correctly answer some questions about Linux internals.

  • frozen_dude

    Well, yes you can install Linux *natively* (non-live) on an external USB-drive, and boot from it, provided that your Linux distributions installer supports installing to it, and your BIOS supports booting from it.

    Windows 2000 and up has never supported loading fully from an external source (not counting network boot like iSCSI), I have read that you can boot a modified Windows 98 or earlier, as long as you get DOS to boot and load USB-drivers. All tricks to get later Windows versions to boot from USB or CD uses the special preboot environment windows has, in that environment you cannot use most programs, so Firefox, Opera, and I belive no version of IE will run either, and anything using .NET or Java is also a no-no in that environment.

    When it comes to choosing which Linux to try for a new user, I usually tell people to try; Ubuntu, Fedora, and openSUSE, in that order and see if any one of those “stick”.

    Hope it helps!

  • M. Allen West / maw88ify

    He says every OS sucks, but everyone knows that he trys to push Mac. I like ALL OSes I like Windows because it has MORE Software , and Games that I use. I like most Linux distributions because they have freedom of custimization , and the best desktop effect . I like BSD, and Linux because the are secure . I like Mac OS because it feel like Linux/BSD, but it has some ” commercial software” … Why I also Hate Mac OS is because it is locked down to Apple hardware . That’s why I have a Hackintosh.

  • http://chris.pirillo.com/ Chris Pirillo

    Windows doesn’t have more software anymore. What, do you think this is 1994?

  • Curtis Coburn

    I like Windows. I’ve tried Ubuntu. I feel as if they over complicate things. I have OS X. I like it. Not better than Windows, because I like the freedom with windows. That’s just my opinion.

  • bean rada

    what is OS for PC is famous 2014?

  • http://stevenwb.postach.io/ swbuehler

    I always tell people who ask me, to buy at least little more than you think you need because you’ll inevitably need (or want) it.