Which OS is Best? That is a Trick Question

Which OS is Best? That is a Trick QuestionHow do we decide which operating system is best? That is a trick question. I do not think anyone actually makes such a decision — at least not based strictly on ease of computing. After all, many parameters go into deciding what is best. And strange to say, we often are not aware of just what it is that we are optimizing when we choose the “best” OS for our own use.

For simplicity, consider only the choice between the latest Windows OS, the latest Apple OS, and the latest Linux distro. Which is best? Well, all of them are. It just depends. The vast majority of my clients and friends use Windows, so if I am to help them with any problems they might have, then Windows is obviously the best OS for me to know and have more than average expertise in. I might prefer to use Linux for my own purposes, but that does not help me service my clients. For business and tutoring, Windows is the best OS for me.

If I want to have a cool system, then Apple wins hands down. Say what you want about Apple products, but they are cool. How does the company do it? Everything it turns out is cool. If I were not averse to paying an Apple premium for a cool, jewel-like laptop, I would likely convert. If I were a professional graphics artist, I would convert, not because Apple is better at graphics (although it might be), but because that is what most professionals use and my clients would expect me to fit into that mold regardless of any functional difference between Apple and anything else. Without further consideration, Apple is best for graphics artists to use simply because others in the profession use it. There might be good reasons why that trend started in the first place, but if you are a budding artist, I would advise not spending a lot of time shopping for the best OS — just go with the latest from Apple. You can consider alternatives after you have established yourself.

So why do I like Linux the best? Maybe because it is free in both senses: “free” as in free beer, and “free” as in free speech. From a standing start, you can access a number of sites and download a complete OS, probably with a free office suite, and be surfing within minutes. If you do not like some aspect of the distro you downloaded, with some effort and training, you can probably modify it. Try that with Apple. That is what I mean by “free” as in free speech. The distros have evolved quickly and morphed from something only committed enthusiasts raved about to systems that are intuitive and easy to use. That does not mean I hate Microsoft products. They are great. I see no reason to throw stones just because Microsoft is the biggest. But for fun and learning, I value the ability to be able to get into the “works” of an OS even if I never do go beyond normal usage.

None of these considerations tell me the functionality of the various operating systems. Assume all of them have about the same functionality that meets your minimum standards of performance. These considerations of which OS is best indicates preferences, not functionality, and the point is that if an operating system meets certain minimum expectations of functionality, then other considerations determine whether it is “best” for that person or that application.

Which is best? Some years ago I read an interview that had been done with Hershey, of chocolate fame. He was asked by a snarky reporter what he thought of the competition from the “better” chocolates from Belgium. Hershey thought a moment and then answered, “In many ways, the chocolate that sells the most is the best.” (At least that is how I remember it.) This answer contains many grains of truth. Bill Gates might well say, “The best operating system is the one that sells the most.”

But chocolate from Belgium and Apple and even Linux still compete against the leaders, and so some people must think they are better than the alternatives. Chocolate and operating systems are judged on several variables and different people weigh these variables differently. Therefore it is not surprising they come up with different choices.

Some applications put unexpected requirements on the best operating system. What do you use an OS for? If you are a large corporation with a lot of money tied up in servers running XP, were you willing to upgrade when Vista came out? How about when Windows 7 came out? Would you wait for Windows 8? I know some people who bought servers and paid extra to have them downgraded to XP. If you think Windows 7 is better, downgrading makes no sense at all, but it made sense to them because the new computers were to become part of an existing system, and likely they would be obsolete before the OS became useless.

So when a client asks me which computer is best to buy, unless they have special needs, I suggest they look at name brand PCs running the latest Windows. But when I am given — or find — an older computer with XP or even an earlier OS on it, I have no problem re-formatting the HD and installing Linux to make a gift for someone who cannot afford more power. An older computer running Ubuntu with Skype can enable loved ones to communicate and share when thousands of miles away — like if one of them is in the military.

That being said, my son and his family are committed to Apples of various types and my grandchildren benefit greatly from their experiences with iPads. One wonders about their world view. As qwerty begins to fade as the primary input mechanism, what will be the future answer to “Which is the best operating system?” I doubt that Windows 8 will be the unanimous response.

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  • RaterKey

    Absolutely it is a very personal thing, totally dependant on the user and the intended use for the machine in question.

    For some of my work Windows is almost essential, but that’s because I am tied down to .NET and Microsoft development tools. But I also use Linux for work. Right now the Windows and Linux combo gives me everything I need.

    I wouldn’t say Apple hardware is necessarily cool, cool may not be the right word… Mmmm… You simply know what you get with Apple and it is a certain level of quality with a slick inoffensive look. What I usually tell people is that Apple is the most headache free route for most users. Not that Windows is too much of a headache, but Apple will always win because the tight grip Apple has over the whole ecosystem.

    But you do get reduced choice when going Apple, and it may sound silly to the average Windows user, but this can be good for most users. Do you want portability or a larger laptop? With Apple the choice is simple, just choose between a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro, two ranges and 5 laptops in total with just a handful of customisation options. With other manufacturers you have a whole variety of product ranges targeting all sorts of consumers, this is confusing to the average buyer. To give you an example Dell has several small, medium, and big laptops in the following ranges: Latitude, Vostro, XPS, Precision, and Alienware. That’s what? 30 or so laptops to choose from? All with various customisation options, all the way from the obvious like memory, and CPUs down to what Windows avatar you wish it to come pre-installed with. Not an easy endeavour! Choice can be a curse.

    But to some it can be a huge benefit as there are things that Apple quite simply doesn’t offer. No rugged laptops, no true mobile workstations, etc…

    One small final point, you write “If you are a large corporation with a lot of money tied up in servers running XP ” and then you talk about people downgrading their servers to XP. What are they doing with XP on server? Most corporations and small companies that I know running older versions of Windows on server are running Windows 2003 Server. 

    • Sdeforest

       Great comments.  I know of some XP servers.  I do not know the world of servers.  I suspect Linux is increasing its market share.

  • http://twitter.com/fixgadget GadgetFix

    Day to day operations I would recommend Windows hands down. It will be impossible to shake off the days of BSOD’s in Windows 95/98, and the tales of CTRL+ALT+Delete restarts, fragmentation and exception errors. I get it, I think everyone else does. I’m not a fanboy but I have to deal with this stuff being in the IT field. For starters you will find hundreds of apps and lets face it its more than likely you will come across a Windows machine more than you will a Mac in terms of interoperability. Even producers tend to have Mac’s set to dual boot into Windows 7 or XP just to access software that is needed.

    Just as RaterKey pointed out if you’re a producer, graphics artist, minimalist or just like an effortless experience OSX is perfect. It doesn’t come without its own can of worms but I assure you that they are easier to deal with. That is the difference between closed and open architecture, OSX only has to work with a specific set of processors and hardware, PC/Windows/Linux has to work with pretty much everything. If something inside doesn’t play nice, is non-standard; custom or a beta you’ll run into problems on any of the platforms.

    I can’t really seem to find anything negative to say about OSX other than you need an Apple branded computer to enjoy the OSX experience.  It is a pleasant experience and you get what you pay for.

    As for the powerful underdog Linux/FreeBSD it has its place but I’m not sure if its on the desktop (yet). Ubuntu/Suse and many other distributions have contributed to make it a pleasurable experience but at the end I see it more of a teaching tool for people who really want to delve into technology. Its not really fun having to compile your own drivers, or find a solution to problems with little or no documentation sometimes. While rare I’ve seen it in my field of work, and certain solutions have been scrapped after a hefty investment simply because support for product A is now too pricey; and product B for Windows or equivalent is now free.

    This is up for you to debate.

    I personally have used Linux as a desktop operating system and found that often times its more work than its worth. Finding programs to substitute for Windows equivalents or workarounds lead to using Wine and virtual machines. The same can be said about the OSX experience. In then end you are back full circle to Windows.

    Personally if you want to have a ‘complete’ computing experience get a desktop Mac, run OSX and have a copy of VMWare Fusion or Parallels with Windows XP or 7. Then there is pretty much no gap and you the best of both worlds.

    I should also mention you can run X11 and certain Linux apps natively on OSX so a full distro would not be needed.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/VLZC6PJOL4DY5BBTTK5DVBFGOQ Cecile

      what Troy implied I’m amazed that any one able to get paid $77/hour on the computer. did you look at this web page CashLazy.c&#111m

    • Sdeforest

       Another great comment.  Speaking of wine, I avoid it–dual booting to get the best of both worlds is a better solution for me.  And maybe that is part of the answer.  Good music arrangers do not argue over which instrument is best because that is not defined.  They use the instrument that communicates what they are trying to say.  Musicians usually play a variety of instruments.  Why should computing be any different?

      • http://twitter.com/fixgadget GadgetFix

        I agree.

  • Bo

    since I do Cad and Cam, the choice is Windows. I am trying  my cad stuff on W8 beta and it seems to work great.

    • Sdeforest

       I like Windows 8 and think it will likely be a winner, but we will see.

  • http://twitter.com/djmoore711 D. J.

    Yeah man, explain to me what an XP server is? I’ve heard of Server 2003 and 2008, but not XP.

  • http://twitter.com/djmoore711 D. J.

    Yeah man, explain to me what an XP server is? I’ve heard of Server 2003 and 2008, but not XP.

    • Sdeforest

       You are right in that I should have used 2003 etc., but in fact, I have seen examples of various OS running on servers.  Still, you are right.

  • Dragmatrix

    Good article.  Nice read! Thnx for postin!

  • RaterKey

    Thanks for clearing that up Sdeforest.

    Server hardware would run XP, no problem there. But you would be putting yourself at a disadvantage if you intend to use it as a server.

    There are many reasons why, but let me just pick one example to illustrate. Suppose the intended use for the server is hosting ASP.NET applications. So you install XP and use IIS as your Web server. On XP IIS come preconfigured to allow no more than 10 concurrent connections, this can be upped to 40 but no more! On Windows 2003 Server the number of connections is limited by resources not a coded maximum. So if you needed thousands and thousands of connections you could have then as long as you have the resources to handle them.

  • http://twitter.com/Kenny_Larson Kenny Larson

    Went from windows to hardcore apple fan and back to windows. Now that I’ve mellowed out on my favorites, all of them have their perks and downfalls. I’m on windows now because the programs I want to run do not have linux counterparts and I don’t have the HD space to dualboot. As soon as I get around to it, I’m pulling out my dvd drive, popping in an extra hd and I’ll duel boot win 7 and kubuntu.

  • http://blog.nordquist.org Brett Nordquist

    Not sure what I’d say the “best” OS is. But the most important and influential is iOS by a wide margin. 

  • http://twitter.com/mkimitch Mark Kimitch

    The best OS has yet to be made.

  • BigGuyWhoKills

    The best OS is the one that best suits your needs.  For myself (a gamer), it is Windows 7 (dual booted to Ubuntu).  For my parents, who are nearly computer illiterate (and who’s tech support I am responsible for), it is Linux Mint.  For people that like beautiful hardware, it may be MacOS.

  • Jurando

    I’ve started using Fedora 17 less than a month ago (to be released sometime in May) and am enjoying it very much. While there isn’t as big a “common-user” community around it as with Ubuntu, it seems a lot more stable and less hackety than Ubuntu (so more like Debian in that regard).