Categorized | Operating System

Hardware and Software 3.5. Operating System

There are three major operating systems you can choose from; your choice will affect the range and quality of applications available to you, the security and stability of your computer, and your computer’s overall performance.

  • Windows—the most widely used operating system offering the widest range of applications; Windows is also the most vulnerable to viruses and other malicious programs and Vista security problems are very well known to the hacker community; the current version, Vista, severely degrades performance unless you have hardware specifically built to handle the operating system. Windows can be installed on almost any machine including the new lines of Macintoshes.
  • OSX—the operating system available on Macintosh computers representing about 6% of operating systems in use—because of this, only a very small range of applications are available; OSX is relatively free from malicious software (which doesn’t mean it’s secure—it just means that people don’t write malicious code for OSX); performance is very high but the system only functions on Macintosh computers, which can only be purchased at a significant price premium.
  • UNIX/Linux—UNIX is a system designed to allow many users to access the same computer at the same time. Linux is an open-source version of UNIX that is increasingly used by businesses large and small to run enterprise-wide computers as well as personal computers. Linux has a significant following among PC users, but does not offer the range and variety of applications found in Windows. Because it is open source, the developer community closes security leaks fairly rapidly. Linux is a high-performance system and can be installed on almost any PC, including Macintoshes.

3.5.1. Windows Vista

Microsoft Windows is a family of operating systems that can run on several types of machines such as servers, embedded devices and, of course, on your personal computer. Chances are, if you buy a desktop or laptop, it will come with the Windows operating system already installed and running.

Microsoft first introduced Windows in 1985 as an add-on to their basic operating system, MS-DOS, in response to the growing popularity of Apple Macintosh’s graphical user interface (GUI). By 2004, however, Windows had approximately 90% of the PC market. As a result of this market dominance, the Windows system enjoys the widest possible range of third-party software solutions. For most applications you need, you will probably find dozens of alternatives, including the largest range of open source and free software solutions. For competing systems, like Linux or OSX, you may only find a couple alternatives and precious few free ones.

The popularity of the system, however, has made it vulnerable. There is an active community of malicious software writers and the numerous security holes in the system are very well known. Running Windows means being constantly on the look-out for viruses, Trojan horses, spyware, adware, and other malicious code designed to break, degrade, use, or pry into your computer and files.

As of January 30, 2007, the current version of Windows is Vista, which represents a radical new version of the operating system. It is much larger and more complex and so requires fairly powerful hardware. Installing Vista on an older computer will probably not be a very joyful endeavor.

The most significant change is a radical rethinking of the GUI and a sleek new look called Aero, modeled after the Macintosh OSX (3.3.2). Vista also includes much more robust search features (making it easier for you to find files on your own and others’ computers), new multimedia tools, and much more powerful peer-to-peer networking tools. The new operating system also includes version 3.0 of the .NET framework making it easier for software developers to create applications for the system.

Microsoft, however, claims that the biggest improvement in their operating system in the realm of security. The former operating system, Windows XP, was famous for its numerous security holes; Microsoft released Vista as a much more robustly secure system. These security enhancements include a User Account Control, enhanced security for Internet Explorer 7, and built-in anti-spyware software.

Windows Vista comes in six editions; these editions target either personal or business consumers of various types.

  • Windows Vista Home Basic—targeted to budget home users with few application and system needs ($199 full; $100 upgrade)
  • Windows Vista Home Premium—for the bulk of home users ($239 full; $159 upgrade)
  • Windows Vista Business—intended for small and medium businesses who need a rich feature set ($299 full; $199 upgrade)
  • Windows Vista Enterprise—for large corporations that require a full set of networking and security features (volume licensing only)
  • Windows Vista Ultimate—Vista with all of its features and primarily directed at power users ($399 full; $259 upgrade)

3.5.2. OSX

Macintosh, and its operating system, OSX, is the computer of choice among graphic designers, desktop publishers, video editors, motion graphics artists, and some audio engineers and music recording artists. The system represents somewhere around 6% of desktop and laptop computers (depending on who’s doing the counting) and has several advantages over Windows:

  • Stability—the system just simply doesn’t crash as much as Windows. In addition, performance doesn’t degrade as quickly as it does when you keep a Windows computer running for several hours.
  • Security—OSX is a more secure system and has the added benefit that there are few if any folks out there writing malicious code.
  • Usability—the Macintosh interface, Aqua, is considerably easier and sleeker to use than Windows, although Windows Vista Aero largely imitates the look and feel of Aqua.
  • Searchability—the OSX search feature is faster and much more robust than even that in Vista.
  • Applications—in certain application areas, such as graphics, video editing, and motion graphics, the range of applications and features available for the computer simply outmatch anything you can find in Windows. Certain applications, like the non-linear video editor, Final Cut Pro, are best-in-class and only available on Macintosh. Even some general applications, like the Internet browser, Safari, are superior to anything you can find for Windows but are only available for OSX.
  • Windows and Linux compatibility—OSX has always made it easy to include a Linux operating system alongside the OSX system. The newest Macintoshes have Intel processors that will run Windows Vista as well as just about any PC. Macintoshes, then, are the only computer where you could realistically run all three major operating systems.

On the other hand, OSX has a few significant downsides:

  • Price—OSX runs only on Macintosh computers which run at a very, very significant price premium over PCs. You could easily purchase an equivalent PC for as much as $1,000 less than the equivalent Macintosh. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
  • Application range—while OSX does have the range of applications you will find on a PC (word processors, spreadsheets, databases, email, graphics editors, etc.), you have far fewer alternatives to choose from within this application range. Most significantly, you do not have the rich resources of freeware, shareware, and open source software that you can leverage to create a robust set of productivity tools at little or no cost.

3.5.3. Linux

Linux (also known as GNU/Linux) is a Unix-like computer operating system that is completely open source. Unlike Windows or OSX, the underlying source code is free for anyone to use, modify, or redistribute. However, although you can download Linux for free, you can also purchase versions that have extra feature sets produced by Linux companies, such as Red Hat.

Linux comes in several “distributions.” No small part of moving to Linux is deciding which distribution to install. Each version of Linux is slightly different in installation requirements, price (yeah, free software that costs money), features, and support. The two most widely used distributions are commercial versions by Red Hat and Mandrake. The Debian distribution is pure open source, that is, there are no commercial features, and represents the “standard” for Linux systems.

Although UNIX—and, by extension, Linux—was intended for multi-user computers, such as mainframes, Linux is becoming increasingly popular on desktops and laptops. Not only is the price right (free or close to it), but the system is also considerably more stable (fewer crashes), more secure, and much more configurable and customizable than Windows or OSX.

You may not know it, but you probably have some device running Linux in your home. Because of its low cost and high configurability, it is the operating system of choice for cell phones, PDAs, TiVo, and game boxes like the Sony PlayStation 3.

Okay, so you have Linux-based devices in your home. Is that any reason to run Linux on your desktop? I like my TiVo during March madness, but is that any reason to pull my hair out trying to learn a new system? Considering that, unless you assemble your computer from scratch, you’ve already purchased the Windows or OSX operating system with your computer, the fact that Linux is free is not a compelling reason to dump a system you’ve already paid for. Although Linux is installed in about 3% of personal computers, Linux users tend to be more technologically savvy and like to fiddle with the system’s innards. If you’re not a geek or a hacker, should you move to Linux?

Well, chances are, you won’t. If you buy a computer with Windows, what the hey! Go ahead and use Windows! If you’re only running a personal computer or laptop, it’s probably not worth tossing your current system. However, if you’re running a server either internally or serving up Web pages, there’s no question. Linux is the operating system of choice. That’s how you answer the question. Desktop: stick with the system that came with the computer. Server: you’re way, way, way better off running Linux. And if you’re running a server, you’re probably smart enough to do the Linux install and run the system. Or you better be real fast.

If you’re not a power user and you’re still considering Linux, here are the pros and cons.


  • Stability—by far the strongest argument for running a Linux system is its stability. If you’re accustomed to regular crashes in your Windows or OSX system, you’d be amazed that you can run your Linux computer for weeks on end and barely see any degraded performance, let alone crashes. If your computer in any way is functioning as a server, Linux is the only way to go because of the increased uptime.
  • Speed—you are probably used to waiting around in Windows and, to a lesser degree, in OSX. Linux machines run way, way faster so you spend more of your time working rather than waiting at your computer.
  • Security—everything you hear about this bad virus or that evil spyware program does not apply to Linux. Nope. Perfectly safe.
  • Ease of use—with the GNOME GUI interface a standard part of most distributions, Linux is as easy to use as Windows or OSX. Just not as slick.
  • Ease of installation—all the major distributions, particularly Red Hat and Mandrake, are as easy to install as Windows or OSX. Just without all the licensing crap to go through.
  • Applications—all the major general applications, like spreadsheets, word processors, graphic editors, desktop publishers, and browsers, have Linux equivalents.


  • Application range—you just do not have the application alternatives that you have for Windows or even OSX. Many specialized application sets do not have Linux alternatives.

Automation and integration—much of the Windows and OSX environment allows for tight integration between applications and the automating of many tasks. This automation and integration greatly improves productivity and is not available in a Linux environment.

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