We break down the top four desktop operating systems and compare them on features to help you pick the one that's right for you.
You don’t have many choices when it comes to operating systems, but the choice you make can have far-ranging effects on your computing experience. The four OSes included here are the most viable options. Though that's not a huge number, they definitely are options, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Three of them come from gargantuan commercial tech giants, while one, the Linux-based Ubuntu, is a free, open-source option. Windows and macOS are generally the most powerful in terms of hardware and software options as well as interface conveniences and utilities, while Chrome OS is more lightweight and runs on inexpensive hardware.
Of course, if you need to run software that only runs on a particular operating system (usually Windows or macOS), then you're somewhat limited, though there are ways around those obstacles with multi-boot setups and virtualization software. For example, you can run Windows on a Mac inside a virtual machine (VM) or dual-boot using Boot Camp. You can also create a Linux partition on a Windows PC and boot to that when the need arises.
In this mini-roundup, we're just talking about consumer operating systems. We'll leave IBM i, Suse Linux, server OSes, and the rest for another day. Even further from the scope of this article are some bizarre and obscure operating systems most have never heard of.
For a blow-by-blow comparison of the two leading choices, Windows and macOS, read macOS vs. Windows: Which OS Really Is the Best?
What Is an Operating System?
An operating system is the software that makes your computer work at all. It talks to all system and external hardware, loads programs into memory, connects to the internet, and manages storage on disks. Today's modern operating system includes slick user interfaces and loads of utilities, tools, and included apps that let you do a lot without even installing third-party application software. Those apps include things like photo editors, video viewers and video editors, web browsers, email clients, calendars, text editors, and music players.
An operating system also includes tools to keep your computer running smoothly, safely, and malware-free. Most even include built-in security features and support for VPNs. Much of an operating system's security and stability is maintained by an automated update process that makes sure the system receives timely fixes to hardware and software compatibility and vulnerability issues.
With smartphones such a prevalent part of modern life, a good desktop operating system needs to work in concert with those devices. The cloud (aka online storage and syncing) is another prevalent theme in today's technology domain, and most operating systems integrate with their own cloud services, with varying degrees of functionality.
While Ubuntu is what's known as Free and open-source software (FOSS). Chrome OS is based on the company's open-source Chromium project, meaning volunteer coders can contribute to the code and third parties can put out their own versions, but Chrome OS is Google's proprietary version of that codebase. In fact, you can't even install Chrome OS proper on computer hardware that's not sanctioned by Google, something you can do with Windows and Linux.
How to Choose an Operating System
In our linked reviews of the four operating systems discussed below, we take into account the following criteria, and they can help inform your choice of OS:
- Range of hardware options
- Range of software available, including gaming and productivity
- Interface design and windowing niceties
- Included apps and utilities
- Mobile and cloud integrations
- Stability, security, and updates
As mentioned above, if you need to run software that's only supported by one of these operating systems, your choice is already made for you. For example, if you want use Final Cut Pro as your video editor and Adobe Premiere Pro just won't do, your only option is macOS. If you want to run AAA video games, you'll want to stick with Windows 10. The same holds for peripherals. You may have a VR headset or 3D printer that only provides drivers for one type of system.
Microsoft Windows 10
Windows powers over a billion PCs, making it by far the most popular desktop operating system on earth. This also means it works with the most hardware and software of any OS, too. Windows has had its ups (Windows XP, Windows 7) and downs (Windows Vista, Windows 8) over the years, but the consensus is that Windows 10 makes up for a multitude of past transgressions. It's still not perfect: Glitches still rear their ugly heads now and then, but the current version beats the pants off any of its predecessors.
In terms of interface clarity, wealth of included tools, and usability features, Windows 10 is hard to match. Full touch-screen support, voice assistance with Cortana, flexible screenshot and clipboard tools, photo and video editors, stylus input, and even basic 3D modeling all come along with it. Those are in addition to the standard tools like (much improved) Mail, Calendar, Notepad, and Calculator apps. The Action Center is a convenience that consolidates notifications and gives quick access to frequently needed settings.
Moving and arranging windows in Windows 10 is unmatched in conveniences and ease, as is using multiple virtual desktops, with its unique Timeline feature. Windows and macOS both include app stores with vetted programs, automatic updates, and multiple PC capability. Sadly, developers and users don’t give the attention to these stores that they do to mobile app stores. Unlike macOS, Windows can comfortably slip into a very usable tablet mode, with touch gesture support that negates the need for a keyboard.
If you're into gaming, and particularly VR gaming, Windows is the only way to go. It also ties in snugly with Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage and syncing service. OneDrive not only can serve as cloud storage, but lets you access any files on a PC remotely, automatically save screenshots, and sync Office documents with autosave. As far as mobile integration, macOS has it beat with the ties between iOS and macOS, but Windows' story is improving with some impressive Android integrations.
Windows, of course, is not without its flaws. The operating system, though far more secure and stable than it was in the past, still doesn't match macOS or Linux on those criteria. Its interface, though continually undergoing polishing with updates, still presents some inconsistency, especially in control panels. Speaking of updates, you still hear complaints about problems resulting from updates. But with a billion copies installed on a myriad of different hardware and software combinations, the number of affected systems is surprisingly small, though those get the headlines.
You'd be hard-pressed to find more ardent supporters of their operating system than macOS users, who tend to be creative producers of art, video, and photography. Indeed, Apple's desktop operating system is slick, capable, and reliable. It also ties in well with iPhones and all the other devices from the Cupertino-based tech giant. The choice of computer hardware vendors is limited to a single option, but it's a good one, and there's a decent selection of form factors, from the Mac mini to the MacBook to the iMac AIO and the new super-powered Mac Pro.
The interface of macOS is as slick as it gets, with more consistency than any of the other choices included here. The dark mode is more uniformly rendered throughout all OS tools, and the Finder (equivalent to Windows' File Explorer) offers tabs and handy preview capabilities lacking in Windows. I do prefer the window-manipulation options in Windows, which among other things lets you easily snap an app to fill half the screen exactly.
Apple's desktop OS is document-based, rather than program-based like Windows. That means that every app has the same menu provided by the OS at the top, rather than inside its own window. This may be the biggest stumbling block for those moving between the two OSes. Another could be the differences between Windows' Taskbar and macOS's Dock. The Taskbar is more informative and flexible: Sometimes I click on a Dock icon and no window of the program appears on-screen, because of that document-centric approach.
Macs are well endowed with included software and utilities: from the very useful Preview utility that offers a quick peek at just about any file type, to the included office and media apps. You also get Apple Maps, Podcasts, Mail, Calendar, Notes, Reminders, and we can't forget the fine web browser, Safari, which offers good synergy with its mobile counterparts.
Even though the very large iPad Pros appear to be horning in on laptop territory, those tablets can now serve as second screens for Macs, thanks to the recent Sidecar feature in iPadOS. Sidecar also adds a bit of touch-screen functionality to macOS, which only offers touch on the Touch Bar on MacBooks, compared with Windows 10's full touch screen support. Macs do benefit from many clever gesture taps and swipes if you use a trackpad, however.
Gaming has long been something of a weak point for Macs. Though there is a version of Steam for them, you won't find the selection of AAA titles available for PC gaming, nor is there support for VR gaming headsets(with the exception of using an HTC Vive with Final Cut Pro). The arrival of the Apple Arcade game subscription service may improve the prospects for gaming on all of Apple's platforms, but PCMag's gaming expert Jeffrey Wilson has some reservations, which you can read about in I'm Not Excited by Apple Arcade, But Maybe You Should Be. Fans of casual games may beg to differ.
Apple includes good parental controls in macOS with Screen Time, and the system that already has a sterling reputation for security has been hardened even further in the latest Catalina version, which keeps the OS and user data on separate partitions.
What Linux has over all the other operating systems included here is that it's completely free and open source—not the product of a huge tech company with profit motives. You can install Ubuntu Linuxon any hardware of your choice: It runs on any hardware that Windows does. You can even run the operating system from a live USB stick, averting the need for installing it on your computer's storage. You can buy a few computers with Linux preinstalled, such as the privacy-focused Purism Librem Mini, and Dell offers versions of its powerful XPS 13 laptops that run Ubuntu, mostly aimed at developers.
Despite being free, Ubuntu offers a pleasing interface and a workable selection of included apps. It comes with an office suite, browsers, email and media apps, but there are also app repositories where you can get more. Its interface resembles that of macOS more than Windows, but unlike macOS, it supports touch screen functionality (though not as full as Windows' touch screen support).
Linux in general is also customizable with completely different interface shells, and you can find different flavors, also known as distros—Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Ubuntu Budgie, Ubuntu Mate, and Xubuntu. These have different preconfigured settings, apps, and designs for different purposes and tastes.
Some drawbacks are that Linux requires more tech savvy than the other choices here: If you're squeamish about seeing a command line ever, choose another OS. Another is that the support for hardware peripherals and popular application software is well behind that of Windows, macOS, and even Chrome OS.
Another shortcoming of Ubuntu is the lack of major applications, such as Photoshop and Microsoft Office. Sure, you can find substitutes that do the basic functions of those, but you miss out on the slickness and rich tool sets of the genuine software.
Ubuntu is notable for being about as secure and stable an operating system as you'll find—no doubt this is why Linux powers so many servers that demand a high level of uptime. Ubuntu also includes built-in antivirus, and its publisher, Canonical, provides regular security patches and updates.
Google Chrome OS
Google's desktop operating system started life as a simple way to deliver a web browser and web applications to a computer without much complexity. The idea was for it to be an entirely cloud-powered app, using Google Drive to store all your data. Chrome OS has moved way beyond that, now letting you run Android apps from Google Play. It also offers true desktop features like file folders for local files, the Google Assistant voice AI, a night mode, screenshots, and tight integration with Android phones.
You can find a wide variety of inexpensive Chromebook laptops and Chromeboxes (the desktop version), as well as more-expensive devices from Google itself, including the Pixelbook ($999 and up) and the Pixelbook Go ($649 and up). The OS also supports touch screen and stylus input (in the form of the Pixel Pen) and many printer models (though not as many as macOS and Windows).
The operating system's interface is clear and simple, so much to the point that there's no real desktop like that on macOS and Windows—you can't pin apps or documents to the desktop—it just sits there looking pretty. The Dock is fine, though not as functional as Windows' Taskbar, but the program launcher and settings are well implemented.
There are two key drawbacks of Chrome OS: One is that it has two very different app stores—the Chrome Web Store (which was the only one at first) and Google Play, and it's not clear when you should use one and when the other, since there's much overlap in the apps they offer. The even bigger problem is that Android apps behave inconsistently on Chrome. This is because most of the apps were programmed for the small, portrait-mode phone screen rather than the wide computer screen.
In addition to the app store situation, you won't find high-end professional applications on Chrome OS, such as the full Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word, or truly powerful video editing software. On the other hand, Google has created a full suite of apps and services for the education market, and there are third-party offerings for that market as well. One cynical take is that this is a play to hook new users on the platform young, but the program has indeed made technology in education affordable and efficient.
The bottom line is that if you're a student or someone on a limited budget who can do everything you need in a web browser, Chrome OS may be for you. If you want to play the latest AAA video games, do hardcore video or photo editing or run advanced hardware like VR headsets or 3D printers, you're better off with another OS.