Windows 7, Mac OS, Vista, Windows XP, Ubuntu: Which Operating System should I choose?

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With so many options to choose from the market is showing maturity and growth, or so we'd like to think. The reality is quite disappointing, but properly equipped you can enter this world well prepared. You'll find benchmarks, cpuscores, and exotic rating systems at other web sites, but what you'll find here are the practical observations of a team of computer technicians who struggle the same way you do to make sense of the way things work and put it in real world terms, not some number that has no context. So with no further ado let's introduce our contestants and see how they stack up:

Operating System Compatability Stability Ease of use Speed Cost
Windows 7PoorTerribleAverageVery PoorAverage
VistaAveragePoorAveragePoorAverage
Windows XPExcellentAverageGoodGoodAverage
Mac OSPoorAverageGoodAverageVery Poor
UbuntuVery PoorExcellentPoorExcellentGood

First lets discuss what each of these encompass:

Compatibility: Compatibility: Arguably this is the single most important issue with computers. While any of these operating systems can produce documents, spreadsheets, e-mails, etc, the minute you start to work with other people or want to use software that is even slightly specialized (like bookkeeping, organizer synchronization, photo editing, DVD burning) you'll find this can become an impediment. There is also a huge difference in hardware compatibility. This affects which printers, scanners, routers, and digital cameras can be used.

Speed: When you read the box on a new product you'll see it describes itself as actually faster than the previous versions. What no one mentions in the small print all of these new Operating Systems is that they require much faster hardware. This is like staging a race between you in an Indy 500 car and a race car driver on a bicycle. At the end of the race you declare yourself the better driver because you finished first. Poor performance is most detrimental when upgrading an older computer to a new operating system.

Stability: There's more to stability than not crashing. Being protected from viruses and advertisements is a great help as well.

Ease of use: Switching between operating systems is always difficult, so consider anything other than what you're using now to be one step worse.

Cost: The up front cost of your computer is generally quite small compared with the long term cost. Most people ignore the value of their time, but the reality is that every moment the computer is down, being updated or needing to be reinstalled is a moment that's costing you real money.

Now, lets consider what these values really mean

The scale:

Most of these operating systems demand pages of description, but in the interest of brevity let's discuss the biggest pros and cons of each:

Windows 7: This is the new kid in town. Like all of Microsoft's new arrivals it is sorely untested, with limited compatibility with even Microsoft's own products. Some day this will change, but it's not likely to come for years yet. You'll find its design and layout very similar to Vista's.

Vista: With a totally different look from Windows XP, it can be difficult to make the transition. Some features are quite visually entertaining, but some, such as the new semi-transparent window headers actually reduce legibility and speed for a pretty look. Vista is somewhat improved since its release, but it still merits being held in a testing phase to this day.

Mac OS: Few users of Macs realize that one of the greatest assets of the Mac world is a huge limitation to other users. Specifically, software released on the Mac operating system is very limited, but of high quality, at least in the audio/visual world. One benefit of limited software selection, is Macs are of minimal interest to hackers and virus writers. What few realize is that it suffers horribly when trying to share with non-Mac users. Limiting software choices also makes Mac's more stable, but to be fair, a Windows PC operating with a strict limitation on installing software would be as good.

Windows XP: Now eight years since it was released, many people thought XP was ready to retire when Windows 7, now two versions newer came out. The reality is that devastating compatibility problems and crippling performance limitations of the new operating systems have left Windows XP as the preferred choice for businesses where knowing things work is more important than having the latest operating system.

Ubuntu: A nicely packaged flavor of Linux, this operating system has come a long way. With the help of Sun's Open Office it now has the ability to port documents, spreadsheets and more, to any of the Operating Systems listed here, but you'll the software available for uncommon tasks extremely difficult to setup or use. The bright side of this is rock solid stability.

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Last updated: 8/10/2013

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