Choosing between operating systems isn’t a new problem — it’s been around for a few decades. But the latest incarnations of both software and hardware offer some new options to consumers at all price and experience levels.
Windows and Mac have been in active development for decades, and if you’re looking for a computer for work, odds are that you’re going to go for one or the other. Chrome OS, a Linux-based system developed by Google, is more of an anomaly. It’s based on Google’s Chrome browser, with much of the same interface and a web-focused design. It isn’t for the typical user, but Google has been improving it steadily for the last few years, and it’s worth consideration for a broader base of users.
Microsoft’s Windows 10 holds approximately 90percentof the desktop and laptop market worldwide. The reasons why are complicated, but we can break it down into two factors—hardware and software variety.
Because Microsoft sells Windows licenses to more or less any PC manufacturer to load on desktops, laptops, tablets, and everything in between, you can get a Windows machine in almost any size, shape, or price range. Microsoft even sells Windows on its own, so consumers and businesses can manually load it onto their hardware. That wide-open approach has let it conquer all competitors over the last few decades.
Because of its worldwide availability and longevity, Windows also boasts the biggest software library on the planet. Windows users don’t get every new application that comes on the market, but even those they don’t receive initially tend to come to Windows eventually. Consumer, media, enterprise, gaming, it doesn’t matter — if you want the most comprehensive array of capabilities, Windows is the way to go.
At least, that’s true regarding traditional desktop applications written for Microsoft’s venerable Win32 platform, such as its own Office 2016 suite. Today, the company has made a massive bet on its Windows 10 app platform, called the Universal Windows Platform (UWP), that’s meant to be Microsoft’s answer to the battery-efficient, secure, and easy to manage mobile apps on iOS and Android. UWP hasn’t taken off, though, and that leaves Microsoft somewhat precariously straddling the old and the new.
Windows also boasts compatibility with the most extensive array of hardware. That’s a significant consideration if you want to play graphically intense video games or work with high-powered software for media, video editing, or computer-aided design. There aren’t any Chrome OS systems that offer high-end desktop hardware, and MacOS has recently received ultra-power, up-to-date hardware in the iMac Pro.
Also, the Windows PC ecosystem has exploded in terms of the different kinds of form factors available to buyers. There are the usual desktop and traditional clamshell notebooks, which are more powerful and higher in quality than ever and range in price from just a few hundred dollars for entry-level options all the way up to many thousands for premium machines. The 2-in-1 market is probably the most intriguing development, giving users access to a host of fascinating devices that can morph from notebooks to touch- and pen-enabled tablets by swiveling the display, tearing it off, or removing a detachable keyboard.
Though most accessories are universal since the introduction of the USB standard, Windows still technically boasts the most compatibility with third-party add-ons, too. Just about any mouse, keyboard, webcam, storage drive, graphics tablet, printer, scanner, microphone, monitor, or other doodad you care to add to your computer will work with Windows, which is something that can’t always be said for Mac and is true to an even lesser extent for Chrome OS.
Windows also gets universal and updated drivers, some provided by Microsoft and some developed by the hardware manufacturers themselves, at a much more frequent rate than alternatives. The bottom line is that if you want to use it, then Windows 10 is your best best.
If you haven’t used Windows in a few years, then you may associate it with slow, tepid progress. That’s no longer true. With Windows 10, Microsoft committed to more timely updates. And it has executed.
In fact, those who want to access the cutting-edge — or the bleeding edge — can join the free Insider program, which puts out new updates almost every week. Insiders get access to fixes, tweaks, and major new features — and they do add up over time. Not only do Insiders get immediate access to the latest capabilities, but they also help shape the OS by providing ongoing feedback to Microsoft.
In one of the more recent official updates, for example (Windows 10 Fall Creators update), Microsoft added a host of new features and revamped the user interface. In April of 2018, Microsoft is nowset to release the Windows 10 April 2018 Update, which adds in a powerful new productivity feature called Timeline, letting users go back in time to pick up tasks and apps.
Generally speaking, Microsoft has committed to a biannual update schedule that provides a major new version each April and October or thereabouts, and that means Windows 10 never grows stale. Over time, this rapid update policy has given Windows 10 an edge over MacOS, which updates every year but usually with just one or two significant new features. Chrome OS also updates quickly, but Google only rarely introduces major new features — whichhas slowed progress relative to Windows and MacOS. The rapid Windows 10 update cycle does mean getting used to new features and being exposed to possible bugs on a more frequent basis, but so far Windows users seem to favor the tradeoff.
With all that said, Windows isn’t perfect. The open nature of Microsoft’s relationship with desktop and laptop manufacturers means that two different machines, often with the same specifications, can and do perform very differently. Production quality can vary wildly, even within hardware from the same manufacturer. That makes choosing a new Windows 10 PC a challenge on occasion.
Windows has also had the reputation of being less secure than MacOS and Chrome OS, simply because it’s the most-used desktop operating system and thus the most targeted. Windows includes a numerous Microsoft tools and safeguards to prevent and clean viruses and other threats, and third-party tools are also available. Therefore, Windows 10 is much more secure than it once was in spite of remaining the most-attacked OS — it’s simply no longer quite the security risk it once was.
The wide variety of Windows hardware can cause problems as well. Windows’ complex driver system can cause system errors that are left to the user to diagnose and solve, and frequent updates from Microsoft might break software or devices that haven’t considered or anticipated. For that reason, Windows is more difficult to administer for the typical user, although the Windows update infrastructure built into Windows 10 does make things easier than they were in the old days of scouring the web looking for updates.
Finally, Microsoft has created something of a confusing situation with its “Windows 10 S” initiative. Microsoft originally introduced Windows 10 S as a locked-down, secure, and high-performance version of Windows 10 meant for schools and other environments where administrators didn’t want users to make changes to the OS. And, Windows 10 S only ran UWP apps except for Microsoft’s Office 2016, which meant easier administration and better security compared to installing applications from anywhere and outside of the UWP sandbox.
Microsoft abandoned Windows 10 S as a standalone version soon after its introduction, however, and instead rebranded it as a “mode” of regular Windows 10. Overall, it’s a confusing situation that creates some uncertainty about where exactly Microsoft is heading with Windows 10.
Windows is in a must better position than it was just a few years ago. The newest version, Windows 10, is more elegant and easier to understand than past editions, and it receives frequent updates.
The problem of complexity does remain. You will likely encounter more bugs with Windows than with its competition. But these bugs are rarely the fatal errors that used to drag Windows’ systems to a halt, and they’re balanced by features and hardware compatibility that is simply unavailable with Microsoft’s competition.
One of Apple’s older promotional messages for Mac computers and their software was “it just works.” That philosophy is applied to more or less everything that the company sells, including laptops and desktops, and the associated MacOS software. Formerly called OS X, MacOS runs on all Apple computers, and buying an Apple machine is the only legitimate way to access it.
Because of this unique top-down approach to its products, Apple enjoys tighter control over MacOS than any of its current counterparts. MacOS is designed to run on only a relatively small — and highly controlled — variety of computers and parts, compared to millions of possible combinations for Windows. That allows Apple to do more intense quality testing for their products, optimize software for only a few computers, and provide targeted services that can diagnose and fix problems with much more speed and accuracy than Windows manufacturers. For users who want their computer to “just work,” Macs are an appealing proposition.
The operating system itself is designed to be easy to operate, even for novices. While the interface of Windows 10 is simple on its face, Microsoft’s OS has an infinitely deep lair of menus beneath that. New computer users often find MacOS to be more intuitive than Windows 10, though long-term Windows users may need some time to adjust to the interface and some important features — like the MacOS file explorer, called Finder — are not as easy to understand.
Though the software market for MacOS is nowhere near as broad as Windows, it suffices for most purposes. Apple includes a suite of in-house programs for basic tasks, and most popular third-party software like Google’s Chrome Browser is available on MacOS. Microsoft even produces a version of its Office application suite for Apple hardware, and some of the best creative applications are available in superior versions for MacOS. It’s no surprise that MacOS is a popular option for design and media production, and many art-focused applications are available only on Mac, including Apple’s Final Cut Pro video editing suite.
That said, MacOS is disadvantaged for gamers, as most new games are not available on the platform. Extremely popular Windows titles may or may not get a MacOS release. For those people, though, Macs can still be a good solution thanks to Apple’s Bootcamp application. This utility helps users prepare any Mac computer to run Windows instead of — or as a switchable option to — its built-in operating system, allowing access to most Windows applications and capabilities.
This requires a separate Windows 10 license purchase, though it’s possible to run other operating systems, like Linux,on Bootcamp as well. (Windows machines can also boot Linux and other third-party operating systems, but MacOS cannot be licensed for use on non-Apple hardware.) Macs can even run Windows at the same time as MacOS through virtualization tools like Parallels or VMWare, offering even more flexibility for those who like the way MacOS operates but need access to some specific Windows software.
MacOS hardware works exceptionally well with Apple’s iOS products, the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Users who go all-in on Apple hardware for both desktop and mobile enjoy a unified design language, tools like Siri and Apple Pay that work with both devices, and cross-functionality through an Apple account for apps like iMessage. Apple’s Continuity function is perhaps the most exciting example of how well MacOS and iOS are integrated, with the ability to pick up where you left off in a document on any device and take phone calls and answer texts on your Mac.
Owners of the Apple Watch can even log in to the latest version of MacOS without a password. This synergistic approach simply doesn’t exist to nearly the same extent on Windows, although Microsoft is working hard to integrate Windows 10 with mobile devices, as noted above. While it’s technically possible to acquire many similar features on Windows with third-party tools, it’s much more difficult than using MacOS.
Apple only offers a few product lines running MacOS, and that’s a problem for many. The hardware is expensive, yet not always up-to-date, and it may not fit your needs. There is no 17-inch MacBook, for example, and Macs don’t offer a touchscreen in any form factor. In fact, the 2-in-1 isn’t a thing at all in the MacOS world, leaving behind anyone who’d rather carry just one device compared to lugging around a notebook and a separate tablet.
Apple did, though, recently introduce a much more powerful iMac Pro line that helps to make up for the aging Mac Pro with its limiting cylindrical design. The iMac Pro is a beast of a machine, with up to 18 processor cores, incredibly powerful AMD Vega graphics, and access to tons of fast RAM and storage — offering a much better workstation-class option for high-end professionals who were starting to look away from MacOS and towards Windows.
At the same time, Apple machines can also be limited by the company’s aesthetic choices – the thin-and-light MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro laptops offer limited connectivity that requires expensive adapters and add-ons for more complex functions. And the MacBook Pro dropped down in battery life due to Apple’s pursuit of thin, which has disappointed many MacBook users and helped maintain the Windows PC ecosystem as the industry leader.
Mac computers and MacOS are for users who want a premium desktop experience without having to work on it. Apple’s top-to-bottom philosophy makes its software relatively accessible to newcomers. It’s also a great pick for people who are dedicated to Apple’s mobile products.
However, Mac systems are expensive, and often don’t offer hardware on par with Windows alternatives. The operating system also lacks certain features that can be found on Windows, like touch support and a focus on mixed reality.
Google’s approach to the world of desktop-class hardware is an interesting one. Chrome OS was originally designed as an operating system that mostly relied on constant access to the internet – which made sense, because it was designed asan extension of the Chrome desktop browser. Chrome hardware, usually called a “Chromebook” for laptops and sometimes a “Chromebox” for desktop designs, was intended for users who rely primarily on the web and only occasionally use more complex desktop software.
That’s slowly changing. For example, Google has integrated a file manager into Chrome OS, and the addition of Android apps support greatly expands what you can do with the OS when you’re offline. But it remains a simplistic environment compared to Windows and MacOS.
Because Chrome OS revolves around its browser, it’s the least complex of the three major operating systems on the market. Calling it a “browser in a box” isn’t the whole story, but it’s a good way to think about it. Though Chrome OS includes some basic desktop tools like a file manager and a photo viewer, its primary focus is content on the web — although that’s starting to change with the advent of Android app compatibility.
The interface is designed to get users to the web quickly and easily, and to present as few barriers to internet content as possible. Anyone who uses the Chrome browser on a Windows or MacOS machine will be instantly comfortable with the interface, and all their saved history, bookmarks, and extensions will sync over.
Chrome devices excel at web browsing, streaming video and music, chatting and video conferencing, and other relatively simple web tasks. The Linux back-end of the operating system can do anything that the Chrome browser on a desktop can do, including advanced Flash and Java applications. Chrome extensions and apps can changethe interface and add extra functionality to a certain degree, but they lack the fine control and more advanced “power user” options of Windows and MacOS. That’s where Android app compatibility comes in, providing millions of new app options that greatly expand the Chrome OS experience.
Since Google designed the system to rely on Chrome, it’s understandably reliant on Google tools, to a greater degree than Windows relies on Microsoft software and MacOS relies on Apple software. That’s either a good or a bad thing depending on a given how completely a user has bought into Google properties.
The focus on the web gives Chrome OS some dramatic advantages over Windows and MacOS. It can run comfortably on very low-power, inexpensive hardware: laptops with cheap processors, tiny solid-state drives, and very little RAM can run Chrome OS easily. Sometimes these inexpensive designs run faster and more reliably than Windows and MacOS, even when the latter are used primarily for a browser anyway. If you want the best Android app experience, particularly gaming, then you’ll want a fast processor, but you’re much less reliant on high-end components for a usable experience.
Furthermore, Chrome OS is essentiallythe same experience on every single Chromebook and Chromebox. It doesn’t suffer from the “bloatware” problem that Windows has, even though Chrome OS devices are sold by third-party manufacturers like Dell, Samsung, and Toshiba. And administration is easier, making Chrome OS popular in educational environments.
The combination of this all-in-one approach and low power requirements means that Chromebooks can be extremely inexpensive, sometimes even less than $200. More expensive models offer high-resolution screens, backlit keyboards, fold-back touchscreens, and other fancy features, including the top-of-the-line Pixelbook 2-in-1 sold by Google itself complete with touch and pen support. Rumors point to better tablet support coming soon to Chrome OS, meaning that we’ll soon see more varied detachable tablet offerings as well.
Chrome OS originally offered virtually no compatibility with external software, although of course, Google is changing that dynamic by offering access to the Android-powered Play Store. Chromebooks won’t work with advanced accessories like USB monitors or complex gaming hardware — Google simply doesn’t provide the drivers. It can handle basic keyboards, mice, USB drives, and Bluetooth add-ons, but that’s about it.
Meanwhile, gaming on Chrome OS is one of the most meaningful beneficiaries of Android support. While you won’t be running the massive gaming titles available for Windows, and to a much lesser extent MacOS, there are at least hundreds of thousands of Android games that should run fairly well on newer Chromebooks and Chromeboxes. That’s a significant improvement over the early days of Chrome OS when gaming took a real back seat.
In short, Chrome OS is almost all web, all the time. If you’re a Windows or Mac user and you often find that the browser is the only app you’re using is a browser, or you’re okay with the huge ecosystem of simpler Android apps, then it’s worthy of consideration. But Chrome OS’s almost complete lack of the most advanced third-party software is a deal-breaker for anyone who relies on a computer for more complex tasks.
The simplicity and focus of Chrome OS is good for users whose primary interactions are on the web. Its low cost of entry is attractive for anyone on a budget, but users who require more complex software or more demanding tasks need to look elsewhere.
If you’re still on the fence, let’s break down the major desktop operating systems in terms of features.
Apple hardware is expensive, almost always carrying a premium versus equivalent Windows designs — unless you’re looking at Microsoft’s own Surface line, which is right up there with Apple’s most expensive.
Windows isn’t cheap — laptop and desktop makers have to pay Microsoft to use it — but it’s available on a broader variety of hardware and prices, sometimes getting well below the $500 entry point. If you need basic functionality and price is the only factor, Chromebooks can be bought at around the $200 level – an amazing deal, although you can also spend over $1,000 on a Pixelbook.
MacOS has traditionally been considered much easier to use than Windows, perhaps because of Apple’s slavish dedication to user interface design. Chrome OS, by virtue of its extreme simplicity, also has Windows beat in this regard.
But don’t count Windows 10 out — it’s improved dramatically in its ease of use, and it’s the best of these OSes for tablets.
Chrome OS is the best choice if all you do is browse the web because that’s what it does best. If most of your digital life is in the cloud and unrelated tolocal storage or programs, it’s an excellent way to stay light and uncomplicated.
Windows and MacOS can both handle any browser software available, including Chrome itself, but web-only users may find the rest of their features a distraction.
Chrome OS struggles with productivity due to its limited app selection, although that’s changing with Android app support. Even editing a photo is more difficult than with the others, and there’s no equivalent to Photoshop and other high-end applications.
Windows and MacOS both work in most situations, but Windows has the overall edge due to the availability of quicker compatible hardware and the massive ecosystem of third-party applications. The Windows 2-in-1 is perhaps the most iconic example of why Windows is the most productive environment, offering the ability to easily switch from clamshell mode with keyboard and mouse support to a touch- and pen-centric tablet.
Windows is the only real choice for gamers. The Steam marketplace is the world’s largest seller of PC games, and while it’s available on MacOS, its selection on the platform is much more limited – as are games in general. And you can’t forget Microsoft’s Play Anywhere initiative that lets users buy a game for Xbox and play it on Windows 10, and vice versa.
Chrome OS has a limited selection that consists entirely of web games, although you need to also consider the Android stable of games that’s wide but not particularly deep.
It’s impossible to deny that Apple makes some of the best computer hardware on the market, and many of its customers are faithful for this alone. MacOS is an easy choice for a quality machine.
That said, Apple’s staunch refusal to accept touchscreen designs is hurting it with users who want more flexibility, and recent Windows machines from Dell, Asus, and others are rivaling (and sometimes beating) Mac’s best offers for power and quality. Premium Chrome OS machines are few and far between, although the Pixelbook and Samsung’s Chromebook Pro are notable outliers.
MacOS and Chrome OS have their purpose, but if you’re buying a new computer, then you will probably be best served by Windows. This is true at every price point except the very lowest (below $300), which belongs to Chrome OS laptops.
This may come as a shock. Windows has a long history that hasn’t always been favorable. But Windows 10 is a great operating system. It’s updated rapidly, packed with features, and has broad compatibility with software and hardware.