Choosing the right operating system can be overwhelming. There are so many factors to consider when choosing an operating system, and it often depends on your personal preference for features, capabilities, ease of use, and price.
If choosing the best operating system was a headache, look no further. We've rounded up the essentials of the latest versions of Windows, Mac, and Chrome to make the process a breeze.
Microsoft Windows holds around 77% of the global desktop market share, with Windows 10 accounting for almost two thirds of that. If you're into laptops, Windows 10 controls a full 40% of the total global market, by far the most popular operating system in the world for these types of devices. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most important one is the depth and breadth of the supporting hardware and software.
Because Microsoft sells Windows licenses to more or less every PC manufacturer to load onto desktops, tablets, your best laptops, and everything in between, you can get a Windows computer of just about any size, shape, or price. Microsoft even sells Windows itself so consumers and businesses can manually download it onto their PC. With this open approach all competitors could be conquered in the last decades.
Because of its global availability and longevity, Windows also has the world's largest library of traditional software. Windows users don't get every new application that hits the market, but even those who don't get them initially come to Windows at some point. Consumers, media, businesses, games don't matter – if you want the most complete functionality, Windows is the way to go.
In addition, the app library is now wider than in previous years. It doesn't reach the breadth of the Android and iOS / iPadOS ecosystem, but there is definitely a conscious effort made to deliver the best mobile apps for Windows. You can find favorites like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and even iTunes. They all rely on Microsoft's Universal Windows Platform (UWP) for a more balanced experience across all Windows-based devices.
Works with everything
Riley Young / Digital Trends
Thanks to the extensive driver support, Windows is compatible with the most extensive hardware. This is an important consideration when playing graphically intensive video games or when working with powerful media, video editing, or computer aided design software. There are some powerful Macs as alternatives, but they tend to be far more expensive and hardware choices are not the same. Very few Chrome OS devices can compete.
The Windows PC ecosystem also offers a wide variety of shapes and sizes, more than in years past. There are the usual desktop and traditional clamshell notebooks that are more powerful and of higher quality than ever before. Prices range from just a few hundred dollars for entry-level options to many thousands of dollars for premium machines. The 2-in-1 market has also grown significantly in recent years, thanks in part to Microsoft's own Surface line of products that make some of the best convertible laptops and tablets to date.
Although most accessories have been universal since the introduction of the USB standard, Windows also offers the greatest technical compatibility with third-party add-ons. Just about any mouse, keyboard, webcam, storage drive, graphics tablet, printer, scanner, microphone, monitor, or other doodad you want to add to your computer will work with Windows, which cannot always be said for macOS, and is even less true for Chrome OS.
Fast and meaningful updates
If you haven't used Windows in a few years, you may associate this with slow, lukewarm progress. That is no longer true. With Windows 10, Microsoft has committed to updating twice a year. We have seen these updates introduce new features, security improvements, and performance improvements.
For those who want to be up to date, they can join the free Insider program, which releases new updates almost every week. Insiders get access to fixes, tweaks, and important new features – and these add up over time. Insiders not only get instant access to the latest features, they also help shape the operating system by continuously providing feedback to Microsoft.
Over time, this quick update policy has given Windows 10 an edge over macOS, which is updated every year, usually with just a major new feature or two (with the exception of Big Sur). Chrome OS updates quickly too, but Google rarely introduces important new features – which has slowed progress compared to Windows and macOS.
The only downside to quick updates with Windows 10 is that they can occasionally cause more problems than they fix. For example, the October 2018 update deleted user data and caused all sorts of driver problems. The fix took months and caused Microsoft to change its update practice to be a little less ambitious in the future.
Compatibility issues and version confusion
Even so, Windows isn't perfect. Microsoft's openness to desktop and laptop manufacturers means that two different computers, often with the same specifications, can and must perform very differently. Production quality can vary widely, even within hardware from the same manufacturer. That makes choosing a new Windows 10 PC a challenge. To get the most bang for your buck, research devices first.
Windows also has a reputation for being less secure than macOS and Chrome OS simply because it's the most widely used desktop operating system, and therefore the most targeted. Windows includes many Microsoft tools and safeguards to help prevent and clean up viruses and other threats. Third-party tools are also available. As a result, Windows 10 is much more secure than it used to be, even though it remains the most compromised operating system – it's just not the security risk it once was.
The wide variety of Windows hardware can also cause problems. The complex driver system of Windows can lead to system errors that force the user to diagnose and solve. Frequent updates from Microsoft can damage software or equipment that was not considered or expected. Because of this, Windows is more difficult to manage for the typical user, even though the Windows 10 update infrastructure makes things easier than it used to be when the web was scoured for updates and new drivers.
After all, Microsoft created a confusing situation with its Windows 10 initiative in S mode. To compete with Chromebooks, Microsoft introduced Windows 10 S as a locked-down, secure, and high-performance version of Windows 10, aimed at schools and other environments where administrators didn't want users to make changes to the operating system. Windows 10 S only runs UWP apps, with the exception of Microsoft's Office software. This means easier management and better security compared to installing applications from anywhere and outside of the UWP sandbox.
However, shortly after its introduction, Microsoft abandoned Windows 10 S as a standalone version and instead renamed it as "Mode" from normal Windows 10. Confusing as that was and is, Windows Core OS has the potential to fragment things even further in the future. Windows 10X is the latest iteration set for dual-screen devices like the Surface Neo, though we still don't know how the system actually works. It should finally be released before the end of 2020.
Is Windows For You?
Windows is in a much better position than it was a few years ago. The latest version, Windows 10, is more elegant and understandable than previous editions and is updated regularly. As much as we loved it, Windows 7 has finally reached the end of its life and brought users to the newer version.
However, the problem of complexity remains. Windows are likely to experience more errors than macOS and Chrome OS. However, these errors are rarely the fatal errors that stalled Windows systems, and they are made up for by features and hardware compatibility that are simply not available with competition from Microsoft.
One of Apple's older promotional messages for Mac computers and their software was, "It just works." This philosophy applies to more or less everything the company sells, including laptops, desktops, and their associated macOS software. Formerly called OS OS, all Apple computers run macOS, and buying an Apple computer is the only legitimate way to get it.
Because of this unique top-down approach to its products, Apple has tighter control over MacOS than any of its current competitors. MacOS can only run on a relatively small – and highly controlled – variety of computers and parts compared to millions of possible combinations for Windows. This enables Apple to conduct more intensive quality tests on its products, optimize software for just a few PC configurations, and provide targeted services that diagnose and fix problems much faster and more accurately than with Windows manufacturers.
Macs are an attractive proposition for users looking for a computer that “just works”.
It just works
The operating system itself is designed to be easy to use even for beginners. While Windows 10's user interface is simple, Microsoft's operating system includes an infinitely deep set of menus. Troubleshooting can be a hassle and confusing.
New computer users often find MacOS more intuitive than Windows 10, although long-term Windows users may take some time to adjust to the user interface. Some important functions – like the macOS file explorer called Finder – are not that easy to understand.
Although the software market for macOS is nowhere near as broad as Windows, it has its own extensive collection of cross-platform and bespoke apps. Apple includes a number of internal programs for basic tasks. The most popular third-party software like Google's Chrome browser is available on macOS. Microsoft even makes a version of its Office suite of applications for Apple hardware, and some of the best creative applications come in superior versions for macOS. It's no surprise that macOS is a popular design and media production option, and many art-oriented applications are only available on the Mac, including Apple's iconic Final Cut Pro video editing suite.
Even so, MacOS is at a disadvantage for gamers as many new games are not immediately available on the Apple platform. There are more games to support Mac in 2020 than ever before, but it's still a skimpy list compared to Windows. For people who really love macOS but still want to play, they can always use Apple's Bootcamp application. This utility allows users to prepare any Mac computer to run Windows instead of the built-in operating system or as a switchable option, giving them access to most Windows applications and features.
This requires a separate purchase of a Windows 10 license. However, it is also possible to run other operating systems such as Linux on Bootcamp. (Windows computers can also boot Linux and other third-party operating systems, but MacOS cannot be licensed for use on third-party hardware.) Macs can run Windows concurrently with MacOS through virtualization tools like Parallels or VMWare, and even offer more flexibility for those who who like how macOS works but need access to specific Windows software.
MacOS computers work in parallel with Apple's mobile products such as iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. Users who are all-in on Apple hardware for both desktop and mobile devices enjoy a unified design language, tools like Siri and Apple Pay that work with both devices, and cross-functional functionality through an Apple account for apps like iMessage . Apple's Continuity feature is perhaps the most exciting example of PC and cell phone integration. Pick up where you left off in a document on any device, take calls, and answer texts on your Mac.
Apple Watch owners can even log into the latest version of MacOS without a password. This synergistic approach simply does not exist to the same extent under Windows, although Microsoft Windows is pushing back into the mobile area with Android and Windows 10 X. While it is technically possible to acquire many similar features on Windows using third-party tools, it is much more difficult than with macOS.
Photos by Riley Young
Apple has few lines of products with macOS, and that's a problem for many. Hardware (especially memory) is often expensive but not always up-to-date and may not meet your needs. For example, there is no such thing as a 17-inch MacBook, and Macs don't offer a touchscreen in any form other than the MacBook Pro's miniature touch bar. In fact, in the macOS world, the 2-in-1 device is not a thing at all, unless you want to add a keyboard to your iPad so that it doesn't leave anyone behind who would rather have just one device with them than lug around a notebook a separate tablet.
However, Apple has some high-end solutions if you need real performance. They're expensive, but the iMac and iMac Pro are some of the most powerful workstation desktops and all-in-ones in the world.
Apple's desire to set trends when it comes to style can often leave users with limited options elsewhere as well. It's been a few years since Apple effectively scrapped anything but USB-C Thunderbolt ports, and in some cases limited devices to just one or two ports. This means that if you want to connect older devices or multiple devices and accessories at the same time, use an adapter, especially when charging at the same time.
Is MacOS For You?
Dan Baker / Digital Trends
Mac computers and macOS are intended for users who want a premium, accurate, and maintenance-free desktop experience. Apple's top-to-bottom philosophy makes the software relatively accessible to newbies. It's also a great choice for people who are dedicated to Apple mobile products.
However, Mac systems are expensive and often do not offer hardware that compares to Windows alternatives. The operating system also lacks certain functions that are available under Windows, such as touch support and a focus on mixed reality. You'll need to go for USB-C or get a couple of adapters if you're interested in Apple's MacBook range.
Read our coverage of MacOS Catalina
Google's approach to the desktop hardware world is interesting. Chrome OS was originally developed as an operating system that relied primarily on constant access to the Internet. This made sense as it was designed as an extension of the Chrome desktop browser. Chrome hardware – usually referred to as the "Chromebook" for laptops and sometimes the "Chromebox" for desktop designs – was intended for users who rely primarily on the Web and only occasionally use more complex desktop software.
Today, Chrome OS feels more like an operating system than a bloated browser. It includes a built-in file manager, a messaging app for sending and receiving texts using a connected Android phone (think iMessages), and much more. It also supports both Google Play Android apps and Linux based software. Users essentially get three platforms in one at a lower cost than a Windows PC or Mac.
It's a web world
Riley Young / Digital Trends
Because Chrome OS revolves around a web browser, it's the least complex of the three main operating systems. Calling it a "browser in a box" isn't the whole story, but it's a good way to think about it. Although Chrome OS includes some basic desktop tools like a file manager and photo viewer, the main focus is on content on the web. Compatibility with Android apps greatly expands functionality, but not all apps scale well with a laptop or desktop display.
The user interface should bring users to the web quickly and easily and present as few obstacles as possible for Internet content. Anyone using the Chrome browser on a Windows or macOS computer is instantly familiar with the interface, and all saved history data, bookmarks and extensions are synced.
Chrome devices are great for surfing the web, streaming videos and music, chatting and video conferencing, and other relatively simple web tasks. It can do anything that the Chrome browser can do on a desktop, including advanced Flash and Java applications. Chrome extensions and apps can change the user interface and add additional functionality to a certain extent. However, they lack the fine control and advanced options for power users of Windows and macOS.
This is where Android app compatibility comes in, offering millions of new app options that vastly expand the Chrome OS experience. Support for Linux desktop programs, which is currently in beta, builds on the Chrome OS ecosystem for users who prefer more powerful, traditional software over mobile and web-based applications.
Since Google designed the system to be based on Chrome, it is understandably more reliant on Google tools than Windows on Microsoft software and MacOS on Apple software. This is either a good or a bad thing, depending on how fully a user has bought into Google real estate.
If you already use Gmail, Sheets, Drive, and other Google services, Chrome OS is a fantastic platform to better integrate these tools into your daily chores.
Cheap and easy
The focus on the web gives Chrome OS some dramatic advantages over Windows and macOS. It can be conveniently operated with very energy-saving, inexpensive hardware. Laptops with cheap processors, tiny solid-state drives, and very little RAM can easily run Chrome OS, all with ample storage in the cloud. Sometimes these inexpensive designs run faster and more reliably than Windows and macOS, even if the latter is mainly used for a browser anyway.
If you want the best Android app experience, especially gaming, then you want a fast processor, but you are much less dependent on high-end components to get a usable experience. The options for high-end Chromebooks are more extensive than ever, even if they are not the focus of the range. The Pixelbook leads the way, but there are plenty of other great Chromebooks to choose from.
Whether you are using high-end or low-end applications and not running any intensive applications, Chrome OS provides essentially the same experience on every single Chromebook and Chromebox. It does not suffer from the Windows "bloatware" problem, although Chrome OS devices are sold by third-party manufacturers such as Dell, Samsung and Toshiba. Such devices are easier to manage and make Chrome OS popular in education settings.
The combination of this all-in-one approach and low power consumption 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 with touch and pen support, which Google sells itself.
Is Chrome OS For You?
Mark Coppock / Digital Trends
Chrome OS originally offered virtually no compatibility with external software. Google is changing this dynamic by supporting Android mobile apps and traditional Linux-based software. Chromebooks won't work with advanced accessories like USB monitors or complex gaming hardware. Google just doesn't make the drivers available. It can handle basic keyboards, mice, USB drives, and Bluetooth add-ons, but that's about it.
Now, gaming on Chrome OS has become one of the major beneficiaries of Android and Linux support. While you're not running the massive game titles available for Windows and, to a much lesser extent, MacOS, there are at least hundreds of thousands of Android games that should run reasonably well on newer Chromebooks and Chromeboxes. This is a significant improvement over Chrome OS's early days when gaming took a real back seat.
On Linux, you can install Steam along with any game you buy that has a Linux-based version. Given that most Chromebooks are lower specs, memory and GPU processing are the limiting factors. With Google's Stadia streaming service and Nvidia's GeForce Now offering, you can play your favorites without these software and hardware limitations.
In short, Chrome OS is almost always just off the internet. If you're a Windows or Mac user and often find that the only app you use is a browser, or if you're okay with the vast ecosystem of simple Android apps, this is worth considering. However, the 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. The low entry cost is appealing to anyone on a budget, which makes it a great solution for students. However, users who need more complex software or more demanding tasks will have to look elsewhere.
Conclusion: Windows is the best all-rounder for a price
Windows 10 is the best all-round platform with a wide and comprehensive range of hardware, reasonable ease of use, and prices that are attractive to most. If you're not sure which platform is right for you, Windows has everything you need and a lot more once you've learned the ropes.
If you're a student on a budget or love Google's tools and services, Chrome OS is a great alternative, while macOS is best for professionals or those who don't mind paying a little extra to make sure the hardware works and the software is optimized as much as possible.