The operating system is the most important software that a computer runs. Any software you use on your computer must be compatible with the operating system, which is why the operating system is listed in software system requirements. The operating system also needs to work with the hardware on which it is installed. If you buy a new computer with an operating system already installed, you shouldn't need to worry about it. If you're installing the operating system yourself, however, you need to make sure the machine meets its requirements.
Windows is the Leader
The most popular operating systems for desktop computers are versions of Microsoft Windows; surveys indicate about 85 percent of these computers run a version of Windows. Mac OS from Apple comes in a distant second with about 10 percent, and the rest run Linux or a similar niche operating system.
Gartner, a technology research company, says that Windows 7 (the latest operating system from Microsoft) will be installed on about 42 percent of all desktop computers by the end of 2011. About 94 percent of desktop computers shipped in 2011 contained Windows 7. Gartner says Mac OS shipped on about 4.5 percent of new PCs worldwide in 2011.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Most computer users simply want their systems to perform tasks and don't care about operating system details. Others, however, have a distinct preference for Microsoft or Apple products. As the more popular operating system, Windows supports more hardware and a larger number of software packages than Mac OS. The Mac OS, however, is promoted by its fans as being better designed and easier to use.
If you're considering changing operating systems, make sure that the one you are switching to will run the software that you use. A software package will state in its system requirements which operating systems, and which versions, support it.
Operating systems for Windows and Mac OS can be kept up to date via automatic download if you have that feature activated on your computer.
Browsers Have Specific Needs
Browser compatibility is important as we spend more and more time using the Web. Here are the requirements for the most popular browsers:
- Internet Explorer 9: Windows Vista or 7
- Internet Explorer 8: Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) or newer
- Firefox 5 and Chrome 15: Multiple versions of Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux
- Safari 5 runs on Mac OS X version 10.5 and newer, and Windows XP (SP2) and newer
Microsoft Operating Systems
Windows 8 is under development. A beta version is expected early in 2012.
Windows 7 is the most recent Microsoft operating system available. It was released in the fall of 2009. While Windows 7 offered some new features, such as allowing users to pin applications to the Taskbar for easy access, it was primarily a refinement of Windows Vista. For example, Windows 7 lets users determine how User Account Control works. This means you can see fewer security pop-ups than with Windows Vista. Several bundled programs, including Windows Media Center and Calculator, were improved.
Windows Vista was released early in 2007. Microsoft intended for Vista to improve security compared to its predecessor, Windows XP. Vista used a new graphics scheme, called Aero, but also allowed the use of "classic" themes that run better on less-powerful computers. Vista had several drawbacks. The operating system required more powerful hardware, especially to run the Aero theme. Buyers of some new computers that were labeled "Vista Capable" found that they couldn't use all of Vista's features. Also, some software and device drivers that worked in XP didn't work in Vista.
Windows XP was released in 2001. It was a big improvement in stability and efficiency over previous Microsoft operating systems for consumers. Three major updates, called service packs, have been issued for the operating system. Despite being 10 years old, XP still has many users. Continued use in some business settings and familiarity with the software are cited as reasons for its ongoing popularity. For security reasons, you should upgrade XP with Service Pack 3 (SP3); support for Service Pack 2 ended in 2010. Microsoft says all XP support will end on April 8, 2014.
Apple Operating Systems
Mac OS X was released to consumers in 2001. The current version is Mac OS X v10.7, nicknamed "Lion." Mac OS 9 was the last of the classic Mac operating systems. Mac OS X was a completely new operating system based on Unix, an operating system that dates all the way back to 1969. Mac OS X improved on earlier versions in several basic ways, such as the ability to safely run multiple software applications at the same time.
Each new version of Mac OS X is named after a big cat. Version 10.5, or "Leopard," has been the largest upgrade to date. It included support for Intel processors (usually associated with Windows operating systems) for the first time. Lion adds support for the Mac App Store and Apple's iOS, an operating system for devices including iPads.
Niche Operating Systems
Most niche operating systems are "flavors" of Linux. They are mainly of interest to computer hobbyists. Probably the easiest to use is Ubuntu, a free operating system that provides a graphical user interface. Ubuntu runs well on computers with older hardware. You can try Ubuntu without installing it by following the instructions at www.ubuntu.com.