Operating System Smackdown: Linux vs. Mac OS X vs. Windows Vista vs. Windows XP

Experts defend the merits of their chosen operating systems--Linux, Windows XP, Windows Vista and Mac--in an opinionated free-for-all.

Since the dawn of time—or, at least, the dawn of personal computers—the holy wars over desktop operating systems have raged, with each faction proclaiming the unrivaled superiority of its chosen OS and the vile loathsomeness of all others.

No matter how fierce the language or convincing the arguments, however, these battles began to seem somewhat irrelevant to regular working stiffs. While Mac OS, OS/2, Linux and many other desktop operating systems have all had their devotees over the years, the truth is that the majority of home and business users have simply used the current version of Windows as a matter of course.

Windows Vista has changed all that. Never has a Microsoft operating system been greeted with such a lack of enthusiasm from consumers and businesses alike. Whether it's because of Vista's confusing array of versions, its hefty hardware requirements, its driver issues or its invasive security features, users are resisting the upgrade to Vista and considering other options, from Mac OS X to Linux to just sticking with Windows XP, thank you very much.

Suddenly, the OS wars have a new relevance.

That's why we've asked four experts to lay out their best arguments in support of their desktop operating systems of choice:

Each is positive that his operating system is the best and will try his hardest to convince you of that—and is not above taking a few swipes at the competition. These are not rational, disengaged reviews; these are opinionated essays meant to sway your point of view.

When you've read all the arguments, you make the call by voting in our reader poll —and of course we welcome your own arguments in the comments area as well.

—Valerie Potter

Linux: Light on its feet and ready to strut its stuff

Let's get the unpleasant part out of the way first: If running Adobe Premiere is the most important thing in your life, or you want to play Halo, Linux isn't going to do it for you, at least right at the moment. While most Windows software can run under Linux in one fashion or another, applications that make extensive use of hardware drivers or high-end graphics may not work right.

But for everything else, Linux is definitely the way to go.

Unlike Mac OS and Windows, Linux is free as air and open to development by folks who are motivated by the desire to make the technology better, rather than by corporate tech farms whose real interest is the bottom line. Which is all very nice, but is it any good as a desktop operating system? You bet.

Size and speed

Let's start with the hardware footprint: With the possible exception of BSD, Linux's 'sister,' Linux is the lightest thing you'll ever install on your computer. While the minimum required hardware for Windows has been bloating, and Macs need more and more horsepower to run OS X, you can still dig out your old 486 and fire up Linux without problems.

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I recently got one of the One Laptop Per Child XOs—a machine with 256MB of RAM and a power-miserly processor—and had no trouble running Xubuntu Linux on it. Meanwhile, Windows XP needs to be sliced and diced like crazy to fit onto the same hardware.

It's not for nothing that you'll find Linux inside of devices where hardware cost is an issue, like DVRs (TiVo anyone?) and routers. I was somewhat shocked to find that my recently purchased 52-in. LCD TV has a Linux kernel inside of it. If you hunt around, I'll bet you'll find at least one device in your home running Linux.

Stability, security, transparency, flexibility

Linux is not only small, but it's also stable. I have several Windows boxes at home, and it seems like whenever I blink, something has gotten screwed up in the registry or I have a Dynamic Link Library conflict.

Linux has all the configuration data and libraries right out where you can see them, in files. You can see what's changed and make edits manually, without having to figure out which of 9 million HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE registry entries is the one you want. Even the system-configuration tools that have nice graphical user interfaces (GUI) end up generating human-readable and editable files at the end of the day.

In the recent "Pwn 2 Own" hacker challenge, computers running Mac OS X and Windows Vista were cracked, but the Linux machine wasn't. I won't claim that Linux has no security or virus problems, but they tend to be right out in the open where you can see them if you look. At the moment, there are far fewer Linux viruses out in the wild than Windows viruses, and there are fairly bullet-proof ways to detect viruses under Linux using checksums on files.

Conversely, it's much easier to move your Linux system to new hardware or clone an existing system because there's no licensing. I've never had a problem moving a Linux system disk to a new computer, even when the hardware was drastically different. There's basically no way to do this on either a Windows or a Mac system.

You also have your choice of Linux distributions, from geek-friendly Debian and end-user-friendly Ubuntu to business-friendly Red Hat and Novell SUSE. And no matter which one you pick, you can rest assured that they'll all run the same apps.

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Applications and interface

It used to be the conventional wisdom that the problem with Linux was desktop applications. But with tools such as Wine, CrossOver Linux and VMWare Player, many Windows applications run just fine under Linux these days.

And in some cases, native Linux applications may serve you just as well. OpenOffice is a mature replacement for Microsoft Office, and there are good (and free) tools for video and photo editing, audio editing, and many other common applications. Just do a quick Google search for "Linux video editing," for example, and you'll see what I mean.

More importantly, more and more applications are transitioning to Web-based versions using JavaScript or Flash/Silverlight/Flex/Air. Who cares if you can't run TurboTax on Linux, when you can use the Web-based TurboTax right from your browser?

Finally, the Linux desktop experience is now the match of any other desktop GUI in existence. The user interface is intuitive and clean, but still powerful. If you choose a user-friendly distribution like Ubuntu, installing Linux is as easy as installing Windows—and unlike Windows, you can even "try before you buy," since distributions such as Ubuntu have a "live" install CD/DVD.

You can even run a full Linux distribution such as Damn Small Linux from a 128MB (or larger) USB drive. Did your Windows PC crash again? Plug in the USB drive, and you've got access.

Heck, most Linux distributions will even shrink a Windows partition and set up dual-booting automatically. Ignore all the fear, uncertainty and doubt you'll hear about nightmare installs and bad device support—that's from the bad old days!

Bottom line

Linux is free, fast, small, powerful, stable and flexible. It will get you off the "new hardware every other year" life cycle and let you concentrate on being productive rather than playing nursemaid to your operating system. You almost certainly already have Linux in your home or business, even if you don't know it. So why not give it a try on your desktop?

—James Turner

Mac OS X: All you need in one dynamite package

Computing nirvana isn't difficult to find. If you want a simple-to-use computer that can run virtually any application you need on stylish hardware that gives you easy online access and instant connectivity to all types of satellite devices, just go to an Apple store and buy a Macintosh.

A complete software/hardware ecosystem

When it comes to integration, no other operating system can boast the unity of purpose and results that exist on the Mac platform. While the competition is busy mashing feature after feature into poorly designed products, Apple Inc. focuses on what's important: creating a software/hardware ecosystem that gets out of the way so you can do what you bought a computer to do—work, make movies, build Web sites, communicate or crunch data.

You know what I'm taking about—all those annoying little things that add up when using Windows. Plug in a mouse on a PC, and a little dialog box pops up exclaiming that it just sensed you plugged in a mouse, and after installing the driver, it's ready to go! This isn't a shuttle launch; I just plugged in a mouse. I'll know the operating system recognizes it as soon as I can move the pointer, so stop bugging me with alert boxes!

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Apple's relentless attention to detail has created a world where hardware and software are equally polished—so polished, in fact, that a wireless mouse, an iPod or an iPhone feels more like a natural extension of the Mac than a separate device.

For those still stuck with Windows, that kind of experience remains a mirage, always just over the horizon. With Vista, users get an operating system that comes in six—six!—different versions, all of them with driver issues. Many older PCs can't handle the operating system—and even a lot of those newer "Vista Capable" machines may not be so capable after all.

Sure, you could try Linux. But the kind of integration I'm talking about isn't possible in Windows, never mind Linux. When software and hardware engineering and design are divvied up among multiple companies and communities—each with its own agenda—complete hardware/software unification is just not a realistic expectation. (I'll give devotees an A+ for effort, though.)

Elegance and ease of use

The glue that binds the hardware is the operating system, and Mac OS X 10.5, a.k.a. Leopard, has elegance and ease of use baked right in. Leopard easily leads the pack in terms of security, ease of installation, maintenance and integration of applications whose learning curves are so minimal Apple doesn't even bother with full manuals. That isn't an accident.

Let me just reel off a few Mac OS X advantages:

  • Drag-and-drop application installs
  • Notifications written in real English and not Geek-English
  • One-click, set-and-forget automatic backups that people actually use
  • The ability to peer inside files without having to launch an app
  • Tech support that doesn't involve being bounced between different companies
  • Inherent security with no real-world exploits, despite dire warnings every year
  • A clean and consistent look throughout the operating system and applications
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Run any application in the world

Other operating systems have their strengths. Windows is ubiquitous; it isn't going anywhere soon. And the collective hive of developers working to make Linux better is impressive. But Apple's switch to the Intel architecture, along with today's impressive virtualization software, means Macs can now run those other operating systems—at full speed. That gives you access to software across all three platforms, letting you work and play without walling yourself off from the rest of the computer world.

Let me say it again: All Macs can run Windows and, consequently, all of the software that runs on Windows. All versions. At once, if you want to.

Did I mention that Leopard is a certified Unix product, too? Mac OS X is the only operating systems that can run all mainstream Windows and "*nix"-based operating systems—and host "*nix" software natively—with few of the usual security risks.

Security

Along with its famed user interface, one of the keys to the success of Mac OS X is the lack of malware, spyware and self-propagating viruses. We can debate the reasons—whether it's the security inherent to the modern BSD underpinnings of Apple's code or the "security by obscurity" theory—but Macs are not susceptible to the problems that have always plagued Windows PCs.

Let me put it in perspective: I have been working with Macs since 1993, and not a single second of downtime has been caused by a virus, spyware or malware. Think about that for a moment. Not a single second has been wasted dealing with security.

And ponder this: If 100,000 viruses or malware variations targeting OS X sprang up tomorrow, that number would still pale in comparison with the malware aimed at Windows every year.

Look, it's the 21st century. Computers are everywhere; shouldn't they just work by now? Who wants to spend their time running spyware scans and virus scans? (Imagine having to run a virus scan on a microwave or DVD player.) Just because folks who use other operating systems have to put up with it doesn't mean that's the way it has to be.

Bottom line

I want more from my computer, and Apple capitalizes on its unique position as sole operating system designer, application developer, hardware engineer and media distributor, offering a seamless experience across its entire slate of product lines and services.

Macs may not "just work" exactly 100 percent of the time, but they sure work when I need them to. And, after all, isn't that the point?

—Michael DeAgonia

Windows Vista: The best there is (despite the bad rep)

If you want the best operating system available today, there is only one choice: Windows Vista.

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