Operating system options

Features James Hunt Jan 2, 2013

Often you can't choose an operating system, as most new computers have one pre-installed. But what if you want to pick one for yourself?

When you buy a pre-built PC in the shops, you normally don’t get much of a choice regarding the operating system it has installed. If you’re lucky, you might get a choice between two versions of Windows, but the majority of systems come with one OS, and offers you little alternative but to learn to love it.

However, if you’re putting your own system together, you get to choose. Sometimes that’ll mean a copy arriving in the mail alongside an empty PC. Other times it’ll mean that the one you want is pre-installed. Either way, it’s another decision you have to make, and one you might not be accustomed to shouldering.

The choice of operating system can transform your computer. There are advantages and disadvantages to each different OS available and potential issues to be aware of which could even impact how effective the hardware you buy ends up being. To try and steer you around the potholes, we’ve come up with a list of potential operating system choices, and highlighted the good and bad points of each. If you’ve ever wondered what makes 32-bit operating systems different from 64-bit operating systems, or what the difference between Windows Home and Windows Professional is, read this article and you’ll wonder no more!

32-bit vs 64-bit

When selecting an operating system, one of the most confusing choices you’ll have to make is whether you should get the 32-bit version or the 64-bit version. The reason this choice is confusing is because they’re essentially identical, at least as far as you’re concerned. Indeed, if there’s any obvious difference, it’s that the 64-bit version will tell you that it requires double the minimum amount of RAM - but that doesn’t mean the 32-bit version will run faster, even though there’s a certain amount of logic in such a conclusion. 

While programs use almost twice as much memory in their 64-bit incarnations, to store the longer 64-bit memory addresses, they will run as well as 32-bit versions in the majority of cases, and substantially better in a minority of cases - simply because they’re capable of handling those same, longer memory addresses. 64-bit operating systems can also support the installation of far more RAM in total than their 32-bit cousins, which can only use a maximum of 4GB of RAM. 64-bit systems can, in theory, address a maximum of 16.8 million terabytes. Though, for practical purposes, Windows caps that at between 128 GB and 512 GB depending on the version.

To run a 64-bit operating system, all you need is a 64-bit processor and the relevant drivers for your hardware. 64-bit is popular enough now that finding drivers isn’t as big an issue as it was in the past, although take care if you’re planning to install some particularly old hardware!

In short, if you’re planning to buy a new operating system with your new PC, it’s unlikely you have any good reason to avoid a 64-bit operating system. Your old software will still run, and most old components and peripherals will be supported. If you haven’t upgraded, now’s the time to do it!

Windows 8

The latest version of Windows has just hit shelves, so you might be thinking that now is the perfect time to upgrade to it. But wait a second. Which version should you go for? How certain are you that you want to be the guinea pig for the next generation of Windows anyway?

In fairness, there tends to be opposition to every new version of Windows when it actually gets released. People - especially computer people - don’t tend to like being thrown in the deep end on new and different systems. However, before you select Windows 8, be aware that it involves some radical changes, such as the removal of the Start Menu in favour of the tile-based Home Screen and a greater focus placed on touch-interface friendly features. There are also reports that games run worse on Windows 8 than on the same system with Windows 7 installed - hardly encouraging if you’re a gaming enthusiast! 

With any new Windows operating system, it’s a good idea to wait until the first Service Pack release before installing it. That way you know the major kinks have been ironed out before you come to it, something which isn’t the case if you buy it mere days after its release. All that said, if you do want to use Windows 8, you’ll probably have to choose one of two options: the vanilla Windows 8 version, sometimes called Windows 8 Home, or Windows 8 Pro. That said, there are four in total - substantially down on Windows 7, thankfully - so we’ll cover them all.

All versions of Windows 8 include the new Start Screen with live tiles, Internet Explorer 10 and access to the Windows store. The standard/basic version is just called Windows 8, although to make it clearer, many sites list it under the name Windows 8 Home to emphasise its equivalence to previous versions of Windows. In line with its Home predecessors, this version of Windows 8 lacks a remote desktop server and access to file-system encryption, and supports up to 128GB of RAM.

Windows 8 Pro is the equivalent to previous Professional versions of Windows, but also incorporates some features found in Windows Vista and 7’s Ultimate versions. This version of the OS is aimed at enthusiasts and business users. As well as having a Remote Desktop client and built-in encryption features, it also has Virtual Hard Disk Booting and corporate-friendly access to server domains and group policies. Although you get more features, the performance of applications and software is the same across Windows 8 and Windows 8 Professional, so only pay more if you expect to use features not found in the former!

As mentioned, there are two further versions - Windows 8 Enterprise and Windows 8 RT. The Enterprise edition is aimed at server-administrators and developers, and contains features that home users have no realistic need for. You may read that Windows 8 RT comes with Office applications pre-installed, which may make it seem attractive, but don’t make the mistake of trying to buy it. Windows 8 RT is the ARM-based version designed for tablets only, and even if you could buy it (you can’t, it’s pre-install only) it’s certainly not suitable for use on a home PC.

Windows 7

The advantages of remaining with a slightly older operating system are clear: existing users get a familiar user experience, while incomers find themselves upgrading to a robust, field-tested environment with massive support and years of security tweaks already applied. The disadvantages are that you could miss out on new features, software and drivers (which may be restricted to Windows 8) and worse, that you risk getting stuck in a Windows rut where you never want to upgrade again (like the thousands still running Windows XP). Still, if you want to buy Windows 7, as well as a choice between 32-bit and 64-bit versions, you’ll also have to choose the appropriate edition. There are six in total, but we’ll only cover the popular ones.

The most popular version is Windows 7 Home Premium, the standard consumer version. The first version to have an unrestricted version of the Aero interface, Windows 7 Home Premium is, in most cases, the one you should buy, However, as with other home versions of Windows, it does lack file system encryption and a remote desktop server.

Windows 7 Professional adds both of those features and, like Windows 8 Pro, is aimed at enthusiasts and small business users. Extra capabilities include the alert-silencing Presentation Mode and a Windows XP compatibility mode. It’s worth installing for business laptops, but home users will only get anything out of it if they’re committed to tweaking the guts of their operating system to perfection. Again, there are no performance differences between this or any other version of Windows 7.

The easily fooled might try their luck with Windows 7 Enterprise or Ultimate editions, but neither contains the sort of features useful to the average home user in any way. Support for UNIX applications might sway some people, but in general the extras are aimed at large businesses and organisations. Installing either is more likely to hinder than help. 

Finally, there are two versions that are more basic than Home Premium: Windows 7 Starter, a 32-bit only cut-down version without the Aero interface designed for netbooks and other low-power systems; and Windows 7 Home Basic, which was designed for emerging markets and excludes certain Aero features while adding some geographical restrictions. You certainly shouldn’t be given the option to buy either of these (or Windows 7 Enterprise) when customising your PC, so run a mile if you are, because it means your shop isn’t acting on the level.

What about Vista or Windows XP?

Although we recommended the two most recent versions of Windows, you may be wondering about the conspicuous absence of Windows Vista and Windows XP in this article. The reason we didn’t include these as legitimate options, even though some retailers will still sell them, is that they’re simply not good choices for a new system, regardless of how wedded you might be to them.

Consider, for example, that Windows XP’s official support is due to run out in April 2014, which is about 18 months from new. Even if it did support the most modern hardware, it’s soon going to become incredibly difficult to get anything approaching a security update for Windows XP, which will quickly make it vulnerable to all sorts of online attacks as and when they’re discovered. The truth can’t be denied: Windows XP has had its day, and if you want to use your computer on the Internet, it’s a bad idea to even go near it.

Windows Vista, by comparison, is supported through to 2017, but Windows 7 isn’t just similar to Windows Vista, it’s a direct upgrade of it (Windows Vista’s version number was 6.0, Windows 7’s (confusingly) was 6.1). Any feature worth having in Windows Vista is present in Windows 7, and normally done better (for example, UAC controls, and the updated Start Menu).

Since it was spectacularly unpopular, we can’t imagine there are too many people upset over the lack of a Windows Vista guide, but the truth can’t be denied: Windows XP and Windows Vista are too old to consider for a new system, and realistically, if you’re still hoping to use them it’s time to accept that you have to move on eventually!

Linux

Sometimes, customising your system means taking an entirely different path to the obvious one. If you like, you can save money by forgoing the purchase of an operating system and getting your system without one pre-installed. Instead, why not download a Linux distribution and make the world’s most famous open-source operating system the glue that holds your PC together? 

Linux itself has come a long way since the days when you needed a computing degree and a healthy familiarity with the command line to put it together. These days, most distributions are virtually as simple to use as Windows is, with the added bonus that it and virtually all of its software is free to use.

If you’ve never used Linux before, a distribution like Mint or Ubuntu is a good choice to start with. Their interfaces strongly resemble Windows and can be heavily customised without too much in-depth knowledge. All versions of Linux are very stable (they can run for months, even years between reboots, unlike Windows which occasionally would much rather reboot than anything else) and secure (there’s very little resembling Linux malware in the wild). Its highly engineered system design makes it fast, so it’s especially well-suited to budget and low-end systems. In short, Linux is a choice worth considering even if you’re a die-hard Windows user who has never stepped foot outside of Microsoft’s commercial wonderland. 

Admittedly, Linux is better for some users than others. Gamers, for example, might find themselves struggling a little to run the Microsoft-certified games that dominate the market, but a little work (or a dual-boot system) normally helps you find your way to success in that area. If you’re trying to build a system for an aging relative or computer novice, it’s probably a good idea not to lump them with an unfamiliar system either, but in general, modern Linux distributions can compete with Windows in all sorts of ways, so if you want to save some money and/or try something new, don’t forget that the option is there!

Although there are more operating systems we could cover (hey, we didn’t even mention BeOS!), the other options are unlikely to be offered by PC retailers. And let’s face it: if you’re considering anything more niche than Linux, you don’t need our help deciding whether it’s worth it!