An objective look at Linux, Mac, and Windows

 For years, I was a hardcore Windows advocate.  Playing games provided an amusing distraction, and the operating system for desktop or laptop computers was a no-brainer if you were a gamer.

Gaming on a Mac was laughable, and on Linux it was pretty much non-existent unless you wanted 80's era pixel graphics--or the type of game a Computer Science class would have as a project like Reversi.

It wasn't just gaming, though.  Windows consumed work, too.  Latching on to Microsoft-based development technologies like Active Server Pages (ASP) followed by ASP.NET was a logical step for me, and I dove headfirst into development using .NET for many years.

Of course - Windows had its fair share of problems.  Its broad user base made it a huge target for malware, and the early versions had security as an afterthought.  Variations in hardware and components often made for infuriating compatibility issues or problems with driver support.

Somewhere in the early 2000s I had the opportunity to use a Mac on a regular basis.  At the time, it was top-of-the-line: a Power Mac G4 - and it was the most unreliable thing I had ever used.  Constant lockups plagued the thing, requiring a hard reset to get back to working order.  Sometimes, this happened multiple times a day.

A few years later I was introduced to Linux, and was impressed by the ease with which I could get Ubuntu up and running.  The first few times I tried, though - that was as far as I got: installation.  Booting up a Linux desktop left me sitting at a screen on which I had no idea what to do next.  I didn't know what applications were available, much less know where to look for them.

After a lot of trial and error, plenty of time at either the command line or installation wizard prompts, I feel like I have a very good sense of what each operating system offers.

And I still can't decide which one I like best.

Let's start with the veteran player.

Microsoft Windows

Windows is undeniably the 800 lb. gorilla in the operating systems space.  As Microsoft's flagship product has evolved over the last forty years or so (technically Windows has only been around for about thirty), it has had exponential leaps in security, fit, and finish.  Their latest product, Windows 8.1, was a radical departure from the longstanding model that has been used by Microsoft since the advent of Windows 95.  The semi-minimalist Modern UI borders on mystery-meat navigation, and their focus on touch led to vastly improved usability on tablets and touchscreens.

Unfortunately, that improvement came at a great expense - as many users with a traditional keyboard and mouse found navigation difficult and frustrating.

Despite some lingering usability issues, Windows is still one of the best platforms for gaming.  Pretty much all of the major game studios continue to support Windows as one of their primary platforms, and performance of Microsoft's latest operating system improves on the much-lauded Windows 7.

Mac OS

The prize for the top OS in creative circles goes to Apple with Mac OS X.  The iconic glowing partially-eaten fruit can be seen in trendy hotspots the world over, and for good reason - as Apple has clearly put time, effort, and gobs of money into both R&D and marketing.

Around the turn of the century, Apple was releasing OS X 10.0 - and boy, was it messy.  Several of the apps on my machine needed to run in OS 9 'classic' mode, sucking up resources and basically making the machine run like molasses.  That began to improve significantly once legacy apps started to die off.

These days, it seems that Apple is moving to a forced obsolescence model - making those of us that like to hang on to our devices quite cranky.  The recent introduction of the Mac Pro desktop computer appears to continue this trend, making more parts like the GPU and internal storage not user-replaceable anymore.  It does look like the CPU can be replaced, though.

Today, I use a MacBook Pro daily at work.  Apple is the master at making all of their devices play nice together with minimal frustration.  There are minor things here and there (Microsoft Outlook 2011 sucks, for example), but having Apple products everywhere in your home will save you countless hours of frustration due to interoperability issues.

That convenience comes at a price.  You might have to pull out a second mortgage or sell one of your kidneys to be able to afford it.


Linux popped up in the early 90s when a student at the University of Helsinki became frustrated with the education-only licensing model of another Unix variant called MINIX and decided to write his own.  Fast forward a couple of decades and now it's one of the most popular operating systems available, particularly in the server space.

One of the most popular consumer-oriented Linux distributions is Ubuntu, which installs and functions very much as you would expect a desktop operating system to function.  While it is certainly possible to fire up a Slackware or Arch Linux instance and customize every minute detail, Ubuntu gives ordinary people the ability to install and use a free, community supported operating system without tearing all their hair out.

I say "ALL their hair" because it's definitely still Linux.  There is a helpful and active community, but it really is helpful mostly for those that help themselves.  Installing Ubuntu because it's free and expecting it to work like a Mac sets you up for a world of frustration and disappointment.

In terms of setup - Ubuntu appears to support most modern hardware with little to no configuration.  Trying to get a Linksys wireless adapter working on an old Dell server was a nightmare, though.

If you like free, and don't mind getting your hands a bit dirty - Linux might be a good choice.

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