Choosing an Operating System

Most people have never thought about buying an operating system. It came with the computer when they bought it. Most people use Microsoft Windows and have come to expect computers to work a certain way, few people have had reason to even wonder what an operating system is. Though those “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC” ads may have got some percentage of the population wondering.

So what is an operating system? It’s the software (computer program) that gets your computer working. It makes your monitor and mouse work when you plug them in. It gives you a way to start the games and word processors you use, and gives those programs the resources they need to function. It also enables your computer to connect with the internet and other computers.

So choosing an operating system is looking at the big picture of how your computer works. Most people have only heard of one (Windows) or two (Windows and Mac) operating systems. I’d like to introduce you to a third: Linux.

So, why would anyone want to choose an operating system? What difference does it make?

Why Consider Mac?

Apple have been making personal computers pretty much since personal computers have existed. Apple computers are designed for elegance and ease of use.

Most of the Apple Macintosh users I have met are are very passionate, and find it hard to understand why someone would use anything else. They see themselves as being Mac users for life.

Why should you consider joining them?

Macintosh computers are works of art. They are both gorgeous and elegant. They are of very high quality. And these days the prices are quite comparable to other computers, although they don’t sell “budget” computers that are basically crap.

Macintosh software is full featured and easy to use. The basic applications generally have more features than the programs that come with Windows.

And you are very unlikely to meet a virus while using a Mac. Not only are there very few viruses written to attack Macs, the security settings on a Mac are very good, and keep most malware at bay.

So, next time you’re considering buying a new computer, visit an Apple Centre and check out a Mac!

And What Is Linux?

Linux is an operating system in the same way that Microsoft Windows is an operating system. In fact, Linux is an alternative to Microsoft Windows.

An operating system is the software (computer program) that makes your computer work. It operates your computer hardware (keyboard, mouse, monitor, drives etc), and operates your computer software (word processor, games, music). Without an operating system, a computer is just an expensive door stopper.

So, Linux is an alternative to operating systems like Microsoft Windows and Mac OS, except:

  • It is generally free of cost.
  • And comes with lots of programs you would normally have to spend more money on.
  • And is essentially free from viruses.
  • And is constantly being updated.

Linux doesn’t belong to anyone, so there are many different versions of it designed for lots of different sorts of people. If you have never tried Linux you will want to start with a distribution that is easy to use.

Linux Distributions

Imagine a kid in a candy store – and all the lollies are free. The mouth waters. The mind boggles. So many options. So many taste combinations. Where do a start? How long can I stay?

Now imagine a geek in his electronic equivalent. A free operating system. Tens and hundreds of thousands of free programs. All freely available from the internet. All customisable. And you can share them all freely with your friends. What is the ideal combination of programs he can put together? What is the coolest look? What will his friends think?

Or imagine a company trying to put together the most effective and stable collection of applications they can – either for themselves, or to share with other companies. Out of all of the available programs, only so many will fit on the CD they are sharing. What are the best programs to choose?

This is what a Linux distribution (distro) is: A customised version of Linux combined with a set of free programs put together by an individual, a community, or a company.

Different distros may also have different “flavours”, different installation methods, differerent ways of updating software, and different interfaces. Some are designed for specific groups of people to help with specific jobs (e.g. recording studios, scientists, playing back movies and multimedia), while other distros are more general.

In this section I introduce you to some of my favourites.

What If You Want To Stick With Windows?

Your computer is already running Windows. You’re familiar with it. All your friends use it. Especially your geeky friends who help you with your computer problems. You want to stick with Windows. Fair enough.

But you need to realise that Windows is the least secure and most attacked operating system. That means you need to be careful, and take precautions. You need to practice safe computing. (Actually, everyone should be aware of computer security and practice safe computing. But it is more likely that Windows will suffer the consequences for not doing so.)

Here are some practical hints.

How Do I Keep My Computer Safe?

Surfing the internet is like swimming with sharks! You are constantly in danger of attack and serious damage.

  • There is the danger of viruses and trojans. These are programs designed by intelligent but misguided people to cause you inconvenience or disaster.
  • There is the danger of adware which can cause an infuriating number of advertising popups when we surf the internet, alter the ads on the sites we visit, and even redirect our journey on the internet to visit sites we had no intention of going to.
  • There is the danger of spyware which is designed to record and report on what we use our computer for. Spyware can record the keys we type on our computers, including passwords and other confidential details. Spyware can record the internet sites we visit, and give that information to advertisers.
  • There is the annoyance of spam – junk mail that jams our email inboxes, and makes the paper version we get in our letter boxes seem very tame.

The existence of all of this malware means that we need to be very smart computer users. It is possible to protect ourselves so that we minimise the impact of these things.

When using Microsoft Windows, there are programs we can use, and habits we can develop, to minimise the impact of malware. And when using alternatives to Microsoft Windows, you will find very little reason for concern – although you will still want to make sensible computing decisions.

I meet people who regularly format their computers to recover from attack on almost a daily basis. A little knowledge and change in practice will make that no longer necessary.