Choosing between operating systems isn’t a new problem — it’s been around for a few decades. But the latest incarnations of both software and hardware offer some new options to consumers at all price and experience levels.
Windows and Mac have been in active development for decades, and if you’re looking for a computer for work, odds are that you’re going to go for one or the other. Chrome OS, a Linux-based system developed by Google, is more of an anomaly. It’s based on Google’s Chrome browser, with much of the same interface and a web-focused design. It isn’t for the typical user, but Google has been improving it steadily for the last few years, and it’s worth consideration for a broader base of users.
- Best selection of software and widest variety of hardware
- Can work on desktops, notebooks, and tablets
- Easily the best choice for gamers
- Works with almost all accessories
- Biannual updates introduce new features
- Faster update schedule can become confusing
- Compatibility issues with some hardware
- Different versions create confusion
- Microsoft struggles to get modern apps written
Microsoft’s Windows 10 holds approximately 90 percent of the desktop and laptop market worldwide. The reasons why are complicated, but we can break it down into two factors — hardware and software variety.
Because Microsoft sells Windows licenses to more or less any PC manufacturer to load on desktops, laptops, tablets, and everything in between, you can get a Windows machine in almost any size, shape, or price range. Microsoft even sells Windows on its own, so consumers and businesses can manually load it onto their hardware. That wide-open approach has let it conquer all competitors over the last few decades.
Because of its worldwide availability and longevity, Windows also boasts the biggest software library on the planet. Windows users don’t get every new application that comes on the market, but even those they don’t receive initially tend to come to Windows eventually. Consumer, media, enterprise, gaming, it doesn’t matter — if you want the most comprehensive array of capabilities, Windows is the way to go.
At least, that’s true regarding traditional desktop applications written for Microsoft’s venerable Win32 platform, such as its own Office 2016 suite. Today, the company has made a massive bet on its Windows 10 app platform, called the Universal Windows Platform (UWP), that’s meant to be Microsoft’s answer to the battery-efficient, secure, and easy to manage mobile apps on iOS and Android. UWP hasn’t taken off, though, and that leaves Microsoft somewhat precariously straddling the old and the new.
Works with everything
Windows also boasts compatibility with the most extensive array of hardware. That’s a significant consideration if you want to play graphically intense video games or work with high-powered software for media, video editing, or computer-aided design. There aren’t any Chrome OS systems that offer high-end desktop hardware, and MacOS has recently received ultra-power, up-to-date hardware in the iMac Pro.
Also, the Windows PC ecosystem has exploded in terms of the different kinds of form factors available to buyers. There are the usual desktop and traditional clamshell notebooks, which are more powerful and higher in quality than ever and range in price from just a few hundred dollars for entry-level options all the way up to many thousands for premium machines. The 2-in-1 market is probably the most intriguing development, giving users access to a host of fascinating devices that can morph from notebooks to touch- and pen-enabled tablets by swiveling the display, tearing it off, or removing a detachable keyboard.
Though most accessories are universal since the introduction of the USB standard, Windows still technically boasts the most compatibility with third-party add-ons, too. Just about any mouse, keyboard, webcam, storage drive, graphics tablet, printer, scanner, microphone, monitor, or other doodad you care to add to your computer will work with Windows, which is something that can’t always be said for Mac and is true to an even lesser extent for Chrome OS.
Windows also gets universal and updated drivers, some provided by Microsoft and some developed by the hardware manufacturers themselves, at a much more frequent rate than alternatives. The bottom line is that if you want to use it, then Windows 10 is your best best.
Rapid and meaningful updates
If you haven’t used Windows in a few years, then you may associate it with slow, tepid progress. That’s no longer true. With Windows 10, Microsoft committed to more timely updates. And it has executed.
In fact, those who want to access the cutting-edge — or the bleeding edge — can join the free Insider program, which puts out new updates almost every week. Insiders get access to fixes, tweaks, and major new features — and they do add up over time. Not only do Insiders get immediate access to the latest capabilities, but they also help shape the OS by providing ongoing feedback to Microsoft.
In one of the more recent official updates, for example (Windows 10 Fall Creators update), Microsoft added a host of new features and revamped the user interface. In April of 2018, Microsoft is now set to release the Windows 10 April 2018 Update, which adds in a powerful new productivity feature called Timeline, letting users go back in time to pick up tasks and apps.
Generally speaking, Microsoft has committed to a biannual update schedule that provides a major new version each April and October or thereabouts, and that means Windows 10 never grows stale. Over time, this rapid update policy has given Windows 10 an edge over MacOS, which updates every year but usually with just one or two significant new features. Chrome OS also updates quickly, but Google only rarely introduces major new features — which has slowed progress relative to Windows and MacOS. The rapid Windows 10 update cycle does mean getting used to new features and being exposed to possible bugs on a more frequent basis, but so far Windows users seem to favor the tradeoff.
Compatibility problems and version confusion
With all that said, Windows isn’t perfect. The open nature of Microsoft’s relationship with desktop and laptop manufacturers means that two different machines, often with the same specifications, can and do perform very differently. Production quality can vary wildly, even within hardware from the same manufacturer. That makes choosing a new Windows 10 PC a challenge on occasion.
Windows has also had the reputation of being less secure than MacOS and Chrome OS, simply because it’s the most-used desktop operating system and thus the most targeted. Windows includes a numerous Microsoft tools and safeguards to prevent and clean viruses and other threats, and third-party tools are also available. Therefore, Windows 10 is much more secure than it once was in spite of remaining the most-attacked OS — it’s simply no longer quite the security risk it once was.
The wide variety of Windows hardware can cause problems as well. Windows’ complex driver system can cause system errors that are left to the user to diagnose and solve, and frequent updates from Microsoft might break software or devices that haven’t considered or anticipated. For that reason, Windows is more difficult to administer for the typical user, although the Windows update infrastructure built into Windows 10 does make things easier than they were in the old days of scouring the web looking for updates.
Finally, Microsoft has created something of a confusing situation with its “Windows 10 S” initiative. Microsoft originally introduced Windows 10 S as a locked-down, secure, and high-performance version of Windows 10 meant for schools and other environments where administrators didn’t want users to make changes to the OS. And, Windows 10 S only ran UWP apps except for Microsoft’s Office 2016, which meant easier administration and better security compared to installing applications from anywhere and outside of the UWP sandbox.
Microsoft abandoned Windows 10 S as a standalone version soon after its introduction, however, and instead rebranded it as a “mode” of regular Windows 10. Overall, it’s a confusing situation that creates some uncertainty about where exactly Microsoft is heading with Windows 10.
Is Windows for you?
Windows is in a must better position than it was just a few years ago. The newest version, Windows 10, is more elegant and easier to understand than past editions, and it receives frequent updates.
The problem of complexity does remain. You will likely encounter more bugs with Windows than with its competition. But these bugs are rarely the fatal errors that used to drag Windows’ systems to a halt, and they’re balanced by features and hardware compatibility that is simply unavailable with Microsoft’s competition.