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Operating System Choices and Issues
The operating system (commonly abbreviated OS) is the central piece of software that acts as the "general manager" of the PC, interfacing the hardware of the system and the applications that you want to run. Every PC has to have an operating system in order to allow it to do anything useful. Some PCs actually have more than one.
I'm not going to try to explain all there is to know about operating systems in a few paragraphs. Aside from being pointless--it can't be done in a quality manner--it is beyond the scope of this Buyer's Guide. I do, however, want to introduce the more common PC operating systems, and more importantly, discuss how the choice of software and operating system affects your hardware selections.
Most PCs run one of the Microsoft operating systems. These are broken into two general categories:
Most new PCs are now shipping with Windows 98, Windows ME or some level of Windows 2000. However, if you don't want to go with a Microsoft operating system, there are alternatives. One is an increasingly-popular version of UNIX called Linux; another is BeOS. Most people stay with Windows and don't consider these choices because they want to stay with the "mainstream" and be able to run Windows applications. Linux and BeOS certainly don't run nearly as much software as the various Windows versions do, but they support a reasonable selection of applications in their own right. If properly set up, they can also run much more reliably and with higher performance than the Microsoft operating systems. They are usually more complex to install and require more skill to manage than the mainstream OSes. As I'll discuss below, they also may require you to do your own technical support for them.
The operating system sits between the hardware of the system and the applications. This means that there are two different compatibility issues that must be taken into consideration when planning your system: the applications you want to run must be compatible with the operating system, and the hardware must be compatible with the operating system as well. Here are some of the critical issues to keep in mind regarding operating system choice and your new PC:
Note: Utility software is
always OS-specific to some extent since it is working with the OS at an intimate level.
Utility software writers usually make different versions for different operating systems.
Warning: Many hardware vendors
will not provide support for non-Microsoft operating systems for a simple reason: they
probably don't have anyone around that knows anything about them, making support nearly
impossible. If you want to use one of these you'll have to rely on your own smarts in
combination with a healthy assortment of online resources. If you install Linux on a
standard retail PC and run into any problems with the hardware, expect the company
to blame it on the Linux install, even when it is clearly a hardware issue..
You may be given a choice at the time you order your PC of which operating system you prefer, and also if you want it preinstalled or not. Having the OS preinstalled is more convenient and will save time over doing it yourself, but many "power users" prefer to install the operating system themselves so they have control over the various choices made during the install process. Most companies will install the operating system by default, so if you don't want them to, be sure to ask.
Tip: Whether the PC maker
installs the operating system or not, make sure you get the
source CD for the OS included with the system; you may need it later on.
Next: Essential PC Software