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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Designing and Specifying PC Systems and Components | Software Issues in PC Specification ]

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:

  • "Consumer" Operating Systems: These are operating systems designed primarily for use by individuals: Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows ME (Millennium Edition). They evolved from the older Microsoft operating systems (DOS and Windows 3.1). Windows ME is the newest in this line and is an enhanced version of Windows 98, which is in turn very similar to Windows 95, but updated. These are the most widely used operating systems in the PC world, and they support the widest range of hardware and software, but are susceptible to crashes and may have performance issues. (Incidentally, there are many machines still running Windows 3.1 or even straight DOS!)
  • "Professional" Operating Systems: Windows NT, and its successor, Windows 2000, were redesigned from the ground up rather than being based upon older versions of DOS or Windows. They are focused towards the professional and business market, and emphasize security, reliability and performance. Their disadvantages are software support, hardware requirements, and cost. There are several different versions of each of these, depending on how much capability you need and how much you are willing to spend.

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:

  • Special Application Compatibility: Not all applications will run on all operating systems. If you have a special application that is the primary reason for purchasing the machine, you should let that guide your operating system decision: it may require a particular OS. For example, some high-end applications will only run on Windows NT or Windows 2000. Some may only run on Windows 95, 98 or ME. Some require Linux or even a different flavor of UNIX.
  • General Application Compatibility: Some operating systems support a wider variety of software applications than others. Microsoft is trying to get all new Windows software to be written so that it will run on both the "consumer" and "professional" operating systems, and most applications do work on both. There are, however, software programs that only work on the consumer operating systems. This is especially true of older software, and also of many entertainment software titles--these often have issues with Windows NT or Windows 2000.

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.

  • Hardware Compatibility: You need to ensure that the operating system you want to run will work with the hardware you are selecting, and vice-versa. Some PC manufacturers will not support some operating systems--in fact, the hardware may still work with an "unsupported" OS, but the company may not provide technical assistance. Be especially careful with notebook machines, which may not function properly at all if you install operating systems on them that haven't been tested and approved.

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..

  • Specific Hardware and Driver Support: On certain operating systems your PC may work, but certain hardware items may not function. This is usually either because no drivers have been written for them, or the operating system is incapable of making use of the hardware. For example, Windows 95 and 98 will not make use of more than one system processor in a PC, but Windows NT and 2000 will use two, four or more CPUs. Windows NT and 2000 of course have other restrictions that the consumer operating systems don't. Sometimes an operating system can have support added for newer hardware through a patch.
  • Hardware Requirements: Some operating systems are much more demanding when it comes to the hardware needed to run them than others. In general, the newer the operating system, the more CPU power and system memory it needs to run effectively. It's also generally the case that the professional operating systems require more hardware than the consumer-level ones do, especially system memory.

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

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