Wednesday, 16 May 2012

I need a new laptop, pt. 4: Operating System

The question of operating systems is an awkward one to address, partly because there are many people who do not really know what an operating system is (and it is very difficult to explain), and partly because advice about operating systems is usually given by people who have a strong, passionate and evangelical love for one of them in particular.  In view of this, I should put my cards on the table right now and explain my own personal preference - but instead I will do this at the end, and perhaps you can tell me whether you were able to predict it.

What is an operating system?

This heading is really to allow those who already know this bit, to move smoothly on to the next section.  In order to explain what an operating system is, I am going to need the help of your imaginations while I construct a wee analogy...

Imagine an empty room.  Nothing in it at all.  Bare walls.  Not even a floor - just some rafters which look down on the plumbing pipes below.  For the purposes of this analogy, this room is your computer.  Now the problem here is that because the room is empty, there is not really much you can do with it.  You can't watch telly in it, you can't sleep in it, you can't make a cup of tea in it.  Hopefully it will have the sockets which mean you can plug a kettle in somewhere, but on the whole pretty useless.

Now imagine if we wanted to turn this room into something we can feel comfortable in, use to sit in, to watch telly in, to drink tea in and to work in.  All of these functions require certain pieces of equipment.  We would need chairs, a television, a table, some lights, etc..  These pieces of equipment are like pieces of software on our computers.  For example, I if I wanted to be able to write a letter on a computer the piece of equipment I would use might be Microsoft Word.  If I wanted to browse the internet, I might use Google Chrome.  These applications are tools for specific tasks - and I bring into my computer (room) whichever ones I need.

However, if we think again about our empty room, we cannot bring any furniture into the room until we have first built a floor for them to sit on.  We might floor the room with expensive wood, or with a nice soft carpet - but the floor is essential if we want to bring anything else into the room.  Now for the purposes of this analogy, the floor is our operating system.

The operating system is a piece of software on which all our other programs sit.  It is the base which determines how we move from one program to another.  It determines how we connect to the internet, how our files are saved and how they are stored.  It determines how we can make things work just the way we want them to.

There are three main types of operating system:

Microsoft Windows.

By far the most common operating system on computers, and statistically the one you are most likely to be familiar with.  Windows is where Microsoft has traditionally made its money, and even now if you go anywhere are try and buy a computer, Windows is likely to be the operating system installed on it.  For some years Microsoft suffered from two things: Firstly, everone used them.  Secondly, nobody liked them.

The first was a problem because when you achieve the kind of market domination Windows had for most of the last few decades, then there is little incentive to actually try and produce something good.  Windows Vista was a classic example of this.  As an operating system is was actually very innovative.  It was clever, used sophisticated new base coding, and was pretty much one of the most horrible operating systems to have ever emerged from the primeval sludge of beta testing.  It was complicated.  Nobody really understood how it worked - although this was not often a problem because it rarely worked.

Of course, this was never really a huge problem for Microsoft, because so many computers were sold with Vista pre-installed that within a year of its release it had already sold over 60 million copies.  Who was going to argue that they were doing anything wrong?  Even today, Windows hold over 80% of the operating system market.

Which is why nobody liked them.  Microsoft was so huge as a company, that it often felt to people as though Bill Gates was actually the real leader of the free world.  Windows systems became public enemy no. 1, especially with hackers and designers of those nasty viruses and bugs which mess up your systems, delete your files and steal your credit card details.

When, in 1998 the US courts filed against Microsoft for anti-competetiveness, there was general rejoicing as we saw Gates squirm in his seat, and as the court declared the decision the the Microsoft empire be broken up.  It was like the Leveson enquiry and the fall of the Roman Empire in one.  Just look at the rather delicious video of one protest as Gates arrived at an EU anti-trust hearing in Belgium:

(Incidentally, one of the funniest things in this video is the new reporter describing with such outraged sincerity a man with a custard pie as one of a 'hit squad'.  Considering the fact that the guy was predictably jumped on by about 7 full-trained bodyguards, I would hardly call the act 'cowardly' either.  Wonder who was paying his salary at the time, eh?!)

But things have changed.  Micosoft may still have the lion share of the operating system market - but that number is falling.  In 2009, Microsoft was the undisputed champion of technology companies but since then they have been falling behind.  The irony is that following the execrable Vista, Micosoft followed up with the much more polished and user-freindly Windows 7.

Windows 7 is a very good operating system.  Easy to use, and for most people very familiar.  There is also likely to be a good change it will already be on your computer when you buy it anyway.

Apple OSX

If Microsoft was Rupert Murdoch and Julius Caesar in one, the Apple has always been thought of as Leonardo da Vinci.  Apple computers have always been beautiful.  They have traditionally focused on design, flair and innovation, wrapped in a bubble of user-freindliness which makes their computers often quite joyous to use.

The late-departed Steve Jobs oversaw the radical turn-around of Apple's fortunes, when for a time it looked like Microsoft had effectively muscled them out of business.  Jobs focused on those aspects of usability and design which Microsoft had started to ignore.  For dedicated Mac-users, it felt like a kind of hippy insurrection.  With Bill Gates on the one side talking about market shares and algorythms, it was actually rather trippy to be hearing Steve Jobs talking about beauty, creativity and imagination.

Of course it was always more than this.  Apple's operating systems were wrapped in beautiful design, but as pieces of technology they were fearsomely impressive.  They were stable, efficient and fast.  And what was more, because Apple were seen as a hippy insurrection even those dastardly hackers and virus designers did not have the heart to attack them - so they were very safe.

This, too, has changed - almost without our noticing it.  When Microsoft lost the title of World's Biggest Tech Company in 2009, they lost it to Apple.  And Apple still have it.  It is one of the most profitable companies in the world.  Steve Jobs was (until his recent death) now the richest man in the Silicon Valley, while Bill Gates had retired and was spending all his time and money trying to make the world a better place.

It is therefore rather to their credit that unlike Microsoft they have not let this success diminish the standards they set themselves.  I defy anyone to spend ten minutes playing with an iPad and not to be slightly in awe at just how beautifully the thing works.

But here is the problem.  Apple's operating systems can only be found on Apple machines.  If you have the cash, then good for you - you can get it.  However, if you think that the cheapest new Apple laptop will probably set you back about 800 quid, and you can buy a laptop with Windows from as little as 300, you can understand perhaps why OSX is still a long way from challenging Windows 7.  OSX has lost its protection as well.  It's increased market share has made it an attractive target for hackers and those who create viruses - and while Microsoft has had many years to develop defences against this kind of thing, it is relatively new for Apple and there is a sense that they have not really caught up with the trend yet.

One final thing has changed though.  It used to be the case that people who loved Apple systems still had to run a Windows system as well, because many of the programs which they wanted to use would only run on Windows.  Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint once only worked on a Windows operating system.  This is no longer true.  Indeed, most mainstream programs are readily available for both Windows and Mac systems - and they are not even three times more expensive, either.


Linux is an operating system which was designed by an idealist named Linus Torvalds.  Torvalds felt that knowledge should be free, and so should software - so Linux is an entirely free operating system.  Even if you have bought a computer with Windows already installed on it, the prince of Windows is factored in somehow and has probably added another 50 quid or so to the price.

The basic structure of Linux systems is freely available for anyone to change or much about with, and there are many groups of programmers who have done this and designed their own operating systems based on Linux.  These variations of Linux are knows as 'distributions', and following the principles of Linux they are all 'open source' too (which basically means they are free).  So Linux itself is not really one operating system, it is many.  Each distribution of Linux meets specific purposes.  For example, Ubuntu and Mint (two of the most popular versions) are designed to be freindly and intuitive versions which most Windows or OSX users could quickly and easily get comfortable with.  Debian is a dependable version for those who don't like things to change too often.  Fedora is aimed a little more at technology businesses.

More recently, Linux-based programming has been used by Google to develop the Android mobile phone operating system - which is now by far the most successful Linux brand, and suggests that the future for Linux-based systems is arguably rosier than ever.

The benefits of a Linux system, apart from the fact that it is free, is that you can really customise it any way you want.  Want it to work like OSX?   Fine.  Want it to look like Vista?  Done.  A Linux system will usually have access to a vast repository of free software which pretty much covers anything you might want a computer to do.  There are free versions of Microsoft Office.  Free versions of Photoshop, Illustrator, video editors, etc..  It is actually extremely efficient as well.  A Linux system can usually handle tasks with surprising speed, and if you were to replace a Windows system with Ubuntu you are likely to be startled by just how much disc space you have freed up.  Finally, you will never need to worry about hackers or viruses.  This is partly because the design of the system itself makes it impossible for anyone (even yourself) to make serious changes to your system without permission.  It is also partly because Linux is both ideologically and commerically not a viable concern for people who want design viruses.

The problem with a Linux system is that it does not always work fresh out of the box.  You might find that you need to do a little tinkering to get it to work.  If you don't mind that, it can be a terrific option - particularly if you are setting up on a computer which has not already got an operating system pre-installed.

You can find an excellent guide to the main Linux distributions at the DistroWatch website.  It is Ubuntu - the preferred choice of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory) which has traditionally been the most popular distribution (although Mint is fast on its heels). 


To be honest, for most people there are only two choices.  You are either going to buy an Apple computer with OSX pre-installed, or another laptop with Windows pre-installed.  Until recently some companies, like Dell, offered laptops with Ubuntu pre-installed - but they don't any more.  You have to go searching overseas for bespoke companies like System76 if you want to find machines custom-desinged for Linux, and their shipping costs immediately override any cost benefits from using Linux in the first place.

[ADDITION: Dell are to start offering laptops with Ubuntu pre-installed again!No real details yet, but for modest (i.e. not particularly techie) users like myself, this is like hearing that the Stone Roses have re-formed.  Which, by the way, they have.]

Between OSX and Windows the decision is really one of cost.  As I have already mentioned, my budget is limited - and realistically this means Windoes is my only option.  However... I am going to change the rules a little bit.

I wonder if anyone noticed my own operating system allegiance?  I am, of course, a Linux Ubuntu user.  I love Linux both because of how I can make it work, and because of what it stands for.  It has not been an untroubled relationship - Linux and I have had some significant fights over issues like wireless connections and touchpad drivers, but somehow this has just made me feel more invested in the Linux brand.

Try as I might, I simply cannot find anywhere that sells computers without Windows pre-installed - and if I have a copy of Windows anyway it would be wasteful to simply delete it.  So, my plan is to 'dual boot'.  All this really means is that I can run two different operating systems on the same machine.  When I start up my computer, I will have the option of using either the pre-installed Windows or Ubuntu.  There are plenty of guides online which can show you how to do this (like the one from Lifehacker), and in many ways it is the best option because it even gives you a change to try out a different operating system if you are not sure.

Another alternative is a piece of software called Virtualbox, which enables you to run a different operating system from a window inside another one.  It is kind of like opening up a browser window, and seeing an entirely different operating system working inside it.

I do encourage that people at least give Linux a shot.  There is a myth that you need to be a real tecchie nerd to be able to use it - but in truth I'm not sure I would describe myself as one of those, and I have freinds who are complete techno-phobes and have been using Ubuntu blissfully for many years without a hitch.

My laptop has died. How do I choose a new one?
I need a new laptop, pt. 1: What do I use it for?

I need a new laptop, pt. 2: Size and Weight
I need a new laptop, pt. 3: Brand