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In the past, the only consumer operating systems that mattered were Windows and maybe Mac OS X and Linux. Now, we also have Chrome OS, Android, iOS, and Windows Phone to worry about. And new versions of these operating systems are coming out even more frequently. Microsoft recently released the Windows 8.1 Preview for users to try How To Upgrade To Windows 8.1 Preview & What To Expect How To Upgrade To Windows 8.1 Preview & What To Expect Anyone using Windows 8 can now upgrade to a preview version of Windows 8.1 for free. This update refines Windows 8, giving keyboard and mouse users important interface improvements and making the Modern interface more... Read More  and the final version is due in just a few months, Mac OS X updates once per year, and Chrome OS updates every six weeks.

Things are changing frequently. The days of learning a single operating system like Windows XP and using it for ten years are behind us. Here are some tips for keeping up with new operating systems and learning how they work.

Visit a Brick and Mortar Store

You could easily buy a new laptop, smartphone, or tablet online without ever touching it. However, physical stores still exist. They’re a great place to go play with the latest hardware in person. A big electronics store like a Best Buy in the USA will have a variety of different devices for you to play with.

Such stores will have devices running everything from Windows 8 and Android to Apple’s Macbooks and iPads. Many stores, including Best Buy, now also stock Google’s Chromebooks. If you’re looking at phone operating systems, cellular carriers should have everything from the iPhone and latest Android phones to Windows Phone and BlackBerry devices.

Both Apple and Microsoft also run their own stores. Visit an Apple Store or Microsoft Store to play with the hardware and ask questions of more knowledgeable salespeople.

You can read all you want about these new operating systems online, but there’s no substitute for going and playing with them in person — and you can do that for free.

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brick-and-mortar-electronics-store

Read Up

While you’ll have to actually use a new operating system to really become familiar with it, you should also read about that operating system. Just using a Windows 8 system won’t teach you everything you need to know about Windows 8 and all its hidden gestures and shortcuts 3 Ways to Disable Windows 8 Gestures 3 Ways to Disable Windows 8 Gestures Windows 8 is full of gestures and shortcuts. In addition to touch-screen gestures, there are swipe gestures you can perform with your laptop's touchpad and mouse gestures that involve moving your cursor to the corners... Read More . Even on a more intuitive operating system like Apple’s iOS, reading about it will teach you more tricks that you wouldn’t otherwise know.

We offer guides that will give you an introduction to everything from Windows 8, Mac OS X, and Ubuntu to iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.

makeuseof-windows-8-guide

Use a Virtual Machine

Virtual machines allow you to install operating systems on virtual hardware, running them in a window on your computer’s current desktop. The operating system will be slower than if it was running on actual hardware, but a virtual machine is a great way to play with a new operating system without messing up your current OS. When you’re done with the virtual machine, you can just shut it down by closing the window and continue using your current operating system.

Linux distributions like Ubuntu are easy to install in a virtual machine, especially because Linux distributions are free to download. You can also use Google’s Chrome OS in a virtual machine How To Try Google Chrome OS On Your PC How To Try Google Chrome OS On Your PC How many times have you been approached by a friend or family member who says that they really have very little use for a big, powerful computer, since all they do with it is check... Read More .

Microsoft offers trial versions of many of its operating systems. For example, Microsoft is currently providing a preview image of Windows 8.1 that anyone can install. You wouldn’t want to install this time-limited preview on your computer. Installing it in a virtual machine is the perfect way to play with Windows 8.1 and see what’s new.

Read our guide to getting started with virtual machines What Is a Virtual Machine? What Is a Virtual Machine? Virtual machines allow you to run other operating systems within your current operating system, but why does that matter? What are the pros and cons? Read More for more information.

microsoft virtual machine

Run it Live – Linux Only

Linux distributions can be run from a USB drive, CD, or DVD in a “live” environment. The Linux distribution can be used normally, just as if it were installed — but it will be running off the installation media. This is a great way to play with a new Linux system, like Ubuntu, without actually modifying your computer in any way. When you’re done, you can just reboot your PC and eject the Linux media. Or, if you decide you like the Linux system, you can install it on your PC right from the live environment.

If you’re interested in trying Linux, be sure to read our list of easy ways to try Linux on your computer Curious About Linux? 5 Easy & No Risk Ways To Try Linux On Your Windows PC Curious About Linux? 5 Easy & No Risk Ways To Try Linux On Your Windows PC Want to check out Linux, but fear you might wreck your existing Windows installation? Don't. There are plenty of risk-free ways to try Linux, from live CDs to USB keys to virtual machines. Whether you're... Read More .

Unfortunately, this only really applies to Linux. While Windows 8 can run in a live environment, Microsoft restricts this feature to the Enterprise edition of Windows 8 Which Windows 8 Version Is For You? Which Windows 8 Version Is For You? If you’re interested in upgrading, you’ll also need to know which edition of Windows 8 is right for you. The good news is that Microsoft has simplified the different editions of Windows in Windows 8... Read More .

try linux inside windows

Install on an Old Computer

If you have an old computer lying around, you may prefer to skip the virtual machine and just install the new operating system on actual hardware. You can obviously do this with Windows and Linux, but you can even install Mac OS X on a standard PC to play with it.

You could also install these operating systems in a dual-boot configuration on your current PC. However, that would involve partitioning and require that you reboot your current PC when you want to play with the new operating system.

laptop-with-open-disc-drive

Use a Simulator

Some companies provide simulators that “simulate” the experience of using an operating system. A simulator is not the best way to play with an operating system because you’re not actually using the operating system — you’re just messing around with an imperfect imitation of the operating system.

For example, Ubuntu provides an online tour that you can use in your browser. It somewhat imitates the experience of using Ubuntu’s Unity desktop, but it is not the same.

ubuntu-online-tour

Microsoft’s official Windows Phone 8 simulator demonstrates some aspects of the Windows Phone interface, such as the Start screen and live tiles. For Windows 8, Online Windows 8 provides an unofficial simulator that attempts to feel like Windows 8 in a browser. It’s a valiant effort and feels a bit like using Windows 8, but the experience is only skin-deep.

Simulators are good for a quick, cursory look at another operating system. However, they’re not the real operating system and you shouldn’t rely on them for anything more than a quick glance at a new interface. They don’t work exactly the same and will have a variety of missing features.

windows-phone-8-simulator

Obviously, if you have a friend with a new Windows 8 computer, Macbook, Chromebook, iPad, iPhone, Android device, or anything else you want to try, you can ask them to let you use it. As we said, there’s no substitute for actually getting your hands on a new piece of hardware and using the operating system as it’s meant to be used.

Do you have any other tips for getting up-to-speed with new operating systems? Leave a comment and let us know how you do it!

Image Credit: Compudemano on Flickr, Intel Free Press on Flickr, Laptop with open compact disc drive via Shutterstock, Young man thinking

  1. On W
    July 23, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    I tested serveral Linux distros with their live options before settling on Ubuntu Kylin. I think the live distros are winners as you can use them almost any where.

  2. Chinmay S
    July 23, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    No one needs to learn iOS because it is the most simplest OS ever created. Anyone can get familiar with it without any kind of help.

    • S-O
      July 23, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      Funny guy, this one.

    • Chris Hoffman
      July 31, 2013 at 1:21 am

      I disagree. Even if it's simpler to use than Windows 8 (i'd agree, with this), there's still stuff to learn. How do you access the quick app switcher? What do all the multiple-finger swipe gestures do? Where is everything located in the OS?

    • Evan Spangler
      August 2, 2013 at 11:02 pm

      Sure, it's easy to do all five things on iOS. Keep your "most simplest" OS.

  3. Kieran Colfer
    July 23, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    You forgot one: find one of your friends/co-workers who's already running whatever OS you're thinking of, and ask them to show you it. If they're a true geek, they'll be itching to show off what their latest toy can do anyway :-P

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