Buying a new PC? You have more operating system choices than ever. Windows is still popular, but Macs are now surprisingly affordable compared to higher-end Windows PCs. Google also offers Chromebooks that are simple and cheap, and Linux laptops are an option, too. You could even use an Android tablet or iPad with a keyboard as a laptop replacement.
But which should you choose when it’s time to buy a new computer? We’ll give you an overview of all your choices, along with their advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a spoiler: There’s no one best option for everyone.
You probably know all about Windows. It’s the most popular desktop and laptop operating system in the world and offers the widest compatibility with existing software and hardware. Windows PCs range from laptops that cost only a few hundred dollars — often with questionable build quality — all the way up to expensive high-end gaming PCs.
If you’re comfortable with Windows, it’s an obvious option. Windows 8.1 smoothes out some of Windows 8‘s rough edges and makes it more tolerable on a PC, and you can still install a third-party Start menu and never look at the full-screen interface, formerly known as “Metro”, if you don’t like it.
Windows PCs have excellent compatibility with all the software you’d want to run, whether it’s typical consumer desktop software, internal business apps that were designed for Windows, or PC games that are still primarily coming out for Windows PCs. They’re available at a wide variety or price ranges to suit all budgets. You’re probably already familiar with the Windows desktop, which is a plus.
On the other hand, Windows computers are often packed with bloatware and often don’t have the attention to detail you’ll find on a Mac laptop, for example. The trackpads on Windows laptops — even expensive ones — are generally still inferior to the ones you’d find on a Mac. Most malware is written for Windows systems, so they’re the most vulnerable in the real world. Windows 8.1 also involves some learning if you’re coming from Windows 7 or Windows XP.
If you’re comfortable with Windows, need to run Windows software, or just want a powerful yet inexpensive PC, Windows is a great option.
Mac OS X
Macs today are a better choice than they’ve ever been. Whether you like Macs or not, you can’t deny that Apple makes amazing hardware. The Mac OS X operating system knows what it wants to be — it’s a desktop operating system where you run windowed applications — unlike Microsoft’s confused Windows 8 operating system.
If you want to spend around $1000-$1500 on a laptop, it’s hard not to choose a Mac. Apple’s MacBook Air and MacBook Pro offer excellent battery life, an amazing touchpad, and all around great hardware. In many cases, MacBooks are a better value than high-end ultrabooks. High-end Windows ultrabooks may even be more expensive than comparable Macs. Apple has taken the lead in high-end laptops.
On the other hand, you have to be willing to buy a higher-end PC to get a Mac. Macs are often better priced than high-end Windows ultrabooks, but they just aren’t available for the low or mid-range prices. You won’t find Mac laptops for $300-$500, where you can find a variety of Windows laptops that perhaps aren’t as nice, but are much more affordable.
The proliferation of web-based software means Macs are more functional than ever. Macs also have a wide variety of other software available, including official versions of Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and other professional creative applications. On the other hand, Macs still don’t have as much software as Windows does, and Macs are still far behind when it comes to games.
If you’re willing to learn something new, you’re looking at a higher-end PC, and the programs you need to use run on a Mac, a Mac can be a great option.
Google’s Chrome OS is the upstart competitor that’s capturing more and more of the market. Chromebooks run a simplified operating system that’s basically just the Chrome web browser with some desktop bits. You have access to Chrome, Chrome apps — and that’s it. You can’t run Windows desktop software, and even Linux desktop software can only run if you put your Chromebook into developer mode and “hack” it.
Chromebooks are nice because they’re simplified — there’s just one interface here, not the multiple interfaces of Windows 8, for example — and they are so cheap. Most Chromebooks cost between $200-$300, and Chromebooks won’t include bloatware, unlike Windows PCs.
If you only ever use Chrome on your PC and you want a simple PC with a full keyboard and powerful desktop web browser for not much money, a Chromebook can be a good option. On the other hand, there’s still a lot a Chromebook can’t do — if you need to use desktop programs, a Chromebook is a non-starter. Chromebooks also aren’t available at the high-end, and there’s no Chromebook as good as a Mac. Google’s Chromebook Pixel is an exception, but it costs $1299 and has outdated hardware with poor battery life.
Traditional desktop Linux has also been helped by the shift to web-based applications. Linux has full versions of Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, so it can do much of what an average computer user needs out of their computer.
You can buy Linux laptops from a variety of companies, including Dell. You can also install a Linux distribution like Ubuntu on an existing computer, but there’s no guarantee the hardware will work properly, unless you do some research before buying it.
Linux systems are often used by geeks and developers who find a UNIX-based operating system more convenient than Windows. On the other hand, it’s hard to recommend a Ubuntu laptop to someone who isn’t seeking out Linux for a particular reason. If all you need is a web browser, you can get by with Linux — but you could also get by with a Chromebook, and it’s cheaper to purchase a well-supported Chromebook.
Not content with just four options, some manufacturers are slapping Android on convertible PCs. For example, Asus Transformer devices are Android tablets, and when they’re snapped into a keyboard dock they’re effectively Android laptops with a full keyboard.
If you’re looking for an Android tablet and would like a keyboard just in case, this can be an interesting option. On the other hand, Android really isn’t a great experience on a laptop. You don’t have a full desktop-class web browser, you don’t have multiple windows, and Android’s mouse support is functional, but not great. You’re also limited to mobile apps. Android laptops just won’t be ideal unless Google improves Android for laptop use — there’s a reason Google is betting on Chromebooks and not Android laptops.
iPads With Keyboards
Some people opt to buy an iPad and a keyboard case, attempting to turn an iPad into a laptop replacement. This isn’t necessarily ideal for the same reason — you’re stuck with tablet apps and don’t have access to more powerful desktop applications or multiple windows.
If you just want to carry an iPad around with you and you’d like a keyboard to make typing easier, this can be okay — but you really shouldn’t approach an iPad-with-keyboard as a PC.
So, Which One Should You Choose?
We covered six different options here, but no one of them is the winner. There is no one answer that applies to everyone — each operating system has its own strengths and each is ideal for different people. Hopefully we’ve given you a place to start your research.
Comparing all these operating systems can still be complicated. If you’re unsure which operating system you want, you should probably go play with these operating systems in person. If you have an electronics store nearby, that’s a great place to go play with a variety of devices to see how you like them. It’s a good idea to play with a Mac, Chromebook, or anything else you’ve never used in person before you buy one.
Which operating system did you choose for your PC? More importantly, why did you choose that operating system? Why is that operating system the best choice for your own personal needs? Leave a comment below and share your experiences!