Linux

10 Free Operating Systems You Maybe Never Realized Existed

Bertel King Updated 06-02-2020

Chances are, your computer came with Windows or macOS. These operating systems may seem free, but they’re not. Manufacturers have to pay Microsoft for Windows, and macOS updates are only available to people who have purchased Macs. On our end, the cost is hidden in the price of the computer.

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There are many operating systems that are actually free. The most popular is Linux, but keep reading. By the time you finish this list, Linux will seem downright mainstream. Here are ten weird or obscure operating systems that most of us have never heard of.

1. FreeBSD

If you’re using a free operating system that isn’t Linux, then it’s probably based on BSD. FreeBSD is only one of several UNIX-like operating systems 3 UNIX-Like Operating Systems That Aren't Linux Recently, people started to confuse "UNIX" with "Linux." Linux was influenced by UNIX, but UNIX systems have no relation to Linux. Here are some important UNIX-based systems worth knowing about. Read More . Others include NetBSD, OpenBSD, and PC-BSD. Whichever one you use, much of the experience is similar to what you will find on Linux. Free and open source software available for one is typically able to run on the other.

Even if you’re not a free software lover, you may be using parts of FreeBSD without realizing it. Due to the project’s permissive license, some of the code has made its way into Apple macOS, the Sony PlayStation 4, and Juniper routers.

2. ReactOS

Most free operating systems provide an alternative to Windows. ReactOS, in a sense, strives to be Windows. The goal is giving users a means to run software made for Windows without having to buy an operating system from Microsoft.

ReactOS is a free and open source operating system, so it can’t utilize any of Windows’ actual code. The project has partially implemented many Windows APIs, and it collaborates with the Wine project to get programs up and running Wine Programs Not Working? Try These Steps Wine gives Linux users the the ability to run Windows software and can aid in switching operating systems. But it isn't, so what can you do to ensure your Windows software runs in Linux? Read More .

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3. FreeDOS

Do you live in the terminal? Did you use computers back when that was the only option? Are you having fond memories of MS-DOS?

FreeDOS lets you relive that bygone era. The barebones OS gives you a means to run old DOS programs on more modern hardware or inside a virtual machine. Or you can just use it to run old games.

4. Haiku

Haiku free operating system desktop
Image Credit: Haiku

Haiku draws inspiration from BeOS. Drawing a blank? Me too. BeOS was a graphical operating system developed by Be Inc to run on the BeBox back in 1995. The operating system stuck around for five years, before the last update went out in 2000.

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BeOS may not have been a household name, but it picked up some users, and a few wanted to see the OS live on enough to create their own open source version. The goal is for software written for BeOS to work on Haiku, sort of like what ReactOS wants to do with Windows. All things considered, the Haiku team probably has an easier job on its hands.

5. illumos

Oracle used to maintain an operating system called Solaris. It was originally closed source, but the project became open in 2008. Oracle discontinued OpenSolaris in 2010 and went back to a proprietary model with Solaris 11 in 2011.

illumos is an effort to keep OpenSolaris alive. Like Linux, you don’t download illumos directly. Instead, you grab a distribution such as DilOS or openindiana.

6. Syllable [Broken URL Removed]

Syllable desktop
Image Credit: Adam “Speaktrap” Ga?ek/Wikimedia

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Syllable is based on AtheOS, an AmigaOS clone that was abandoned around the turn of the century. As for AmigaOS, it’s still alive despite being born in the 80s for a line of computers long considered ancient.

Syllable targets home and home office users with a usable interface and native apps, including a Webkit-based web browser and an email client. Thing is, it can do this on a computer with only 32MB of RAM (though at least 64MB is recommended for browsing). The full installation should only take up around 250MB of hard drive space.

7. AROS Research Operating System

While Syllable is based on an AmigaOS clone, AROS takes a different approach. It actually aims to be binary compatible with AmigaOS at the API level. This is similar to how ReactOS targets Windows, and Haiku targets BeOS.

You may be wondering if it’s worth giving AmigaOS this much attention. Did I mention that AmigaOS is still around? It’s not free either. Someone out there is still willing to pay for an operating system most people have never heard of. AROS offers a way to use some AmigaOS programs without having to hand over money. Plus it’s open source, which may leave you feeling more secure Is Security Through Obscurity Safer Than Open Source Software? Open source software comes with clear security benefits. The opposite approach is security through obscurity. Is one approach actually safer than the other or is it possible that there's truth to both? Read More .

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8. MenuetOS

Here’s the thing about MenuetOS—it’s small enough to fit on a single floppy disk. These were the flash drives of the 90s, and they only offered up to 1.44MB of storage. Considering many Linux distros have a hard time fitting on a 700MB CD, booting from a floppy is hard to fathom in this day and age.

MenuetOS is written entirely in 32/64-bit assembly language and is designed to run with very little overhead, even though it does support up to 32GB of RAM.

9. DexOS

Do all desktop operating systems feel a bit same-y? Here’s a weird operating system that takes a different approach. Firing up DexOS will feel less like using the computer in keyboarding class and more like playing on a basic home game console.

Launching applications within DexOS feels vaguely like inserting a disc into an old Dreamcast. The experience feels seems more authentic if you’re actually playing a game. And another cool thing? This free OS is also small enough to fit on a floppy. Try putting a version on a Raspberry Pi.

10. Visopsys

Like DexOS, Visopsys is the hobby project of a single developer. Check this out if you want another look at how much a single person can create.

The Visual Operating System (admittedly a name that could possibly apply to any OS with a desktop environment) has been in development since 1997. Impressively, it’s not based on any pre-existing OS. That’s not to say the project doesn’t utilize pre-existing code. You will find common GNU tools here, and the icons may look familiar to KDE Plasma users.

Would You Use Any of These Free Operating Systems?

Most of them—no. Haiku developers don’t run Haiku full-time. The Visopsys developer explicitly says the OS isn’t as functional as Linux or, perhaps a more fair comparison, Syllable. DexOS is more an experiment than anything else.

That said, there are plenty of folks who prefer FreeBSD over Linux. illumos may not be a household name, even among FOSS lovers, but it has its uses. And did I mention using FreeDOS to play all those old DOS games?

But if you want to stick with a free operating system millions of people use everyday, there are many awesome Linux distributions The Best Linux Operating Distros The best Linux distros are hard to find. Unless you read our list of the best Linux operating systems for gaming, Raspberry Pi, and more. Read More to explore.

Explore more about: Linux, MS-DOS, Open Source, Operating Systems, Unix.

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  1. Smurf
    February 24, 2020 at 6:09 am

    I know it is an old article, but Linux Mint also rocks the older iMacs & Mac Minis....I have been using it on a couple C2D for a few years.....

  2. Mark L. Ferguson
    February 11, 2020 at 10:58 pm

    Before I cut my teeth on windows...I loved PC / GEOS. That ran on top of DOS but I sure could make that work for me. This is back in like 1991 or 1992.

  3. tom
    February 7, 2020 at 3:03 pm

    What no OS2 !!!!!! OS2 had a large following in the 90s and is still used today in ATM terminals

  4. ZorinOS Lover
    December 5, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    There is one called ZORINOS that is a linux base OS, that is really cool to use and is pretty obscure.

  5. Chuck Gaston
    July 10, 2017 at 4:47 pm

    GUI operating systems may be considered "tiny" if they barely fit on a floppy (<1,440 kilobytes). If text-only is adequate, an OS can be far smaller. I use a 2001 version of FreeDOS that occupies only 77 kilobytes (less than 6% of a floppy) as the operating system for my diskette-based voting system. (See http://www.SAVIOC.com.) That compact kernel leaves plenty of room for the voting program itself, the ballot info, several supporting files including AUTOEXEC.BAT, and the results from 9999 voters. Because everything fits on a bootable floppy, no hard drive is required or used. If you needed the COMMAND.COM interface, that would add only another 80 KB.

  6. Dalton Credle
    May 20, 2017 at 10:14 pm

    You can also use Zorin OS. Download it, give it a try.

    • Silverlokk
      May 28, 2017 at 3:49 pm

      Zorin is simply another GNU/Linux distribution. I have it on my older laptop

    • Silverlokk
      May 28, 2017 at 3:54 pm

      PC-BSD, now TrueOS, is a variant of FreeBSD, employing the same kernel and userspace - albeit with a different package format and ergo package manager. However, you can still use the FreeBSD packages and ports.
      In contrast - unless I'm mistaken - NetBSD and OpenBSD use kernels slightly modified from FreeBSD's

  7. Kaitain
    May 20, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    "it’s small enough to fit on a single floppy disk. These were the flash drives of the 90s"

    (Stares emotionlessly at camera.)

  8. Rishal
    July 12, 2016 at 2:05 am
  9. Markus
    January 24, 2016 at 6:49 am

    Im upset to see Zorin is not on this list. It is the best out of the box, the prettiest to look at and very user friendly without giving up functionality. If you haven't seen it you should look it up. My favorite of all the distros I have played with. http://zorinos.com/index.html

    • duschaan
      May 21, 2017 at 7:34 am

      Dude, Zorin is Linux, Ubuntu Linux. The artical is about other OS's (like Windows and OS X but Free). Got it?

      • duschaan
        May 21, 2017 at 7:37 am

        the article, sorry

  10. Tim Brookes
    September 15, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Both the Tracker and the Deskbar from BeOS have been implemented into Haiku, they're the only two bits that have.

    http://www.haiku-os.org/about/...

  11. Portablenuke
    September 15, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    "and implementing certain features and bits of code from the old operating system"

    They are trying to implement all of the features of BeOS, not just some of them. One of the goals is to be binary compatible BeOS's last release. This will change in the future, but for now it stands.

    Haiku doesn't implement code from BeOS. There would be legal problems if they did.

  12. Portablenuke
    September 15, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    "and implementing certain features and bits of code from the old operating system"

    They are trying to implement all of the features of BeOS, not just some of them. One of the goals is to be binary compatible BeOS's last release. This will change in the future, but for now it stands.

    Haiku doesn't implement code from BeOS. There would be legal problems if they did.

  13. Turtaf
    August 24, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Suggesting freespire is quite useless, as this distro has been idle since 2007.
    Today it is reported as "Dormant" by Distrowacth. http://distrowatch.com/table.p...

    I'd really discurage to use it.

    @Saikat: Reactos is a good suggestion, talking about windows-compatibility, while I didn't know Syllable, give it a look

    @SEO: Windows 7 IS a NEW operating system

  14. Turtaf
    August 24, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Suggesting freespire is quite useless, as this distro has been idle since 2007.
    Today it is reported as "Dormant" by Distrowacth. http://distrowatch.com/table.php?distribution=freespire

    I'd really discurage to use it.

    @Saikat: Reactos is a good suggestion, talking about windows-compatibility, while I didn't know Syllable, give it a look

    @SEO: Windows 7 IS a NEW operating system

    • Jujdred
      August 26, 2010 at 3:50 am

      I thought Windows 7 was basically a realized and more functionally friendly version of Vista?

  15. Muhammad Najem
    August 24, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Very interesting but I can't let back my favorite programs so I'll just stick with my Win 7 for now but maybe I'll give Chrom OS a try :)

  16. SEO
    August 24, 2010 at 11:15 am

    I'm quite old to start learning new OS...Windows 7 fits me best, for now. :)

  17. Tim Brookes
    August 24, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Well Freespire is a free community driven arm of Linspire, the once-popular Linux distro that went by the name of Lindows and had to change thanks to Microsoft suing them.

    So well spotted, it is a bit Windows-like.

  18. CreepyOne
    August 24, 2010 at 6:34 am

    Now that's a new one. Didn't know that there was a system like Freespire or PD-BSD. First one reminds me of good ol' Windows a little. Nice post, usefull info as usual on this site.

    • Tim Brookes
      August 24, 2010 at 10:02 am

      Well Freespire is a free community driven arm of Linspire, the once-popular Linux distro that went by the name of Lindows and had to change thanks to Microsoft suing them.

      So well spotted, it is a bit Windows-like.

  19. Saikat Basu
    August 24, 2010 at 4:16 am

    There are a few more like the Open Source ReactOS and Syllable. Though this is an offhand comment, very few OS are developed from scratch it seems. Most of them are built upon pre-existing systems. Wikipedia has a list comparing OS - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_operating_systems

    • Aibek
      August 26, 2010 at 1:05 pm

      I second Saikat, most of the operating systems are built upon existing systems.

    • Portablenuke
      September 15, 2010 at 2:00 pm

      Most OS are based on something else because it's easier to replace the userland then it is to replace a kernel and drivers.