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 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.
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. 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.
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.
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 for more information.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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!