Perhaps you’re looking for a new PC and perhaps it’s too expensive. The immediate consideration is switching away from Windows, but macOS also involves an expensive purchase.
So what can you do?
The smart money would be on Linux, a free and open source alternative that offers many different (albeit similar) operating systems. But in fact there are many free alternatives to Windows, operating systems that are capable of performing all standard computing tasks.
If money is a problem and you need a free alternative to Windows to keep your PC running, or you just want a change but don’t want to splash a grand on macOS, take a look at these options, all available to download and install today.
This is, of course, the obvious choice. Linux is free, it is widely available, and has acres of online guidance. We publish our own Linux help guides here at MakeUseOf, and we’re also addicted to compact Linux-powered ARM hobbyist computer the Raspberry Pi.
And that is the beauty of Linux: it will literally run on anything. If you’re looking for a free alternative to Windows, you should look no further than Linux Mint, currently the most popular Linux operating system (and there is a lot of competition). Perhaps you have aspirations to own a Mac? If your Cupertino lust is all about the visual design of macOS, then you might prefer to look at Elementary OS. Or you could just restyle your chosen Linux version.
In short, Linux is the number one free alternative to Window for the simple reason that it is amazing. Here at MakeUseOf, we use various versions of Linux — but it’s not the only choice.
2. Chrome OS
In some ways this is another obvious choice. Chrome OS, from Google, is available on a number of low-cost and some high-end laptops, known as Chromebooks. It’s also available to download free, often for installing on aging hardware.
Comparatively lightweight and with a focus on cloud computing, Chrome OS is great for web browsing, social networking and word processing. It’s less impressive at media playback, and media editing and gaming are beyond its capabilities.
If Linux isn’t your cup of tea but you’re looking for something that feels familiar, then Chrome OS is a good free alternative to Windows.
Often mentioned in the same breath as Linux, you could be forgiven for thinking that FreeBSD is just another Linux distribution. While it shares the Unix-like roots of Linux, FreeBSD is the modern-day, open source version of the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD).
While it can be considered a relative of Linux, its code can be found in many places, such as Apple’s macOS and Sony’s PlayStation 4 operating system.
Overall, FreeBSD is a reliable operating system for servers and desktops alike. While it doesn’t ship with a desktop environment by default, there is support for GNOME, KDE and Xfce desktops. FreeBSD is of particular interest to those with security and privacy concerns, offering enhancements developed by the TrustedBSD project, which has backing from McAfee, DARPA, Google, University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, Apple, and many more.
Our guide to the differences between Linux and FreeBSD should explain further.
Looking for a secure, Unix-like desktop operating system that can act as an alternative to Windows without the expensive operating system or PC upgrade? Try FreeBSD!
Designed and optimized for desktop PCs and built using parts of the GNU project and Linux, Syllable is yet another free Windows alternative. Deisgned for home and small office users, Syllable is forked from AtheOS, and ships with a native WebKit-based browser — which promises slick, modern browsing — an email client, a media player and even a development environment for programming.
Various open source tools are available for Syllable, including Apache, the Vim text editor and Python scripting. Syllable also has a server version, which is based on the Linux kernel.
Suitable for regular desktop users, hobbyists, and developers alike, Syllable development takes a holistic view of the current state of the computer industry. As such, it will run on a 32-bit PC with 32 MB of RAM. Very few operating systems will run on software this old!
If all of this talk of Linux and Unix is upsetting you, but you still want to quit Windows for a free alternative, ReactOS might be the answer you’re looking for.
Originally launched in 1996 as a Windows 95 clone project, the official website states that “the ultimate goal of ReactOS is to allow you to remove Windows and install ReactOS without the end user noticing the change.” In short, the aim is that you should be able to continue using your PC as you did before.
However, ReactOS has been in the alpha stage for quite some time now. While some apps such as Adobe Reader will run on ReactOS, many won’t. One day, ReactOS might be a perfect, free alternative to Windows, but until then, it is available for your evaluation.
A replacement for the now-discontinued BeOS project, Haiku is free and open source and was first released in 2001. Since then, the operating system has been in almost continuous development and now boasts the ability to run the multi-purpose VLC media player, as well as a couple of versions of Quake. The WebPositive browser is HTML5 compatible, and most BeOS applications can run on Haiku.
However, the operating system is in a strange place — sort of between alpha and beta — and this makes it perhaps the least attractive alternative in this list. Nevertheless, if you were a fan of BeOS way back when, and are looking for an escape from Windows, it’s certainly worth taking a look at Haiku.
Now this is an interesting one. MorphOS is an Amiga-like operating system, available for PowerPC and similar devices. Of course, the chances that your Windows PC has a PowerPC processor are zero… but your old iMac, Mac Mini, or Power Mac can all probably run MorphOS.
AROS, meanwhile, is an operating system with a similar heritage, but designed for x86 systems. This means that it should be able to run on your PC. This may mean that your desktop PC or laptop could be turned into a modern-day Amiga computer, capable of running old software as well as new.
In practice, however, you’ll typically be unable to read old Amiga discs on a modern PC, even with a 3.5-inch drive, due to differences in the read speed. As such, you’ll be limited to ROMs.
Even so, this makes for an interesting alternative to Windows. As MorphOS and AROS are free — and the latter offers a Live disc — they’re certainly worth seeking out.
Notable Mention: Android
This might seem an odd suggestion, but Google has been developing Android and Chrome OS towards a convergence of operating systems in recent years. Thanks to the addition of mouse and keyboard support, Android is becoming more and more useful as a desktop operating system.
And thanks to the work of developers, it is available as a free download for 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems.
The benefits of using Android as your free Windows alternative are clear. After Windows, it is the most-used operating system on the planet. Apps for Android are everywhere and you’re probably already using at least one. Android offers support for standard PC applications, like word processing and email/web, while it also offers some surprisingly good audio, picture, and video editing tools.
Android can also be used for media streaming, and it has a massive library of games available. In short, Android could be the ultimate free alternative to Windows. It really depends what you’re looking for in an operating system. And if you don’t get any joy with the Android-x86 project, take a look at Remix OS 3.0 instead.
We’ve given you eight good alternatives to Windows, operating systems that are free, easy to find and straightforward to install. Not all will suit your specific requirements, but we’re certain you’ll find a new OS you can grow to like.
Interested in classic operating systems? Check out this list of oldies but goodies that you can access in your browser.
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