Updated by Ben Stegner on 04/26/2017
Buying a new computer? You have more operating system choices than ever. Windows is still popular, but some Macs are now surprisingly affordable. Google 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. Minor 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 10 is far better than the maligned Windows 8. And since Windows 10 is always evolving, new versions add fresh tools and enhance the OS at no cost. If you hate Windows 10, you can still use Windows 8.1 or find a copy of Windows 7.
Windows PCs have excellent compatibility with all the software you want to run. Consumer desktop software, internal business apps, and PC games are all standard and supported on Windows. They’re available at a wide variety of price ranges to suit all budgets. You’re probably already familiar with the Windows desktop environment, which is a plus.
On the other hand, Windows 10 is packed with bloatware and many laptops don’t have the attention to detail you find on a MacBook. 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 10 also collects and sends lots of information about your usage to Microsoft, which may concern you.
If you’re comfortable with Windows, need to run Windows software, or want a decent yet inexpensive PC, Windows is a great option.
Macs are still a great choice today. Whether you like Macs or Apple’s design philosophies in general, you can’t deny that Apple makes amazing hardware. Combined with the macOS (formerly Mac OS X) operating system, many folks choose Macs for their sleek design and lack of Windows quirks.
If you have no problem spending $1,000 or more on a laptop, you should certainly consider a Mac. Apple’s MacBooks offer excellent battery life, an amazing touchpad with lots of shortcuts, and all-around great hardware. In many cases, MacBooks are a better value than high-end ultrabooks like Microsoft’s Surface line.
Of course, you must be willing to spend more to get a Mac, as they aren’t available for low or mid-range prices. You won’t find Mac laptops for $300-$700 — you can find a variety of Windows laptops at that budget that perhaps aren’t as nice, but are much more affordable.
Apple offers several options if you’re considering a Mac. The MacBook offers a beautiful keyboard and stunning screen inside a tiny chassis, while the MacBook Pro is a power machine designed for heavy use. If you don’t mind buying an older laptop with an inferior screen, you could even pick up a MacBook Air.
The proliferation of web-based software means Macs have fewer software compatibility issues. Macs also have a variety of standard software available, including official versions of Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and other professional creative applications. On the other hand, Macs don’t have as much great free software as Windows does, and macOS isn’t suitable for a primary gaming machine.
If you’re willing to learn something new, are looking for a higher-end computer, and the programs you need to use run on a Mac, a Mac can be a great option. Check out the best places to buy a refurbished Mac and how to save money when shopping for a Mac so you get the best deal.
Google’s Chrome OS is a lightweight competitor that’s capturing 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 Android apps — that’s it. You can’t run Windows desktop software, and even Linux desktop software only works if you put your Chromebook into developer mode and “hack” it to install Ubuntu.
Chromebooks are great because they’re simple. They update automatically, sync with Google Drive for file storage, and don’t require antivirus software. Most Chromebooks cost between $200-$300, and don’t include bloatware, unlike Windows.
If you only ever use Chrome and want a simple PC with a full keyboard and powerful desktop web browser for not much money, a Chromebook is a good option. On the other hand, there’s still a lot a Chromebook can’t do — if you use Photoshop daily, look elsewhere.
Google doesn’t make the fancy Pixel anymore, so you won’t find high-end Chromebooks these days. There’s no Chromebook as good as a Mac. Most Chromebooks feature poor displays and lackluster keyboards, making them a better backup machine than primary for most people. Check our guide to find out if a Chromebook is right for you and make sure you consider key points about these machines.
Traditional desktop Linux also benefitted by the shift to web-based applications. Linux has easy-to-install 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 sources, or install a popular Linux distribution on an existing computer. However, if you do this, there’s no guarantee the hardware will work properly, so you should do some research first.
Linux systems are often used by geeks and developers who find a UNIX-based operating system more convenient than Windows, but don’t want to buy a Mac. 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 work on a Chromebook, and it’s cheaper to purchase those. Chromebooks have better support than Linux too.
Android Tablet Convertibles?
Android tablets have always trailed behind iPads, and they’re slowly dying as time goes on. While many Android tablets have keyboard docks that transform them into a small laptop, not many people are rocking an Android tablet anymore, and we wouldn’t recommend that you buy one.
A 7 or 8-inch screen is hardly bigger than 6-inch phablets like the Galaxy S8 Plus and Pixel XL, so it’s pointless to buy another device that’s so similar. In addition, there aren’t a lot of dedicated Android tablet apps like there are on iOS. Combined with the presence of Android apps on Chrome OS, you’re better off buying a touch-screen Chromebook to get the best of both worlds. If you like having the tablet in your hand, try buying a 2-in-1 laptop where the screen can break off and be used on its own.
You can also get geeky and turn your smartphone into a laptop replacement.
iPads with Keyboards
Some people opt to buy an iPad and a keyboard case, attempting to turn an iPad into a laptop replacement. Apple has pushed its bigger iPad Pro as a laptop replacement, due to the Apple Pencil and larger screen. However, this isn’t necessarily ideal — you’re stuck with tablet apps instead of desktop software, and don’t have access to more powerful window management.
If you just want to carry an iPad around with you and you’d like a keyboard to make typing easier, this is a decent solution. But you shouldn’t expect an iPad with a keyboard to replace a PC.
Which One Should You Choose?
We’ve covered six different options here, but no single one is the winner. Each operating system has its own strengths and different choices will work out for different people. Hopefully, we’ve given you a place to start your research and helped you eliminate a few choices.
Comparing all these operating systems is a tough task. If you’re unsure whether you should opt for Windows or go with one of the many Windows alternatives available, you should probably go play with these operating systems in person. Try using a friend’s PC, working with a display laptop at a store, or dual-booting Linux on your current machine.
Image Credit: Living in Monrovia via Flickr