Three operating systems enter, but only one can leave this desktop OS showdown

Michael Crider
Digital Trends

Choosing between operating systems isn’t a new problem – it’s been around for a few decades. But the latest incarnations of both software and hardware offer some new options to consumers at all price and experience levels. If you already know what you want (we see you preparing your nine-point presentation on why your OS is the best, put it down), this guide is not for you. But if you want an exhaustive guide to the pros and cons of Windows, MacOS, and Chrome OS, then read on.

Buying a laptop: Everything you need to know, and maybe a little you don’t

Windows and Mac have been in active development for decades, and if you’re looking for a computer for work, odds are that you’re going to go for one or the other. Chrome OS, a Linux-based system developed by Google, is more of an anomaly. It’s based on Google’s Chrome browser, with much of the same interface and a web-focused design. It isn’t for the typical user, but Google has been improving it steadily for the last few years, and it’s worth consideration for a broader base of users.

Windows

Pros

  • Best selection of software
  • Available on wide variety of hardware
  • Easily the best choice for gamers
  • Works with almost all accessories
  • Rapid updates introduce new features

Cons

  • Rapid update schedule can become confusing
  • Compatibility issues with some hardware
  • Less secure than Chrome OS or MacOS

Microsoft’s Windows, in its various incarnations, holds approximately 90 percent of the desktop and laptop market worldwide. The reasons why are complex, but we can basically break it down into two factors — hardware and software variety.

Because Microsoft sells Windows licenses to more or less any manufacturer to load on desktops, laptops, tablets, and everything in between, you can get a Windows machine in almost any size, shape, or price range. Windows is even sold on its own, so consumers and businesses can manually load it onto their own hardware. That wide-open approach has let it conquer all competitors over the last few decades.

Because of its worldwide availability and longevity, Windows also boasts the biggest software library on the planet. Windows users don’t get absolutely every new application that comes on the market, but even those they don’t initially receive tend to come in Windows form eventually. Consumer, media, enterprise, gaming, it doesn’t matter – if you want the widest array of capability, Windows is the way to go.

Works with everything

origin-genesis-gaming-desktop-review-top-usb-ports-1
origin-genesis-gaming-desktop-review-top-usb-ports-1

Windows also boasts compatibility with the widest array of hardware. It’s an important consideration if you want to play graphically intense video games, or work with high-powered software for media, video editing, or computer-aided design. There aren’t any ChromeOS systems that offer high-end desktop hardware, and while MacOS does come on the Mac Pro, that system is now several years out of date.

Though most accessories are universal since the introduction of the USB standard, Windows still technically boasts the most compatibility with third-party add-ons, too. Just about any mouse, keyboard, webcam, storage drive, graphics tablet, printer, scanner, microphone, monitor, or any other doodad you care to add to your computer will work with Windows, which is something that can’t always be said for Mac and Chrome.

Windows also gets universal and updated drivers, some provided by Microsoft and some developed by the hardware manufacturers themselves, at a much more frequent rate than alternatives.

Works on everything

lenovo-thinkpad-x260-main1-2
lenovo-thinkpad-x260-main1-2

Even if you have no interest in upgrading your machine or running exotic software, Windows devices offer the most variety of form factors on the market. And with the introduction of Windows 10 – which all new retail devices are running in 2016 and later – touchscreens have become much more user-friendly even for complex work. No matter how exotic your tastes, odds are that there’s a Windows machine offering what you want.

Rapid updates

windows-10-home-laptop-2-3
windows-10-home-laptop-2-3

If you haven’t used Windows in a few years you may associate it with slow, tepid progress. That’s no longer true. With Windows 10, Microsoft committed to rapid updates. And it has executed.

Those who want the cutting-edge can join the free Insider program, which puts out new updates almost every week. Often they’re minor tweaks, but they do add up over time.

In the most recent update, called Windows 10 Anniversary update, Microsoft added major revamps to the notification center, a new “Windows Ink” platform that adds apps and features for PCs with a stylus, extensions for the Microsoft Edge browser, and much more.

Over time, this rapid update program has given Windows 10 an edge of MacOS, which updates every year, but usually with just one or two significant features. Chrome OS also updates quickly, but Google rarely introduces a major new feature update — which has stalled progress.

Compatibility problems

With all that said, Windows isn’t perfect. The open nature of Microsoft’s relationship with desktop and laptop manufacturers means that two different machines, often with the same specifications, might perform very differently. Production quality can vary wildly, even within hardware from the same manufacturer line.

Windows is less secure than MacOS and Chrome OS, simply because it’s the most-used desktop operating system, and thus the most targeted. Windows includes Microsoft tools to prevent and clean viruses and other threats, and third-party tools are available, but there’s no denying that Windows computers are more vulnerable than the competition.

The wide variety of Windows hardware can cause problems as well. Windows’ complex driver system can cause system errors that are left to the user to diagnose and solve, and frequent updates from Microsoft might break software or devices that haven’t been accounted for.

Is Windows for you?

Why-the-hell-wouldn't-you-upgrade-to-Windows-10
Why-the-hell-wouldn't-you-upgrade-to-Windows-10

Windows is in a must better position than it was just a few years ago. The newest version, Windows 10, is more elegant and easier to understand than past editions, and it receives frequent updates.

The problem of complexity does remain. You will likely encounter more bugs with Windows than with its competition. But these bugs are rarely the fatal errors that used to drag Windows’ systems to a halt, and they’re balanced by features and hardware compatibility that is simply unavailable with Microsoft’s competition.

Read our full review of Windows 10

MacOS

Pros

  • Simple, user-friendly design
  • Top-down software and hardware approach
  • Works well with iPhones and iPads
  • Mac computers can also run Windows

Cons

  • More expensive than Windows
  • Fewer software options
  • Very few games
  • No touchscreen support
  • Recent updates have not impressed

One of Apple’s older promotional messages for Mac computers and their software was “it just works.” That philosophy is applied to more or less everything that the company sells, including laptops and desktops, and the associated MacOS software. Formerly called OS X, MacOS runs on all Apple computers, and buying an Apple machine is the only legitimate way to access it.

Related: Which MacBook model should you buy?

Because of this unique top-down approach to its products, Apple enjoys tighter control over MacOS than any of its current counterparts. MacOS is designed to run on only a relatively tiny variety of computers and parts, compared to literally millions of possible combinations for Windows. That allows Apple to do more intense quality testing for their products, optimize software for only a few computers, and provide targeted service that can diagnose and fix problems with much more speed and accuracy than Windows manufacturers. For users who want their computer to “just work,” Macs and MacOS are an appealing proposition.

It just works

macos-sierra-features-4
macos-sierra-features-4

The operating system itself is designed to be easy to operate, even for novices. While the interface of Windows 10 is simple on its face, Microsoft’s OS has an infinitely deep lair of menus beneath that. Most new computer users find MacOS more intuitive than Windows, though long-term Windows users may need some time to adjust to the interface and some important features — like the MacOS file explorer, called Finder — are not as easy to understand.

Though the software market for MacOS is nowhere near as broad as Windows, it generally suffices for most purposes. Apple includes a suite of in-house programs for basic tasks, and most popular third-party software like Google’s Chrome Browser is available on MacOS. Microsoft even produces a version of its Office application suite for Apple hardware.

MacOS is a popular option for design and media production, and many art-focused applications are available only on Mac, including Apple’s Final Cut Pro video editing suite.

That said, MacOS has an undeniable disadvantage for gamers, as most new games are not available on the platform. Extremely popular Windows titles may or may not get a MacOS release.

Through Apple’s Bootcamp application, any Mac computer can run Windows instead of its built-in operating system, allowing it access to all Windows applications and capabilities.

This requires a separate Windows purchase, though it’s possible to run other operating systems, like Linux, on Bootcamp. (Windows machines can also boot Linux and other third-party operating systems, but MacOS is not licensed for use on non-Apple hardware.) Mac computers can even run Windows at the same time as MacOS through virtualization tools like Parallels or VMWare.

Better together

macossierra_006-6
macossierra_006-6

MacOS hardware works extremely well with Apple’s iOS products, the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Users who go all-in on Apple hardware for both desktop and mobile enjoy a unified design language, tools like Siri and Apple Pay that work with both devices, and cross-functionality through an Apple account for apps like iMessage.

Owners of the Apple Watch can even log in to the latest version of MacOS without a password. This synergistic approach simply doesn’t exist on Windows. While it’s technically possible to acquire many similar features on Windows with third-party tools, it’s much more difficult than using MacOS.

Limited options

Apple only offers a few product lines running MacOS. That is a problem for many. The hardware is expensive, yet not always up-to-date, and it may not fit your needs. There is no 17-inch MacBook, no mid-range Mac desktop, and Macs don’t offer a touchscreen in any form factor.

Apple machines can also be limited by the company’s aesthetic choices – the thin-and-light MacBook and MacBook Air laptops offer only a single USB port each, requiring expensive adapters and add-ons for more complex functions. Even the high-powered Mac Pro has limited expansion options because of its unique cylindrical case.

Is MacOS for you?

apple-imac-retina-display-review-macro-7
apple-imac-retina-display-review-macro-7

Mac computers and MacOS are for users who want a premium desktop experience without having to work on it. Apple’s top-to-bottom philosophy makes its software relatively accessible to newcomers. It’s also a great pick for people who are dedicated to Apple’s mobile products.

However, Mac systems are expensive, and often don’t offer hardware on par with Windows alternatives. The operating system also simply lacks certain features that can be found on Windows, like touch support.

Read our full MacOS review

Chrome OS

Pros

  • Simple and easy browser-based interface
  • Lightweight software
  • Extremely inexpensive hardware options

Cons

  • Almost no stand-alone applications
  • Limited storage space
  • Poor accessory compatibility
  • Heavy reliance on Google tools

Google’s approach to the world of desktop-class hardware is an interesting one. Chrome OS is designed as an operating system that relies on constant access to the internet – which makes sense, because it’s designed as an extension of the Chrome desktop browser. Chrome hardware, usually called a “Chromebook” for laptops and sometimes a “Chromebox” for desktop designs, is for users who rely primarily on the web and only occasionally use more complex desktop software.

It’s a web world

acer-chromebook-14-screen-8
acer-chromebook-14-screen-8

Because Chrome OS revolves around its browser, it’s the least complex of the three major operating systems on the market. Calling it a “browser in a box” isn’t the whole story, but it’s a good way to think about it. Though Chrome OS includes some basic desktop tools like a file manager and a photo viewer, its primary focus is content on the web. The interface is designed to get users to the web quickly and easily, and present as few barriers to internet content as possible. Anyone who uses the Chrome browser on a Windows or MacOS machine will be instantly comfortable with the interface, and all their saved history, bookmarks, and extensions will sync over.

Chrome devices excel at web browsing, streaming video and music, chatting and video conferencing, and other relatively simple web tasks. The Linux back-end of the operating system can do anything that the Chrome browser on a desktop can do, including advanced Flash and Java applications. Chrome extensions and apps can change the interface and add extra functionality to a certain degree, but they lack the fine control and more advanced “power user” options of Windows and MacOS.

Since Google designed the system to rely on Chrome, it’s understandably reliant on Google tools, to a greater degree than Windows relies on Microsoft software and MacOS relies on Apple software. In fact, third-party software doesn’t work the same way on Chrome OS at all – “applications” are really just extensions of the browser.

This means that Chromebooks and Chromeboxes offer very little functionality when they’re without a connection to the internet. Though some applications like Google’s Gmail and Docs can technically work offline and sync to the cloud later, using a Chromebook while offline is something of a neutered experience.

Cheap and easy

acer-chromebook-r11-header-9
acer-chromebook-r11-header-9

The focus on the web gives Chrome OS some dramatic advantages over Windows and MacOS. It can run comfortably on very low-power, inexpensive hardware: laptops with cheap processors, tiny solid-state drives, and very little RAM can run Chrome OS easily. Sometimes these inexpensive designs run faster and more reliably than Windows and MacOS, even when the latter are used primarily for a browser anyway.

Chrome OS is essentially the same experience on every single Chromebook and Chromebox. It doesn’t suffer from the “bloatware” problem that Windows has, even though Chrome OS devices are sold by third-party manufacturers like Dell, Samsung, and Toshiba.

The combination of this all-in-one approach and low power requirements means that Chromebooks can be extremely inexpensive, sometimes even less than $200. More expensive models offer high-resolution screens, backlit keyboards, fold-back touchscreens, and other fancy features, up to the top-of-the-line Chromebook Pixel machines sold by Google itself.

Sharp focus, limited scope

hp-chromebook-13-hands-on-10
hp-chromebook-13-hands-on-10

Chrome OS offers almost no compatibility with external software, though Google is extending that a bit by offering access to the Android-powered Play Store on some models. Chromebooks won’t work with advanced accessories like USB monitors or complex gaming hardware – Google simply doesn’t provide the drivers. It can handle basic keyboards, mice, USB drives, and Bluetooth add-ons, but that’s about it.

Chromebooks offer extremely limited storage space, often as little as 16GB. (Windows 10 or MacOS can’t even fit the operating system on a drive that small.) Chrome’s web-focused setup doesn’t need local storage for anything more than the occasional image or document, but users who want to store large collections of photos, videos, and other media will have to rely on Google Drive or other cloud solutions.

While there are a few games made for the Chrome browser and Chrome OS, these options are practically nothing compared to Windows, and pale even in comparison to the game library of MacOS.

In short, Chrome OS is all web, all the time. If you’re a Windows or Mac user and you often find that the browser is the only app you’re using is a browser, it’s worthy of consideration. But Chrome OS’ almost complete lack of third-party software is a deal-breaker for anyone who relies on a computer for more complex tasks.

Is Chrome OS for you?

acer-chromebook-14-mainfull-12
acer-chromebook-14-mainfull-12

The simplicity and focus of Chrome OS is good for users whose primary interactions are on the web. Its low cost of entry is attractive for anyone on a budget, but users who require more complex software or more demanding tasks need to look elsewhere.

The verdict

If you’re still on the fence, let’s break down the major desktop operating systems in terms of features.

Price

Apple hardware is expensive, almost always carrying a premium versus equivalent Windows designs. Windows isn’t cheap – laptop and desktop makers have to pay Microsoft to use it – but it’s available in a wider variety of hardware and prices, sometimes getting well below the $500 entry point. If you need basic functionality and price is the only factor, Chromebooks can be bought at around the $200 level – an amazing deal.

Ease of use

MacOS has traditionally been considered much easier to use than Windows, perhaps because of Apple’s slavish dedication to user interface design. Chrome OS, by virtue of its extreme simplicity, also has Windows beat in this regard.

Web browsing

Chrome OS is the best choice if all you do is browse the web, because that’s all it does. If everything in your digital life is in the cloud and unrelated to local storage or programs, it’s an excellent way to stay light and uncomplicated. Windows and MacOS can both handle any browser software available, including Chrome itself, but web-only users may find the rest of their features a distraction.

Productivity

ChromeOS struggles with productivity due to its extremely limited app selection. Even editing a photo is more difficult than with others, and there’s no equivalent to Photoshop.

Windows and MacOS both work in most situations, but Windows has the overall edge, due to the availability of quicker compatible hardware and the massive ecosystem of third-party applications.

Gaming

Windows is the only real choice for gamers. The Steam marketplace is the world’s largest seller of PC games, and while it’s available on MacOS, its selection on the platform is much more limited – as are games in general.

ChromeOS has an extremely limited selection that consists entirely of web games and a few mobile applications ported over from Android.

Hardware

It’s impossible to deny that Apple makes some of the best computer hardware on the market, and many of its customers are faithful for this alone. MacOS an easy choice for a quality machine. That said, Apple’s staunch refusal to accept touchscreen designs is hurting it with users who want more flexibility, and recent Windows machines from Dell, Asus, and others are rivaling (and sometimes beating) Mac’s best offers for power and quality. Premium Chrome OS machines are few and far between.

You’ll want Windows

MacOS and ChromeOS have their purpose, but if you’re buying a new computer, you will probably be best served by Windows. This is true at every price point.

This may come as a shock. Windows has a long history that hasn’t always been favorable. But Windows 10 is a great operating system. Its updated rapidly, packed with features, and has broad compatibility with software and hardware.