Windows 8 is unique in that it is the first version of Microsoft's mighty operating system that faces serious and stiff competition from its rivals. For the first time there are not just one but a great many serious contenders for the role of your desktop OS. So with so many people wary about the changes that Microsoft are bringing forth I thought I'd take a look at the alternatives, see how they might fit with your Windows world, and examine just how realistic a switch away from Windows this year can actually be.
The obvious place to start is with Windows 8's predecessor, Windows 7. One thing is certain, that this operating system will be hugely popular right up until support ends for it in January 2020 and possibly even beyond as it wouldn't be without precedent for Microsoft to extend the support life for a version of Windows. Windows 7 could be considered the 'ultimate' version of the desktop OS, not just because it's the last true desktop OS from Microsoft, but because of its reputation for reliability, compatibility, stability and security. There is also XP Mode to run any older Windows software that won't run natively, but with support ending for XP in April 2014, it would be unwise to use any XP software after this time that requires Internet access, and many including Microsoft and security researchers would advise not using it at all after this time. Sticking with Windows 7 is probably the best solution in many ways. It will still be on sale and being shipped with new PCs until the autumn of this year and many will consider it the operating system to use going forward.
Few people would now consider Windows Vista as a viable alternative to Windows 7 or Windows 8. Notoriously slow, especially on older hardware, and with software compatibility that was largely broken, almost all Vista users have either upgraded to Windows 7 already or plan to do so as soon as possible.
Despite the popularity and compatibility of Windows 7, it's Windows XP that has won hearts and minds in the way no other Microsoft operating system ever has. This comes despite some huge security issues that have plagued the platform and its default web browser Internet Explorer 6. This operating system is already out of mainstream support, so no more service packs and updates are being issued, and extended support for security and stability fixes ends in less than two years, before the launch of Windows 9. A lack of suport for new technologies including USB3 and Thunderbolt also count against this OS, unless you are able to get specific third-party drivers. Anybody sticking with Windows XP will need to have a very good understanding of the security risks involved in doing so, this really isn't a strong contender for your OS choice for the next few years.
Apple's desktop operating system has a great many strengths, but a few major weaknesses as well. Those strengths involve being one of the most stable and secure operating systems the world has ever seen. It's eminently usable too with gesture control that Windows 7 simply can't match and a software base every bit as strong as that for Windows. It's not going anywhere either. On the minus side there are still questions about how Apple are set to integrate their iOS tablet features into the desktop, effectively doing what Microsoft are doing with Windows 8 but probably to a slightly lesser degree. Moving to OS X would also not just require buying a new and sometimes expensive computer (or even computers) but unless you were going to run Windows 7 or Windows 8 in Boot Camp or the Parallel's virtual machine, you would have to re-purchase all your software as well, as very little software these days comes with both PC and Mac licensing.
Three years ago GNU/Linux was still the rank outsider in the desktop OS world, but times have changed with Canonical turning their Ubuntu OS into an operating system every bit as polished and usable as OS X or Windows 7. The best part is that this operating system is free and, with version 12.1 now comes with long-term support, meaning it's no longer essential to upgrade your operating system every few months. On the downside, software support, especially for the major apps is still lacking with traditional Linux apps lagging behind their OS X and Windows alternatives. Ubuntu's new HUD (Head up Display) for finding menu items in software might not be to everyone's tastes either. This feature can be switched off and traditional drop down menus reinstated, but Ubuntu still needs that all important software support to compete on a level playing field.
Currently in alpha, this Russian organised Windows NT/XP clone promises to be binary compatible with Windows and support every piece of hardware and software that works with Windows XP. It's a bold claim that so far seems to be panning out. It should be complete and bedded-in by the time Windows XP support ends so it could be a viable alternative. On the down side, Microsoft has a way of aggresssively going after any "Windows Clone" and having already shut down Lindows a few years ago they will soon have their guns trained on ReactOS, no matter how well the developers might be covering themselves in terms of copyright. There is also the fact that ReactOS has been in an alpha stage now for an extremely long time, and frankly may never be completely finished.
Do you actually need a full desktop operating system any more? This is an interesting question as the majority of tasks we perform on our PCs can now be done equally well on a tablet running Apple's iOS, Google Android or RIM's QNX. These tasks, including email and web browsing are actually pleasurable on modern tablet operating systems and this situation is only set to improve. The burgeoning app stores, and the quality of those apps is improving every day too with companies like Adobe showing how advanced photo editing, another of our major tasks, can be made simple and pleasurable on a tablet.
Here the problem is storage and file management. With a tablet you're restricted to storing your files mainly in cloud services and in order to get those files on the tablet in the first place, or indeed into the cloud, you need to synchronise with a desktop computer. We can fully expect these devices to become more independent over time, and perhaps even support external hard disks and USB pen drives. Unless and until this happens though these tablets (and I'm obviously excluding Windows 8 tablets from the list) just aren't quite ready to handle our ever expanding collections of music, videos, files and photographs.
So this is my own take on the alternatives to Windows 8 and how effective and realistic a move to each one might be. You will probably have your own ideas on what would make a good alternative and why. You might be just sticking with XP despite the security concerns, or sticking with Windows 7. You may even decide that now is the time to get rid of your desktop PC altogether and move solely to a tablet. Perhaps your music is already stored in the cloud or you use a service like spotify, and maybe your new digital camera can upload your files directly to Picassa or another cloud service for you. Why not tell us your thoughts in the comments.
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Ghacks is a technology news blog that was founded in 2005 by Martin Brinkmann. It has since then become one of the most popular tech news sites on the Internet with five authors and regular contributions from freelance writers.