The Best Operating Systems: Windows, macOS, Linux, or ChromeOS? (2024)

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We compare the top desktop OSes based on availability, interface design, and ease of use, plus the apps and games you can run on them.

ByMichael Muchmore

Michael Muchmore

Lead Software Analyst

My Experience

PC hardware is nice, but it’s not much use without innovative software. I’ve been reviewing software for PCMag since 2008, and I still get a kick out of seeing what's new in video and photo editing software, and how operating systems change over time.I was privileged to byline the cover story of the last print issue of PC Magazine, the Windows 7 review, and I’ve witnessed every Microsoft win and misstep up to the latest Windows 11.

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UpdatedDecember 8, 2023

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The Best Operating Systems: Windows, macOS, Linux, or ChromeOS? (2)(Illustration: René Ramos)

Table of Contents

You don’t have a great many choices when it comes to your computer's operating system, but the one you make can have wide-ranging consequences. The five OSes included here are your most viable options: Windows 10, Windows 11, macOS Sonoma, Ubuntu Linux, and Google ChromeOS. Five isn't a huge number, but these operating systems differ distinctly in strengths and weaknesses. Four come from commercial tech giants, while one, the Linux-based Ubuntu, is free and open-source. Windows and macOS support the most hardware and software and have the most polished interfaces; ChromeOS is more lightweight and runs on inexpensive computers.

But why have just one operating system? What if you need to run software that's only compatible with a particular OS (usually Windows or macOS)? Multiboot setups and virtualization software can let you run more than one operating system on your computer. For example, you can run Windows on a Mac inside a virtual machine or dual-boot using Boot Camp (if you have an Intel-based Mac). You can also create a Linux partition on a Windows PC and boot to that when the need arises. Running macOS outside of an actual Mac computer isn't possible—unless you're comfortable jumping through the technical hoops required to create a Hackintosh.

This list of the best operating systems includes only consumer operating systems, which is why you won't find IBM i, Suse Linux, and server OSes here. Read on for a summary of each personal desktop operating system in order of usage share. For far more detail, click the links to full reviews under each operating system summary.

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The Best Operating Systems: Windows, macOS, Linux, or ChromeOS? (6)

Microsoft Windows 10

4.5

$139.00 at Microsoft StoreSee It

Windows powers more than 1.4 billion PCs, making it by far the most popular desktop operating system. It supports the most hardware and software of any OS. Windows has stumbled over the years, but the consensus is that Windows 10 is a success, and it's more stable and usable than its predecessors. Despite that success, Microsoft decided to move the platform forward with Windows 11 (covered next). The good news is Windows 10 will remain in support until 2025 with an option to extend support into 2028 for a fee that's to be determined as of this writing.

Windows 10 is hard to match in interface clarity, wealth of included tools, and usability. Full touch screen support, voice assistance, flexible screenshot and clipboard tools, photo and video editors, stylus input, and even basic 3D modeling all come included. The right-panel Action Center is a convenience that consolidates notifications and gives quick access to frequently needed settings. Moving and arranging windows in Windows 10 is unmatched in convenience and ease, as is using multiple virtual desktops. Windows and macOS both include app stores with vetted programs. Unlike macOS, Windows 10 can comfortably slip into a very usable tablet mode, with touch gesture support that negates the need for a keyboard.

If you're into gaming, and particularly VR gaming, Windows is the only way to go. It also ties in snugly with Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage and syncing service. As far as mobile integration, macOS has it beat with the ties between iOS and macOS, but Windows' story has vastly improved with impressive Android integrations.

Though Windows 10 is more secure and stable than in the past, it still doesn't match macOS or Linux on those criteria. Its interface presents some inconsistency, especially in control panels, and you still hear occasional complaints about problems resulting from updates, but the number of affected systems is relatively minuscule.

Microsoft Windows 10 Review

The Best Operating Systems: Windows, macOS, Linux, or ChromeOS? (7)

Apple macOS Sonoma

4.5

Visit Site at Apple.comSee It

Apple's desktop operating system is polished, capable, and reliable. It gets big updates every year, with Sonoma being the latest. If you're going to use macOS, your choice of computers is limited to those sold by a single seller, but it's a good one (even if the devices are decidedly not budget-priced). Options range from the MacBookAir and MacBook Pro to the Apple Mac Studio. Macs are currently transitioning from Intel CPUs to Apple Silicon. The new processors, with names like M1, M2, and M3, rival the top Intel chips in performance, reduce power consumption, and add even more compatibility with Apple's mobile platforms.

The macOS interface is as slick as it gets, with more consistency than any of the other OS choices included here. It also ties in well with iPhones and other Apple devices. Stage Manager gives you flexibility with your windows and how you multitask among them. Apple's OS is document-based rather than program-based like Windows, so every app has the same menu provided by the OS at the top. It can be a stumbling block for those moving between Windows and macOS, as can the differences between the Mac's Finder and Windows' File Explorer. Differences between Windows' Taskbar and macOS's Dock also take some getting used to for anyone moving between the two.

Macs are well stocked with included software and utilities, like the excellent media apps Apple Photos, iMovie, and GarageBand. You also get Maps, Podcasts, Mail, Calendar, Notes, Reminders, and we can't forget the fine web browser Safari, which offers good synergy with its mobile counterparts as well as decent privacy features.

Gaming has long been something of a weak point for Macs, but Apple includes good parental controls in macOS with Screen Time, and the system has a sterling reputation for security.

Apple macOS Sonoma Review

The Best Operating Systems: Windows, macOS, Linux, or ChromeOS? (8)

Microsoft Windows 11

4.5

Visit Site at Microsoft StoreSee It

Beneath its glossy new surface with design cues from ChromeOS and macOS, Windows 11 is largely the same as Windows 10. It runs all the same apps, though you need a PC with a newer CPU and a security chip called a TPM, which has been standard on computers for several years, to run Windows 11. So far it is the only mainstream OS with built-in generative AI, thanks to Copilot. Windows 11 gets you nearly the same wide selection of computer hardware, software, and video games as Windows 10.

Windows 11 has a few new capabilities not found in Windows 10, including Snap Layouts for organizing program windows on the desktop, new HDR display support, and better security. Windows 11 has something else you won't find in Windows 10—an improved File Explorer with a tabbed interface. Live Captions for speech-to-text work with any audio that's playing on the PC. The OS also has new video editing and sound recording apps. The 2023 Windows update brings, in addition to Copilot, passkey support, an improved email app, and even stronger screenshot capabilities that include OCR.

PCMag tested Windows 11 performance for productivity and for gaming and found it's a notch faster but mostly on par with Windows 10. Additionally, according to PCMag analyst Jordan Minor, Windows 11 makes every PC an Xbox.

Microsoft Windows 11 Review

The Best Operating Systems: Windows, macOS, Linux, or ChromeOS? (9)

Google ChromeOS

4.0

$0.00 at Google ShoppingSee It

Google's desktop operating system started out by providing a web browser and little else. The idea was for it to be an entirely cloud-powered app running only web apps and using Google Drive to store all your data. ChromeOS has moved beyond that now, with Android apps from the Google Play store being its main source of software. It offers true desktop features like file folders for local files, the Google Assistant voice AI, a night mode, and tight integration with Android phones.

A variety of inexpensive Chromebook laptops and Chromeboxes (the desktop version) run ChromeOS, but the company recently made a push with what it's calling Chromebook Plus—computers with sufficient CPU power, storage, and screen resolution to enable them to run more demanding software. These PCs can use unique Google tech like Magic Eraser (of Pixel commercial fame), add special effects to Google Meet video calls, and run an impressive web version of Photoshop. If you want a big all-in-one Chromebase, HP makes one. The OS supports touch screen and stylus input in the form of the Pixel Pen, and many printer models, though not as many as macOS and Windows.

The operating system's interface is clear and minimal. There's a shelf, similar to Windows' Taskbar, and the program launcher and settings are well implemented. Google continues to add conveniences, like Android phone tethering, picture-in-picture video, better offline functionality, multiple virtual desktops, and a clever Tote feature that keeps recent documents and images at the ready.

ChromeOS has two very different app stores, the Chrome Web Store and Google Play, which carry some of the same apps. Some Android apps behave inconsistently on Chrome, but the situation is improving, and Google seems keen on making Play the main place you get apps, as opposed to the Chrome Web Store. You won't find high-end professional applications on ChromeOS, such as powerful video editing software. However, Google has created a full suite of apps and services for the education market.

If you're a student or someone on a limited budget, ChromeOS might be right for you. If you want to play the latest AAA video games, edit videos and photos with professional-grade software, or run advanced hardware like VR headsets or 3D printers, choose another OS.

Google ChromeOS Review

The Best Operating Systems: Windows, macOS, Linux, or ChromeOS? (10)

Ubuntu

4.0

$0.00 at UbuntuSee It

What Linux has over all the other operating systems included here is that it's completely free and open-source, rather than being the product of a huge tech company with profit motives. You can install Ubuntu Linux, maintained by Canonical Ltd., on any hardware that can run Windows. You can even run the operating system from a live USB stick, averting the need for installing it on your computer's storage. A few computers do come with Linux preinstalled, such as the privacy-focused Purism Librem Mini, and you can get Dell laptops running Linux, mostly aimed at developers.

The latest update to Ubuntu, version 23.10 (aka Mantic Minotaur), adds still more security, with full disk encryption using the computer's TPM, along with a redesigned App Center that makes finding the software you want easier. Previous updates improved performance and consistency, and the Linux 5.19 kernel added multicore support on Intel CPUs, PipeWire audio for more Bluetooth support, and better Steam support for gamers.

Ubuntu offers a pleasing interface and a workable selection of included apps. It comes with an office suite, browsers, and email and media apps. You can get more apps from repositories. The interface resembles that of macOS more than Windows, but unlike macOS, it supports touch-screen functionality (though not as fully as Windows). Linux is highly customizable with completely different interface shells, and it comes in different flavors, also known as distros—Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Ubuntu Budgie, Ubuntu Mate, and Xubuntu. They differ in preconfigured settings, apps, and designs tailored for different purposes and tastes.

A drawback is that Linux requires a bit more tech-savvy than the other choices here. If you're squeamish about seeing a command line, choose another OS. Another drawback is that the support for hardware peripherals is well behind that of Windows, macOS, and even Chrome OS. Additionally, you can't get some major apps, such as Photoshop and Microsoft Office, though more and more, major apps have web versions, which you can use on any operating system with a web browser. Don't expect much in the way of game selection, though you can run some on Linux.

Ubuntu is notable for being about as secure and stable an operating system as you'll find. No doubt that's why Linux powers so many servers that demand a high level of uptime. Ubuntu includes built-in security protections, and Canonical provides regular security patches and updates.

Ubuntu 20.04 (Focal Fossa) Review

What Is an Operating System?

An operating system is software that makes your computer work. It provides an interface between the hardware, the application software running on the hardware, and the user interacting with the software. Today's modern OSes include slick user interfaces and loads of utilities, tools, and preloaded apps that let you do a lot without even installing anything else. Those apps include photo editors, video editors, web browsers, email clients, calendars, text editors, and music players, among others.

An operating system also includes tools to keep your computer running smoothly, safely, and malware-free. Most even include built-in security features and support for VPNs. Much of an operating system's security and stability is maintained by an automated update process that makes sure the system receives timely fixes to hardware and software compatibility and vulnerability issues.

With smartphonesbeing such a dominant part of modern life, a good desktop operating system needs to work in concert with those devices. Another prevalent theme today is "the cloud," and most operating systems integrate with their own cloud services in varying degrees of functionality.

Ubuntu is what's known as free and open-source software, and ChromeOS is based on Google's open-source Chromium project, meaning volunteer coders can contribute to the code and third parties can put out their own versions. ChromeOS is Google's proprietary version of that code base.

How to Choose an Operating System

In our linked reviews of the five operating systems discussed above, we took into account the following criteria, which can help inform your choice of OS:

  • Range of hardware options

  • Range of software available, including gaming and productivity

  • Interface design and windowing niceties

  • Included apps and utilities

  • Mobile and cloud integrations

  • Stability, security, and updates

If you need to run software that's supported by one of these operating systems alone, your choice is obvious. You can get around this sometimes by running a virtual machine, but running native apps provides a superior experience. For example, if Adobe Premiere Pro just won't do and you want to use Final Cut Pro as your video editor, your only option is macOS. If you want to run AAA video games, stick with Windows. The same holds for peripherals. You may have a VR headset or 3D printer that only has drivers for one type of system.

Dig Deeper Into OSes!

For all our related content, head to PCMag's operating systems page, and for some bizarre and obscure operating systems that most people have never heard of, you can read about the strangest operating systems ever released. For a head-to-head comparison of the two leading choices, read macOS vs. Windows: Which OS Is Really Better?

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About Michael Muchmore

Lead Software Analyst

PC hardware is nice, but it’s not much use without innovative software. I’ve been reviewing software for PCMag since 2008, and I still get a kick out of seeing what's new in video and photo editing software, and how operating systems change over time.I was privileged to byline the cover story of the last print issue of PC Magazine, the Windows 7 review, and I’ve witnessed every Microsoft win and misstep up to the latest Windows 11.

Prior to my current role, I covered software and apps for ExtremeTech, and before that I headed up PCMag’s enterprise software team, but I’m happy to be back in the more accessible realm of consumer software. I’ve attended trade shows of Microsoft, Google, and Apple and written about all of them and their products.

I’m an avid bird photographer and traveler—I’ve been to 40 countries, many with great birds! Because I’m also a classical fan and former performer, I’ve reviewed streaming services that emphasize classical music.

Read Michael's full bio

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