Alternative computer operating systems to Windows

Saturday, 20 June, 2020

It may be a footnote in most history books, but the 20th of November 1985 was a day when the world changed forever.

This was the day when Microsoft replaced their text-driven MS-DOS operating system with a graphical user interface known as Windows.

Admittedly, this wasn’t a new idea, since Xerox had been experimenting with GUIs since 1973.

Ten years later, Apple’s Lisa computer also adopted graphics in lieu of a command prompt.

However, Microsoft popularised it. And Windows subsequently became the world’s most popular computer operating system, available on a plethora of different machines.

Windows XP’s hills-and-clouds background is believed to be the most viewed image in human history, while the Notepad and Paint apps remain popular even after 35 years.

Billions of internet visits have started by double-clicking the Internet Explorer icon, and Windows 10 is polished and stable – two attributes which haven’t always applied to its predecessors.

But what if you fancy something a bit different?

Contrary to popular belief, there are several alternatives to Windows.

Each has its own pros and cons, but all three deserve consideration if you’re not already deeply embedded in the Windows ecosystem.


Of all the alternatives to Windows, MacOS is the best-known. Indeed, rival supporters have spent decades arguing about whether Microsoft or Apple pioneered particular concepts.

Apple was certainly the first to retain the tenth generation of its operating system, opting to endlessly refine OS X rather than replace it. Microsoft followed suit with Windows 10.

OS X is controlled through a gorgeous GUI, and has historically been more media-focused than Windows, offering users advanced photo and video editing tools for free.

There’s plenty of compatible hardware and software, though Windows remains the gold standard in this respect. Apple devices are also notoriously expensive.

Pros: Resistant to malware, dovetails with iOS devices, easy for beginners to pick up

Cons: Only available on expensive computers, less hardware and software compatibility than Windows, doesn’t support touchscreen technology


Like Apple, Google has diversified into some unexpected areas. And before 2011, nobody expected them to develop one of the main alternatives to Windows.

Chrome OS is a lightweight operating system designed to support Google’s proprietary range of Chromebooks – web-based machines where speed and simplicity is paramount.

As its name suggests, Chrome OS dovetails with the Chrome web browser, which is your portal to pretty much everything a Chromebook can do. Sadly, it also limits those boundaries.

Even something as basic as viewing a downloaded file can be tricky, while Chrome OS has little time for third-party hardware or software. At least it supports many Android apps.

Pros: Boots and runs quickly, very stable, can be augmented with Android apps

Cons: Lacks support for hardware and peripherals, limits what the device is capable of, not always intuitive to use


Even if you haven’t heard of Linux, you’ve certainly heard of the Android smartphone operating system it underpins.

Linux was invented in the early 1990s by a Finnish IT student, and its program code is open source. That means it’s freely available to install, use and edit.

Because anyone can modify Linux, numerous similar (yet ultimately incompatible) formats known as distros have been developed.

Linux is much more customisable than Windows, and some user interfaces are gorgeous. However, many hardware devices and software packages won’t run on it.

Pros: Free to install and use, can be endlessly customised, thriving user communities provide extensive support

Cons: No universal standard, tech support is often lacking, needs fiddly emulators to run key Windows programs.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!