About Operating Systems
Update (12/29/01): This is old. Get Mac OS X and forget about Operating Systems for a while!
How do we choose an operating system?
Talking with some computer knowledgeable people the other day, I was surprised to find out very little support for Windows 95/98. Nobody was willing to write a Web site to help users of that system. I asked: "How come it is so popular?" and a friend answered, to my astonishment, "Well, until recently I didn't know there was an option!". That got me thinking, How do we choose an operating system (OS)? It should be similar to the way we choose cars, right? We think about what we need, compare to what we can afford, take a bit of personal taste and there you are. Surely, it is similar with our OS of choice. Maybe not.
It is very difficult to abandon your current OS. You have an investment in Hardware, Software, and, perhaps more important, knowledge (compare with cars!). Even for a new user, without a current investment in an operating system, it is hard to get a straight, unbiased report on the advantages and disadvantages of each OS (again, compare with cars!). This is what I intend to do here (at least for the OS I have work with: MacOS, Windows 95/98, Windows NT, and Linux). This is still a personal experience, your mileage may vary.
In order to fight against bias, let me start by saying that I use the MacOS. The reasons are that, when I choose it, it was probably the best of the easy ones, that now I have an investment (see above), and that there are some programs that work either only in Mac or better in Mac, at least for my taste. Let me provide an example of the last point. There is a TeX typesetting system for the Mac called Textures, that is integrated (not an editor that control the rest of the programs) and that has very exclusive features (the ability to jump from formula to code, typesetting (compiling) on the background as you type,etc.). Nothing like it exists (as far as I know) in other systems. Another example is Mathematica. It used to work better in the Mac, now I am not so sure. It seems to be loosing ground particularly when compared to Linux (Intel required). Check this page to see what I mean. Another reason I use a Mac, particularly as a Web server (you are looking at it!), is security. Crackers know less about the Mac and the MacOS is relatively hard to fool. I have thought about changing, as a matter of fact I have Linux installed in one of the Macs I use (I use and maintain five Macs (a PowerPC 6500, PowerBook 1400c (with a G3 Upgrade), a G3/233 (also runs Linux), a G3/266, and an iMac). The Mac is far from perfect (see below) but it is a great machine (particularly the hardware with quality comparable only to Dell in the Wintel (Windows+Intel) world).
There are things I can do on a Mac, that I can't (or don't know how) to do in other systems. My favorite example is that the Web server on which this page is based will reboot if it hangs, turn itself on if electricity fails (immediately after power returns), and even turn itself on everyday at 6:00 am in case someone (e.g., me) shuts it down by mistake.
The current version of the system is 8.5.1 and it is very good compared to the older ones. As much as I may love my Mac the operating system (not the user interface) is pretty bad. Particularly, the low level components (programers of games hate it!). It clearly has an ugly heritage from the time when the Mac first came out. It is difficult to get rid of it, but there is no excuse to be forced to use an OS without any memory protection. Memory (RAM) is where the applications keep themselves when they are running. The application writes to memory when it needs to do stuff. In the Mac it is very easy for an application to either read or write to space that belongs to another application (i.e., the application's memory is not protected). This includes the file/windows management system (called Finder)! This is the cause of 90% of crashes (either partial (only the application crashes (quits unexpectedly) or total (the machine hangs up and must be rebooted with reset (ctrl-command-power)). Any system programer knows how to fix this, the problem is fixing it while maintaining the current applications. That seems to be impossible. Still there is no excuse.
A typical user crashes the Mac 2 or 3 times per week, the number increases if you use beta software to something like once a day. If you are a programer, expect to reboot your Mac several times a day (basically, with every run except the last one!). This is unacceptable. The only consolation is that correcting crashes is fairly easy with a Mac. The system components (higher level) are quite nice and user friendly.
Another problem with the Mac is that there are things that do not come out for it. Games are a particularly good example of this (though the situation is improving). I do not care about games and, from the professional point of view, I can't complain (see above). Still there are things I wish I had that only a Windows user can get (current example The Rio, a portable Mp3 player. A Linux user (on Intel) can also use the Rio).
The interface of the Mac is very nice and comfortable to use. Some people don't get the one button mouse, or other things, they want more options, more variety. But most of the time it is precisely this uniformity that makes the Mac great. The OS communicates easily with any SCSI, or serial device (or USB, now). It is true plug and play. It knows what hardware to expect and how to use it.
To understand the big advantage of the Mac (at least over 95/98) one only has to read the installation instruction of programs. Normally, the installation instructions for Windows 95/98 are twice as long as those for Mac, which are mostly 1) insert 2) double click, 3) follow instructions on screen. In the same topic, Installing a new system in a Mac is really easy and has no surprises. In comparison, the Windows 98 or NT installation requires rebooting several times. Windows 98 even gives the warning: "this process takes several minutes. If you notice inactivity in the progress bar reset or turn off your system." What is that?
The current version is Windows 98, but there was a service pack released in December that you may or may not need. If you have a fast machine (more than 200 MHz) you should probably get 98. I understand that most people use Windows 95/98 because Microsoft has an incredible control over the market (and even though it doesn't make hardware it can force hardware manufacturers to do what it wants). It is very difficult to get a brand name Intel computer that doesn't come with Windows 98 (the current version) (though the License allows you to not accept it and return the product for a refund. WARNING: You must not use the product in order to do this).
The low level system is better (but not much better) than a Mac. Still a Windows 98 user should expect 3 or 4 crashes every week. Must of this are not due to Windows 98 itself but to applications and old stuff. This is the main problem with Windows 98. It is very easy to break, it is very hard to fix, and installer programs (the infamous wizards) are incredible messy (particularly in the Windows directory). At the end, you have files you didn't know you had, another installer may need a slightly different file with the same name, but it doesn't know it isn't what you already have! So it leaves it there and your machine starts crashing.
A lot of users say: "My Windows (95/98) machine never crashes" either they are lying, or they only use one or two programs (mostly Office and Explorer).
The big advantage with Windows is that every new thing comes out first (and sometimes only) for Windows systems. If you can install it. If you want this capability, have money, and do not care for games I suggest you use Windows NT.
The other advantage is that a lot of people uses Windows 95/98. This should make it easier to get help. The problem is that Windows 95/98 users tend to know a lot less than users of other systems, and they are not willing to help even if they know. It is hard to fix Windows 95/98 problems so nobody wants to do it.
At first I was tempted to say that neither Windows (95/98) nor the MacOS are operating systems (they are systems, but they do not operate properly). With Windows NT we go to a different realm of an operating system.
Since NT almost never crashes, most programers (of Windows) use an NT machine and only finish the product on a 95/98 machine (alas, sometimes rendering it unusable in an NT, particularly games). Windows NT is a serious system with a lot of features. It comes in two versions (Workstation and Server). The server version is capable of serving web pages, function as an ftp server, do file sharing, and if hardware is good enough, even support application sharing (where the code of the application lies in the server and can simultaneously be used by several users at the same time).
One problem with NT is that it is behind the previous systems in support of new things (mostly hardware, most Windows 95/98 software (except games) run on NT). Of course, a new version is in the works but it keeps getting delayed more and more (the current scheduled places it at the end of the year 2000). Be very careful with the machine you get to run NT. Make sure all the cards (particularly sound and video) are supported.
The worst thing about NT is the price (300-700$ depending on the version). It is a significant proportion of the machine you are getting. If you don't have a full use for it, it probably isn't worth it.
Finally, it isn't easy to install NT (though if you have experience with other systems you may find it easier than installing 98!). It requires knowing what you are doing and thinking first. You must read all the instructions. Sometimes I feel a little like preparing something from a recipe that suddenly, in the last step, says: "Now take the sauce that you left cooking on low fire for a week" and this is the first time the sauce is getting mentioned!
Linux is an amazing operating system. It is free if you download it, very cheap if you get the CD (with books!). It has the best support possible (volunteers). Tons of info in the Web. Runs in several machines (Intel, alpha, PowerPC). If you want to know more (and get tons of links) check this page.
Problems? sure! It's quite hard to install (again you must know what you are doing), though it is easier than NT (because you have more help). Installing the free software from the Web may involve some programing. Installing printers and modems normally includes editing text files. If you don't come from Unix this may sound daunting (if you come from Unix, there is nothing for you here go away!). But if you succeed you have a very stable (more than NT), extremely powerful (even in old hardware) OS (and, it is free!). One that you can even learn to do things remotely using Telnet from any machine (an advantage over NT that needs another Windows for remote managing). One that comes with games, TeX, editors galore, compilers, and tons others stuff from the start. One that you can find free software for, by the ton.
You have to be carefully with the hardware. If you have a "it-just-came-out" card, you may find there is still no support for it. If it is a popular one it will get support. If not, you may have to do it yourself. The good thing is, it can be done. It can even be learned. It may take some time and frustration but once you do it, you feel great. Another problem is that if you intend to buy software (e.g.., Mathematica, Applixware) then you should get an Intel machine. It is the one with the most support. I have LinuxPPC running on a G3 Mac and it is great and very fast. There are things I can't do (use Mathematica) and things I still don't know how to do (listening/creating mp3s, using my UMAX SCSI scanner, printing in color in a DeskWriter C, etc.). The ability to have one machine with two systems (e.g.. Windows 98 for games and Linux for serious work), is great. The level of security is very good. But the best thing is to have a machine that you never have to reboot, unless you feel like it ... That is the way it should be! (my thanks to Linux creator (Linus Torvald) and to our mascot (Tux)).
There has been a lot of press covering the resurrection of the Mac and the increasing adopting of Linux (even Compaq now sells a Linux server), Will we have to change OS? Probably. Will it be Linux? I doubt it. But my doubt doesn't mean this developments won't produce drastic changes. To imagine the future think about the machines students of computer science had before and compare that to a Linux machine. This guys will be superusers (at least the good ones) long before they graduate. They will use, and maybe help develop, a stable operating system. When they develop their own system it will have great features, I think.
I have not touch other operating systems (Mac OS X server, Be OS, FreeBSD, etc.). Some of them I have never see (and probably will never see, because I have no plans to buy them). Others are free, but require hardware I do not have. Still others are not that much different from what is discussed here, so I get no curiosity... What system will we use tomorrow? I don't know, I sure hope it doesn't ever crash.
Las opiniones expresadas en estas páginas son las de sus creadores, y en ningún momento representan la posición oficial del IVIC, ni de ninguna de sus dependencias.
Last Modified: April 13, 1999