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Operating system examples and their differences


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Kathryn Uhles, Dean, College of Business and IT

This article has been reviewed by Kathryn Uhles, MIS, MSP, Dean, College of Business and IT

At a glance

What is an operating system?

An operating system (OS) is a program that oversees the processes on a computer. All desktops, laptops, tablets and mobile devices have an OS. It coordinates the operations necessary to make the device run, and it ensures the applications and software function without interfering with one another. 

If you are a computer professional or are studying for an information technology career, it is important to understand the different operating systems and how they function. 

If you enroll in a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology program, you’ll learn about the various systems and how to interact with them. Related degrees, such as a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, will also cover operating systems and the coding languages you need to know to interact with them. 

  • An operating system (OS) is a program that oversees the processes on a desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile device.
  • Microsoft Windows, Mac OS and Android are some of the more popular operating systems on the market.
  • Linux and Ubuntu are operating systems oriented more toward tech-savvy users, while Chrome OS and Mac OS are more accessible to general users.
  • Learn more about technology degrees from University of Phoenix and develop skills that are useful in a number of industries and disciplines. 


What are the most common operating systems?

Here is a look at the seven most common operating systems that IT and computer science professionals should understand. 

1. Microsoft Windows

Microsoft Windows first launched in 1993. It runs on personal computers and uses C, C++, and C# languages. Microsoft releases new versions of the OS every three to five years, and it continues to provide support for many of the older versions.

  • Notable features: Has a visual desktop environment, allowing users with limited technical knowledge to open and use software, apps and files by clicking on icons. Comes with preinstalled software made by Microsoft. 
  • Who it’s best for: Because of its user-friendliness, Windows is a good option for home PC users with limited technical knowledge. Thanks to its software selection, cloud compatibility, specialized editions and frequent security updates, Windows is the top choice for many small businesses and enterprises.

Computer users seeking an alternative to the Windows environment often opt for Apple computers, which run the Mac OS operating system. 

2. Mac OS

Despite being known as the main Windows alternative, macOS predates Windows. The “Classic Mac OS” has been in use since 1984, and the current Unix-based version, macOS, launched in 1996. 

MacOS versions have a similar visual user interface to Windows, but there are some important differences. The most important is that the operating system comes pre-preinstalled only on Mac and Apple products. (Apple’s operating system for its mobile devices is called iOS.) Though there are some workarounds, such as using a virtual operating system, you cannot install macOS on other computers or use other operating systems on Apple products. Because of this lack of compatibility, computer users often need to choose either Mac or Windows.

  • Notable features: Users click on icons to navigate to programs or apps. The macOS environment has the same layout and navigation for desktop and mobile. Internal software and apps are designed to work seamlessly between devices. Mac products are meant to work out of the box with all necessary software included. Because of this approach, IT pros may find it difficult to configure or customize Mac products. 
  • Who it’s best for: If you want mobile, laptop and desktop computers to work together seamlessly and provide access to the same apps and tools, macOS is a good choice. Because of its software, tools and interface, macOS is a popular choice for people working in media, design and other related fields.   

Mac and Windows are not the only options for computer users. There are other choices for both mobile and desktop operating systems. 


3. Android OS

Android is a mobile operating system based on Linux and other open-source software. It’s for touch-screen devices, such as smartphones and tablets. The back-end coding is in C and C++, but Java is the primary language for Android’s user interfaces. 

Most Android devices are part of the Google ecosystem. The OS is designed to work with Google apps. Users can download programs from the Google Play store and use them out of the box. 

Android updates regularly, with one or more new versions coming out every year. 

  • Notable features: Android devices have a visual user interface, and many non-Apple mobile devices come with a version of Android preinstalled. Since Android is based on open-source programs, it is more flexible than Apple’s iOS. For example, people with enough technical knowledge can load apps from non-Google sources. Because of this flexibility, Android is more customizable than Windows or Mac operating systems. 
  • Who it’s best for: Android works best for people who want more flexibility when it comes to device choices and app options. It doesn’t work in a desktop environment, but many versions work seamlessly with Google’s cloud-based productivity suites. People who use the Chrome browser or rely on Google’s Office Suite may prefer Android devices.

Developers have also created versions of Android, such as Lineage, that are not tied to Google. These usually seek to improve the level of privacy and data security and help users avoid Google’s data collection practices. 

  • An operating system (OS) is a program that oversees the processes on a desktop, laptop, tablet or mobile device.
  • Microsoft Windows, Mac OS and Android are some of the more popular operating systems on the market.
  • Linux and Ubuntu are operating systems oriented more toward tech-savvy users, while Chrome OS and Mac OS are more accessible to general users.
  • Learn more about technology degrees from University of Phoenix and develop skills that are useful in a number of industries and disciplines. 

read similar articles

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4. Linux

Linux is not a single operating system. It is a family of related OS options based on the same framework, called the Linux kernel. Like other operating systems, it relies mainly on C and related computer languages. The unique thing about Linux is that it is open source. Most Linux versions are created and updated by communities of developers. They are free to use but require a compatible computer and some technical knowledge to install the OS.

  • Notable features: Features can vary widely. The primary draw is that users are free to configure the operating system as they want. While this requires some technical knowledge, various Linux communities offer tutorials, message boards and informal support for people who want to install a Linux OS on their computer or device. 
  • Who it’s best for: Linux is the best option for people who want to have full control over their computer, device or system. This family of operating systems is extremely useful for IT professionals because they can configure the system and programs to fit their exact needs. It’s essential, therefore, that tech pros be familiar with Linux environments. However, those with limited technical knowledge will likely find working in Linux a challenge. 

Some computers and mobile devices come with Linux-based operating systems installed. These can be used out of the box, but you will need some technical knowledge to configure them. 


5. Ubuntu

Ubuntu, introduced in 2004, is an example of a Linux-based OS. It is open source and free to use. It is updated every six months and managed by a company called Canonical, which makes income by creating and selling premium products to use on the OS. Ubuntu has an official desktop version and community-run mobile OS. There are also specialized editions for servers and Internet of Things (IoT) hardware.

  • Notable features: Most versions come with a browser, email client, file management, media players, office suite, and other features already installed. You can also get software suites and packages via the built-in GNOME utility, which functions like an app store. 
  • Who it’s best for: Ubuntu is a good option for people who are new to Linux. Because it’s supported by a company and has a large community of users and developers, Ubuntu has a lot of resources for finding help if you need it. The server and IoT versions of the OS may be useful to IT pros seeking a more user-friendly version of Linux. 

Because of its large community and relatively long history, Ubuntu has many tutorials and support options for novices who want to learn about Linux-based operating systems. 

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6. Chrome OS

Chrome OS is another Linux-based operating system. It was developed by Google and has the popular Chrome web browser as its main user interface. File management and media player tools are included. The OS was originally based on Ubuntu but has undergone a variety of changes to make it work with other Google and Android products. 

You will find Chrome OS on Google’s Chromebook computers, Chromebox streaming devices and Chromebit thumb-drive PCs.

  • Notable features: Chrome OS is meant to be simple to use and focused on cloud-based services, so it can operate with limited internal memory. It works with other Google and Android systems, so it is possible to create a suite of tools to use for business purposes. Google has a Chrome Enterprise Upgrade that unlocks advanced business features. 
  • Who it’s best for: Individuals and businesses primarily relying on cloud-based software and systems will be able to take full advantage of Chrome OS tools, especially if they plan to use Google’s personal or enterprise services.

Chrome OS works out of the box, but other Linux options offer more flexibility and privacy. 

7. Fedora

Fedora is a Linux distribution managed by the IBM subsidiary Red Hat. Like many other Linux distributions, it is free and open source. Fedora stands out among many other options because it is known for innovations and working with different communities of Linux developers to create new solutions. 

  • Notable features: Fedora has five different versions. Workstation Fedora is for PCs, but there is also a CoreOS version for cloud-based systems, and other editions for servers, IoT devices and object-oriented computing. The Workstation edition comes with basic software preinstalled. Because of its active development communities, you can also find other specialized software.
  • Who it’s best for: The different editions and ongoing development projects make Fedora a good choice for professionals needing to create computer systems, servers and networks to meet the needs of their employers. 

Clearly there are many OS options to choose from. Whether you are a tech pro or a computer amateur, there is something out there for you and your needs.

Learn more about technology degrees from UOPX!

Headshot of Michael Feder


A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and its Writing Seminars program and winner of the Stephen A. Dixon Literary Prize, Michael Feder brings an eye for detail and a passion for research to every article he writes. His academic and professional background includes experience in marketing, content development, script writing and SEO. Today, he works as a multimedia specialist at University of Phoenix where he covers a variety of topics ranging from healthcare to IT.


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