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Operating System Buying Guide

This updated and improved guide covers all the major operating systems including the newly released Microsoft Windows 8 & Google's Chrome OS

What is an operating system and why do I need one?

The operating system is the heart of the way you interact with your computer; it provides the bridge between the physical components in your computer and the programs you use to complete tasks on your computer. The operating system allows all software compatible with it to interface and uses the components in the computer.

Without an operating system you would not be able to use your computer as no programs, applications, games or utilities would be able to be installed and run, your PC would just display a blank screen waiting for an operating system to be applied.

What types of operating system are available?

There are three major operating systems currently available for mainstream computers. These are Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OSX and Linux. Other operating systems are available however they usually have specific uses such as medical research.

Microsoft Windows: Currently the most popular operating system with around 90% of the market share. Most programs are written for Microsoft Windows and it is the premier format for PC gaming.

Mac OSX: Designed and marketed by Apple Inc and pre-loaded onto all Macintosh computers. A very easy to use operating system with a lot of built in functionality.

Google Chrome OS: Google Chrome OS is based upon Linux but heavily modified. Google Chrome OS currently is only available pre-installed on selected laptops, netbooks and desktops and not available to install after the point of purchase. Google Chrome OS differs from most other operating systems by its use of the cloud (The cloud is where applications and data are stored on a server not locally on your PC). The benefits of using a server to do the hard work is the devices that run Google Chrome OS offer great value for money and performance that exceeds what you would expect from a similar specification running Microsoft Windows. With a quick start-up time and thousands of apps available a Google Chrome OS computer is a great machine for those just wanting web access and basic computing functions. The only major drawback to a Google Chrome OS computer is the requirement for an internet connection to get the most out of the machine.

Linux: Linux is a generic name for a family of open source (free) operating systems. Because its components are open source, anyone can read and modify the code that makes it up. Due to this it has been modified into a huge variety of versions. It is only used on around 0.5% of personal computers due to its historical nature of being a more complicated operating system to use when compared to Microsoft Windows and Mac OSX.

What are the different versions of Windows available?

There are four major releases of Microsoft Windows that you are likely to encounter when using a PC. These are Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8.

Windows XP: Released on October 25th 2001 Windows XP is one of the oldest operating systems you are likely to encounter. Originally the successor to both Windows 2000 and Windows ME and was the first consumer-orientated operating system made by Microsoft to be built on the business orientated Windows NT kernel. This allowed Windows XP to offer higher levels of stability than previous versions of Windows such as Windows ME, Windows 98 SE and Windows 95. Windows XP is showing its age due to lacking support of the latest hardware and primitive support of memory management and multi-processor core technology.

There are four major editions of Windows XP:

Windows XP Home Edition: The version most people experience and will contain all the features a home user would need.

Windows XP Professional Edition: Has the same features as XP Home Edition but adds Windows Server Domain support and also support for two physical processors and is targeted towards power users, businesses and enterprise clients.

Windows XP Media Centre Edition: Adds additional multimedia features enhancing Windows XP’s ability to record and watch TV shows, view DVD movies and listen to music.

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition: Is designed to run stylus and touch input applications built using the Tablet PC platform.

Microsoft Windows XP was released for both 32bit and 64bit processors, almost all copies of Windows XP Home & Professional are 32-bit. The 64-bit editions while initially successful have severely limited hardware support with the majority of printers, scanners, webcams and common internal components not supporting Windows XP 64bit editions.

Windows Vista: Originally released on 30th January 2007 Microsoft Windows Vista address many of the complaints of Windows XP and brought extra hardware support and an improved user interface to the Windows experience. The release of Windows Vista came more than five years after the introduction of Windows XP which is the longest time span between successive released of Microsoft Windows desktop operating systems.

Windows Vista contains several changes and new features including an updated interface called Aero, a redesigned search function, multimedia tools including Windows DVD Maker and a new way of configuring networks. The primary goal of Microsoft with Windows Vista was to improve security and may free utilities are available from Microsoft for Vista and also its successor Windows 7 to enhance security; Windows Security Essentials being the most notable.

There are five editions of Microsoft Windows Vista for personal computer:

Windows Vista Home Basic Edition: Similar to Windows XP Home Edition, Vista Home Basic targets users not requiring advanced features and who are after a budget solution. Microsoft Windows Vista Home Basic Edition has some minor hardware limitations; Home Basic supports one physical CPU, but with multiple cores. 64-bit Home Basic only supports up to 8GB of RAM.

Windows Vista Home Premium Edition: Contains all the features of Home Basic and also supports additional features aimed for the home market segment such as support for HDTV and DVD-authoring. Extra hardware such as network projectors, tablet PCs and auxiliary monitor support. Vista Home Premium Edition includes a functionality comparable Media Centre to that of Windows XP Media Centre Edition. Like Home Basic, it supports just one physical CPU but multiple cores. 64-bit Home Premium supports up to 16GB of RAM.

Windows Vista Business Edition: The Vista equivalent of Microsoft Windows XP Professional Edition and Microsoft Windows XP Tablet Edition. Windows Vista Business Edition is targeted towards the business market. It includes all the features of Home Basic with the exception of the Windows Vista Standard theme and Parental Controls. Windows Vista Business Edition can join a Windows Server Domain and includes addition Business features such as fax support, Internet Information Services, Rights Management, File System Encryption, system image backup and recovery, offline files, shadow copy  and other business orientated management features. Microsoft Windows Vista edition supports up to two physical CPUs. The 64-bit edition of Vista Business supports up to 128GB of RAM.

Windows Vista Enterprise: Aimed at the enterprise market this version is based upon Vista Business but includes additional features. Microsoft Windows Vista Enterprise adds support for multilingual user interfaces, BitLocker drive encryption and UNIX application support. Visa Enterprise supports up to two physical CPUs and in 64-bit version also supports up to a maximum of 128GB of RAM.

Windows Vista Ultimate: Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate Edition combines all the features of Windows Vista Home Premium and Windows Vista Enterprise into one edition. Extras are included in this edition including video desktop wallpapers, extra games and extra sound schemes. The 64-bit edition of Windows Vista Ultimate supports up to 128GB of RAM.

Microsoft Windows Vista has been released in both 32bit and 64bit versions for both additions. Unless your processor does not support 64 bit instructions it is recommended you avoid the 32 bit versions.

Windows 7: Microsoft Windows 7 was released on 22nd October 2009 less than three years after the release of Windows Vista. Windows 7 is an evolution on the concepts and designs introduced in Windows Vista with the goal of being compatible with applications and hardware which are already Vista compatible. The headline features for Windows 7 include multi-touch support, a redesigned Windows Shell with a new taskbar; called the superb, a new form of home networking called HomeGroup and countless performance improvements. Windows 7 is optimised for all the latest hardware and provides huge performance and sustainability gains with hardware such as Solid State Hard Drives thanks to support for the TRIM command and optimisation of processes such as defragmentation.

The minimum hardware requirements to run Windows 7 are comparatively low and comparable to those of the premium editions of Microsoft Windows Vista. The 64bit versions require slightly more resources than their 32bit counterparts but perform considerably better in use. It is recommended you have a computer with at least 20GB of free disk space, a 1GHz or above processor and 2GB of RAM.

There are three major editions of Windows 7, each available in both 32bit and 64bit versions:

Windows 7 Home Premium Edition: Similar to Windows Vista Home Premium in features but includes improved desktop navigation, quick program start up and searching, enhanced media playback and HomeGroup networking support. In 64bit edition Windows 7 Home Premium supports up to 16GB of RAM.

Windows 7 Professional Edition: Includes all the features of Home Premium but adds support for Windows XP Mode which allows for you to run a virtual copy of Windows XP from within Windows 7 for enhanced compatibility with older hardware and applications, Domain Join for connecting to a Windows Server Domain and enhanced backup to network locations. 64bit Windows 7 Professional Edition supports up to 192GB of RAM.

Windows 7 Ultimate Edition: Supports all the features of Windows 7 Professional Edition but adds BitLocker drive encryption and the ability to work and switch between any of 35 languages on the fly. Windows 7 Ultimate 64bit Edition supports up to 192GB of RAM.

Windows 8: Windows 8 is the current version of the Microsoft Windows Operating System. This latest version of Windows was released on October 26th 2012 and has so far proven to be hugely popular. Windows 8 introduces a host of changes to the traditional Windows setup to improve compatibility for devices such as Tablets and Touchscreens to compete with strong competition from other operating systems. The most major change is the new Modern UI which replaces the Start Bar in the bottom left corner of previous versions of Windows. With the new UI’s live icons and native apps it is a whole new way to use your computer. New security features such as anti-malware measures, built-in antivirus software and secure boot support are also welcome additions. Windows 8 for the first time features the Windows Store and Apps, directly competing with the Apple App store in their OSX operating system.

The minimum hardware requirements for Windows 8 are slightly higher than those of Windows 7. The 64bit versions require slightly more resources than their 32bit counterparts but perform considerably better in use. It is recommended you have a computer with at least 20GB of free disk space, a 1GHz or above processor and 2GB of RAM.  Windows 8 also introduces a minimum screen resolution of 1024x768 for Windows Store Apps and a 720p resolution (1366x768 or higher) to use the snapping functionality of Apps.

There are only two major editions of Windows 8, helping to simplify the range. Both versions are available in 32bit & 64bit editions:

Windows 8: This is the edition that is directly comparable to the Windows Vista and 7 Home Premium editions.  This edition contains features aimed at the home market segment and provides all of the basic new Windows 8 features including the Start screen with semantic zoom, live tiles, Windows Store, Internet Explorer 10, connected standby, Microsoft account integration, the Windows desktop and more.

Windows 8 Pro: This is the edition that is comparable to the Windows Vista and 7 Professional and Ultimate editions. It is targeted at enthusiasts and business users. It includes all the features of Windows 8 with the addition to receive Remote Desktop connections, connect to a Domain network, File System Encryption, Hyper-V and Virtual Hard Disk booting. Like previous high end versions of Windows BitLocker and BitLocker To Go drive encryption is also on the feature list.

CCL would recommend Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro to any customer looking for the most up-to-date operating system around.

What are the differences between 32-bit and 64-bit?

The terms 32-bit and 64-bit refer to the way a computer’s processer handle information. 64-bit versions of Windows handle larger amounts of RAM much more efficiently and effectively than a 32-bit version of Windows. There is a cap of 4GB of RAM for a 32-bit version of Windows which cannot be raised. 64-bit versions of Windows support a minimum of 8GB of RAM rising to several thousand gigabytes of RAM on select editions. Programs written to support a 64-bit operating system will perform quicker than a 32-bit application due to the optimisations Windows makes behind the scenes.