Chances are you’ve used one or the other almost exclusively your whole life, without considering all the other options out there.
You might have heard about “Linux”, but don’t really know much about it. For example, did you know that there is no such thing as just a pure operating system called “Linux”?
Well in this article you won’t have to wonder anymore about what else is out there, because we’re going to break it all down for you and hopefully make it easy to understand.
Because yes, there are a ton of other operating systems besides just Windows and Mac, but it’s not really as complicated as you might imagine.
I really encourage you to read this whole thing to understand the context of why you might use each one.
To most easily understand how current operating systems relate to each other, we need to go way back, to when we had DOS, disk operating system. Actually, DOS is irrelevant now so let’s skip past that, and begin in 1969.
This is when we got the first big daddy operating system still around today, and an essential part of what we’re going to talk about, so bear with me.
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But eventually AT&T started licensing out the operating system to third parties. Today, there isn’t really any pure “Unix” operating system around today. Instead, Unix is a family of operating systems that all must adhere to a set of proprietary specifications called the “Single Unix Specification”, in order to be considered a true Unix OS.
So, it’s more of a brand, as opposed to an actual OS.
Many of you at this point might be thinking, yea well how many people really even use Unix? Well you might be surprised that there’s at least one very popular operating system that is indeed a true Unix OS.
Do you know what it is? It’s Mac!
Yes, Mac OS is one of many “flavors” of Unix. So hopefully now you’ll see why I needed to explain all that backstory, and it will become even more important soon.
Though besides Mac, there really isn’t any other Unix operating system we’d be interested in, because any others would mostly just be used in enterprise systems, like servers, supercomputers, mainframes, and that sort. And I want to focus on ones we can actually use.
So, if you were to ask anyone to name a desktop operating system besides Windows or Mac, probably everyone will say “Linux”. But as I mentioned before, there is no actual operating system you can just download and install called “Linux”. Because that actually refers to the Linux Kernel.
Now if you have no idea what I’m talking about let me explain. The kernel of an operating system is basically like its core. The kernel is what directly interacts with the hardware of the computer, such as the CPU and RAM, and allows them to interact with any applications. It’s essentially the main bridge between hardware and software. So, any time a program is running on your computer, the Kernel is what passes everything to and from the CPU so it can actually run.
As you can imagine, there can be many varieties of Linux operating systems, called distributions or “distros”, all using the Linux Kernel. If you’re wondering if it’s a coincidence that Linux sounds a lot like Unix, it’s not.
The Linux kernel was “heavily inspired” by Unix you might say, and was written by a guy named Linus Torvalds. And Linus named it by combining his name with “Unix”, resulting in “Linux”. This is why you may have heard Linux referred to as a “Unix-like” operating system. It’s very similar, but not exactly the same. Ok, enough of the history lesson, we haven’t even talked about any other operating systems you can use yourself.
Well there is one more family of Operating systems we’ll talk about afterwards, but for now, let’s go over some popular Linux distros.
If you’re aware of any Linux distros at all, then you’ve probably at least heard of Ubuntu. It’s one of many free Linux distros, and has been heavily marketed towards more casual, mainstream users.
You might even call it the “Mac of Linux”. If you’ve never used a Linux operating system before, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised to find out the visual experience at least isn’t too much different from what you’re used to. Of course, under the hood things get significantly more complicated, and you’re often left having to get your hands dirty, and you’ll definitely be using the terminal a lot.
Then there’s Debian OS, which Ubuntu is actually a derivative of. Debian has an enormous catalog of software in what are known as official “repositories”, so any distros based on Debian can also use this catalog to easily install almost any program automatically. Debian’s website describes it as “The Universal Operating System”, and one of the main selling points is that it apparently wants to support as wide a range of hardware and user levels as possible.
Though it’s still probably not as easy to use as Ubuntu.
Then there’s another popular one called Linux Mint, which is a derivative of Ubuntu, so also going back to Debian again. Even though it’s based off Ubuntu, it differs in a lot of ways. For example, Mint’s user interface will remind you a lot more of Windows, whereas Ubuntu is closer to Mac. But even though mint is more familiar visually, a lot of people still find Ubuntu easier to use once they figure out the basics of navigating it.
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The Ubuntu vs Mint debate is a heated one, so I don’t think you can say that one is necessarily better than the other. But Mint might actually end up being better for those who are a bit more tech savvy in the first place.
Another well-known Distro you may have heard of is called Fedora, which like Debian is one of the major “branches” of Linux that many distros are based on. It’s updated very frequently and is considered “bleeding edge”. So, in terms of innovation, Fedora is probably where things will show up first.
One interesting thing about Fedora is that it requires all software in its official repositories to be free. This can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. There’s nothing stopping you from installing proprietary software, but you’ll have to go out of your way a bit. It’s not like it’s a difficult operating system, but it’s definitely not good for the average consumer who can barely even work Windows.
And the final Linux distro we can mention is CentOS, which is focused on Enterprise use. And this is also part of the Fedora family. It was made to pretty much just be a free version of another Distro, Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
So, you’d expect this to be used a lot in business environments, servers, and commercial settings. The main difference between CentOS and Red Hat Enterprise is that Red Hat has paid support, which might obviously be useful if it’s being used by a business.
So those are just a small handful of Linux distros, in only two major families, Debian and Fedora. But there are literally hundreds of other distros out there.
Alright, now we’ve talked about Unix and Linux, but there’s one more set of operating systems we’ll need to cover. And that is BSD, or “Berkeley Software Distribution”. And like Linux, BSD is ALSO a derivative of Unix. However, BSD is much more closely related to Unix than Linux, because BSD was created using the original Unix code.
Another difference from Linux is that BSD is not just a kernel, but had been created as a complete operating system.
Just like Unix itself, there isn’t a single “official” BSD. The operating system known simply as “BSD” stopped development many years ago, and several different branches came off of it. The three most widely used today are called FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD.
The only exception would be a distro called “TrueOS”, which is a derivative of FreeBSD, and was specifically made as a desktop OS.
There is a lot of overlap between the BSD distros, but there are differences. In general, FreeBSD focuses on use in servers and to some extent desktops.
Because BSD is extremely reliable and scales well, you’ll usually see it on high end servers, and those that have to handle a ton of traffic.
NetBSD is made to work on as many platforms and devices as possible, and this even includes toasters.
Anything from amd64, i386, ARM, and a ton of other architectures.
OpenBSD on the other hand focuses on maximum security. In fact, it’s regarded as THE most secure operating system currently available, because it was created from the start with that purpose.
Typically, you’ll see OpenBSD running on Internet-facing devices such as firewalls, routers, VPN gateways, you get the idea. Of course, don’t assume that just because you install it that you can’t get hacked. OpenBSD requires a lot of knowledge to configure correctly to be secure, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, it might not be as safe as you think.
So now we’ve gone over several operating system choices you have. For beginners, the easiest choice would probably be Ubuntu, but if you’re willing to do a bit more tweaking, you can go with Linux Mint.
Debian is what those are based off of so that is another choice, but maybe after you’ve played around with the others a bit. If you consider yourself pretty tech savvy and aren’t afraid to get your hands dirty, you could go with Fedora if you want to be on the cutting edge.
And if you think you can benefit more from a business-oriented OS, especially for a server, you might look into CentOS.
But of course, many distros, including Ubuntu, also have server versions. If you really want to get in the trenches, you could go with a BSD distro.
I personally would probably want to get familiar with something like Linux first, because it will get you used to configuring things yourself a bit more often.
FreeBSD is probably a good place to start, or better yet perhaps TrueOS for a desktop.
NetBSD and OpenBSD are an option, but I don’t think it would make sense to install either of those unless you had a specific reason to.
Wwith all that, I’m going to hope maybe you never heard of any of these, who knows.