If you don't know what I mean by an Operating System, don't fret; I once was like you many years ago. In a nutshell, an O.S. is like a giant board-game for your computer's hardware; it comes with its own set of rules and processes that enable you to control your computer a certain way.
Since there's a whole universe of operating systems out there, it can be tough to choose which one will suit your needs. For this reason, I have decided to do a brief overview of the three most popular systems I personally know, and ending with a tribute to those that you probably never heard of.
Windows, The Omnipotent
Well, not really omnipotent, but you should get the point. You can't walk past a computer store without Windows showcased on most of their models these days, which in itself is its core strength: Marketability. This means a huge selection of software, drivers, video games and accessories available upon demand. In fact, the most reputable programs around tend to be found on Windows first long before they are ported to other systems. Choice is good!
The catch? Vulnerability to viruses and increasingly sluggish performance without regular maintenance. It still amazes me to this day how many anti-virus softwares there are devoted to keep this system from being hijacked, and the almost constant broadcasting of commercials promising to "speed up" your machine.
Macintosh: Not Just for School Anymore
Apple as a software and hardware company is doing great in my book. Its O.S. is Unix-based and thus rock solid. It's also relatively virus-free and speedy, while the machines that come with it tend to be as classy as they are functional. With emulation capabilities, Macs can even run Windows from within their own platforms, making them ultra flexible for multi-system users. Plus, as a media distribution company, Apple has also given its product many nifty functions for downloading, sharing and playing content.
As for drawbacks, the Mac O.S. tends to have a smaller library of programs than its more dominant counterpart. Even worse, the system remains largely limited to the specific hardware Apple promotes. No official support for installing the system on PCs exists.
Linux, The Tree Of Diversity
Two years ago, I switched from Windows to Linux and never looked back. Since then I have enjoyed the legal freedom the system's General Public License affords me, which is pretty much total. I can inspect and change the o.s's code, distribute it, and even sell copies of it if I wasn't too lazy to do so. As a result of it being Open-Source, many versions of Linux are available FOR FREE to be downloaded and shared. Even better, Linux is a clone of Unix and is installable on most machines depending on the distribution. When it comes to flexibility, Linux is king.
However, we Linux users pay a very large price for our love; we have access to a very small repertoire of games and drivers when compared to the rest. Even though the system is becoming more readily accepted by the public, there remains a lot of room for expansion. To date, it's mostly popular amongst nerds like myself.
The Real Underdogs
If you look hard enough on the web, you may stumble across other more alien systems, each with their own market niches. These include Free BSD, Open Solaris, and Haiku among many others. Although they tend to be highly specialized for certain tasks, some seem to have great potential to go mainstream if marketed just right. In short, don't underestimate their utility.
"Okay, so which one is for me?"
It depends. If you are a hard-core gamer, you may prefer Windows for its colossal collection of software and enormous hardware compatibility. On the other hand, if you care more about media and security, then Macintosh may appeal to you instead. For those of us with very light wallets, Linux and other free operating systems may also do just fine. In the end there's no such thing as a perfect O.S.; just one that suits your needs.
Good luck, and enjoy the search!