Five operating system alternatives to Windows 8 and XP

XP's end of life-support is in sight and not everybody wants Windows 8. So, what are your other choices?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

On April 8, 2014, Microsoft will stop supporting XP, but most people are not moving to Windows 8. Indeed, according to a TechRepublic survey, enterprise XP users are especially reluctant to move to Windows 8, so what are you going to use for your desktop in 2014? Here are my five suggestions in the order I think you should consider them.

Image: Screenshot by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

5. Android Tablet/Apple iPad

You really can use a tablet for some work purposes, but it works far better if you're primarily an information consumer rather than an information producer. So, sure, if you're looking up data from a spreadsheet, searching the web, or reading email, they're great. But if you're putting data into a spreadsheet, creating web pages, or writing long emails or documents, the platform can quickly become annoying.

You can solve those problems with a Bluetooth keyboard and a mouse, but do you know what you call a tablet with a keyboard and a mouse? I call it a laptop computer, myself.

I find it very telling that Charlie Sorrel, a true hard-core iPad-for-work user, recently had to throw in the towel because of "Gorilla Arm". This ailment, which had been known about long before the iPad was a gleam in Steve Jobs' eyes, happens when you're always bringing your arm up to touch a screen. Even with a keyboard, Sorrel found that after using an iPad day after day for over a year, the result was so painful that he would "sometimes rush through posts just to get them finished".

Jobs could have told him that. In fact, he did, back in 2010. "We've done tons of user testing on this and it turns out it doesn't work. Touch surfaces don't want to be vertical. It gives great demo, but after a short period of time, you start to fatigue, and after an extended period of time, your arm wants to fall off."

So, go ahead and support bring your own device for tablets if you like, just don't expect them to replace PCs. They won't.

4. Mac

I know, I know, if you're a Windows user you don't want to hear this, but Macs really are fine PC replacements. You can run many Microsoft office applications on them, such as Office for Mac and Outlook. True, they're not the newest versions, but if you have to have Microsoft applications, they are there. In addition, thanks to virtualization software like Parallels, you can still run your native Windows applications.

The downside, as always, is that Macs are never cheap. They'll also require you to learn a new way of doing things. That said, the learning curve from Windows to the latest version of Mac OS X, Mountain Lion, isn't as steep as from, say, XP to Windows 8's Metro.

3. The Linux Desktop

What's always been far more secure than Windows, a great deal more stable, and with the right combination of distribution and desktop interface? And it actually looks and feels a lot like XP. That would be desktop Linux; in particular, Linux Mint with the Cinnamon interface.

The downside is that it's more trouble to run Windows applications on Linux. It is not, however, impossible, thanks to a program called Wine and its commercial incarnation, Crossover Linux. In addition, just like the Mac, there are ways to run Windows virtually on Linux, such as Oracle's VirtualBox.

Frankly, though, for most office work, I find that LibreOffice and Evolution are better than their Windows counterparts, Microsoft Office and Outlook.

Don't believe me? Give it a try. You can download Mint and use it for free. You may just find that Linux is the operating system for you.

2. Chrome OS

Google thinks you don't need a fat-client desktop — any version of Windows, Mac OS X, and most Linux editions at all. Instead, all you need is enough Linux to run a system and the Chrome web browser for all your needs. With Chrome OS, they may be right.

I've been using Chrome OS on older PCs, and chromebooks for almost two years now. I've found that it works really well for most purposes. Better still, Chrome OS will run well on everything from cheap, $250 ARM-powered chromebooks to the fast, beautiful, and pricey, $1,299 Chromebook Pixel.

Perhaps the best thing about Chrome OS and its chromebook is that it has no learning curve whatsoever. If you can use a web browser, you can use a chromebook.

Is it right for you? Sit down and take a long, hard look at what you and your staff actually do all day. If you find — and I think many of you will — that most of their work can be done with software-as-a-service (SaaS) apps such as Google Docs and Gmail, then Chrome OS is your natural choice.

1. Windows 7

What? You thought I was going to tell Windows users that their best move would be to anything else but? Technically, I think Linux is better, but for total cost of ownership (TCO), it's hard to beat Chrome OS. If you're really wedded to Windows, Windows 7 is your best and most natural move.

I would only urge you to at least give the others a look. I really do think you may be surprised at how well they might work for your enterprise.

You should keep in mind that in the long run, it appears Microsoft really does want to switch you over to a Metro-style interface as part of the "evolution" of Windows 8. If that idea gives you hives, then now is the time to start looking for alternatives.

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