Tips from the frontline: Switching operating systems is almost never the answer to problems

One of the worst pieces of advice given to people looking for help and advice with computer problems is that they should switch to a different operating system. Here's why, along with some tips for anyone who still wants to change operating systems.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

How many times have you come across a statement like this in response to a computer problem on a forum in the comments section of posts:

"Oh, just switch to XYZ [the responder's favorite operating system] and you'll never have problems like that again."

I'm here to tell you that this advice is bad advice, and that the person making the claim is an idiot, and that you should probably ignore everything they say from thereon in.

As someone who made the switch from Windows to OS X on my day-to-day workhorse machines, I'm here to tell you that it's not easy. Sure, if all you do is fire up a browser and post cat pictures on Cheezburger then you'll probably be OK, but I'm assuming that since you're reading this that you actually use your computer for work and perhaps know a little bit about what goes on under the hood of your existing OS, then be prepared to feel like a total noob for a very long time.

Now I'm a pretty smart guy (and modest too), and I know a lot of people who are far smarter than I am who are willing to share their knowledge and expertise with me, but when I made the shift from running code from Redmond to the code coming out of Cupertino -- bear in mind that I did this to myself, not because some idiot on a forum told me to do it -- I knowingly put aside over two decades of expertise with Windows. I'd devoted my 10,000 hours to mastering the platform, plus thousands more, and had gotten to the point where there wasn't a file, registry entry, or command line trick that I wasn't familiar with.

I knew what made Windows tick.

And I also knew that many miles of bad road lay in my future with OS X.

See, problems don't usually occur straight out of the box. No, that's when everything is new and shiny and exciting, and everything works just as it should. Problems come when the limerence has worn off and you've got a deadline stressing you, and you stupidly clicked 'Allow' on that dumb update that causes the wheels to fall off your system and stop things choo-chooing along as they should.

Now you're in a world of hurt. And if you made that switch because some guy told you to do so, you can bet that he's nowhere to be found.

You're now faced with a problem, and none of your voodoo (key presses), incantations (command line stuff), or lucky charms (utilities) are going to help you. Fortunately, nowadays you can fire up Google (even if you end up having to do that on your smartphone) and see what the hive mind has to offer in relation to the problem you are having. But even then, the procedure you're going to have to go through to try to coax your ailing system back to health is likely to be unfamiliar to you, and will probably end up taking you hours to do something that an expert with that system could do in minutes.

Remember, you're now the noob.

I know very well what it's like to have problems with a new operating system. Last week I had one of my first really big problems with one of my Macs that had me stumped. It turned out to be down to the OS X 10.10.3 update, but I'll admit that it had me stumped for a while, and there was a point where I was getting ready to administer some adjustments with my trusty jeweler's hammer. It was a problem that I probably could have fixed on a Windows machine in a few minutes.

It took me a lot longer than that.

Now I'm not saying that people shouldn't switch platforms. It can be fun (if learning operating systems if your idea of fun), and if you were smart enough to find your way around one OS, you'll find your way around the new one. What I'm saying is don't switch because someone disingenuously tells you that their operating system of choice is better than the one you're using. Modern operating systems are, in my experience, very good, and whether you're using Windows or OS X or Linux, if you're happy, then your OS is good enough.

Same goes for upgrading. As long as your operating system is still being supported and you're getting patches for security issues, be wary of upgrading if you don't have the time and space in your life to learn new stuff or troubleshoot problems. Also, be wary of looking to upgrades as a fix for problems. Slapping new code on a system that's already unwell can push it over into critically ill territory.

If you still want to make the jump from one platform to another, here are some tips from the front line:

  • Don't rush the process. You'll make mistakes, cut corners, lose data, waste time, and generally have a painful experience.
  • Do your research. Find out what new software and hardware you'll need in advance.
  • Don't even think about using a new platform until you have a backup mechanism in place.
  • Make your new operating system your obsession, at least for a few months. Learn everything about it that you can.
  • Practice troubleshooting drills such as accessing safe mode and recovering files from a backup before you need these skills.
  • When things go wrong -- don't fool yourself, it's never an 'if' -- don't panic. Remember, your system won't bleed to death if you walk away from it to get some advice or a better perspective on the problem.

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