Computers: Choosing an Alternative Operating System

There are a variety of reasons why you might want to use an operating system other than Windows. Such reasons include lower cost, more control over computer functions, and less susceptibility to viruses. A number of alternative operating systems, both old and new, are available.

One drawback of Windows is that its widespread nature makes it more susceptible to viruses. Most people are using it, so most viruses are designed for it. Some say that Windows is inherently more easily affected by viruses and “spyware” because of its design, although this is debatable. Using any operating system which is less common (including old versions of Windows like 3.1) will make your computer less likely to become infected with a virus.

Another drawback of Windows is its high cost. While most computers are sold with Windows, this is a problem if you purchase a used computer with no hard drive and/or no original OS disks, especially if you want to re-sell it. One alternative operating system which is available for IBM-compatible computers free of charge is FreeDOS. It is compatible with many MS-DOS programs, and is available in a version which will fit on a 1.44MB 3.5″ disk. This is a good operating system to include with a computer you are re-selling if you don’t want to spend money on Windows or MS-DOS.

DOS (available in MS-DOS, DR-DOS, and FreeDOS versions) can be a perfectly acceptable operating system for many purposes. A wide variety of word processing, application, gaming, and other DOS software can be purchased or downloaded for free on the internet. It is even possible to access the internet (dial-up) with a DOS-compatible web browser. If the full compatibility of MS-DOS (rather than FreeDOS) is needed, original MS-DOS disks can be purchased frequently on eBay. Shareware and freeware software for DOS is still produced by some individuals and small organizations. DOS 6.22 will allow a wider variety of programs to be used than earlier versions, although most MS-DOS programs will work in DOS 3.3 or newer. Versions any earlier than 2.11 should be avoided. You should also avoid purchasing Tandy MS-DOS disks unless you have the right model of computer, as some will only function on Tandy 1000 series computers.

Using DOS, and some of the other alternative operating systems, also gives you more control over the computer. Fewer functions are restricted, as in Windows (esp. XP). For example, DOS allows some types of non-standard floppy disk formatting which are not possible in Windows XP. It also lacks the problem of being unable to delete files because they are “in use” – which can cause difficulty when trying to eliminate viruses in Windows XP. Although DOS uses a command-line prompt system (not graphical, unless you install a GUI program) it is relatively easy to learn the few commands which are necessary to access and run programs.

Another operating system which is available for free (Personal Edition version 5) is BeOS, which can be downloaded online and used on IBM-compatible computers. Several web browsers are available in BeOS versions, including Opera and NetPositive. It has a similar appearance to Windows.

The Linux operating system is offered in a number of versions/distributions which can be downloaded for free, or ordered on CD/floppy inexpensively. A large amount of programs are available for Linux, including versions of AOL Instant Messenger and Skype. Compatible “clones” of popular Microsoft programs like Word, Powerpoint, Paint, and Calculator are available free of charge. Although programs designed for Windows won’t work in Linux, it is quite possible to take a document or Powerpoint presentation created in Windows and view it in Linux.

While a substantial amount of software is available for operating systems like DOS and Linux, the main drawback to alternative OSes is the lack of compatibility with Windows software. Not being able to use Microsoft Internet Explorer is inconvenient, as many websites are designed to be used with it. However, one alternative operating system, ReactOS, tries to be compatible with as much Windows software as possible, rather than using an entirely different set of software. A program called “Wine” is available for Linux (and a couple of other operating systems) which allows some Windows programs to be used without having Windows installed.

Choosing an alternative operating system doesn’t necessarily entail giving up the graphical user interface (GUI) style of Windows. Linux has a Windows-like GUI appearance when not being used in the command-line mode (somewhat like DOS), and a number of GUI programs are available for DOS.

GUI software (which is similar to early versions of Windows, in that it runs in DOS and isn’t actually the operating system) for DOS includes Tandy DeskMate, OpenGem (free), various lesser-known Windows “clones” and some more simple graphical menu programs. Tandy DeskMate (version 3.0+ will work on non-Tandy computers) is somewhat like Windows, offering most of the same applications. It has its own sound and music formats, and enables the computer to run a number of 80s/90s programs designed to be used with it.

Another advantage of choosing an alternative OS is that the system requirements may be lower. All versions of DOS have rather low system requirements, and most versions of Linux will work on older computers as well (probably not any older than a 386 or perhaps a 286). Even Windows 1.0 and 2.0 had fairly demanding system requirements for their time period. Other operating systems and GUIs may run more quickly than Windows as well.

When choosing an alternative OS, make sure your computer meets the system requirements, software which will suit your purposes is available for it, and it will not be too difficult for you to install and learn to use.

Choosing an alternative OS can save money and/or improve computer performance, but only if the appropriate considerations are made beforehand.

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