Linux isn’t the only alternative PC operating system out there. Some alternative operating systems are developed by large corporations, while others are small projects worked on by hobbyists.
We don’t recommend you install most of these on your actual PC. If you want to play with them, you may want to install a virtual machine program like VirtualBox or VMware Player and give them a whirl.
Linux, FreeBSD, and More
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No list of alternative PC operating systems could be complete without Linux. It’s the alternative PC operating system. Linux comes in many different flavors, known as Linux distributions. Ubuntu and Mint are some of the most popular. If you want to install a non-Windows operating system on your PC and actually use it, you should probably pick Linux.
Linux is a Unix-like operating system, and there are other open-source operating systems like FreeBSD out there. FreeBSD uses a different kernel, but it uses much of the same software you’d find on a typical Linux distributions. The experience of using FreeBSD on a desktop PC will be pretty similar.
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Google’s Chrome OS is built on the Linux kernel, but it replaces the desktop and user-level software with a specialized desktop that can only run the Chrome browser and Chrome apps.
Chrome OS isn’t really a general-purpose PC operating system — instead, it’s designed to be preinstalled on specialized laptops, known as Chromebooks. However, there are ways to install Chrome OS on your own PC.
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Valve’s SteamOS is currently in beta. Technically, Steam OS is just a Linux distribution and includes much of the standard Linux software. However, SteamOS is being positioned as a new PC gaming operating system. The old Linux desktop is there underneath, but the computer boots to a Steam interface designed for living rooms.
In 2015, you’ll be able to buy PCs that come with SteamOS preinstalled, known as Steam Machines. Valve will support you installing SteamOS on any PC you like — it’s just not anywhere near complete yet.
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Android also uses the Linux kernel, but practically everything else on Android is very different from typical Linux distributions. Originally designed for smartphones, you can now get Android laptops and even desktops. It’s no surprised that a variety of projects exist to run Android on traditional PCs — Intel even develops their own port of Android to PC hardware. It’s not an ideal operating system for your PC — it still doesn’t allow you to use multiple apps at the same time — but you could install it if you really wanted to.
Mac OS X
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Apple’s Mac OS X is preinstalled on Macs, but Macs are now just another type of PC with the same standard hardware inside. The only thing stopping you from installing Mac OS X on a typical PC is Apple’s license agreement and the way they limit their software.Mac OS X can run just fine on typical PCs if you can get around these restrictions.
There’s a thriving community of people building PCs that run Mac OS X — known as hackintoshes — out there.
BeOS was a lightweight PC operating system ported to the Intel x86 platform in 1998, but it wasn’t able to stand up to Microsoft’s Windows. Be Inc. eventually sued Microsoft, accusing them of pressuring Hitachi and Compaq to not release BeOS hardware. Microsoft settled out of court, paying $23.5 million to Be Inc. without admitting any guilt. Be Inc. was eventually acquired by Palm Inc.
Haiku is an open-source reimplementation of BeOS that’s currently in alpha. It’s a snapshot of what might have been if Microsoft hadn’t used such ruthless business practices in the 90’s.
OS/2 was an operating system originally created by Microsoft and IBM. IBM continued development after Microsoft left it and OS/2 competed with MS-DOS and the original versions of Windows. Microsoft eventually won, but there are still old ATMs, PCs, and other systems using OS/2. IBM once marketed this operating system as OS/2 Warp, so you may know it by that name.
IBM no longer develops OS/2, but a company named Serenity Systems has the rights to continue distributing it. They call their operating system eComStation. It’s based on IBM’s OS/2 and adds additional applications, drivers, and other enhancements.
This is the only paid operating system on this list aside from Mac OS X. You can still download a free demo CD to check it out.
ReactOS is a free, open-source reimplementation of the Windows NT architecture. In other words, it’s an attempt to reimplement Windows as an open-source operating system that’s compatible with all Windows applications and drivers. ReactOS shares some code with the Wine project, which allows you to run Windows applications on Linux or Mac OS X. It’s not based on Linux — it wants to be an open-source operating system built just like Windows NT. (Modern consumer versions of Windows have been built on Windows NT since Windows XP.)
This operating system is considered alpha. Its current goal is to become compatible with Windows Server 2003, so it has a long way to go.
Syllable is an open-source operating system forked from AtheOS, which was originally intended to be an AmigaOS clone. It’s a lightweight operating system “in the tradition of the Amiga and BeOS, but built using many parts from the GNU project and Linux.” Like some of the other smaller operating systems here, it has only a handful of developers.
Unlike many of the other hobbyist operating systems here, SkyOS is proprietary and not open-source. You originally had to pay for access so you could use development versions of SkyOS on your own PC. Development on SkyOS ended in 2009, but the last beta version was made available as a free download in 2013.
You can also install FreeDOS — an open-source version of DOS — to relive the old DOS years.
Image Credit: Travis Isaacs on Flickr, Theis Kofoed Hjorth on Flickr
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