With Microsoft looking at new ways of monetizing Windows 10—in many cases, with ever-aggressive advertising in the product itself—I’m getting a lot of questions about alternatives. And while the case for moving off Windows 10 on PCs is not clear, I feel the frustration too.
In fact, I spend a lot more time than you may realize exploring those alternatives. This week alone, I’ve done work on macOS, using my MacBook Air, and I’ve installed the latest versions of Ubuntu and Mint Linux. In other recent weeks, I’ve spent time with a surprisingly high-quality Acer Chromebook as well.
I do this with no sense of joy. And to be clear I still find Windows 10 to be the obvious winner when I evaluate what it is that I’m looking for personally. And that’s true regardless of my job: Were I to suddenly hit the lottery, I’d keep using Windows 10 myself. I mean, I’d probably buy a really expensive Surface PC. But I would stick with Windows 10.
This isn’t the case on phone, of course, nor is it true on tablets. On these form factors, Windows 10 is either unusable (phone) or pointless because of the lack of ecosystem support (tablet). Phones and tablets, though, are more clear-cut: You should choose iPhone or Android on phone (I prefer iPhone), and iPad if you want a tablet. (I am not aware of a single decent Android tablet, which I still find curious.)
But the PC? Hm.
There are all kinds of ways to evaluate other platforms, and of course we all have our own needs, wants, and time-hardened workflows, any one of which will bias our view of these alternatives. But if you look at this from a high level, there is a simple comparison to make: Do you miss any key functionality from Windows 10 when using a different platform? Conversely, are there features or functionality in that other platform that make it superior, in some way, to what you’re using now?
Broadly speaking, I feel that Windows 10 does well when I make this comparison, and that is something I do fairly regularly. For all the nits—the in-OS advertising, in particular—Windows 10, to me, is still the clear choice.
But. There’s always a but. I have found things in other systems that I really appreciate. The ability to easily sign-in to a Chromebook simply by having your Android phone nearby, for example. (Something like this is coming, eventually, to Windows 10.) And the simple iCloud-based syncing features in macOS which let you view and access the contents of key system folders, including the desktop, across both Macs and i-devices. (Something that would have prevented my recent data loss.) That kind of thing.
So I evaluate. And I compare. And I will keep doing so, and if the worst thing that happens is that I can state with some degree of experience that Windows 10 is still the best choice, then great. If I find that not to be case or, more likely, can point out places where Windows 10 is falling short, then that’s great too. Maybe by prodding Microsoft a bit, we can all help Windows 10 better as a result.
With all that in mind, and in increasing order of craziness, here’s a quick look at the Windows 10 alternatives. Your take on the relative pros and cons of each may differ, of course. But here’s where I’m at.
#1. Windows 8.1
Advantages: It’s like Windows 10 without most of the bullshit, modern desktop UI, runs Windows desktops applications
Disadvantages: Will never see another feature update, “Metro” apps are stuck in time and it doesn’t support UWP apps, would be expensive to purchase
Bottom line: If you stick to the desktop environment—which you should, frankly—Windows 8.1 is an interesting alternative. Assuming, that is, that you already own Windows 8.x (or, more to the point, your PC came with Windows 8.x): Buying a copy of Windows 8.1 and then installing it over whatever version of Windows your PC came with would be expensive and could be problematic if that version was Windows 10, so I can’t really recommend it. (Nor will I test it.) But if you upgraded to Windows 10 … Hm. Moving back to Windows 8.1 isn’t a terrible idea. In fact, it’s the best of these choices, I think, assuming you can do it. Lots of assumptions in there, I know.
#2. Windows 7
Advantages: Runs Windows desktops applications
Disadvantages: Updating is purposefully broken, will never see another feature update, doesn’t support UWP apps/Windows Store, may require additional security software, dated look and feel
Bottom line: While Windows 7 has its fans, I find this system to be dated looking, and the update story is a mess. But it still offers universal compatibility with the Windows desktop application everyone uses, which is Job One, of course. That said, like Windows 8.1, you’re not going to take a new Windows 10 PC and revert it to the Windows 7, for the most part. So this option is really only available to those who have a PC that came with Windows 7 originally. And have the install media.
Advantages: Clean system for technical users, MacBook Air laptops are not expensive, cross-platform features with i-devices are impressive
Disadvantages: Modern Macs are very expensive, requires you to buy a new device and learn a new OS, you need to accept Apple lock-in for the best experience, learning curve, no multi-touch or pen support, doesn’t run Windows apps
Bottom line: The Mac is not easy to use at first, but it has a smaller learning curve than Linux, and you can’t argue about the quality of the hardware, even for out-of-date devices like the MacBook Air. What you get when you fork over your credit card is a clean system best suited for technical users or those who willingly toss aside choice to embrace Apple’s admittedly solid cross-platform capabilities. The combination of a Mac with an iPhone and/or iPad is a sight to behold, and Apple offers features—like the ability to send and receive text messages through macOS—that Microsoft is still stumbling around trying to figure out. Again, you pay for the privilege—with both your wallet and your soul—but it’s not hard to understand why so many make this choice. But it’s a big step into the unknown, too.
Advantages: Simple to use and maintain, Android app support is coming, inexpensive hardware
Disadvantages: Still feels limited compared to PCs or Macs, learning curve, Android app support is still a dream, requires you to buy a new device, doesn’t run Windows apps
Bottom line: Chromebook still feels like the type of thing you’d give to a child. But with Android app support coming and a new generation of touch-capable 2-in-1-type Chromebooks appearing this year, that could change. Regardless, Chromebooks win big in the simplicity department, even now, and if you know someone who only runs a few web apps and only sometimes needs a keyboard, it’s a viable option. Just not for me.
Advantages: Free, runs well on older (or newer) PC hardware, easy to evaluate on older PCs or in a VM
Disadvantages: Doesn’t run Windows apps, too many distribution choices, learning curve, complex underpinnings will be daunting for many users, mostly dated look and feel
Bottom line: Despite many attempts to simplify Linux and make it look or work more like Windows, it remains the most technical alternative available. But it’s free–like, really free—and can be easily evaluated. It’s also an interesting option for an older PC, since Linux tends to run well on such machines. If you don’t mind a bit of complexity and uncertainty—or, maybe that is what you’re looking for—Linux has matured greatly over the years. Start with a user-friendly version if possible, like Ubuntu or Mint Linux with Cinnamon.
Or, just keep calm and carry on with Windows 10
Advantages: Runs Windows desktop applications and modern UWP apps, modern look and feel, works well across form factors, modern hardware support, gets regular feature updates
Disadvantages: Update reliability issues, constant updating can trigger unwanted reboots, in-OS advertising is getting worse over time
Bottom line: Look, I love Windows 10. There are issues both real (in-box advertising/update reliability) and invented (privacy FUD), but it’s still the most modern PC platform available. It works well on an incredible range of form factors, is available on an ever-increasing range of often-innovative new PCs, and it works with both the desktop applications that we need today and the UWP mobile platform that I feel is the future of Windows. I don’t see myself ever looking back. But as noted, I will continue to evaluate other platforms, if only to discover those occasional gems that need to make their way to Windows too.