Overview of Popular Operating Systems

This page offers a visual overview of some of the most popular operating systems. My recommendations follow.

Created
3/30/2020
Updated
4/25/2020

Quick Visual Overview

Below is a picture depicting various (in my opinion) important computer operating systems. The picture uses colors to differentiate various types of usage. I assume that the reader or printer is not color-blind. Here is some explanation of the colors:

Black
Operating systems that I would use only in a virtual machine or on a spare PC because of their potential instability.
Blue
Operating systems I would install on a brand-new computer.
Green
Operating systems that don't bother the user with too frequent updates. But they may lack the latest software or hardware support.
Red
Operating systems with infrequent updates, often lacking the latest software or hardware support. These are usually targeting super-stable server usage or old computers.
Gray
Operating systems I am reluctant to categorize.
Visual overview of some of the most popular operating systems

You can directly download the image shown above: visual operating system overview SVG image.

Quick Description of Linux-Based Operating Systems

Linux is an operating system kernel available as freely-redistributable source code. Linux itself does not provide user programs or a graphical user interface. This is where Linux distributions come in. Everyone can take the Linux kernel, add some userspace tools (very often GNU utilities or BusyBox), and maybe some of the many existing graphical interfaces on it, and create an operating system that can be installed on a computer. These operating systems are referred to as Linux distributions. Some are created by individuals, some by various communities, and some Linux distributions are developed by companies for enterprise use.

Not only are there hundreds of distributions of Linux, but each distribution may also come with different editions providing different user experiences. This can be very confusing to people who are new to Linux. This is why I have created this short list of the most important Linux distributions. Sure, there are other distros that may be better in some areas, but I think these are the most important to know for a newcomer. Most of these operating systems are free to use, modify, and share.

Red Hat, CentOS, Fedora
These distributions are developed or sponsored by Red Hat, Inc., which is one of the largest contributors to the Linux kernel and other system components that are also used by many other Linux distributions.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is a commercial enterprise operating system.
CentOS is a free clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Compared to Debian (described below), it does not offer many software packages and is harder to configure (it puts security before user convenience by having a firewall and SELinux enabled by default, not enabling services automatically after its installation, etc.).
Fedora is a great desktop and server operating system that tests the latest technologies that will eventually land in RHEL.
These distributions focus on security, server and enterprise use, the use of upstream code without many modifications, and providing their code modifications back to the upstream.
SUSE, openSUSE
Developed or sponsored by the company SUSE.
SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE) is an enterprise-grade commercial operating system.
openSUSE Leap is a free version of SLE with some modifications.
openSUSE Tumbleweed is a rolling-release distro providing the latest software.
These distributions focus on enterprise use and can be used as an alternative to Red Hat. They provide YaST, a configuration utility that provides a way to easily configure various system settings in one place. I have found openSUSE a little bit bloated (installs a lot of software by default -- who needs a program for burning CD's installed by default anymore?).
Debian, Ubuntu
Debian is a community project.
Ubuntu is based on Debian and is developed by Canonical Ltd.
Ubuntu seems to target home users, smaller enterprises, and hobbyist servers. Together with Debian, they tend to be easy to use and to configure, very often used for smaller home projects (Raspberry Pi). They put convenience before security (e.g., disabled firewall by default, auto-starting services upon their installation, etc.). The provided software also tends to be slightly modified from the upstream version, which may bring additional bugs. There are many derivatives of Ubuntu and Debian for use on desktop computers, such as Pop!_OS, Linux Mint, etc.
Arch
A community project.
It is a rolling-release distribution providing the latest versions of unmodified (vanilla) software. Because it does not provide an installer, it is best suitable for more advanced Linux users who want to build their system with exactly the configuration they want. The Arch Wiki pages serve as a great resource.
Clear Linux
Developed by Intel, modified to achieve the best performance on Intel x86 processors.
Manjaro (Arch-based), Linux Mint (Ubuntu-, Debian-based), elementaryOS (Ubuntu-based)
These distributions aim to be beginner-desktop-user-friendly. Someone takes an existing Linux distribution, adds software that is was not included by default (such as patented multimedia codecs, proprietary software, etc.), modifies the user interface to attract more people, disables or delays security updates (so that these updates don't break the heavily modified system), and gives it a new name. These Linux distributions may be good enough for a grandma, but not for people who expect the latest technologies, stability, and security. But they are easy to use for beginners.

I usually prefer to choose the main offered edition of each distribution as it tends to be the best supported one. If there is a choice of multiple graphical desktop environments (GNOME, KDE, etc.), I prefer to use either the default one provided by each distribution or GNOME. GNOME is a modern, full-featured desktop environment supported by most enterprise-ready Linux distributions. Other desktop environments often lag in terms of modern technology support (GNOME uses Wayland by default instead of the old X11 protocol). But some desktop environments such as XFCE can be a good choice on older, less performing systems.

My Recommendations

Unless there is a solid reason to change, I recommend using the operating system which came preinstalled with the device or which is recommended by the manufacturer of the device. Below are my (somewhat biased) recommendations of computer operating systems. I have used, or at least tried, most of the operating systems mentioned on this page, and also many others. The only operating systems I have limited or no experience are systems from Apple, and ChromeOS.

I have used Fedora for almost everything for the last five years (but I acknowledge that even though it is the best operating system for my needs, it is not perfect). Debian, Raspbian, and FreeBSD served me well as server operating systems on older or low-end computers. And lastly, keeping a Windows computer or virtual machine may be the only way to run some software or to update some device drivers.

I gave Ubuntu a chance many times, but it failed me many times. My problems with Ubuntu almost always stemmed from some provided user-friendly utility breaking the system. Maybe other Linux systems don't break because they don't offer user-friendly tools? But I think the situation has improved since ~2008 and ~2013. When I was selling my old computers without a Windows license, I put openSUSE on them as a user-friendly desktop operating system. And HAIKU is, in my opinion, the most promising lightweight operating system for very old desktop computers.

Desktop

Desktop operating systems for regular home users who want a reliable, secure, and user-friendly computer experience with a good hardware and software support (no, I haven't found any single Linux distro that fits this category):

  1. Windows,
  2. macOS,
  3. Chrome OS.

Server

Server operating systems:

  1. Linux (RHEL/CentOS, SLE/openSUSE Leap, Ubuntu LTS, Debian),
  2. BSD (FreeBSD),
  3. Solaris,
  4. Windows Server

Advanced Desktop

Desktop operating systems for software developers or network administrators:

  1. Linux (Fedora Workstation, openSUSE Tumbleweed, Pop!_OS, Ubuntu, Arch),
  2. macOS,
  3. Windows.

Gaming Desktop

Desktop operating systems best supported by games and proprietary hardware drivers:

  1. Windows,
  2. macOS,
  3. Linux (Pop!_OS, Ubuntu, maybe Manjaro).

Very Old Computers

Continuations of old operating systems for very old computers (neither of them is as stable as the original operating system they are copying):

Besides the operating systems listed above, some lightweight Linux or BSD distribution that still supports the processor in the old computer can be used. Window Maker desktop environment imitates the NeXTSTEP user interface look and feel. IceWM looks similar to Windows 95.