Which Operating System is Best? Well, Depends...This series of posts started with the hope that I could provide a few simple tools to people to use in the everyday battle of making decisions. Decisions can range from simple ones like which socks to wear to whether to buy a house (or get married as someone did recently — congratulations to Diana and Chris!).

Many decisions are compounded by seemingly unrelated events. Today let us consider various operating systems. Selecting one is truly a more complex decision than simply buying a computer with the latest Windows version pre-installed — if you want the best, whatever that is.

A club I belong to has a monthly Q&A session where the conversation can range from esoteric to trivial. One member asked what seems like a simple question. He has an XP machine that apparently did not pass the Windows 7 compatibility test for some reason. He asked if he should scrap it and get a new one, or try to update his reliable, but aging beauty.

While I prepared to suggest he scrub the hard drive and install Linux, one of the other members suggested that he wait for Windows 8 to be released. The point of this suggestion was that Microsoft dearly wants to get its large enterprise customers to migrate upward from XP. Windows 7 (and Vista before it) has hurdles to the conversion that businesses have taken into account. Many decided staying with XP is more profitable (applied decision theory at work!) than upgrading. For that reason, he argued, Windows 8 will not be as restrictive in the demands it makes on the hardware, and maybe the older machine could be updated by skipping a couple of generations — wait and see.

Several people, including me, pointed out the difficulty of continuing to update XP in the present environment. Microsoft has stopping supporting it, and one must be careful of third party providers because you might get something extra — and undesired — with your update as I did recently when re-installing XP on a client’s computer.

So here is the conundrum: live with XP until life becomes unbearable; live with it until Windows 8 is released and see if it can be installed on the obsolete system; scrap or donate the old machine and buy a new one. A variation of the last option would be to buy a new computer with Windows on it and install Linux on the old one as a learning experience. Substituting Linux for Windows can work wonders, but there is no free lunch. He would have to invest some time to get the benefits. Is that best for him?

If you think about these options for a bit you will realize that we do not have enough information to make a decision. The various suggestions are all good and maybe even best under some conditions, but we need to know more. For instance, what is the member’s budget? If buying a new computer is trivial, that biases the decision one way. How computer literate is he? If he is totally uncomfortable with learning a new operating system (and I know people who thought the change from Vista to Windows 7 was too difficult!), then sticking with the old machine is favored at least for the time being.

For me, it would be a no-brainer. I have other computers around the house and office with several operating systems on them. I have no more difficulty going from one to another than a musician has changing instruments. So I would either install Linux and donate it or keep it as is and donate it. But it is unfair for me to expect an average person off the street to have the same background and familiarity with systems that I do (and I do not claim to be an expert — I am a self-taught guy who enjoys tinkering). The best solution for him is probably something else.

Note that none of the discussion so far considers which operating system is “best.” That is because, in this case, “best” is not a well-defined concept. I cannot say which alternative is best for the person asking the question. The most I can do is to lay out the rational alternatives and the various tradeoffs. Then a rational person could combine that input with his own preferences, budget, and other parameters to reach a better decision than I could impose on him — if he is willing to make the effort.

But, of course, that is not how it works. Most often a client will come to me and ask which computer is “best” to avoid making that mental effort of deciding. The client does not mean what is best for him or her, but just best, which assumes there is a best that is true for everyone. Now I have no interest in offending clients, so how should I respond? In general, I punt by asking more questions back. “What do you use your computer for? How much do you want to spend? Do you need the mobility of a laptop? Are you willing to invest some time becoming more computer literate?”

Sometimes they listen and think. Other times they interrupt and ask, “But which brand is best?” About that time, I throw up my hands and tell them to buy whatever is on sale and looks pretty. It does not really matter much which one because any will last long enough to become obsolete.

If you wonder why none of the answers to the question of what to buy was “Get an iPad,” look at this short video. You do not need to speak German to get the idea. The kids gave Dad an iPad. He likes it.

CC licensed Flickr photo of Commodore 64 screen shared by Phillie Casablanca.