The 9 Best Free Operating Systems

Windows alternatives for those on a budget

These days most desktops or laptops users expect to have Microsoft Windows or macOS as their operating system, depending on the make of their device. They may have even heard of that “Linux thing.” But there is a wide variety of free operating systems out there, and many of them are as good or better than Windows or macOS. Here’s a list of some of the best free operating systems for your PC.

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Best for Software Compatibility: Ubuntu Linux (and other DEB-based Distributions)

Desktop on Ubuntu's 20.04 Release
What We Like
  • Wide availability of software in compatible package format.

  • Multiple derivative distributions with different graphical desktops.

  • Ubuntu sponsor, Canonical, offers software in the alternate easy-to-use Snap format.

What We Don't Like
  • Common proprietary applications aren’t available natively.

  • Methods such as WINE to install and run Windows programs are dicey.

  • Troubleshooting sometimes requires digging deep into the OS.

Ubuntu is arguably the most popular Linux distribution for “average” users, particularly when you take into account all its derivatives. But Ubuntu itself also derives from Debian. We can say the following are advantages of most distributions that use the .DEB package format, since Ubuntu’s popularity, ensures that most developers make their apps available in this format.

But depending on who you ask (especially if that person works in corporate IT), Red Hat’s Linux distribution still reigns supreme; CentOS is a leader for server deployments, while Fedora is the community version of the enterprise OS. It incorporates newer changes and faster releases than the more conservative business version. In either case, Linux is your best bet for productivity and entertainment among alternate OSes.

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Best for DIYers: The BSDs

The Boot Screen on FreeBSD
What We Like
  • A large portion of Linux software is also available for *BSD.

  • FreeBSD (along with others) also include a Linux emulation layer.

  • Many security features and relatively lower popularity make *BSDs a safe choice.

What We Don't Like
  • “Do it yourself” systems are time consuming for both install and troubleshooting.

  • Hardware compatibility is noticeably less than Linux systems.

  • Not cross-compatible to the extent Linux is.

While Linux has been around for a long time, the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) has been around for longer. What began as a project to implement a free operating system based on proprietary Unix is now a family (often called *BSD) of OSes. If you're interested in trying one out give FreeBSD a shot, as it's a generalist OS suitable for both desktop and server.

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Best for Phone Junkies: Android-x86

The Android-x86 Home Screen
What We Like
  • Lightweight operating system for modern PC hardware.

  • Access to all the same apps you use on your phone.

  • Offers to copy apps and other data from your Google account to mirror your mobile device.

What We Don't Like
  • Full-fledged desktop apps not available.

  • Lags a version or two behind mobile phones.

  • iOS users are out of luck here.

If you're someone who does just fine working on your phone, and your phone happens to be an Android, here's some good news: you can create your own Android PC. Like Chrome OS, Android is an open source project, and as such developers have been able to take its code and port it to the PC platform. This means you can use all the same apps sitting at home on a laptop or desktop that you use on the go.

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Best for Light Workloads: CloudReady Home

The CloudReady Search Panel
What We Like
  • Chromebook users will feel right at home.

  • Lower resource requirements make it a good choice for older machines.

  • Supports Linux apps, just like Chrome OS

What We Don't Like
  • As with Chrome OS, the focus is on web apps.

  • No longer supports 32-bit machines.

  • Updates can be inconsistent.

If you spend most of your time surfing the web or watching videos online, a Chromebook is an excellent choice for you. CloudReady from Neverware is a version of Chromium OS that’s packaged for easy booting and installation on a PC. Unfortunately, it's not an official Chrome OS product, so you’re at the mercy of a smaller developer for updates and support.

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Best for Windows Faithful: ReactOS

The Familiar ReactOS Desktop
What We Like
  • Both the installation and the UI will be very familiar to Windows users.

  • System comes with many of the same utilities as Windows.

  • Installation for compatible programs is point-and-click.

What We Don't Like
  • List of programs that work correctly with ReactOS is quite small.

  • The OS is a work-in-progress, so there are still bugs.

  • Hardware support is not as expansive as Windows.

The ReactOS project is based on the worthy goal of creating a free replacement OS that’s completely interoperable with Windows. This means you should be able to take any .EXE program file, install it on ReactOS, and expect it to work at least as well as on Windows.

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Best for Old Games: FreeDOS

FreeDOS Running the OpenGEM Desktop
What We Like
  • High degree of compatibility with older DOS programs and games.

  • Improvements on older DOS systems such as an included graphical desktop and package manager.

  • Addition of other applications from the open source community.

What We Don't Like
  • Older, text-based installer.

  • Software limited to existing DOS programs.

  • Features such as basic networking or GUI desktops need to be installed manually.

If your tastes run a little more retro, you may be interested in the FreeDOS project. The project has been around for over 25 years, and is still active today. FreeDOS is an especially great choice for running your old games.

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Best for a New OS Experience: Haiku

The Haiku Desktop's Applications Menu
What We Like
  • Despite being a '90s OS remake, it feels modern.

  • Multimedia focus is great for creative types.

  • Comes with a very robust set of tools.

What We Don't Like
  • Add-on applications selection is minimal.

  • Options running Windows programs even slimmer than Linux.

  • Hardware compatibility can be an issue.

Many consider BeOS the “operating system that should have been.” It ultimately never happened for Be, Inc.’s product, but the Haiku project keeps that system alive with an open source remake. It's a slick OS that provides a view into what your computing life might have become.

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Best for Nostalgic Enthusiasts: Icaros Desktop

The Icaros Desktop
What We Like
  • Boots up insanely fast.

  • Existing Amiga fans should be able to use your favorite programs.

  • The whole thing can actually be installed on existing Linux systems.

What We Don't Like
  • Getting old/compatible software can be a challenge.

  • Some of the desktop conventions will be confusing to today’s users.

  • The aesthetic is decidedly “retro."

The Amiga system goes back even further than BeOS, and was an alternative to Windows 1.0 for those who favored Commodore computers. The AROS project aims to replicate the Amiga system, and Icaros Desktop is a distribution of AROS that’s easy to install. Like FreeDOS, this will appeal to those who have used the system in the past, but as with Haiku it's also a great history lesson.

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Best for Hard-Core Admins: OpenIndiana

OpenIndiana's MATE Desktop
What We Like
  • Provides a rock-solid server infrastructure for server hosting.

  • Available with modern conveniences like a Live CD and installer.

  • Uses the modern MATE desktop over its traditional UNIX base.

What We Don't Like
  • Only the MATE desktop is available as a standard package.

  • Overall software selection is decidedly server/programming based.

  • List of compatible laptop systems is very short.

Before there was Linux, there was UNIX, and Solaris from Sun Microsystems was one of the longest-lived commercial UNIX systems. OpenIndiana is derived from the open source foundation of Solaris, and is a great path to learning “the UNIX way.”

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