Operating System (OS) Definition & Examples

Operating system definition and examples of modern operating systems

An operating system is a powerful and usually extensive program that controls and manages the hardware and other software on a computer.

All computers and computer-like devices require operating systems, including your laptop, tablet, desktop, smartphone, smartwatch, and router.

Not sure what operating system you're running? Use the Lifewire System Info Tool below to find out!

Examples of Operating Systems

Laptops, tablets, and desktop computers all run operating systems. You've probably heard of most of them. Some examples include versions of Microsoft Windows (like Windows 11, Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Windows XP), Apple's macOS (formerly OS X), Chrome OS, and various Unix and Linux distribution lists. (Unix and Linux are open-source operating systems.)

Screenshot of the Windows 10 desktop
Microsoft Windows 10.

Your smartphone runs a mobile operating system, probably either Apple's iOS or Google's Android. Both are household names, but you may not have realized that they are the operating systems running on those devices.

Servers such as those that host the websites you visit or serve the videos you watch typically run specialized operating systems designed and optimized to run the special software required to make them do what they do. Some examples include Windows Server, Linux, and FreeBSD.

The Linux Mint Desktop's Main Menu
Linux Mint.

Software & Operating Systems

Most software applications are designed to work with just one company's operating system, like just Windows (Microsoft) or just macOS (Apple).

A piece of software will clearly say which operating systems it supports and will get very specific if necessary. For example, a video production software program might support Windows 11 and Windows 10 but not older versions like Windows Vista and XP.

Annotated screenshot of the Adobe Acrobat download page demonstrating Windows vs Mac operating system download options

Software developers also often release other versions of their software that work with different operating systems. In the video production program example, that company might also release another version of the program with the same features, which only works with macOS.

It's also crucial to know if you have Windows 64-bit or 32-bit for your operating system. It's a common question asked when downloading software.

Special types of software called virtual machines can mimic "real" computers and run different operating systems from within them.

Operating System Errors

There are many ways that an operating system itself can become corrupted or damaged, but these issues are relatively rare.

In Windows, the most severe is the Operating System Not Found error message that implies an OS can't even be found!

Operating System Updates

All modern operating systems have a built-in mechanism to keep the software updated. In Windows, this is through Windows Update. Other operating systems work similarly, like when you update the Android OS or download and install new iOS updates.

Keeping an operating system up to date with the newest features is vital so that you're getting the most out of your money. Getting security fixes is another crucial reason to ensure your OS is up-to-date; this can help prevent hackers from getting into your device.

  • How many operating systems are there?

    There are three main operating systems for computers: Windows, Apple, and Linux. The two main operating systems for mobile are Android and iOS. There are countless other operating systems made for specific devices, such as Samsung's One UI that only works on Samsung devices.

  • What is the operating system for Chromebooks?

    Google Chromebooks typically run Chrome OS, which is optimized for use with Google's ecosystem of online tools (Google Docs, the Chrome browser, etc.) Some Chromebooks, however, can also run Android apps and Linux apps.

  • What is the operating system for Amazon Fire tablets?

    Amazon tablets run Fire OS, which is a modified version of Android. (Learn about the history of Fire OS and how it matches up to Android.)

  • What operating system do smartwatches use?

    It can vary. Apple Watch runs on watchOS while most other smartwatches use the Wear operating system, Google's operating system for wearable products.

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