Operating System

Operating system definition and examples of operating systems in use today

An operating system is a powerful, and usually large, 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 that you've probably heard of. Some examples include versions of Microsoft Windows (like Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista, and Windows XP), Apple's macOS (formerly OS X), Chrome OS, BlackBerry Tablet OS, and flavors of the open source operating system Linux.

Screenshot of the Windows 10 desktop

Your smartphone runs an operating system, too, 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, like 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 comes pre-installed with tons of great, free software.

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 say it supports Windows 10, Windows 8, and Windows 7, but does not support older versions of Windows 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 additional versions of their software that work with other operating systems. Coming back to the video production program example, that company might also release another version of the program with exactly the same features but that only works with macOS.

It's also important to know whether your operating system is 32-bit or 64-bit. It's a common question you're asked when downloading software. See How to Tell If You Have Windows 64-bit or 32-bit if you need help.

Special types of software called virtual machines can actually mimic "real" computers and run different operating systems from within them. See What Is a Virtual Machine? for more on this feature.