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Computer Basics —

Understanding Operating Systems

Computer Basics: Understanding Operating Systems

Lesson 8: Understanding Operating Systems

What is an operating system?

An operating system is the most important software that runs on a computer. It manages the computer’s memory and processes, as well as all of its software and hardware. It also allows you to communicate with the computer without knowing how to speak the computer’s language. Without an operating system, a computer is useless.

Watch the video below to learn more about operating systems.

Looking for the old version of this video? You can still view it here.

The operating system’s job

Your computer’s operating system (OS) manages all of the software and hardware on the computer. Most of the time, there are several different computer programs running at the same time, and they all need to access your computer’s central processing unit (CPU), memory, and storage. The operating system coordinates all of this to make sure each program gets what it needs.

Types of operating systems

Operating systems usually come pre-loaded on any computer you buy. Most people use the operating system that comes with their computer, but it’s possible to upgrade or even change operating systems. The three most common operating systems for personal computers are Microsoft Windows, macOS, and Linux.

Modern operating systems use a graphical user interface, or GUI (pronounced gooey). A GUI lets you use your mouse to click icons, buttons, and menus, and everything is clearly displayed on the screen using a combination of graphics and text.

Each operating system’s GUI has a different look and feel, so if you switch to a different operating system it may seem unfamiliar at first. However, modern operating systems are designed to be easy to use, and most of the basic principles are the same.

Microsoft Windows

Microsoft created the Windows operating system in the mid-1980s. There have been many different versions of Windows, but the most recent ones are Windows 10 (released in 2015), Windows 8 (2012), Windows 7 (2009), and Windows Vista (2007). Windows comes pre-loaded on most new PCs, which helps to make it the most popular operating system in the world.

Check out our tutorials on Windows Basics and specific Windows versions for more information.


macOS (previously called OS X) is a line of operating systems created by Apple. It comes preloaded on all Macintosh computers, or Macs. Some of the specific versions include Mojave (released in 2018), High Sierra (2017), and Sierra (2016).

According to StatCounter Global Stats, macOS users account for less than 10% of global operating systems—much lower than the percentage of Windows users (more than 80%). One reason for this is that Apple computers tend to be more expensive. However, many people do prefer the look and feel of macOS over Windows.

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Check out our macOS Basics tutorial for more information.


Linux (pronounced LINN-ux) is a family of open-source operating systems, which means they can be modified and distributed by anyone around the world. This is different from proprietary software like Windows, which can only be modified by the company that owns it. The advantages of Linux are that it is free, and there are many different distributions—or versions—you can choose from.

According to StatCounter Global Stats, Linux users account for less than 2% of global operating systems. However, most servers run Linux because it’s relatively easy to customize.

To learn more about different distributions of Linux, visit the Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and Fedora websites, or refer to our Linux Resources. For a more comprehensive list, you can visit MakeUseOf’s list of The Best Linux Distributions.

Operating systems for mobile devices

The operating systems we’ve been talking about so far were designed to run on desktop and laptop computers. Mobile devices such as phones, tablet computers, and MP3 players are different from desktop and laptop computers, so they run operating systems that are designed specifically for mobile devices. Examples of mobile operating systems include Apple iOS and Google Android . In the screenshot below, you can see iOS running on an iPad.

Operating systems for mobile devices generally aren’t as fully featured as those made for desktop and laptop computers, and they aren’t able to run all of the same software. However, you can still do a lot of things with them, like watch movies, browse the Web, manage your calendar, and play games.

To learn more about mobile operating systems, check out our Mobile Devices tutorials.

Windows (operating system)

Windows is a series of operating systems produced and maintained by the Microsoft Corporation. It was estimated that as of December 2007 [1] Microsoft Windows accounted for nearly 90% of operating system usage, with 3 out of 4 being Windows XP. Windows is used for desktop, and server computers, [2] and more recently also for cellular phones and tablet computers. It is intended for use with the Intel x86-64 family of processors.

Early versions of Windows (98 and earlier) were notoriously unreliable, despite (or maybe because of?) Microsoft’s near-monopoly share of the operating system market. They crashed so often that the term «blue screen of death» entered the vocabulary. See also this satire: Matrix Runs on Windows XP

Initially Windows was a text-based system (MS-DOS). Then a Graphical User Interface extension was added onto this MS-DOS core [3] It became a full GUI operating system free of the MS-DOS core beginning with the release of Windows NT.


Windows Major Release Versions

Professional: 650MB
Server and Advanced Server: 1GB [11]

Name Version Number Public Release Notes Editions Minimum RAM required Minimum drive space
Windows 1.0 1.0 November 20, 1985 [4] Sold 500,000 copies [5]
Windows 1.02 1.02 May 1986 Multilingual (international) release of 1.0
Windows 1.03 1.03 August 1986 Further upgrades for international use, including more drivers and European keyboard support
Windows 1.04 1.04 April 1987 Further functionality additions, including support for IBM PS/2 computers
Windows 2.0 2.11 March 13, 1989
  • Last Windows version to run a GUI as a shell over a base of MS-DOS [6]
  • Sold 1 million copies
Windows 3.0 NT 3.0 May 22, 1990
  • First Windows version to run without an MS-DOS base [6]
  • Sold 4 million copies
Windows 3.1 3.1 April 1992 First MS operating system on CD-ROM
  • Windows 3.1
  • Windows for Workgroups 3.1 (October 1992)
1MB i286 15MB
Windows 3.2 November 22, 1993 Chinese version of Windows 3.1
Windows NT 3.5 3.5.807 September 21, 1994
  • Workstation
  • Server
Windows NT 3.51 3.51.1057 May 30, 1995
  • An operating system design that led to the elimination of Novell Networks leading market share.
  • This New Technologies (NT) kernel became the basis for all future Windows versions through Windows 10.
  • Workstation
  • Server
Windows 95 NT 4.0.950 August 24, 1995 Uses the same skin as 98, 2000, and ME 4MB [7] 40.8-76.2MB [8]
Windows NT 4.0 NT 4.0 July 29, 1996
  • Workstation
  • Server
  • Server Enterprise
  • Terminal Server
Windows CE Alder [9] CE 1.0 November 16, 1996 [9] 2MB
Windows CE Birch [9] CE 2.0 November 1997 [9] Auto PC platform introduced [10]
Windows 98 NT 4.1.1998 June 25, 1998 Uses the same skin as 95, 2000, and ME 16MB 500MB
Windows 98 Second Edition NT 4.1.2222 April 23, 1999 Uses the same skin as 95, 2000, and ME
Windows CE 2.1
Windows 2000 NT 5.0.2195 February 17, 2000
  • Uses the same skin as 95, 98, and ME
  • Last dedicated operating system for business use
  • Professional
  • Server
  • Advanced Server
  • Datacenter Server
  • Xbox
  • Xbox 360
Windows CE Cedar CE 3.0 April 2000 Windows CE for Automotive
Windows ME NT 4.90.3000 September 14, 2000
  • Uses the same skin as 95, 98, and 2000
  • Last dedicated operating system for personal use
Windows XP 5.1.2600 October 25, 2001
  • Last major version to use this layout, which was introduced with Windows 95
  • XP was the beginning of one unified O/S for both personal and business use.
  • Only one version is still supported by Microsoft, XP Embedded until January 2019.
  • Sold 400 million copies
  • Starter
  • Home
  • Professional
  • Professional x64
  • Media Center 2002
  • Media Center 2004
  • Media Center 2005
  • Tablet PC
  • Embedded
x32/x86: 64MB [12]
x64: 256MB
Windows CE Talisker [9] CE 4.0 January 7, 2002
Windows CE Jameson [9] CE 4.1 June 2002 [9] Windows Automotive
Windows CE McKendric [9] CE 4.2 April 2003 [9] Windows Automotive 4.2
Windows Server 2003 NT 5.2 2003
Windows CE Macallan [9] CE 5.0 August 2004 [9] Windows Automotive 5.0 6MB [13]
Windows Server 2003 R2 2006
Windows CE Yamazaki [9] CE 6.0 September 2006 [9]
  • Microsoft Auto 3.0
  • Zune HD
Windows Vista NT 6.0.6000 January 30, 2007
  • System uses new layout, but started out with some problems
  • Sold 180 million copies
  • Extended support ends April 11, 2017 [14]
  • Starter
  • Home Basic
  • Home Premium
  • Business
  • Ultimate
  • Enterprise
Home Basic: 512MB,
All Others: 1GB [15]
Windows Server 2008 February 27, 2008 512 MB Foundation: 10GB,
other x32/86: 20GB,
other x64: 32GB
Windows 7 NT 6.1.7600 October 22, 2009
  • Uses the same basic layout as Vista, but system is more stable
  • Sold 600 million copies
  • Extended support ends January 14, 2020
  • Starter
  • Home Basic
  • Home Premium
  • Professional
  • Enterprise
  • Ultimate
  • Thin PC
x32/x86: 1GB, x64: 2GB [12] x32/x86: 16GB,
x64: 20GB
Windows Server 2008 R2 2010
  • HPC
  • Standard
  • Enterprise
  • Itanium
512 MB Foundation: 10GB,
others: 32GB
Windows Embedded Compact 7 CE 6.0 R3 2011
  • Windows Embedded Automotive 7
  • Windows Phone 7
Windows Server 2012 NT 6.2 2012
  • Foundation
  • Essentials
  • Standard
  • Datacenter
512MB 32GB
Windows 8 NT 6.2 October 26, 2012
  • Designed to serve as an OS for all kinds of devices, including smartphones
  • Also did away with the Start menu
  • Sold surprisingly poorly
  • Extended support ends January 10, 2023
  • Standard
  • Professional
  • Enterprise
  • Embedded
x32/x86: 1GB,
x64: 2GB [16]
x32/x86: 16GB,
x64: 20GB
Windows RT NT 6.3 October 30, 2012
  • Designed exclusively for ARMv7 processors
  • Based on Windows 8 without an upgrade path to Windows 10
  • Support already phasing out
  • Embedded
32-Bit: 2GB [16] 32-Bit: 20GB, 32GB
Windows Server 2012 R2 NT 6.3 2013
  • Foundation
  • Essentials
  • Standard
  • Datacenter
512MB 32GB
Windows 8.1 NT 6.3 October 17, 2013 Slight update from 8.0 which brings back the Start button
  • Standard
  • Professional
  • Enterprise
  • Embedded
x32/x86: 1GB,
x64: 2GB [16]
Windows 10 NT 6.4 [17] July 29, 2015
  • Designed to collect personal information and customize itself based on preferences
  • 270 million copies of version 10 are in use as of March 2016. [18]
  • Extended support ends October 14, 2025
  • Home
  • Professional
  • Enterprise
  • Education
  • Mobile
  • Mobile Enterprise
  • IoT Core
  • Xbox One
x32/x86: 1GB,
x64: 2GB [19]
x32/x86: 16GB,
x64: 20GB [20][21]
Windows Server 2016 October 12, 2016
(RTM: September 26, 2016)
  • Essentials
  • Standard
  • Datacenter
Name Version Number Public Release Notes Editions Minimum RAM required Minimum drive space

(Some popular NT releases are listed in bold and special server releases are listed in italic.) [22] [23] [24] [25]