Windows 7 vs Mac OSX vs Linux : The best for student ?
The OS's war. On of the eternal subject of nerd's fights. They have forever tried to prove that their Operating System was way better than every other imaginable. Here I will give my opinion about the best operating systems for a student moving to college, preferably with a laptop. Of course the answer is unique to each person, but there seems to be a certain trend in overall OS's use on campus.
Graphic design students : Here I recommend Mac OSX. Don't call me an Apple Fanboy yet, but in the case of this study program a student can benefit from the mac architecture. First because, as of 2011, the mac platform is the industry's norm in numerous fields of computer graphic. It is a tool that the student's will have to work with for most of his career. Also, most of the high end software used by professionals graphic designers is made for the Mac, and there is a strong tradition in graphic software firms to prefer the mac platform. The Macintosh were originally designed to work in the publishing industry, before expanding its capacities to 2D 3D work and professional video editing. Furthermore, most of the schools I have heard of uses Macs in their graphic courses, so having the same operating system as the school department can eliminate some compatibility problems.
A Windows computer is also possible, since except for apple's own pro solution (Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro and Aperture), all the graphic software from adobe is available on the PC platform as well. Windows is however not traditionally adopted in the publishing industry, nor among the professionals graphic designers.
Here Linux is not a viable option, as no professional software exists on the platform yet. It Is possible to see one day these programs on the Linux operating system, but not in a close future.
Science students (Engineering, Medicine, physics, Biology and Chemistry) : Here Windows clearly stands out of the crowd because of it's compatibility. Every physic's lab electronic lab probe will at least be compatible with Windows. Also on Windows, the office brand products are released quicker, and generally with new functions that will take a year or more to implement on the Mac. For a science class relying on Excel for calculation and data management, having the most compatible OS for this specific software can be an asset. More, most of the labs I have visited use Windows computers, as they generally cost less for more powerful hardware and less subject to compatibility issues.
Max OSX come as a second option here, although it is a road I would not recommend. Some scientific software is available on the Mac platform, but their number and quality doesn't match the Window's offer yet. Compatibility issues are frequently reported while using external lab measurement tools. Either the software was not tested for Mac OSX or there is simply not an available driver supporting the device. For these reasons I often see students with Mac hardware running a windows partition or virtual machine in their science classes.
For Linux expect even fewer programs available and it is unlikely that the existing windows applications will ever get ported to Linux. Expect frequent compatibility issues with the lab hardware as well as when sharing files Linux for science students is not a road I can recommend yet.
Social Science students (Literature, sociology, psychology, Marketing... ) : For these students I recommend Mac OSX over Windows and Linux. I came to this conclusion by observing carefully the real needs of these classes. Unlike in Graphic Arts or in Science, the Social Sciences departments usually don't provide any feedback about the preferred Exploitation System required, leaving the choice to the students. The Mac is generally seen has easier to learn, with a very gaphic and easy to understand Operating system. Installing an application usually only involve dragging an icon into the Applications folder. The installation process was made even easier with the new Mac App Store, were programs can be directly downloaded and installed automatically. Furthermore, the Mac comes preloaded with iLife so the student can have his photo library and edit video from his camera right away. Mac laptops tend to have longer battery lives then their PC counterparts and the software and hardware works extremely well together. Most of the time, Social Sciences students will only need to share and handle basic text without writing complex formatting so the compatibility in not an issue. In this context, the Apple iWork applications can be used, were it was impossible to do so for a science student. The last aspect that explain my preference for Macs in this case is the easy back-up solution proposed by time machine and the good overall system stability. It is extremely hard to damage a OSX distribution without doing it intentionally. Social Science students are generally not very interested in computer science, so having an easy to use computer that works most of the time is a definite plus here.
Windows is also an extremely valid alternative. Generally adopted by gamers and student who do not wish to pay the high price tag of Macs, they are as competent as their Apple counterpart for the task these studies requires. Microsoft Word is still the dominant bureaucratic suit of application so the user will not experience any compatibility issues. Only Windows is a little easier to damage, back-ups are harder to make for non-experienced users and the OS is generally a little less stable than Mac OSX. The stability issues are, however, reported to be lower than ever in Windows 7.
I would not recommend Linux for this student group. The installation process can be confusing for someone with little technical knowledge. Using a Linux distribution require tweaking frequently the system and should only be attempted by advanced users. Beginners can seriously damage their systems and encounter a high risk of losing files, as a badly installed linux distribution can be unstable. Compatibility is not an issue. OppenOffice is available for Linux and handle the format used by iWork and Microsoft Office. I frequently see students using the application, available for Windows and Mac too, on campus.
Computer science : For these students I recommend Linux. I had a lot of feedback from teachers and they generally told me that setting up a Linux distribution properly is a challenge that teach a lot to the students. They also learn how the exploitation system is made since Linux is Open Source. It means that students can actually see how the whole environment work, and can even modify it. It is sometime complex to achieve a simple task in Linux but definitively not impossible for a Computer Science Student. Note that Linux is used mainly in web servers and it is a constantly evolving exploitation system.
I could also recommend Microsoft Windows. It is today the most used development environment around the world. Windows systems are less likely to provoke compatibility bugs and some departments makes them mandatory.
To conclude, it is essential to remember that there is not a single perfect exploitation system around. Different needs will result in different OS being used and favored. As long as an environment feels right and does not stop a user from performing the task he desire, it remains a fully valid option.