3 Free Alternatives to Windows for Desktop PCs

3 Free Alternatives to Windows for Desktop PCs

For any executive tasked with managing the computing infrastructure of a large organization, there's one clear, critical element in your success: End-user adoption. A CIO might decide to augment that strategy and offer another option with full IT support but, in the end, users will decide if they like a new operating system and if they can stay productive.

For the past few decades, the default strategy has been deploy Windows on PCs, whether it's an older version such Windows 7 or the latest incarnation. In the age of mobile computing, disparate work forces and BYOD, though, the one-OS-for-all concept is not as realistic. Many end users are now using Android devices or iPhones, so it makes sense to consider an operating system that might be better-suited to those mobile alternatives.

Fortunately, several new operating systems - including Chrome, Android and Ubuntu, the popular Linux distribution - are available for those who are ready to break from Windows. tested each OS to examine the pros and cons for business use.

Chrome: Fast Access to Web Apps (But Only Web Apps)

Chrome OS is essentially a browser that takes control of a PC. There is a file system for local storage, but it's rudimentary at best, as Chrome emphasizes syncing to the cloud for storage. Even figuring out how to copy a file from one external drive to another can be a challenge. However, because there are no drivers for local printers, scanners or other office equipment, a Chrome OS computer will boot up in seconds and runs incredibly fast.

The HP Chromebook 14, for example, uses the latest Intel Celeron Haswell chipset and has built-in 4G service and 4GB of RAM (for the $350 model we tested). Web apps such as Evernote, Freshbooks and Google Docs run incredibly fast and can be accessed quickly, since boot time is a matter of seconds.

[ Reference: Google Chromebook Buyer's Guide ][ More: 12 Tips and Tools for Chromebook Power Users ]

Omar Javaid, the vice president of product management and mobility at HP, says Chrome OS is ideal for business because of the automatic updates that occur in the background, saving time for IT staff who dont have to manage the systems as closely.

"If an organization has many services that are central to their job function [that] can be accessed through a browser, then Chrome OS is a viable solution," says Ben Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies in San Jose, Calif.

Jay Lyman, and analyst with 451 Research, says large companies should be aware of Chrome's limitations - namely that end users won't get as much use out of these systems in offline mode and won't be able to run corporate desktop applications.

Android: Early Returns Are Promising (But They Are Early)

Android is designed for simplicity with apps housed on a main home screen where they are easy to find. There are thousands of business-minded Android apps, including Evernote, Skype, and Dropbox, which take advantage of the operating system's touch features on a desktop touchscreen.

Surprisingly, Android has started showing up on business-class computers, including the new HP Slate21 Pro. Normally, the OS is used exclusively on smartphones and tablets.

One major Android OS benefit is that it's designed to run on slower mobile processors. That means a desktop computer such as the Slate21 Pro gets a major boost when running on a quadcore chipset such as NVIDIA Tegra 4. In tests at the Consumer Electronic Show 2014, the Slate21 performed more like a high-end workstation; apps started immediately without any of the typical desktop-computing delays.

[ Related: How to Use Your Android Tablet at Work ][ Also: The 12 Best Laptop Bags for Mobile Professionals ]

HP's Javaid says the Slate21 Pro adds security and management features to help IT keep tabs on this computer in the workplace. The Slate21 also includes the Kingsoft Office Suite, Google Docs, Google Drive and 50GB of free Box cloud storage. IT can manage those systems using existing mobile management tools such as MobileIron.

"It's still early for these types of deployments in large enterprises," 451 Research's Lyman says, "but as the power and reach of mobile devices and mobile operating systems such as Android grow, we are likely to see more mobile OS use bleed over to desktops."

Ubuntu Desktop: An Unfamiliar Favorite

A leading Linux option for large companies, Ubuntu has whittled away most of its user interfaces problems over the years. Ubuntu 13 is free to deploy and now includes some powerful search options where end-users can limit search criteria to, say, a specific phrase in a specific document library. Ubuntu also includes a full office suite called LibreOffice, which is compatible with Microsoft Office file formats.

"Ubuntu has the added benefit of a highly active community of users and developers," says Jon Melemut, vice president of professional and engineering services at Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu. "This community provides feedback and input on a daily basis, keeping Ubuntu's technology on the absolute cutting edge and staying ahead of any rising security threats."

[ Related: Canonical Prepares Ubuntu for Smartphones ][ More: Ubuntu Impresses in Linux Enterprise Server Test ]

"Ubuntu is an appealing Linux option that provides a more user-friendly, less-geeky Linux that can support most desktop applications and functionality," says Lyman. "Ubuntu can provide some cost, management and security advantages, in part thanks to ties to Ubuntu server use. However, Ubuntu is still an unfamiliar name the enterprise."

Some PC vendors are treating Ubuntu a bit more seriously than before. The Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition uses Intel Haswell chipset and offers fast SSD storage. The touch-enabled laptop comes with pre-installed apps for developers. Dell also provides support for these systems - thereby addressing one of the great challenges in deploying Linux in business.

John Brandon is a former IT manager at a Fortune 100 company who now writes about technology. He has written more than 2,500 articles in the past 10 years. You can follow him on Twitter @jmbrandonbb. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

Read more about chrome in CIO's Chrome Drilldown.

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