There’s a world out there beyond Windows, macOS, Android and iOS — and it’s a world worth exploring. The big four operating systems are built to be useful to as many people as possible. Yet many of us have very particular needs and might do better with something more streamlined. Thankfully there are a lot of programmers with needs as particular as our own. Sometimes they build operating systems dedicated to certain computers and smartwatches, or ones intended just for gaming. Other times they’re out tweaking and refining what’s already available.
Whether you want to take more control of your devices, support open source software, or just journey on the road less traveled with your operating systems, these are the alternative OSes we’d recommend.
We’ve written before about the benefits of installing Linux on a laptop and the newly launched Pixel OS for Mac and Windows is a good place for beginners to start. It’s the stripped-down, lightweight operating system originally built for the low-powered Raspberry Pi, making it a perfect choice for older laptops and desktops that are starting to show their age.
Many of the usual Linux benefits apply to Pixel OS: simple setup, an intuitive interface, and a bunch of free, pre-loaded applications to get you up and running quickly. You don’t get the same software selection as you do on Windows or macOS, but you get something that can be more secure, and besides, all the best apps are on the web these days anyways.
You can find the necessary download files and setup instructions on the Raspberry Pi blog, and we’ve previously posted a more detailed walkthrough for getting it up and running. Right now it can only be run directly from a DVD or USB stick, but the developers behind it are considering creating a full installer in the future.
If you thought Android Wear and watchOS were the only choices for your smartwatch, you’d be wrong — there’s also Asteroid OS, an open source project put together by a French student that runs on the LG G Watch and various other Android Wear models.
Why would you want to bother hacking an alternative smartwatch OS onto your wrist? Asteroid OS is intuitive, beautifully designed and more consistent than anything Google has managed so far. It comes with basic apps included, such as a calculator, a weather widget, and an integrated music player.
On the downside, it’s still at the alpha stage of its development, so not all of its various features and functions are working yet, and you’re likely to come across one or two bugs both on Asteroid OS and its accompanying Android app. You can flash it to your watch without getting rid of Android Wear, though.
From the ashes of CyanogenMod comes Lineage OS, an alternative smartphone OS for those who aren’t happy with whatever flavor of Android installed on their handsets to begin with, and are looking for a slicker, purer experience that they can customize to suit themselves.
Head to the download page, pick your device, and you’ll get yourself some files which need to be flashed to your phone. The process is the same as it was with CyanogenMod, so you’ll need to get friendly with some Android developer tools — even if you’re not a professional programmer, you should be able to install this without too much trouble.
Right now Lineage OS is just finding its feet: it's essentially CyanogenMod with a few key components cut out due to the latter’s sad demise. It’s still fully functional though, and retains a lot of the character of its predecessor.
Maru OS is rather limited right now — it only works properly on a Nexus 5 — but it scores points for its ambition and its potential. At its core, it’s an OS that runs on your phone but can power a desktop experience as well.
The developers of Maru OS aren’t the only ones trying to come up with a mobile-desktop hybrid, but this is one of the most interesting projects in the field. Simply plug your phone into an HDMI screen, connect up a keyboard and mouse, and you’ve got a lightweight desktop experience you can take anywhere.
You can install Maru OS in the same way as any other custom Android ROM and detailed instructions are provided to get you started. If you don’t have an old Nexus 5 knocking around, check out the list of ports currently in development, which includes more modern handsets like the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P.
Google is busy adding the option to run Android apps on top of Chrome OS, but Remix OS got there first: it’s a desktop OS but based on Android, so you can run all of the apps you know and love, but use them in a windowed, desktop environment on your main PC.
At first that might seem like putting unnecessary limitations on the computer you use day-to-day, but consider the breadth of apps now available on mobile, which are getting closer and closer to their desktop counterparts. Adobe, Microsoft, and many others have mobile apps that are more desktop friendly thank ever.
And it’s a great way to repurpose an old machine too — the makers of Remix OS suggest a minimum spec of a 2.0GHz dual-core processor and 2GB of RAM, but you can get by with less. You can install the OS straight onto a hard drive partition or run it from a USB stick, which is probably the more sensible option, as it won’t require wiping whatever OS is already on your computer.
We could cover all manner of Linux distros here, and there are plenty of good ones around, from the privacy-focused Tails to the ever-popular Linux Mint, but Zorin OS (based on Ubuntu) is worth a specific mention, especially if you’re looking for something that feels like Windows or macOS.
As well as all the usual goodies you get from Linux, Zorin OS comes with a smart and slick interface, plus Wine for getting some of your favorite Windows applications up and running. It’s heavily customisable as well if you want to make the OS your own.
While the Core version of Zorin OS is available for free, there is the option of paying €19 (about £16) for an Ultimate edition, which gives you some extra games, apps, and functionality (like live video wallpaper, if you feel like you need it).