Definition and Function of the Computer Operating System

By Ciki | Posted Home > Wiki on Apr 29th, 2020 |

Summary: This article is an introduction to the computer operating system, including the definition and the function of the computer operating system. It also recommends highly-acclaimed computer operating systems.

Nowadays almost every electronic device, including the smartphone, computer, is installed with an operating system. There are many operating systems, including Android, iOS, Windows, Chrome OS, etc. But what is an operating system exactly? Since numbers of people choose computers to complete their work, the operating system we talk about today is the personal computer operating system.

This article will give a clear introduction to what is the computer operating system, how does the operating system work in computer and three major types of computer operating system. At last, it will recommend some useful computer operating systems for you.

What is the operating system?

An operating system (OS) is the system software that manages computer hardware, software resources, and provides common services for computer programs.

Firstly, CPU, memory, input unit and output unit make up a computer. However, a computer can only understand the binary system, which is shown in the form of 0 and 1. Just imagine in the computer world, there are only numerous 0 and 1 instead of humans' languages.

As for the functions, there are mainly two functions of the operating system. Firstly, it plays the role of the resource manager, just like a housekeeper in a big family, helping to keep and distribute the resource if there are multiple things waiting to be dealt with.

Secondly, it acts as a translator between the computer and the user which achieves the goal of man-machine interaction. The operating system translates the abstractions into the human's language.

How does the computer operating system work?

When humans text to the computer, the computer quickly calculates and disposes of the data. However, when there is too much information, there has to be someone else to deal with it. Here comes the operating system. The operating system helps the computer to manage the data and then gives the instructions in computer's language. Since the computer can only read and write the binary system, the operating system plays the role of translator, translating the binary system into a human's language and shows it on the screen, helping users understand the computer's reactions.

how does computer operating system work

Let's see an example of how it works. The task you want to finish is to set up a new folder on the desktop. First, the operating system needs to deploy the drivers for most input devices, such as the keyboard and the mouse, then you can click the mouse and choose the 'New folder', and you can use the keyboard to type, naming the folder.

Then the operating system helps to translate this action into computer's language, which is the binary system, so that the computer can understand what you want and gives its reaction, which is also shown as the binary system.

Next, the operating system allocates some space from the storage device for this new folder. Later, when the task is finished, the operating system again plays the role of a translator, showing the result on the screen. That's how you see a new folder with a name you type on the computer screen.

Different types of the computer operating system and three recommendations

In the field of the personal computer operating system, there are mainly three dominant computer operating system families. They are Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac operating system and Linux operating system.

1. Windows operating system

Covering the biggest share of the computer operating system, the Windows family offers many operating systems for their targets including Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8 and so on. The advantages of the Windows operating system are the following: ease of use, available software, high compatibility and so on. However, it also has its disadvantages. For example, poor security and high hardware requirements.

Active desktop Windows families include Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 8.1, Windows 10. Here are brief introductions of each Windows operating system.

Windows operating system

(1) Windows XP

Released in 2001, Windows XP was marketed in two main editions: the 'Home' edition and the 'Professional' edition. Later these two editions were accompanied by the 'Media Center' edition and 'Tablet PC' edition.

The pros of Windows XP contain good stability, redesigned user interface, streamlined multimedia and progressive networking features, little use of computer resources, etc. However, it also received some criticism for its expensive price, poor security and incompatibility. The biggest problem of Windows XP is that it couldn't be installed on multiple computers because it only had a single user license. This can be very troublesome if you own more than one computer.

(2) Windows Vista

Released in 2006, Windows Vista made a lot of changes, including the redesigned shell, user interface as well as significant technical changes. It also came with a particular focus on security features. Every coin has two sides, it was criticized for its drop of performance, longer boot time, etc.

(3) Windows 7

Unlike its predecessor, Windows Vista, Windows 7, released in 2006, did not offer many new features. It intended to be a more focused version. For pros, Windows 7 mainly offered faster speed, better resource management, and much more improved performance than Windows Vista. For its cons, if you always find it very difficult to make a decision, then Windows 7 might not be your best choice since it had 6 different editions. Which one to choose? That is a question.

(4) Windows 8 and 8.1

As the successor to Windows 7, Windows 8, released in 2012, made many significant improvements, including super-fast boot time, a good browser-the Explorer 10, and enhanced safety. It's worth-mentioning that Windows 8 introduced a user interface that optimized the touch-based devices such as your tablets.

As for its cons, some designs just didn't make sense. For example, instead of up and down scrolling, you have to scroll from side to side. What's more, it's impossible to roll up the windows or miniaturize them. For users who get used to the previous Windows operating system, these changes are definitely not customer-friendly.

Windows 8.1, released in 2013, was an upgrade to Windows 8. It introduced new features such as new live tile sizes, deeper OneDrive integration, including the improvement of OneDrive encryption, and many other revisions.

(5) Windows 10

Released in 2014, Windows 10 was announced as the successor to Windows 8.1. One of Windows 10's great improvements was the eye-catchy user interface, including the return of the Start Menu, a virtual desktop system, and the ability to run Windows Store apps within windows on the desktop rather than in full-screen mode. For users who like dealing with multiple tasks at the same time, this ability apparently is an advantage.

As for Windows 10's cons, unfortunately, some features will be lost when you upgrade from older versions to Windows 10. For example, Windows 7 desktop upgrades, Minesweeper as well as Hearts Games will be removed. What's more, watching DVDs requires separate playback software. This is definitely a disadvantage for users who don't like to download excessive software on the computer.

Our recommendations:

Among numbers of Windows operating systems, it is not surprising that Microsoft Windows 7 is widely appreciated by its numerous users. Based on user's feedback, Windows 7 was easy to install, and it also provided the user with fabulous display and suited all types of users such as businessmen, game players and others. What's more, according to infoworld, it improved its security as well.

The second mostly-liked operating system is the Windows 10. Compared with its competitive predecessors, Windows 10 not only maintained the advantages of them, it also made massive improvements in speed, security, interface and other fields as the latest generation of the Windows operating system family, according to pcmag.

2. Mac operating system

The Mac operating system is the second most widely-used operating system and is targeted for Apple's Mac family of computers. It also has introduced many versions of the operating system, like Mac OS X, Mac OS and the latest macOS. The advantage of the Mac operating system contains the simple and clear user interface, high security and so on. The disadvantage of it lies in upgrade difficulties, fewer hardware choices, etc. For example, you can't upgrade this version of Mac operating system because a new version is installed.

With years of developing, the Mac operating system mainly contains three series: The Mac OS X, Mac OS, and macOS.

Mac operating system

Mac OS X

The first desktop version of the Mac OS X operating system was Mac OS X 10.0, which was released in March 2001. After its first update, 10.1, Apple began to name its releases after big cats, and Cheetah was the first of those names, this situation lasted until OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. Now let's see the Snow Leopard and Lion.

(1) Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard

Released in 2009, Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard increases the performance, efficiency, and stability of the operating system. Users can easily notice the changes, including the disk space that the operating system frees up after a clean install compared to Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, a more responsive Finder rewritten in Cocoa, faster Time Machine backups, etc.

However, like its predecessor, Leopard, Snow Leopard does not support MacOS 9/Classic software at all. What's more, some existing MacOS X software and peripherals are not compatible. If you are an old user using much previous software, you might need to think twice before you upgrade to Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard.

(2) Mac OS X 10.7 Lion

Released in 2011, Mac OS X 10.7 Lion made many user-friendly developments. For example, the introduction of an easily navigable display of installed applications called Launchpad and greater use of multi-touch gestures. What's more, changes include auto-hiding scrollbars that only appear when they are being used and the most important one for many users, documents auto-save by default. You don't have to break down for the unsaved documents anymore!

However, are there any reasons not to upgrade this operating system? Of course, there are. Many small modifications, including gestures, scroll direction, visibility changes and resize window changes may frustrate long-term Mac users. And it abandons Mac OS X software written for the PowerPC processor that works fine with Snow Leopard.


Apple shortened the name 'Mac OS X' to 'OS X' in 2012 and since OS X 10.9 Mavericks, releases have been named after landmarks in California. Here are some representative operating systems from OS X.

(1) OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion

Released in 2012, Mountain Lion was the first of the annual rather than two-yearly updates to OS X, which also closely alined with the annual iOS operating system updates. It's worth-mentioning that Mountain Lion introduced more Chinese features including support for Baidu as an option for Safari search engine, QQ, and services for Mail, etc.

However, apart from 200 new features it offered, there were some disadvantages of this operating system. For instance, AirPlay Mirroring was only supported by a subset of Macs that are compatible with Mountain Lion, which limited the use of AirPlay Mirroring. And some third-party applications were available to perform the same and similar tasks on older hardware, which might make the user hesitate to whether upgrade or not.

(2) OS X 10.9 Mavericks

Released in 2013, the highlight of Mavericks was that it was a free upgrade to all users running Snow Leopard or later with a 64-bit Intel processor. The changes of Mavericks included the addition of the previously iOS-only Maps and iBooks applications, improvements to the Notification Center, and many under-the-hood improvements.

For its cons, though you can see the links shared by others with the revamped safari, shared links in Safari don't support Facebook, and you might feel offended if you are a Facebook lover. Also, though Mavericks tries to fulfill the target of multitasking, it still feels limited when you actually run the computer.

(3) OS X 10.10 Yosemite

Released in 2014, Yosemite features a redesigned user interface similar to that of iOS 7, and it also features the new concept 'handoff', which enables users with iPhones running iOS 8.1 or later to answer phone calls, receive and send SMS messages, and complete unfinished iPhone emails on their Mac. This definitely bridges the gap between the computer and the smartphone.

As for its cons, first, the system font won't likely cater for everyone's taste. Second, notifications can pile up and may drive you crazy if there are piles of things waiting to be done.

(4) OS X 10.11 El Capitan

Released in 2015, instead of introducing great changes, Apple described OS X 10.11 El Capitan as containing 'refinements to the Mac experience' and 'improvements to system performance' rather than new features. For its pros, OS X 10.11 El Capitan offers battery and speed improvements, improved language support and mission control. The windows now are not overlapped but separate, which are more convenient for the users to switch from one to another.

As for the cons, though El Capitan has enhanced security, however, you can't have your cake and eat it. Because of the enhanced security, some functions don't work anymore. For example, new security features in El Capitan prevent some free utilities from changing default folder icons, and the old paste-into-Get-Info method doesn't work either.


Apple changed the name 'OS X' to 'macOS' in 2016, adopting the nomenclature that they were using for their other operating systems, iOS, watchOS, and tvOS. As the latest series of Mac operating systems, let's see what’s new here.

(1) macOS 10.12 Sierra and macOS 10.13 High Sierra

Released in 2016, new features of macOS 10.12 Sierra include the addition of Siri, optimized storage, and updates to Photos, Messages, and iTunes. The introduction of Siri can be a ground-breaking design for Mac operating system. With the help of Siri, we can quickly find the documents and get access to the file without wasting too much time.

One year later, macOS 10.13 High Sierra was released, like OS X El Capitan and OS X Mountain Lion, this operating system is also a refinement-based update having very few new features. Nevertheless, sometimes it's the small change that makes a big difference. The highlight of this version is the use of the new Apple File System(APFS), which changes the way how data is stored and organized. Besides the computer, users may also want to set APFS on their external drives or SD cards, including You can imagine there is a housekeeper who takes charge of all the work in the house.

(2) macOS 10.14 Mojave

The fall release of macOS 10.14 Mojave was announced on June 4, 2018. New features of Mojave include the brilliant introduction of dark mode, which is refreshing for users, image-management features built into QuickLook, a more informative App Store, etc.

The Mojave operating system also has its flaws. With increased security measures, the user has to give apps permission to do things they've been doing all along and that can be really annoying. Also, every new operating system may face the trouble of incompatibility with previous software, which could cause data loss after updating to macOS Mojave.

mojave operating system

(3) macOS 10.15 Catalina

Up to 2019, macOS 10.15 Catalina is the latest version of the Mac operating system. It comes with three striking new apps: Apple Music, Apple TV, and Apple Podcasts. These three apps provide you with beautiful songs, fantastic movies and TV shows, and interesting radio broadcasts. What's more, tired of switching from your iPad to MacBook? Don't worry! Catalina now can create Mac apps from the iPad apps you run for daily use. This design connects your iPad and MacBook, which achieves the integration of the Mac operating system.

Catalina update also brings some problems. First, is not compatible with every Apple computer. If you are using an old Mac, then chances are that you can’t use Catalina on your computer. Second, Catalina ends the support for 32-bit applications. You'll have to find replacements for these apps if you still want to run them with the Catalina operating system. Third, just like its predecessor, Mojave, the enhanced security of Catalina keeps requiring you to give confirmation to run certain apps.

Catalina operating system

Our recommendations

Though there is a long debate over the topic that which Mac operating system is the best, among all the Mac operating system, the most highly-acclaimed Mac operating system belongs to the Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard. Released in 2009, Snow Leopard operating system focused more on 'under the hood' functions such as increasing the efficiency, stability of the system. Though Apple ended the support of Snow Leopard, still, there is a large part of users using this system, according to computerworld.

3. Linux operating system

Last is the Linux operating system, as the least-used operating system among the three operating systems, Linux is the only open-source software and free operating system.


Ciki is a tech lover @iBoysoft who likes to help others solve problems about computers.