For many years there have been several operating systems to choose from, but the newest ones – those based on a Linux kernel – have usually been hard to use, at least for the average user. Times have definitely changed. Get your hands on a recent version of, say, Xandros Desktop and you’d almost swear you'd been working with it forever.

None of this means you'll automatically dump Windows (unless you've simply grown tired of Microsoft, as some vocal computer users have). It does, however, mean you have choices. Do a little shopping around and you may find an operating system that works better for you.

Windows has dominated the desktop and notebook PC operating system scene for so long, it's easy to see why people might not realise that competition is still out there. In fact, computer owners have never enjoyed a better selection of operating systems, according to Jon Changnon, a network security engineer for a large financial institution.

Changnon has been using various versions of Linux on his home and work PCs for more than 10 years, starting out with the Slackware version.

"It's definitely at its most accessible point ever," Changnon says of the Linux operating system. "It used to be a nightmare of finding drivers and getting the monitor to configure correctly for LCD support and all that stuff. Now you just throw in a CD, and you can get a Linux install up and running."

It may not always be that easy, but people are clearly growing more comfortable with Linux. Both Linux and Apple are gaining desktop market share, although the two operating systems have a long way to go before they challenge Windows for supremacy. Today, Microsoft's share of the PC OS market hovers above 90 percent, while Linux and Apple account for about 3 percent apiece.

Numbers aside, consumers can find a lot to like in either camp. Apple recently rolled out an update of Mac OS X, code-named Tiger, that offers some refinements to the already polished system.

Its new integrated desktop search tool, Spotlight, adds instant system search, while the Safari 2.0 web browser now has support for RSS and Atom feeds, used by many blogs. There are also the somewhat bemusing Dashboard features, which should invite a surge of useful desktop modules for doing everything from telling the time to connecting to internet-based data sources.

Of course, anyone who buys a new Apple computer also gets the iLife package, including iTunes, iMovies, iPhoto and iDVD. This refined and tightly integrated software makes Apple the best overall platform for consumer-based media editing and management.

The water is less clear on the Linux side of the creek. Because it is an open-source operating system, different companies, organisations and individuals are free to craft their own versions. While these different Linux distributions – or ’distros’ – use a common set of core code, they are tweaked and extended by the authors. The result: an embarrassment of riches that Changnon admits can get overwhelming.

"There's always the distro of the week, and now there's hundreds and hundreds of distros to choose from," says Changnon. "If you want a safe bet you want to go with one you know has been around awhile."

The most popular and prominent Linux distros can be counted on two hands. Here's a quick list, presented in order of ease of use.

  • Xandros Desktop: Standard Edition Xandros distro is astonishingly easy to install and use.

  • Red Hat Desktop: The buttoned-down version of Linux most favoured by corporations, Red Hat Linux is a polished, fee-based product that most resembles traditional software in its packaging and support.

  • Novell Linux Desktop: The Linux OS formerly known as SuSE should enjoy a healthy run with the suit-and-tie crowd now that Novell is working to make this client attractive to businesses.

  • Fedora Core: Also produced by Red Hat, Fedora Linux is a free distro that shares a great deal of technology with its Red Hat cousin. Fedora Linux often receives cutting-edge technology updates before Red Hat, since the company field-tests code and features on Fedora first.

  • Mandriva (formerly Mandrake): Long regarded as the most user-friendly Linux distro, Mandriva can be a bit less stable than other distros.

  • Debian: Another popular distribution, Debian enjoys a reputation as the hacker's Linux and offers comprehensive control over the system. Installation and setup are much easier today than in the past.

  • Slackware: A pioneering distro, Slackware remains a favourite among Linux experts for its compactness and speed.

  • Gentoo: A sleek and swift distro that caters to the technical crowd. If you're just starting out with Linux, you probably won't choose Slackware or Gentoo.

    You can also find terrific applications tuned for Linux, including (a free and very complete Microsoft Office clone – see PC Advisor’s August 05 cover DVD), Firefox (the popular browser), the Gaim multiprotocol instant messaging client and the Evolution mail, calendar and contact-management software that integrates with Microsoft Exchange Server.

    Michael Desmond is publishing director at Bock Interactive, a US e-commerce consulting and software firm.