Edited by Ben Jacklin
September 26, 2019
The Best Operating System for Gaming
The choice of operating system to use for gaming is an aspect that is often overlooked in gaming debates, although it is an interesting and important one. The reason might be that the answer seems to have been agreed on a long time ago – the all-time consensus is that Windows is, in every regard, the best OS for gaming. But the real question is – is it true for all computers, all games, all budgets, and all types of gamers? Windows’ top rivals don’t seem too eager to raise the white flag, as they continue to develop new gaming solutions. With the exponential rise of Mac in the multimedia market, many are asking themselves if it is not also starting to edge out PCs in gaming, too. Also, there are a considerable number of Linux enthusiasts, and there is the question of whether they must leave their favorite and secure Linux environment for a high-quality gaming experience.
Although Steam is optimized for all three operating systems, each has particular attributes that you may not be aware of before you actually try gaming on them. This includes some compatibility and performance issues, as well as the optimization options suggested by each operating system. In this article, we will look closely at the troika of most popular OSs – Windows, Linux, and Mac OS – and weigh the pros and cons as far as gaming is concerned, to help you decide which is best for you.
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Choosing the Best OS for Gaming
We have divided our comparison into three sections, each dedicated to one of the OSs. In each section, we’ll discuss the gaming performance of the operating system, then we’ll look at compatibility issues and gaming optimizations, and finally, we’ll compare the choice of games available on each OS to see if there are games that don’t really leave you much choice.
There is no doubt that Microsoft Windows is the most widely used OS today. The latest 10 version has been specially optimized for gaming, with features like DirectX 12, Game Mode, and DVR. Check out this article we prepared about Windows 10 gaming optimization:
Windows is also the leader in the gaming development market. The performance bugs that dogged Windows 10 when it was first released have been almost completely eradicated with the latest driver updates. Now Windows 10 runs smoothly, offers full frame rates in all the popular benchmark tests, and delivers impeccable performance with any game, provided you have the appropriate hardware to back it up.
The perfect support for DirectX 12 is one of the key arguments in Windows’ favor, as the latest version of the software offers outstanding ability for a GPU to draw resources from multiple CPU cores, resulting in increased frame rate, better-quality effects, and lower power drain.
In terms of compatibility, Windows is way ahead of every other OS. While it doesn’t natively support many retro DOS-based games, you can use software-based alternatives. As for the latest games, Windows dominates the field completely, enabling you to play those games at the highest settings, since most of the recent titles have been developed specifically for Direct X 12. Also, all existing online game repositories are accessible through Windows 10. On Steam alone, you can choose from more than 20,000 titles.
Linux includes a wide range of operating systems (“distributions”) based on the open-source Linux kernel. Because of Linux’s flexibility, complex pro-features, and lower hardware requirements, the OS is often seen as targeting professional users, programmers, and digital security enthusiasts more than gamers.
Still, it is not impossible to play games on Linux, if you’re the right type of gamer, or if you’re totally against the idea of exchanging Linux for Windows. So, who is the right type of gamer for Linux?
Having only around 4,000 Steam games at your disposal may seem low, but that depends on what you are looking for. It is very unlikely you would want to play all 20,000 Steam games, even if you’re using Windows. So, if you’re a Minecraft fan, or you play CS:GO, Team Fortress 2 or Dota 2, you’re fine – all these titles are available on Linux. If you’re not always looking for new games and stick with your favorites that all happen to be Linux-friendly, why not stay with Linux? Again, those games will probably not be as well-optimized as on Windows, but if you’re a Linux enthusiast, you’re probably OK with making that sacrifice.
However, you won’t be playing PUBG, Fortnite, or Overwatch on Linux. Sorry, but that’s the harsh truth. The same goes for a significant number of popular AAA games. Also, when it comes to gaming hardware, Linux almost never offers full compatibility, and you can end up in a heap of trouble customizing your PC for demanding games.
The one Linux distro that makes sense for gaming is SteamOS – Linux’s own OS built for playing Steam-related video games. The development of the SteamOS was enveloped in much fanfare (Valve’s own OS!), but the hype eventually died down due to the simple fact that it didn’t outperform Windows, or even attract away a significant number of Windows users. While it was conceived as a user-friendly gaming distro, the final product revealed a considerable number of flaws that frustrated those users who were initially eager to try SteamOS: bad support for console controllers, poor hardware compatibility, lack of important gaming title availability, etc. All the initial excitement faded almost to nothing, although there is no doubt SteamOS works fine for certain games.
Since the drivers in Linux OSs are not as well optimized as in Windows, the port quality is lower and the middleware is less effective than Windows’ native equivalent, and the gaming performance is generally worse than Windows 10 – or even 8 or 7, for that matter. All the above either slow games down or reduce their playability. Generally speaking, games run 20 to 40% slower on Linux than on Windows, depending on the game, settings, and hardware. While all supported versions of Windows maintain consistent frame rates, these can vary significantly on different Linux distros: SteamOs and Ubuntu appear to perform better than others.
Now, we’ve come to the lowest rung on the ladder, because, frankly, Mac OS would be our last pick when choosing an OS for gaming.
Unlike Linux, Mac uses its own hardware, and it is so special. Considering most games are developed as PC games with little or no thought about Mac, Mac versions are almost always derived from the original PC games with the minimum adaptation to enable the game to run on a Mac. What this means in reality is that these games are not optimized to work best on Mac, but rather adapted to somehow work on Mac. As a consequence, the frame rate in most games on Mac represents around ⅔ of the frame rate on Windows.
Also, as you probably know, Apple computers are designed to be non-customizable and compact, so there is very little room for complex user modifications that could boost gaming performance. You can still add an external GPU, but that would be a dubious investment on top of all the money you’ve already spent on a not-so-cheap Mac.
Dubious, because whatever you invent, many games are simply not compatible with the Mac. Though Mac OS does run Steam with a collection of about 4,500 titles and supports popular games like CS:GO, Minecraft, League of Legends, and Rocket League, in terms of variety it still lags behind Linux, let alone Windows.
And Mac shares with Linux its biggest disadvantage: there is just not enough support from game developers to incentivize either of these platforms to keep up with gaming industry developments. Windows is not only great now, but is all set to keep going at the same pace in the future, there is not much support for Mac OS and Linux perspectives as far as high-end desktop gaming is concerned.
For better or for worse, games are made for Windows. As for those that make it to Mac and Linux – the chances are you won’t be able to benefit from everything they have to offer, just because they are not as well-optimized or as regularly updated on these operating systems. As banal as it is, we have to admit that Linux and Mac OS don’t have enough aces up their sleeves to beat Windows, which remains the best OS for gaming.
The important thing is not so much that Windows supports more games than any other OS, but that it supports significantly more popular ones. That means the developers that produce high- demand titles see their future in Windows, and that dictates the overall direction of gaming development; it may even mean the gradual disappearance of Linux and Mac from the desktop gaming scene.
The same logic can be applied to the performance criteria. It is not by chance that games get optimized for Windows – for game developers, it is a way of telling you what OS this game should be played on if you want to get the most out of the gaming process. Sure, you can go “against the current” and stay with Mac OS or Linux, but is it worth it?
It may be, if there are reasons to use another OS that outweigh your gaming needs, or if you just don’t care about high-end gaming and simply want to relax and enjoy your Minecraft evening session. If so, there is no need to change your habits.