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All computers have an operating system (OS) that controls the overall operation of the computer. If you buy a new computer, the OS is usually supplied as part of the purchase.
On a PC, Microsoft Windows is the most frequently used and the most readily available OS. There are several versions of Windows currently available. You can find out which operating system you are using from the Computing Guide (see current Computing Guide or new Computing Guide. Both require login details).
Apple Macintosh computers (Macs) have their own operating system, called OS X, with the individual versions being named after big cats - Tiger, Leopard and Lion.
Linux is an open source system that works on both PCs and Macs. The Linux operating system is free to download from the internet.
These operating systems work in slightly different ways but perform the same functions. So, for example, you can make a copy of a file in all operating systems but you would have to press different keys to do so.
The companies update their operating systems regularly. However older systems (for example, Microsoft Windows XP) still work and may be preferred because they have been around long enough to have any problems ironed out.
OU students have access to the technical help offered by the OU Computing Helpdesk. However, the support the OU can offer is limited for a Mac. If you choose to buy a Mac you should make sure that you have some other form of support in case you run into difficulties.
Apple has a range of support available and also offer an ‘Apple Care Protection Plan’, which can be purchased from Apple and will provide you with technical, software and hardware support. Remember that as an OU student you are eligible for a Higher Education discount from Apple. See the Mac General Website for more information and click on the ‘Discounts’ section.
The University now provides much of its learning and teaching materials in an online virtual learning environment (VLE) that also provides access to dynamic information such as assignment results, tutorial information and so on. Mac users can access the VLE by downloading and installing Mozilla Firefox.
The Mac General Website has a Mac self-help group, which has been set up by OU students who have compiled their own list of OU modules and Mac compatibility. The Computing Helpdesk will endeavour to provide you with first line support for Mac problems but may need to refer you to other sources of support. For additional information on using other operating systems please check the computing specification, which you will find in the module description.
In addition to the operating system, there are a number of other computer application programs you will use during your studies. These might include a word processing program and Adobe Reader. Adobe Reader is a free program that allows you to look at PDF documents. If you purchase a machine from a shop this software might be included with your purchase, but you should ask the shop assistant. If you have to buy them separately, the main commercial applications can add quite a lot to the cost of a new computer.
OU students have access to several major software applications such as word processing packages and software that allows you to read PDF documents (a file format that you will regularly encounter). These are available free of charge.
Any specialist software applications that might be required will be supplied with your materials.
A web browser is a program that allows you to look at web pages on the internet. There is usually a choice of browsers supplied with the computer, or they can be obtained free from the internet. For further information on web browsers, look at Web Browser Basics.
Some of the more popular web browsers are Internet Explorer (which comes with Windows), Safari (which comes with the Apple Mac), Google Chrome and Firefox.