What’s the best gaming OS?

It’s a fascinating question. Because regardless of one’s preferences, the answer is likely to be the same: Windows. But why is Windows considered the “best?” Even if it once held the title, a lot has changed in the past decade. In the interest of fair play, it might be worth clearing the table and starting fresh.

Let’s take an honest look around to find the best gaming OS for your computer. There are three key metrics we’ll be considering here: compatibility, convenience, and performance.

Summary

Before we take a closer look at each operating system, here’s a quick overview of how each one measures up.

Operating SystemRating
Linux
Easier and better than you think.
4/5
MacOS
Still has a long way to go for gaming.
3/5
Windows
The reigning gaming OS, even after all these years.
5/5

Linux as Gaming OS: 4/5

Multi-monitor Gaming OS setup

If the words “Linux” and “gaming” together make you cringe, you probably have some experience with the open-source OS. But fear not, as the past decade has seen dramatic improvements to the gaming experience on Linux.

Compatibility: 4/5

Back in the day, the de facto way to play on Linux was to hope for native binaries or make do with Wine (a Windows compatibility program). Though Wine worked alright, the situation was far from ideal for gamers hoping to leave Windows behind.

Enter Valve, Steam, and Proton.

Proton is a little miracle for Linux gamers, making native binaries unnecessary. Sure, it runs on top of a fork of Wine. But the difference between Wine and Proton is night and day.

While Proton opens up the majority of the Steam library to Linux, you may be out of luck in other non-native ecosystems. At least officially. Perhaps one of the many guides to running non-Steam apps with Proton might interest you.

Convenience: 3/5

Setting up Steam on Linux is less convenient, as Ubuntu is the only officially supported distro. But in the spirit of Linux, with a little effort, you can get Steam running on Linux MintDebianFedora, and more! And then there’s SteamOS, which is a Linux distro that handles gaming through Steam, and nothing more. It’s definitely one of the best Linux OS for gaming. Simply run it in a separate partition, and off you go.

Once you have Steam on Linux, the rest is easy, as Proton comes bundled with the software. Simply head to Steam -> Settings -> Steam Play and check “Enable Steam Play for supported titles.” You could even try “ … for all titles” if you’re feeling adventurous.

Then start gaming!

Performance: 4/5

Unlike vanilla Wine, Proton boasts near-native performance in most games. Even brand new triple-A titles can run through Proton without a noticeable performance hit. The actual performance varies from title to title, of course, but it’s almost always superior to other Linux-based options. And with first-party driver support growing every year for graphics cards and other components, even former weak spots in the armor are being reinforced.

Want to see how your favorite games run with Proton? Check out the crowdsourced ProtonDB for all the gritty specifics.

MacOS as Gaming OS: 3/5

iMac with Magic Mouse and Wireless Keyboard

Minecraft, Diablo III, Fortnite… there’s a lot of gaming to be done on Mac these days. But surprisingly, for all the years come and gone, the experience hasn’t changed all that much.

Compatibility: 3/5

Most triple-A developers put out Mac ports these days. And major launchers like Steam, Battle.Net, and the Epic Games Store have Mac variants. As for indie games or smaller titles, all you can do is hope for a native binary or try other compatibility solutions.

Unlike Linux, you’re still limited to Wine for non-native titles, as there’s no official Proton support yet. You could try running Windows in a virtual machine like Parallels or VMWare, but that’s hardly ideal. Of course, you can also sidestep the issue altogether with Boot Camp. Simply install Windows in a separate partition on the drive and run your games there. But isn’t that somewhat defeating the purpose? 

Convenience: 3/5

If you’re only interested in major titles from big-name developers, gaming on a Mac is as convenient as can be. But if you’re looking for new and exciting titles from other developers, be ready to put in some legwork. And if something goes wrong, you’ll have a long hike through the wilds of the internet to find some Mac-specific support.

Surprisingly, Mac can feel even less like a first-party gaming OS than Linux when you stray from the beaten path. Perhaps it’s merely a matter of expecting difficulty with Linux. Nevertheless, Mac has a long way to go before it’s truly suited for gaming.

Performance: 3/5

Everything works just alright on Mac. Getting drivers and support for components like graphics cards is easier on Mac than Linux. However, Mac falls far behind Linux on the emulation and compatibility front. If a game doesn’t work out of the box for Mac, you have to hope Wine can run it. And Wine is far from an ideal solution.

That said, if you stick with household names in gaming, you’re likely to have a good experience.

Windows as Gaming OS: 5/5

Gaming rig ready for the best Gaming OS: Windows

When it comes to compatibility, convenience, and performance, Windows still can’t be beat. It’s the best operating system for gaming.

Compatibility: 5/5

With Windows, everything just works. We could talk about market saturation, which naturally drives the focus for developers. We could speak of the early advantages Windows boasted in the 90s and 00s. But all things considered, it’s a stone-cold fact that most software is developed for Windows first and ported around after. This means that your best bet for a gaming OS is still Windows.

Convenience: 5/5

Let’s just pretend Vista never happened. Maybe Windows 8 and 8.1, too, though some consider those among the best gaming OS for laptops.

Despite the missteps, Microsoft still dominates the “plug-and-play” market.

Installing drivers, games, and mods is one-click easy for the most part. Features like Game Mode, which tunes your background processes for gaming, and notification hiding while in-game show that Microsoft put a lot of thought into the nuances of the experience.

Of course, forced update schedules are hardly ideal. But since Microsoft made changes to allow for off-hours updates and delaying the inevitable, they’ve at least softened the blow.

Performance: 5/5

I’m just going to say it: Windows 10 may be one of—if not the best—version of the OS. And it’s especially strong in terms of raw gaming performance. We all have fond memories of XP, sure—but it would be dishonest to pretend there aren’t rose-colored glasses involved. Then came Windows 7, with an excellent blend of speed and ease-of-use that was a triumphant return to form after the disastrous Vista.

Gamer playing Fortnite

Windows 10 is perhaps the best Windows operating system for gaming. It’s absolutely giving 7 a run for its money. It’s more stable, less prone to blue-screens or hard locks, and less resource-intensive than Vista and 8/8.1 especially. Given the Hydra-like nature of modern software, the fact that it doesn’t hog any more than necessary is a welcome breath of fresh air. And your in-game framerates will enjoy the breathing room as well.

Further Reading