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A free copy of everything, from OS to apps, is just a download away.

Throw Mac out of the Windows and let your computer run free. No, it’s not a bad pun, but a bid to introduce some of the popular open source operating systems for your laptop or desktop PC. The best thing about open source? A free copy of everything, from OS to apps, is just a download away.

Early adapters of Linux OS still speak fondly of Red Hat Linux. This was once the most popular Linux-based OS, available for free, and was almost the default version till a few years ago. However, Red Hat moved to providing enterprise-level Linux solutions on a subscription basis and the free, individual user version was taken over by the Fedora Project. Fedora is stable, secure and easy to manage, and help is available from a large and growing community of users and developers.

Another Linux-based OS, Ubuntu is possibly one of the easiest to install and maintain. It’s a great introduction to open source OSes and is ideal for those using computers for the first time. It contains all the applications you need—a Web browser, presentation, document and spreadsheet software, instant messaging and more. It’s updated every six months: the current version of Ubuntu, 9.04, was released in April this year, while the upcoming version, Karmic Koala, is expected to be released in October.

NetBSD is a freely redistributable open source version of the Unix derivative Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) operating system. It is popular mainly among developers, but is recommended even for others because it is free, fast and highly portable. It is available for a wide range of platforms, from large-scale servers and powerful desktop systems to handheld and embedded devices. NetBSD is developed and supported by a large international community.

Reliable, robust and very fast, FreeBSD has been called the ‘unknown giant among free operating systems’. The OS provides advanced networking, impressive security features and world-class performance. It is also popular with Mac users and can run well on that platform as well. In fact, FreeBSD code has been running on Macintosh architectures since Darwin— the OSS kernel of Mac OS X— was released.

FreeDOS, unlike its more well-known counterpart, MSDOS, is a free and open source operating system. This OS can be used on almost any personal computer, including the antiquated IBM machines. FreeDOS is compatible with MS-DOS and can run most of the applications that the latter does, including networking and development tools, as well as games.

This one is a work-in-progress, but is considered to be one of the most promising open source projects. Haiku aims to provide users of all levels with a personal computing experience that is simple, yet powerful, and devoid of unnecessary complexities. Haiku is developed mostly by volunteers around the world in their spare time.

This one comes from Sun Microsystems, hence the name. Solaris is a Unixbased OS, and OpenSolaris is the open source option. While the latest version, 2009.06, offers a safe and scalable system, the next upgrade is expected in 2010. The OS supports more than 1,000 systems, from laptops (it’s even pre-installed in some) to the latest multicore servers, and boasts a growing community of users and developers. It offers better network handling and comes with features like Web browser (Firefox 3.1 beta 3), easy installation of multimedia apps and an improved image packaging system.