Windows vs Linux: What’s the best operating system?
For decades, a secret war has been raging, fought in back offices and IT departments across the globe. Teams have been torn asunder and brother has turned against brother, driven apart by an ideological clash that seems as old as time itself: which is better, Windows or Linux?
Both sides are often staunchly committed to their preferred platform, taking any opportunity to hold its counterpart’s failings over those perceived heretics that have the gall to suggest that their operating system of choice is anything less than flawless.
Of course, as with any ideological conflict the reality is far less black and white. In reality, both Linux and Windows have advantages and drawbacks, and both excel in areas where the other falls down somewhat.
At the end of the day, Linux and Windows are both merely tools; tools that IT professionals use to get their jobs done. With that in mind, it’s important to set aside the tribalism and the dyed-in-the-wool dedication to one particular type of software in order to objectively look at which one is best-suited to your specific individual needs.
We dive deep into the history of both and weight up the pros and cons to help you decide. Keep reading to find out which is the right OS for you – Windows or Linux?
Windows vs Linux: History
The first version of Windows, 1.0, was released in 1985, two years after Bill Gates founded Microsoft. It ran from MS-DOS, which launched Program Manager to run applications.
Two years after the first version of Windows was launched, Gates rolled out the next version of the operating system, Windows 2.0, with a third iteration, Microsoft Windows/386 launching in the same year. By the time Windows 1995 launched, Windows had evolved into its own operating system, making use of a 16-bit DOS-based kernel and a 32-bit user space to make for a more robust user experience.
In fact, Windows 1995 is the basis of what Windows 10 has become, introducing many of the features we recognise today, including the Start menu, the taskbar and Windows Explorer, which has now evolved to become File Explorer. Windows ME, launched in 2000, was the final DOS-based iteration of Windows.
The platform has undergone a swift evolution since it migrated away from DOS, with some versions proving much more successful than others.
Linux was launched later than Windows, in 1991. It was created by Finnish student Linus Torvalds, who wanted to create a free operating system kernel that anyone could use. Although it’s still regarded as a very bare bones operating system, without a graphical interface like Windows, it has nevertheless grown considerably, with just a few lines of source code in its original release to where it stands today, containing more than 23.3 million lines of source code.
Linux was first distributed under GNU General Public License in 1992.
Windows vs Linux: Distros
Before we begin, we need to address one of the more confusing aspects to the Linux platform. While Windows has maintained a fairly standard version structure, with updates and versions split into tiers, Linux is far more complex.
Originally designed by Finnish student Linus Torvalds, the Linux Kernel today underpins all Linux operating systems. However, as it remains open source, the system can be tweaked and modified by anyone for their own purposes.
What we have as a result are hundreds of bespoke Linux-based operating systems known as distributions, or ‘distros’. This makes it incredibly difficult to choose between them, far more complicated than simply picking Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 10.
Given the nature of open source software, these distros can vary wildly in functionality and sophistication, and many are constantly evolving. The choice can seem overwhelming, particularly as the differences between them aren’t always immediately obvious.
On the other hand, this also brings its own benefits. The variety of different Linux distros is so great that you’re all but guaranteed to be able to find one to suit your particular tastes. Do you prefer a macOS-style user interface? You’re in luck – Elementary OS is a Linux distro built to mirror the look and feel of an Apple interface. Similarly, those that yearn for the days of Windows XP can bring it back with Q4OS, which harkens back to Microsoft’s fan-favourite.
There are also more specialised Linux flavours, such as distros that are designed to give ancient, low-powered computers a new lease of life, or super-secure distros that can be booted from a USB drive to keep you safe when using an unfamiliar PC. Naturally, there are also numerous Linux versions for running servers and other enterprise-grade applications.
For those new to Linux, we’d recommend Ubuntu as a good starting point. It’s very user-friendly (even compared to Windows) whilst still being versatile and feature-rich enough to satisfy experienced techies. It’s the closest thing Linux has to a ‘default’ distro – although we would urge everyone to explore the various distro options available and find their favourite.
Windows vs Linux: Installation
Now we move on to looking at installation. Again, this differs a little from Windows methods, as well as varying between distros.
A common feature of Linux OS’ is the ability to ‘live’ boot them – that is, booting from a DVD or USB image without having to actually install the OS on your machine. This can be a great way to quickly test out if you like a distro without having to commit to it.
The distro can then be installed from within the live-booted OS, or simply run live for as long as you need. However, while more polished distros such as Ubuntu are a doddle to set up, some of the less user-friendly examples require a great deal more technical know-how to get up and running.
Windows installations, by contrast, while more lengthy and time consuming, are a lot simpler, requiring a minimum of user input compared to many distros.
Windows vs Linux: Software and compatibility
Most applications are tailored to be written for Windows. You will find some Linux-compatible versions, but only for very popular software. The truth, though, is that most Windows programs aren’t available for Linux.
A lot of people who have a Linux system instead install a free, open source alternative. There are applications for almost every program you can think of. If this isn’t the case, then programs such as WINE or a VM can run Windows software in Linux instead.
Despite this, these alternatives are more likely to be amateur efforts compared to Windows. If your business requires a certain application then it’s necessary to check if Linux runs a native version or if an acceptable replacement exists.
There are also differences in how Linux software installs programs compared with Windows. In Windows you download and run an executable file (.exe). In Linux, programs are mostly installed from a software repository tied to a specific distro.
Installing on Linux is done by typing an apt-get command from the command line. A package manager handles this by layering a graphical user interface over the messy mechanics of typing in the right combination of words and commands. This is in many ways the precursor of a mobile device’s app store.
Depending on the software, some won’t be held in a repository and will have to be downloaded and installed from source, such as the non-open source variants of proprietary software like Skype or Steam.
In this case, the installation becomes more similar to that of Windows software. You simply download the relevant package for your distro from the company’s website, and the inbuilt package installer will complete the rest.
Windows has a big advantage over Linux which is that in the software stakes, virtually every program is designed from the ground-up with Windows support in mind. In general, Windows users aren’t affected by compatibility worries. As mentioned previously, set-up is also often a much simpler affair.