Windows vs Linux: What's the best operating system?
Can the open-source OS really stand up to Microsoft's enterprise juggernaut?
The way you utilise your PC can often depend on the operating system you use as well as your level of technical knowledge. Even though most people will turn to macOS or Windows when deciding on an OS, if you want something you can customise, there's nothing better than Linux.
Despite the fact that it isn’t as popular as Windows, Linux offers far more avenues for customisation than any other OS as it's built on an open source foundation. It's certainly more intimidating to the average user as a result, but it can be incredibly powerful, and rewarding, if you possess the skills to fully take advantage of it.
Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages with both systems that are useful to know before making the decision on which is best for you.
Windows vs Linux: History
Following the formation of Microsoft, the first version of Windows, called Windows 1.0, was revealed in 1985. MS-DOS core, which it was based on, was at the time the most commonly utilised Program Manager for running applications.
After that initial launch, its first major update arrived in 1987, followed by Windows 3.0 in the same year.
This was a rapid journey of evolution and, in 1995, Windows 95 was born, probably the most widely used version yet. That version of Windows ran on a 32-bit user space and a 16-bit DOS-based kernel to enhance user experience.
Since Windows 95, the operating system hasn’t changed a whole lot when it comes to its core architecture. However, a vast amount of features have been added to meet the needs of modern computing but many of the elements we recognise today were present in the former versions of the operating system. This includes, for example, the Start Menu, the taskbar, and Windows Explorer (now called File Explorer) which all were present in Windows 98.
One major shift happened with the launch of Windows ME in 2000. That was the last MS-DOS version of Windows, allowing for an even faster evolution of services since. However, some iterations of the platform still fared better than others and although it is still the most popular computing platform, users have dropped off over the years and migrated to other platforms, such as MacOS and Linux.
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
Still with us? Good; 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, the set-up is also often a much simpler affair.
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