Windows vs Linux: what's the best operating system?

Can the open-source OS really stand up to Microsoft's enterprise juggernaut?

Which operating system you use says a lot about you; if you use Linux, you're an advanced PC user that likes customisable software with more functionality, if you use Windows, you're pretty much everyone else without a MacBook. These two OS' have been long considered the best two options for laptops and PCs, but they are drastically different systems.

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Windows is Microsoft's famous option, arguably the first OS many of us learn to use as most laptops come pre-loaded with it. It's a favourite of businesses and the most obvious choice for consumers on account of it being easy to use and fairly cheap.

Then there's Linux, which is nowhere near as famous and considerably more complex. With this OS, you can do far more than you can with Windows. This is because Linux is built on an open-source foundation that makes it both customisable and, probably, more intimidating to the everyday user. Those with the skills can tweak Linux to suit their way of working, coding it into submission - you can code in a widget to show a live feed of IT Pro articles if you know what you're doing. 

You may love Windows and see no reason to change, but if you have the technical know-how to navigate Linux, you might want to switch. Here we have listed the pros and cons of both to help you decide.

Windows vs Linux: History

The first version of Windows, known as Windows 1.0, was revealed in 1985 following the formation of Microsoft. It was based upon the MS-DOS core, at the time the most widely used Program Manager for running applications.

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Following that initial launch, new versions of Windows were quickly rolled out, including the first major update in 1987, quickly followed by Windows 3.0 in the same year.

This journey of evolution happened quickly and in 1995, perhaps the most widely used version yet, Windows 95 was born. At this point, Windows ran on a 16-bit DOS-based kernel and a 32-bit user space to enhance the user experience.

Windows hasn't changed a whole lot in terms of core architecture since Windows 95 and although vast amounts of features have been added on to address modern computing, many of the elements we recognise today were present. For example, the Start Menu, the task bar and Windows Explorer (now known as File Explorer) all presented themselves 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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