Can the open source upstart really stand up to Microsoft's juggernaut? We compare the two operating systems.
Many people believe that if you don't want to use the Windows operating system, the only other option is to fork out extra cash for a Mac. There is, however, another option.
Linux is frequently overlooked by the general public, and doesn't get much attention outside of hardcore enthusiasts. Some people perceive it to be overly complicated and unintuitive, while some simply aren't really aware of its existence.
In actuality, the Linux family offers a host of sleek, functional and user-friendly desktop environments, many of which offer a compelling alternative to Windows.
But should you take the plunge and make the change? We've put the open source OS up against Microsoft's juggernaut to help you make that decision.
Before we dive into a full breakdown, we need to tackle one of Linux’s most confusing barriers to entry. While Windows has so far maintained a fairly straightforward version structure, with progressive iterations divided by tier, Linux is much more complex.
Originally designed by Finnish student Linus Torvalds, the Linux Kernel forms the basis for all Linux operating systems. However, as it’s open source, it can be modified and altered by anyone to create their own custom versions of the software.
As a result, there are hundreds of different Linux-based operating systems known as distributions, or ‘distros’. This makes reviewing and choosing between them much more complicated than simply picking Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 10.
These distros can vary wildly in design, functionality and sophistication, and are often constantly changing. The differences between them aren’t always obvious either, and the choice can seem overwhelming.
On the other hand, one of the benefits of an open source OS is that you’re free to try as many different distros as you like at no cost. The most popular one, and the closest Linux has to a ‘standard’ OS is Ubuntu, which makes things as simple as possible for those new to Linux.
Other popular distros include Linux Mint, Debian and Fedora, the last of which Torvalds personally uses on all his PCs. There are lean builds designed to make the most out of underpowered hardware, graphics-intensive builds designed to look as attractive as possible, and everything in between.
Next: installation, software compatibility and support.
Installation, software and support
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.
Software and compatibility
The vast majority of programs are written predominantly for Windows. While there are many that also have Linux-compatible versions, the sad fact is that a lot of popular Windows software simply isn’t available on Linux.
There are always ways around this, however. The open source community has created free alternatives to basically every program you could wish for, and has devised workarounds, such as emulating them in virtual machines, for the few that it can’t recreate.
Still, these replacements are often homebrewed, and feel like poor relations in comparison to the originals. If your business depends on specialist software, we’d strongly advise checking that this software either supports Linux or has an adequate substitute before making the jump.
Another key difference from Windows is the method of installation. Rather than downloading a nice, neat .exe file, most Linux programs install from within your distro’s software repositories.
These can be installed from the command line using the apt-get command, but the majority of distros will have a package manager built in. This acts as a nice graphical front-end that does the same job, but functions much in the same way as an app store, making the process a lot easier to understand.
Some software, of course, will not be in your distro’s repository, and will need to be downloaded from the source. This is usually for non-open source variants of proprietary software such as Skype or Steam.
In this case, the installation becomes more like that of Windows software. Simply download the relevant package for your distro from the company’s site, and the inbuilt package installer will handle all of the heavy lifting.
The big advantage that Windows has over Linux in the software stakes is that virtually every program is designed from the ground-up with Windows support in mind. Compatibility worries, in general, do not affect Windows users. As mentioned above, set-up is also often a much simpler affair.
As it’s created and maintained by a community of passionate fans, Linux has a huge wealth of information to fall back on, in the form of tips, tricks, forums and tutorials from other users and developers.
However, it’s somewhat fragmented and disarrayed, with little in the way of a comprehensive, cohesive support structure for many distros. Instead, anyone with a problem often has to brave the wilderness of Google to find another user with the answer.
Microsoft is much better at collating its resources. Though it doesn’t have quite the amount of raw information that’s available regarding Linux, it’s made sure that the help documents it does have are relatively clear and easy to access.
There’s also a similar network of Windows forums and tutorials if the official assistance doesn't help you.
Next: design, security and performance.
Design, security and performance
As we mentioned above, the sheer volume of distros means that users are spoilt for choice in terms of design. There are distros that visually emulate both OSX and Windows, as well as stripped-down systems for those that favour minimalism.
Some, of course, are visually dire, but that's the risk of community-created software. Most of the major distros, however, are very well designed, particularly corporate-backed offerings such as Ubuntu and Fedora.
In the end, a lot of it comes down to personal taste. We should mention, though, that many Linux variants will require an adjustment period for those familiar with Windows or OSX. They’re also just that little bit less polished when compared with the big boys.
Security is a cornerstone of the Linux OS, and one of the principal reasons for its popularity among the IT community. This reputation is well deserved, and stems from a number of contributing factors.
One of the most effective ways Linux secures its systems is through privileges. Linux does not grant full administrator – or ‘root’ – access to user accounts by default, whereas Windows does. Instead, accounts are usually lower-level, and have no privileges within the wider system.
This means that when a virus gets in, the damage it can do is limited, and restricted mainly to files and folders on the individual machine. This can be greatly beneficial from a damage control standpoint, since it’s far easier to simply replace one machine than scour the entire network for malware traces.
There’s also the fact that open source code such as Linux software is generally thought to be more secure and better maintained, due to the amount of people scanning it for flaws. Similar to the ‘infinite monkeys’ principal, ‘Linus’ Law’ (named after Torvalds), states that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”.
Possibly most important, however, is the issue of compatibility. As we mentioned earlier, virtually all software is written for Windows, and this also applies to malware.
Given that the number of Windows machines in the world vastly outnumbers the number of Linux ones, cyber attacks targeting Microsoft’s OS are much more likely to succeed, and therefore much more worthwhile prospects for threat actors.
This isn’t to say that Linux machines are totally immune from being targeted, of course, but statistically, you’re probably safer than with Windows, provided you stick to best practice.
Microsoft’s ubiquitous OS can be called many things, but ‘lightweight and speedy’ is not one of them. Windows has an unfortunate tendency towards bloating and sluggishness, and can very quickly feel outdated if not properly maintained.
Linux is much quicker, on the whole. The OS itself is less demanding, and many distros sacrifice any visual bells and whistles to ensure that performance is the absolute best it can be. Opting for one of these builds can be an excellent way to bring an ailing older laptop back up to its former speed.
There are, of course, numerous ways to ensure that a Windows PC or laptop remains decently nippy over the course of its lifespan, but Linux computers will on average outperform them over a longer period.
Next: Ease of use and final verdict.
Ease of use and verdict
When it comes to user-friendliness and how accessible an OS is to first-time users, Windows is a clear cut above the competition.
The fact that Microsoft has been producing its system software for nearly 30 years means that many aspects of it have become cultural touchstones. Accordingly, certain elements of the layout and navigation have been absorbed through osmosis, and a lot of users can essentially operate the system instinctively.
Linux does not have the luxury of being the most widely-used operating system in the world. As such, new users have to re-learn how to perform simple tasks on an unfamiliar and often complicated system, which can be off-putting for the casual user.
However, Linux is an operating system that gets simpler to use the more you understand about it, while Windows can sometimes be the opposite. Digging down past the basic tasks into more complicated functions can leave some people baffled.
Microsoft, to its credit, has spent the past few years simplifying the more confusing and labyrinthine elements of its software, and generally making it much more accessible for entry-level users that aren’t necessarily computer literate.
This is especially evident in Windows 10’s settings menu, which boils down some of the most common and crucial control panel tasks and lays them out under clear and concise headings. It’s a lot more straightforward for the layperson, and the Control Panel’s still available for power users to tinker with.
Given their different strengths and use cases, it’s difficult to definitively state whether Linux or Windows is the better OS. Whether or not each one will be a good fit for your business depends a lot on how your company operates, and what applications it uses.
If you’re a small firm that works primarily in software, Linux is likely to be a good fit, as the free availability will reduce overheads, and set-up won’t be too complicated to manage. It also has a reputation as a tool for coding.
However, larger deployments will be much more complicated. Replacing the computers of hundreds of employees is likely to cause chaos, particularly if they’re not familiar with Linux. It’s possible – especially if a simple, Windows-style distro is used – but without a very capable and well-integrated IT department, many companies will struggle.
Given the flexibility of multiple distros, the non-existent asking price and the heightened security, Linux is our overall favourite – assuming you’ve got the patience to adapt to a new system.
Windows, however, remains the winner in terms of pure convenience. It’s simple, familiar, and guaranteed to be compatible with virtually all software; for busy companies, that could well be more valuable in the long run.