The core component of operating systems like Windows or Linux, known as the kernel, is crucial to be able to use the underlying hardware effectively. For security reasons, this system core works on a higher layer than application programs can normally access. It is only with so-called system calls that processes from system-external software can temporarily access the kernel mode.
The dispute over which operating system is the best is almost as old as computers themselves. One thing which should be clear before we get started: there’s not just one answer to that question. Furthermore, the old ‘Windows is for normal users, but pros use Linux’ saying is no longer quite as justified.
In this comparison we will only be looking at client versions of the operating systems. You can find out more about the differences between Linux and Windows in servers in our dedicated article.
Each operating system has its advantages and disadvantages. Our aim in this article is to compare the most significant aspects, so that each user can decide for themselves whether or not to switch or stick.
Microsoft Windows has been top dog in the world of operating systems for decades, only really suffering losses in recent years. In the mobile sector, Android has gained in popularity, and given the incredible speed at which the smartphone market is developing, Windows is no longer able to keep pace. But if you own a desktop PC or laptop, the chances are that you probably have Windows installed – unless of course you’re an Apple user. But that’s an entirely different, and even older, argument.
Windows has been around since 1985, and ever since its first release it has had a decisive influence on the functions and design of graphical operating systems. Indeed, one of the reasons for its popularity is that most people are familiar with using it. And at the same time, it is the user-oriented design of Windows which has made it so successful. However, Microsoft has also always been subject to a lot of criticism. Windows users all know, for example, that the system crashes from time to time, and the blue screen of death has become legendary.
On the other hand, the fact that Windows has been the market leader for so many years is what gives it one of its biggest advantages as far as users are concerned: the range of software available for Windows is unmatchable. Practically every program released today is compatible with Windows, whereas with other operating systems, it’s not uncommon for there to be no compatible version, because the development effort involved would be too great for too small a target audience. In addition, there are also Microsoft’s own products, primarily the Office Suite, which very few users are willing to do without.
But market leadership also has its disadvantages: Computers running Windows are more frequently subject to cyber attacks. On Windows systems, the favored method of attack is the introduction of viruses and malware. This is due to several factors, including the system’s widespread distribution, the type of users (in that the latter, unlike Linux users, tend to have little in-depth IT knowledge), and the complexity of the program structure, which makes it difficult to understand. Moreover, Microsoft is still somewhat reluctant about adopting the open-source mindset, even though the very fact of making source code visible means it can be more thoroughly checked for security flaws, because it is scrutinized by more people.
|✔ Beginner-friendly||✘ Overly complex|
|✔ Large range of software||✘ More frequently targeted by malware|
|✔ Pre-installed on many devices||✘ Not open source|
|✔ Comprehensive driver support||✘ Cost of licenses|
To be precise, ‘Linux’ as such does not actually exist. Its historical background lies in the 1960s, with the development of Unix. However, Unix is a proprietary operating system, which is why computer scientist Linus Torvalds developed an open-source alternative in the early 1990s: the Linux kernel. During the course of the following decades, various distributions were then developed based on this, for example Ubuntu. The kernel itself is only really operational when combined with one of these distributions.
Given that the various Linux distributions are mainly the result of community-driven projects, commercial interests are rarely the focus of further development and distribution. This means that none of the distributions can even hope to equal the marketing power behind Microsoft. It also explains why many end users are only vaguely aware of Linux.
Today, most of the distributions have an understandable graphical user interface (GUI). Nonetheless, newcomers to Linux are still faced with a number of hurdles. Whereas many Windows users never even come into contact with the system console, in many Linux distributions, some applications can only be installed via the terminal. Using console commands is therefore unavoidable in Linux.
Since none of the Linux distributions are as widely used as Windows, many software developers do not consider it worthwhile adapting their products for Linux. Consequently, in terms of compatible software, the choice is far more limited for Linux than for the Microsoft operating system. In the professional sector the difference is not quite so marked (for example, there are now Linux-compatible alternatives to the Office applications), but in the entertainment sector it’s a very different story – computer games for Linux are few and far between for instance.
But while it may be lacking in qualities as far as the entertainment sector goes, Linux has gained fans because it is considered to be particularly stable and adaptable. Whereas Windows attempts to hide as many system settings as possible, with Linux everything is accessible. Users with the right knowledge have much more freedom.
|✔ Mostly free||✘ Limited range of software|
|✔ Mostly open source||✘ Significant barriers to entry for those with little IT knowledge|
|✔ Very stable|
|✔ Extensive configuration possibilities|
Windows vs. Linux – a bumper comparison table
To help you decide which operating system is best for you, we have compiled the following table to compare the key points.
|Cost||The latest Windows operating system has many different versions and pricing options.||Most Linux distributions are free of charge (at least for private users).|
|Licensing model||Proprietary software.||The Linux kernel and most of the distributions are open source and (often) available under a GNU General Public License (GPU).|
|User-friendliness||From the outset, Windows was designed to be as simple to use as possible, even for users with no IT knowledge.||While it’s true that Ubuntu in particular is relatively easy for Windows users to grasp, with most of the other Linux distributions, there are significant barriers to entry for newcomers.|
|Graphical user interface||Microsoft set standards with its Windows GUI.||Users of Linux distributions have many freedoms in designing the GUI and can even do away with it altogether.|
|Support||Windows offers a large range of support services, both within the system and online. There is also comprehensive specialist literature available aimed at users with various levels of knowledge.||Linux support comes from the extensive user community. You can find an answer to almost every problem in the online forums and Wikis.|
|Software||Most software released is compatible with Windows.||There are far fewer applications designed specifically for Linux, although some Windows programs can run on Linux.|
|Installing programs||Programs are installed by downloading them from websites or from physical storage media.||In Linux, the majority of programs, drivers and packages are supplied via fixed repositories.|
|Uninstalling programs||When programs are uninstalled, some components remain on the system.||In Linux, programs are always completely removed.|
|Hardware||Windows drivers are available for almost any hardware.||Hardware support is more limited. Some drivers are not available immediately.|
|Reliability||Although the stability of Windows has improved in recent years, most Linux distributions are still far superior in this respect.||Linux and its distributions are known for being very stable to run.|
|Security||Windows systems are regularly threatened by viruses and other malware.||Linux systems are only attacked very rarely.|
|Speed||Windows is known for slowing down the longer it is used.||Linux generally runs very quickly.|
|Updates||Users are sometimes forced to install updates. Most updates are stable.||Each user decides which updates they want to install. These are sometimes experimental and therefore not recommended for all users.|
|Trial version||You can download and install a trial version of Windows without paying for a license.||Since most of the distributions are free of charge, you can easily try them out. Many of them can even run off a USB flash drive, so you don’t even need to install them.|
|Types of user||Windows is targeted at all types of user, from occasional to expert. Due to the wide range of Windows-compatible software, the operating system is suitable for professional use as well as for entertainment purposes.||Using Linux requires a minimum level of specialist knowledge. Furthermore, since many computer games are only available in limited versions, Linux distributions tend to be more suited to professional IT users.|
Conclusion: which operating system is right for you?
In many ways, Linux beats its competitor, Microsoft. The open-source solutions are known for their stability, security and speed. However, to benefit from these advantages, you have to take a closer look at the operating system. Getting started is not particularly easy with any of the current Linux distributions. To get the system set up perfectly, you will need to acquire quite a bit of knowledge and really get to grips with its subtleties. Without this, you won’t have much luck with Linux.
In contrast, Windows is designed to operate out of the box, and it achieves this somewhat better than its reputation might lead you to believe. In recent years, Microsoft has made significant improvements to its operating system. Users looking for a functional system, which does not require extensive configuration, are especially likely to be satisfied with Windows. Its ease of use combined with extensive compatibility makes Windows a good choice for most users.
However, to get a better idea of which operating system would suit you best, why not simply give Linux a try? Most of the distributions are available online free of charge, and you can even run the second operating system on a virtual machine without making changes to your current system. Another option is to use a bootable USB drive and take advantage of the fact that many Linux distributions do not need to be installed on a hard drive and can run directly off a USB stick. This way you can try out several Linux distributions, which is worth doing, because they can vary quite significantly from one another.