Linux vs. Windows: 8 Key Operating System Differences, Explained

linux-file-transfer-windows

Linux began as a passion project to create an operating system that anyone could use or tinker with as they wished. This was how computers were before companies like Apple and Microsoft locked them down. But you needed to be a committed and technical user to make use of Linux back then.

Today millions of people find Linux to be an easy-to-use and powerful alternative to Windows. It’s different, but different doesn’t mean bad.

Undecided between Linux vs Windows? Let’s look at the differences between them and help you determine if you’re ready for the learning curve.

1. Distribution

Laptop running Microsoft Windows
Image Credit: Ashkan Forouzani/Unsplash

There’s one current version of Windows, which comes in several different editions. The differences between these editions largely deal with added features for use in enterprise or educational environments. Each of these editions cost a varying amount of money.

There is no one set version of Linux. Instead, there are many different versions known as Linux “distributions” (distros for short). There are hundreds of different options, though you can narrow down the list of prominent distributions that most people use down to under a dozen. As for the cost of the Linux operating system? Virtually all Linux distros are free to use, with some enterprise options requiring a support contract.

What Is a Linux Distribution?

Linux distributions
Image Credit: Flatpak.org

Linux isn’t a full-blown operating system. The name actually refers only to the kernel, a relatively invisible part of how your operating system functions. The interface you see on your screen, the display server, the sound system, and the apps all come from different sources. A distribution is a way of packaging all this software together to provide you with a functioning computer.

Since there are any number of ways to put these components together to suit a person’s desires or needs, there are any number of distros.

2. Source Code

Windows is a proprietary operating system. The source code is closed, meaning you need to work for Microsoft or receive permission from Microsoft to see the code that powers your operating system. If you try to get access or redistribute this code without permission, you could face legal trouble.

Linux is a free and open source operating system. You’re free to view the code, learn from it, make whatever changes you want, and share it with others. You still have to abide by an open source license, but that usually means you’re not free to take the code and repackage it into proprietary software.

3. Desktop Interfaces

GNOME Activities Overview on Linux

Until Windows 8, the Windows interface hadn’t experienced much innovation in a long time. The Start Menu, Taskbar, System Tray, Windows Explorer—all of it was fundamentally the same thing, and it was all restored with Windows 10.

On Linux, the interface is not part of the core system. You can switch up your interface without mucking about with reinstallations. There are giants like GNOME and KDE, which come with a full suite of integrated apps. Then there are any number of lesser-known varieties that all focus on different aspects. Here’s a rundown of the best desktop environments for Linux.

Not only are there more interfaces to pick from, but you have greater freedom to customize them. You can theme your desktop how you like, and when you’re done, chances are it won’t run any slower.

4. Apps

GNOME Software on a GNOME Linux desktop
To install software on Windows, you visit some website, go to the download section, and click on the link that sends you an EXE file. You run it, the program does its thing, and that’s when you consider it to be “installed.” When you want to remove programs, you have to mess with the Control Panel. Sure, Microsoft introduced an app store with Windows 8, but much of what you want simply isn’t there.

With most Linux systems, you won’t have to hunt down executables. Instead, you’ll have something called a package manager. Traditional package managers provide granular control for browsing, installing, and removing program packages. Newer options are more akin to mobile app stores.

Things get more complicated when the app you want isn’t in the package manager. Since there isn’t one version of Linux, there isn’t one package format that works across all of the various distributions. Fortunately that situation is starting to change thanks to newer universal package formats.

Which Has More Apps?

Linux has thousands of programs, but most of them are free and open source programs that newcomers have never heard of. Popular commercial software tends to target Windows. While more of these apps are making their way to Linux than before, Windows simply has a wider library of desktop software.

That said, if you can’t find an adequate open source replacement, it’s possible to run most Windows programs on Linux using Wine or virtual machines.

5. File Structure

Linux file structure

The fundamental structure of Linux is completely different from Windows—as it should be, considering that it was developed over a separate codebase with separate developers. You won’t find  “My Documents” on Ubuntu, nor will you find “Program Files” on Fedora. There are no C: or D: drives.

Instead, there is one single file tree and your drives are mounted into that tree. Your “home” and “desktop” directories are both part of that single file tree. Technically, you’ll need to learn a whole new filesystem and its architecture. Doing so isn’t very hard, but the difference is still there.

Filesystem

Windows uses the NTFS filesystem. In contrast, Linux supports many different options. If you’re installing Linux on your laptop, chances are you will use EXT4. But if you want to run Linux on a server, you can try BTRFS or ZFS instead. These filesystems come with features that don’t necessarily benefit desktop users but are great for companies providing cloud services or people maintaining their own servers.

6. Registry

The Windows registry is a master database of all the settings on your computer. It holds application information, user passwords, device information, and the like. If information is not stored as a file, it’s probably stored in the Windows registry.

Linux doesn’t have a single monolithic registry. Generally, applications store their settings on a program-by-program basis in hidden folders within a user’s home directory. There are some exceptions, such as the GNOME desktop environment, which has GSettings and the dconf configuration tool.

7. Drivers

Because Windows has such a widespread grasp on the PC market, device manufacturers tend to focus their efforts on that one operating system. This means companies prioritize Windows over Linux. Sometimes they don’t provide Linux drivers that interface with their devices. Other times they may provide drivers but leave out some of the features. This means you need to be more cautious when buying various peripherals or smart gadgets.

That’s not to say the drivers situation is more challenging on Linux. On Linux, most drivers come as part of the kernel. When you plug in a printer, there’s a good chance it will simply work. You won’t need to use an installation CD or download a driver off the web. It’s only when drivers don’t come included that trouble arises.

What About Graphics Cards?

This is the driver-related issue that comes up the most. While there are open source drivers for Nvidia and AMD cards, if you want maximum performance, you want proprietary drivers. They’re available, but they sometimes introduce issues with other aspects of the Linux desktop since developers don’t have access to the source code.

8. Commands & Development Tools

GNOME Terminal running on Pop!_OS

Both Windows and Linux have the ability to open up a little black window and type out commands. The Windows version is known as Windows PowerShell, aimed mainly at developers. This isn’t the primary way you’re expected to interact with a Windows PC.

That’s not the case with Linux. Here, that window is more commonly known as the Terminal, though you may also encounter it as the Linux shell. If you like typing commands, you can do away with the graphical interface entirely. This is the way most sysadmins manage servers (most of which run Linux).

Linux is well-known as a friendly environment for developers. The terminal is a big part of this. So is the open source nature of the operating system. You’re simply empowered to do whatever you want with your machine, assuming you have the knowledge or are willing to get it.

But it’s also simpler to set up development environments on Linux. Whether you’re a sysadmin or a web developer, you’re often working with Linux-powered machines. With a Linux desktop, you can install the same tools, use the same knowledge, and have computers that already understand one another.

Plus there are so many tools to pick from. You have your choice of full-blown IDEs and text editors. You have virtual machines. And here’s an area where the ability to swap out your desktop environment really comes in handy. With a tiling window manager, coders can get in the zone without fussing around with windows. And much of what you need is waiting in the repositories. Type a single command in your terminal to download and install a program and be on your way.

Is Switching to Linux Difficult?

That question depends on how comfortable you are with computers. If you learned how to use Windows by following a guide, reading articles, or first-hand experience, then you probably won’t find learning Linux to be that big a deal.

If you are comfortable following instructions without someone in person to help you out, then all that you need to know is freely available online. You can start your switch to Linux right here.

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