Comparing Operating Systems

Windows vs Mac OS X vs Ubuntu


Most people have never used a desktop operating system other than Windows. According to Net Applications, Mac OS X currently has roughly 7% market share and all Linux distributions combined have less than 2% share.

As of this year, I became a member of what I assume to be a fairly small group of people who have used all three (I am counting Ubuntu as my Linux OS, although I have also tried other Debian varieties). Since I never came across an article comparing these operating systems, I figured I would write my own.

Windows

Pros

  • Windows is familiar (this might be all that matters to some people)
  • It has the easiest-to-use file manager and the best file previews
  • It has the most applications, especially "enterprise" apps
  • Battery life and startup speed in Windows 8 and 8.1 are improved (but still not as good as OS X)
  • It works on almost any hardware

Cons

  • It's quite slow on older systems, especially reboots and updates
  • It has the highest threat of viruses and malware
  • Windows Update is overly technical, slow, and at times unreliable
  • The new start menu (or lack there of) has drawn a lot criticism
  • Touch gestures are confusing and have a real learning curve
  • The Windows 8-style apps that launch fullscreen are annoying

Two Operating Systems in One

The last three "cons" all address the same issue:  Microsoft tried to combine a desktop and mobile experience into one OS and didn't exactly succeed. Windows 8 is a confusing experience that feels like you are unnecessarily jumping back and forth. Windows 8.1 improved things slightly, but desktop users still complain that using their system isn't as easy as it should be. Maybe Windows 10 (yeah, they skipped 9 for some reason) will be better.

Security

Windows security scares the bejesus out of me. Truth be told, an up-to-date, vigilantly managed Windows system is probably just as secure as anything else. But many argue (and I would agree) that Windows has a fundamental flaw that makes it more dangerous.

The issue is that Windows users are typically given administrator access by default, exposing the entire system to anything the user accesses or accidentally runs, including viruses. This makes social engineering attacks common, because hackers can exploit this flaw and infiltrate a Windows system with just a curious click by the user. By contrast, Linux systems (and Unix-like systems like OS X) tend to keep strict separation between user accounts and the "root" admin account, making this much more difficult.

The security concerns of Windows are compounded by its popularity. With over 90% of the desktop OS market, it draws most of the attention of hackers. This isn't exactly Microsoft's fault, but one could argue that as a closed-source system, bugs in Windows are more likely to go unnoticed than in an open-source system (more eyes = a greater likelihood of catching bugs).

Windows Update

I know that keeping Windows up-to-date is crucial to maintaining a secure system, but over the years I have had countless issues with Windows Update. Failed updates, blue screens, and updates I have had to rollback to regain a stable system. Maybe it's just me, but I think Windows still lags behind the competition in delivering updates.

Microsoft Office

Now, you might be thinking, "but I need Windows to run Microsoft Office!". Let me stop you there and direct you to this post.

When Windows is the Only Option

Windows might be your only option if:

  • You need to use software that only runs on Windows (likely "enterprise" software)
  • You really enjoy high-end computer games (many titles are only available for Windows)
  • You need to use hardware that isn't supported by Linux (and isn't a Mac)

Mac OS X

Pros

  • Battery life is superb
  • Hardware design is unrivaled
  • Much lower virus/malware threat than Windows
  • Integrates nicely if you have other Apple products (iPhone, iPad, etc.)
  • There are some very good Mac-only apps
  • The dock is a convenient way to get to your apps
  • Hot corners and "Mission Control" make it very easy to switch windows
  • Best looking OS of the bunch (this is subjective, but Apple's design prowess is well-documented)

Cons

  • It's a package deal—you have to buy a Mac, which is generally more expensive
  • No "cut" & paste, only copy & move, which is less intuitive
  • You can't right-click to create an empty file (only folders)
  • When previewing an image, there is no way to jump to the next/previous image
  • The lack of a true maximize and "double-click to maximize" is annoying at first
  • Closing an application's window doesn't always quit the application (and using cmd+q to quit is a pain)

A Different User Interface

Most of the "cons" listed above are all related to one simple thing:  if you are coming from a Windows background (and most people are), then the user interface takes some getting used to. I'm not saying that the OS X interface is bad or even less intuitive, I am just saying it takes some getting used to. (But that's to be expected, right?)

I'll give some more examples.

First, at the bottom-left of a PC-style keyboard are the ctrl key, Windows key, and alt key, in that order. The Mac keys are ctrl, then option (alt), then cmd. So the order is a little different, but the kicker is that the cmd key replaces the ctrl key on a Mac for all keyboard shortcuts, so you really have to train your pinky finger not to hit the wrong key.

Also, there is no ctrl+alt+del on a Mac, but rather you use the cmd+option+esc key combination if you need to force quit an application (and it will happen, Macs aren't perfect). Linux has different key combos as well, but I'm not getting into that.

Lastly, I'll touch on the lack of a "cut" option mentioned above. On a PC (or Linux) if you want to move a file you do the following:

  1. Cut it (with ctrl+x)
  2. Paste it in a new location (with ctrl+v)

On OS X you do this:

  1. Copy the file (with cmd+c)
  2. "Move" it to a new location (with cmd+option+v)

I guess my big gripe here is that step 2 takes an extra finger to accomplish. Also, the logic is reversed versus cut & paste. But again, this just takes some getting used to.

Finder

OS X's file manager (called "Finder") doesn't feel as refined as the competition. There are four view options, but none of them display and sort my files exactly the way I want them. The carousel-style "Cover Flow" view option arguably addresses the inability to jump to the next/previous image when previewing, but its skewed perspective and animated transitions make it less than ideal.

MacBook Air Screens

When I first bought my MacBook Air, the colors seemed a little washed out and the font looked blurry. A few tweaks to the settings fixed the font issue, but it took a custom color profile that I found online to make the colors look more natural. The issue apparently stems from the fact that Apple uses two screen suppliers, Samsung and LG, and the default color settings make the LG screens look more "washed out". This was a fairly annoying quirk to tackle on a brand new computer, but now the screen looks great (not as great as the higher resolution "retina" screens on other Macs, but as of this writing MacBook Airs don't have this option).

Regarding Touch Screens

Macs don't have touch screens. A lot of people don't realize that fact. Some people are inclined to go with Windows so that they can have the "feature" of a touchscreen. If this sounds like you, then I would ask you to consider something.

There is a reason that Macs don't have touchscreens but iPhones and iPads do. These devices are meant for different purposes, which is why Apple has always differentiated its operating systems between desktop (OS X) and touch-based mobile (iOS). Touchscreens are great for mobile, but for the desktop environment keyboards are more efficient and mice/touchpads have greater precision, which I would argue you need for doing real work. Touchscreens just aren't necessary on a desktop or laptop.

Apple has said that they have no intention of merging the two operating systems in the future. Perhaps one day it will be inevitable, but I for one hope they stick to their guns. We have learned from Microsoft that two-in-one operating systems come with compromises. That, plus touchscreens hurt battery life and make your screen all smudgy. Who really wants that?

Ubuntu (and Linux in general)

Pros

  • Open source and totally free
  • Good stability once you are up and running
  • Lowest threat of viruses/malware
  • Lightweight and fast (great for old systems)
  • Tons of options for desktop environments

Cons

  • Poor battery life (less optimized for hardware)
  • Hardware support (particularly laptops) is always questionable
  • You will eventually have to use the command line (more likely sooner than later)
  • The are multiple ways to install software, and most aren't straight-forward
  • It's difficult to approach Linux casually

The Command Line

Ohhhh, the command line! I hate to say it, but if you use Ubuntu (or any other Linux distribution) you are probably going to need to use the command line at some point. I would love to sit here and tell you that the command line is not that scary, that learning how to use it is a great way to learn more about computers, and that it's actually quite satisfying to type into the command line with confidence in your actions. But the fact remains (at least in my opinion) that in this day and age you can't expect casual computer users to familiarize themselves with the command line interface.

Which leads me to my next point...

You Can't Approach Linux Casually

In my opinion, Linux users can fall into one of two groups:

  1. You really enjoy computers and are willing to experiment and learn about how your OS works
  2. You know person #1 and have them set everything up, and you can turn to them if issues arrive

Many Linux supporters would have you believe that this isn't the case, but in my experience it's true—you can't approach Linux too casually. It takes a certain level of technical comfort just to install an operating system (especially if you have to enter BIOS/UEFI to get it started). It takes an even stronger inclination to troubleshoot any of the hardware compatibility issues that could pop up when you first load Ubuntu or when you discover all of the various software installation methods.

On the flip side, if a user has very simple needs (like someone who would be comfortable on a Chromebook, needing little more than a web browser) then Linux might be perfect, as long as someone sets it up for them. It also has the benefit of being very secure and stable if they happen to do something they shouldn't.

Options:  A Blessing and a Curse

Linux comes in many flavors, called distributions (or distros). Each of these is simply an operating system that someone built on top of the Linux kernel or forked along the way to make it their own. Because of this there are literally dozens of mainstream (or semi-mainstream) Linux distros to choose from.

I wish I could tell you to save some time and just use Ubuntu, which is the distro I use. But that goes against the spirit of the Linux community, which is all about options. Honestly, sometimes I find the Linux community a little distracting. Sure, it's the lifeblood of Linux and the sole reason why open source works, but as with any open community is almost produces too many options (and too many opinions). Such is the price you pay by not using something by a single for-profit corporation (and honestly, it ends up being a good thing).

So if you're serious about trying Linux, go ahead and knock yourself out with a bunch of "which Linux distribution is best?" Google searches. Maybe even try a few. Then install Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is the most popular Linux distro in use and, many would say, the most accessible. Ubuntu development is backed by Canonical, an open-source company, which helps maintain the OS in a relatively consistent manner. In fact, one of the reasons why I like Ubuntu more than other Linux distros is that it has some genuine branding behind it and I'm a snobby, cosmopolitan, brand-obsessed person (not really, but branding does matter).

But even Ubuntu itself comes in no fewer than 5 different flavors! (I'm referring to Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Xubuntu, and Ubuntu GNOME.) Ugh, they don't make this easy, do they? Where each of these flavors differ is the software it uses for its desktop environment—most everything else is the same. Some of these look more modern, while others look like PCs from a decade ago. You're free to choose, but again, just install regular Ubuntu.

(Bonus!) elementary OS

A few years back, an Ubuntu-based operating system called "elementary OS" hit the scenes and immediately gained a loyal following. A lot of people said that they took some design ques from Apple, which I'm not sure the elementary OS team really intended, but it's a good looking OS. I had high hopes for it and gave it a shot.

Unfortunately, I can't recommend elementary OS over Ubuntu. Here are some reasons:

  • You can't minimize windows/apps
  • You can't search for files
  • You can't place anything directly on the desktop
  • You can't right-click to create a new file or folder
  • The default apps are buggy—bugs in Geary (email) and Midori (browser) made them unusable for me
  • Development seems to have slowed

My Pick

Ubuntu is my favorite operating system. It does everything I need an operating system to do and nothing more. The default desktop environment file manager provide all the features I want and need. It's quick and snappy, and a bit more minimal than Windows or OS X. As a web application developer, Ubuntu is a good platform for most of the software I use. I've even grown to appreciate the command line.

That said, I usually recommend Macs to friends and colleagues. The hardware is impeccably designed, and OS X (once you get used to it) provides a solid, beautiful, easy-to-use interface. I use my MacBook regularly; the battery life is nothing short of amazing and it runs some software that I can't get on Linux.

As for Windows, I used to be a fan but honestly now the Windows ecosystem doesn't provide anything that I can't live without. It used to be that some of my favorite software was Windows-only, but this has changed in recent years.

If you do use Windows, I urge you to do one thing:  please use the most recent version and keep it up-to-date. Not only will this keep you safer, but you can also take advantage of any improvements to the "cons" I noted above.

Reference Table of UI Features

Windows Ubuntu Mac OS X
Double-click to maximize/restore a window O O X
Hot corners to display open windows X   X* O
Resize system fonts O   X* X
Right-click on Desktop for blank text file O O X
Preview allows view of next/previous images O O X
Cut option for cut & paste O O X
Close actually quits the program O O X

*Available via the third-party "Unity Tweak Tool"

Reference Table of General Features

Windows Ubuntu Mac OS X
UNIX-like filesystem (for increased security) X O O
Kick-ass battery life X X O
Software is easy to install and remove O X O
You don't need to touch the command line O X O

Share your thoughts with me on Twitter @cschidle.


This is an ad-free site. Please consider supporting my writing with one of the support buttons below.



More about support buttons »