Whether you’re programming, browsing the web, or trying to stream video, you need an operating system. As you build your next machine or purchase your next computer, you might start to wonder which operating system is best for you.

Ubuntu is a Linux-based operating system that provides a lot of advanced functionality for developers and power users. Windows is, of course, the most popular operating system in the world — an easy-to-use, intuitive platform for nearly any user.

But which system is best for you?

Let’s take a look at how Ubuntu stacks up vs. Windows.

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Ubuntu vs. Windows: An Overview

Release DateOctober 20041985
LicensingOpen SourceLicensed
CostFree$139 (Windows 10)
User base40 million (est)1.3 billion

Ubuntu is built on Linux and has been around for quite a while. But Windows has been around for a long time too. It’s important to note that Ubuntu isn’t the only Linux distro around either. (There are many Linux distributions to consider.) 

Ubuntu is not easy, and many ordinary users will find Windows easier. But Ubuntu, developed by Canonical, has some features that advanced users might find special. 

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1. Licensing: Open Source vs. Licensed

Ubuntu is free and open source. But open source is about more than just cost. Open source means that many people can develop Ubuntu at any time — in fact, anyone can contribute code to the project. Open-source software is well-supported, well-documented, and often well-loved by its community.

Comparatively, Windows is a licensed product. While there’s a lot of documentation and support available for Windows, it’s provided through Microsoft and Microsoft-affiliated companies — not through the community at large. 

Anyone who wants to extend Ubuntu can do so: it’s possible to modify Ubuntu and configure it into an entirely different Linux distribution. But Windows will always be the property of Microsoft and under the control of Microsoft.

2. Cost: Free vs. Paid

Licensing does impact the cost. Ubuntu is free. Windows 10 is a bit unique. All other versions of Windows had an upfront licensing cost. You can technically use Windows 10 for free, but you need to pay if you want to use any advanced features (usually, you will).

But that’s not the whole story, especially for companies. There’s the cost of ownership, as well. Ubuntu can theoretically cost more to maintain compared to Windows — because a technician who specializes in Ubuntu is rarer and therefore may cost more. 

In general, if you’re installing on many machines, you will come out ahead on Ubuntu. There aren’t any licensing fees when you install an open-source operating system. But you’ll need to calculate your projected maintenance costs for Windows compared to Ubuntu to know your true cost of ownership.

3. Popularity: Millions vs. Billions

Windows clearly wins against Ubuntu when it comes to installations. Windows has billions of installations; Ubuntu has millions. But the comparison isn’t strictly fair. Ubuntu is a Linux distribution, whereas Windows encompasses the entirety of Windows.

If you count Linux installations, the answer is probably very close. Linux is what powers Android devices, and it’s what powers most Internet of Things devices. Notably, though, these aren’t user-focused endpoints. Linux is likely more popular when it comes to device installations, but Windows is most common on user-focused machines.

4. Customization: Full Kernel Support vs. Customization Features

When installing Ubuntu, you can customize almost everything about the installation. And you are always allowed to dig into the source code. With open-source operating systems, you can change pretty much everything about the program you’re using.

Microsoft supports less customization. You need to use the internal features of Microsoft to customize the system. You can drag and drop items and change the general look and feel of your desktop, but you really can’t radically change the interface — and that’s intended.

It can be dangerous to have too much customization. A beginner could “break” Ubuntu until it is unusable quite quickly. Microsoft is safer but provides less flexibility.

5. Support: Community vs. Commercial

In general, when you need support with Ubuntu, you’ll turn to the community. You might even write a post on StackExchange. You will talk to other people who are fans of Ubuntu, and they’ll be able to tell you what you need to know. It’s possible to connect directly to the organization — Canonical — but it’s far more likely you’ll be working with other open-source devs. You can also purchase commercial Ubuntu support at a premium.

With Windows, you’ll always have commercial support available; it’s part of your license. You can pay more for support, and you can work with a managed services provider or technical support provider who has partnered with Microsoft. The long and short of it: You’ll usually get faster, superior support with Windows. 

But that doesn’t mean Ubuntu doesn’t offer support. The support is generally through unpaid volunteers — but they can also go above and beyond to help.

6. Security: Impenetrable vs. Separate

For Windows installations, security looks like a large array of firewalls, antivirus solutions, and malware detection programs. Windows comes with Windows Defender pre-installed, but you likely need other solutions as well to avoid viruses, worms, ransomware, and other malicious programs.

But Ubuntu doesn’t have any of that. Viruses generally don’t work on Ubuntu. Not only are Linux-based systems not generally targeted, but their open-source nature means that patches are quickly churned out, and exploits are resolved as soon as they are revealed.

There are no widespread viruses or malicious programs targeted to Linux the way they have been targeted to Windows or even Mac OS.

7. Entertainment and Gaming: Workarounds vs. Included

Entertainment and gaming is a clear area in which Windows wins out. There are very few games or streaming sites that will work easily on Ubuntu. You would need to run a Windows simulation under Ubuntu to run most games or streaming services. So, you can create this in Ubuntu, but only through a workaround.

Most game players are not going to be able to use any Linux-based machine. Linux distributions simply don’t support the type of processing required in games, which is heavy on graphical processing. Because of that, a machine that has a great video card is also going to be lost on a Ubuntu installation.

Similarly, media editing (photos and videos) isn’t easy on Ubuntu because Ubuntu doesn’t have that built-in graphical support. You will need to add packages and simulations to run under Ubuntu if you want to do any type of video editing, and it will likely be resource-intensive.

Comparatively, Windows does a lot of this out of the box. Windows already has photo editors and video editors installed, along with many of the codecs that are required.

8. Performance and Speed: Lightweight vs. Cumbersome

It’s no secret that Linux distros tend to be much lighter in weight than Windows. Windows has everything that you need. But distros like Ubuntu let you install only what you actually want. 

Because of that, Linux is much faster in general — Ubuntu included. Linux is going to perform very well. It will be reliable and stable.

But gone are the days when Ubuntu and Linux strongly outpaced Windows. It used to be that an Ubuntu machine could operate for months without rebooting, and a Windows server would need to be periodically reset. Now, Windows machines are much more stable and are being used as servers frequently. 

Ubuntu is still better, but Windows is closing the gap.

9. User-Friendliness: Challenging vs. Easy

Users will find Ubuntu unquestioningly more challenging than Windows.

Windows has been developed to be easy from the start. Users can jump in and do pretty much anything. It’s very intuitive. Anyone can use a Windows system as long as they are familiar with a computer. Someone can also move from Mac OS to Windows and Windows to Mac OS very easily.

Now, how challenging Ubuntu is does differ depending on whether you’re using the command line or graphical interface. You can use Ubuntu with a GUI, though many prefer using it with the command line. The command line is particularly challenging because you need to already know the commands to use them. GUI interfaces are easier because it’s just point-and-click.

That isn’t to say that Ubuntu can’t be easy. For advanced users, a transition to Ubuntu may not be difficult at all — but there does need to be that foundation of knowledge.

10. Software Support: Open Source vs. The Entire Ecosystem

If you’re using Ubuntu, you’ll usually be limited to open-source software. Instead of Adobe Photoshop, you’ll use Gimp. Instead of Adobe Illustrator, you’ll use Inkscape. 

But with Windows, you can usually use any software you need. Most software supports Windows because it’s used by so many people. Consider making a list of all the software you have to use and seeing whether the system you want can support it. 

Do keep in mind that it is possible to emulate a system for other software just as it’s possible to emulate games. But when you layer an operating system like this (by emulating one in the other), there’s resource loss involved.

11. Hardware Support: Certified vs. Assumed

By default, most people will assume hardware supports Windows. And that’s not a bad assumption. Nearly all hardware out there will be supported by Windows. 

But not all hardware is supported by Ubuntu. Ubuntu has a special “Ubuntu-certified” designation that denotes hardware that can be used by Ubuntu.

Graphics cards, as mentioned, may be supported by Windows but might not be supported by Ubuntu. Ubuntu may not have the drivers or codecs to support certain hardware elements.

Windows supports broader hardware. But by the same token, Ubuntu and other Linux systems can run on much smaller systems — if run as a command-line interface. Ubuntu’s server can be run with 1 GHz of processing speed, 1 GB of RAM, and a minimum of 2.5 GB of hard drive space.

If you want a graphical user interface, Windows is better. The minimum specifications of Ubuntu Desktop Edition are a 2 GHz dual-core processor, 4 GB RAM, and 25 GB of hard drive space. The minimum specifications of Windows 10 are a 1 GHz processor, 1 GB RAM, and 16 GB of hard drive space.

Should you use Ubuntu or Windows?

First, you should be aware: You don’t necessarily need to make a choice. You can always choose to dual boot operating systems. When you start your computer, you can choose between Linux software or Microsoft.

You can also install one on top of the other. You can run a Linux-based operating system from within Windows. You can also run a Windows subsystem for Linux inside of Linux software.

So, if you find you sometimes need a command line and sometimes need a graphical user interface, you can consider installing both at once.

But if you do need to decide, it’s usually going to come down to software and hardware requirements, as well as usability. First, look at the hardware you have and which operating systems support it. Then look at the software that you want to use and which operating systems support it. From there, it’s down to user experience — what will be easier for you to use?

It’s time to find the best Linux operating system. Check out our article on the Best Linux distros to find out more.

Page Last Updated: December 2021

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