Ubuntu vs Windows: Is Linux Ready to Compete?

ubuntuvswindowsWith the recent release of Windows 8.1, its time to once again compare Ubuntu to the venerable Windows OS. Canonical, the creators of Ubuntu, have taken significant strides catching up with the easy-to-use and familiar Windows user experience.

But has Ubuntu (the most popular Linux release for PCs) come far enough to actually become a serious competitor in the home computing OS marketplace? In this article, you will learn which operating system is really the best and if Ubuntu has what it takes to compete against Microsoft. If you aren’t already familiar with Linux, check out Introduction to Linux.

After the somewhat lackluster release of Windows 8 last year, many people have started looking for alternatives to Windows. Although some people end up migrating to Mac OS X, others do not want to make the trek into the Apple universe.

For these people, Ubuntu is the operating system of choice. Although its interface can be a little confusing compared to Windows or OS X, the software is open source and completely free. This makes it an excellent choice for many people who don’t mind learning a new OS in exchange for keeping some money in their pockets.

Installation

One aspect of Ubuntu that has often come under heavy criticism is the installation process. Even in some of the more modern iterations of Ubuntu, users typically needed to complete relatively complex installation processes that often were above the common knowledge of most PC users.

Windows has offered a seamless installation and configuration experience for years – a feature users have come to expect in any operating system they use.

Fortunately, Ubuntu has taken steps to correct these problems in the newest version, 13.10. In fact, the installation experience is very similar to that of its Windows counterpart; some users have even commented that the Ubuntu installers is even easier than Windows – a significant improvement and a job well done by Canonical.

The only drawback Ubuntu faces as a mainstream operating system (as far as installation is concerned) is that users must create their own boot media (DVD or USB Flash drive) to install the OS. That said, there are two other options that do remove this prerequisite. First, users can use Canonical’s free Wubi installer. This software package installs Ubuntu as an executable file within Windows. It is a great way to try Ubuntu before committing fully to the OS.

The other option is to order a Ubuntu installation DVD from Canonical. Unfortunately, this service does cost $10, but this is a far cry from the hundreds of dollars required for a new Windows installation license.

Post installation and configuration are also relatively easy. While Windows typically has no trouble detecting hardware and installing the appropriate drivers, Ubuntu sometimes has difficulty with this step as drivers are usually developed more slowly in the Linux community. If you are using a newer model computer using either a x86 or ARM chipset, you should have no problems connecting all your hardware with Ubuntu. Older machines, however, often run into compatibility issues that could leave important system components (such as WiFi) not working.

Despite the small potential installation barriers presented by Ubuntu, 13.10 brings enough automation to the process that it wins this category for this first time since Ubuntu’s initial release.

Bundled Software

Windows and Ubuntu both offer users a variety of pre-installed software designed to create a productive environment immediately following installation. Most modern Windows machines come with many software trials that give users 30, 60 or 90 days of usage before a license needs to be purchased. Unfortunately, the cost of licensing additional software can quickly approach the cost of the equipment itself.

Ubuntu provides users with many useful software tools. The difference, of course, is that these programs are free to use and part of the open-source Linux project. Popular applications include LibreOffice (similar to Microsoft Office), Thunderbird (an email client) and Firefox (a web browser also popular with Windows users).

In addition to these programs, Ubuntu has a Software Center designed to make downloading and installing new applications very easy. Another historic drawback to Ubuntu was the OS’s reliance on the command line (known as the Terminal) to install new software. Many new users quickly became frustrated with this glaring difference between Ubuntu and Windows.

The addition of the Software Center in 2009 makes it very easy to find, download and install popular Linux applications such as GIMP (image editing) and VLC Media Player. In fact, Windows only began offering a similar feature with the release of Windows 8 and most people will agree that the Windows Store still leaves a lot to be desired.

Although Ubuntu users will still need to use the Terminal for some installations, the Software Center has made Ubuntu more accessible to more users. If you want to learn more about the Terminal, the Mastering the Linux Command Line course is an excellent resource.

There are still quite a few applications available on Windows that have not been brought over to Linux yet. This is probably one of the most frustrating aspects of migrating to Ubuntu as many users find that they are unable to perform critical job functions without these Windows-based tools.

There is a way for Ubuntu users to run Windows applications known as WINE. Basically, WINE is a Windows emulator that runs a full copy of the Windows OS on your Linux-based machine. Using this tool, essential Windows programs can be run on Ubuntu at the cost of slightly slower performance (introduced by WINE’s overhead resource usage).

The concept of using WINE may be unfamiliar to many users and is unlikely to be a “go-to” solution for many novice Ubuntu users; however, it is an available option if you need Windows applications but want to get away from the OS if possible.

Fortunately for Ubuntu, the increasing popularity of web-based applications could be the answer to its program compatibility issues. Popular applications such as Quickbooks (not available for Linux) are now available in cloud-based versions that work perfectly in Ubuntu or any other Linux operating system.

Many business have also migrated to Google Drive or Microsoft Office 365, both popular cloud solutions that work well with Ubuntu. If you rely heavily on these applications for work or personal use, think about using cloud solutions whenever possible to create a more seamless environment.

Despite the marked improvements to the Ubuntu OS, Windows still wins this category simply because so many businesses still rely on Office products that may not be 100% compatible with LibreOffice and other open-source Linux alternatives.

Windows 7 New Features covers many of the features inherent to this popular operating system including many of the bundled software options that come preinstalled with the Windows OS. Also, check out the Ubuntu vs Windows 7 article for specific differences between these two powerful OS choices.

If you don’t want to spend tons of money on software licensing, Ubuntu may be the better choice as long as you are willing to deal with some compatibility issues and the possibility of an essential application not being offered on the Ubuntu platform. That’s another reason why trying Ubuntu using a tool like Wubi is a great way to see if Ubuntu works for you before formatting your hard drive and committing fully to an open-source alternative.

Interface

Although the interface looks much different than that of Windows, most users will not have any trouble understanding the basics of navigating through Ubuntu. Unlike Windows (and OS X), the Taskbar or Dock is located on the left side of the screen. This Taskbar also acts as a multi-tasking tool that allows users to quickly change between applications.

The biggest differences between the two interfaces are the file system structure and the icon placement. The file structure of Ubuntu is much different than what most Windows users are comfortable with. This can quickly create confusion that leads to frustration. Many of the icons Windows users would expect are either not present or in a different place. Neither of these differences are necessarily a drawback of Ubuntu, but there is definitely a learning curve coming from Microsoft products.

Advanced users should have Ubuntu figured out within a few days. Less experienced Windows users could take several weeks before they are really comfortable with navigating the menus of Linux. If you are thinking about switching to Ubuntu, consider using both OSs as you familiarize yourself with Ubuntu. That way necessary functions can still be completed using the Windows OS when needed.

Many people actually prefer the Unity interface that comes preinstalled with Ubuntu 13.10 to the new Windows 8 look. It is intuitive once you get past the caveats of the Linux operating system and offers much more control over basic features than its Microsoft counterpart. This difference is discussed in detail in Ubuntu vs Windows 8.

There is no clear winner in this category. Although many users will find Ubuntu’s interface slightly confusing at first, it is certainly just as functional as Windows and can be mastered relatively easily.

Built-In Features

The features that come included with Ubuntu is one area where the OS is still lagging behind Windows. Specifically, features such as Power Management, Parental Controls and System Restore are visibly lacking from Ubuntu upon installation.

Although some of these features can be enabled via advanced settings menus, the lack of effective power management solutions can be debilitating (especially for laptop users). Laptop users can expect significantly less battery life using Ubuntu compared to Windows; however, the introduction of some third-party software tools has made the gap less noticeable in Ubuntu’s most recent release.

Although Windows has a more robust feature set built into the OS, it also has a lot of functionality that is practically useless to most users. These features create an OS that is much larger than it probably needs to be and can consume disk space unnecessarily. Unfortunately, Microsoft continues to add features to Windows – even though many of them are either antiquated or completely unusable in a typical home computer installation.

Another difficulty faced by Ubuntu is the demand for touch screen-enabled devices. While Windows has done an excellent job of creating an OS that works equally well on touch and non-touch devices, Ubuntu only has a beta version of Ubuntu Touch available for mobile devices. If Canonical wants its product to remain competitive into 2014 and beyond, it definitely needs to beef up its touch screen support across a variety of hardware platforms.

Ubuntu has one significant advantage over Windows in terms of features. The Ubuntu OS can easily be used as a server – a feature that requires a completely separate (and expensive) license using Windows. You can learn more about Linux servers in the Learning Ubuntu Linux Server course.

The lack of touch screen support and poor power management tools (by default) give Windows the edge in this category. Although Ubuntu is on the right track with the release of Ubuntu Touch for mobile devices, Microsoft is far ahead and creates a more uniform experience for users across a multitude of devices.

Windows’ touch screen support and many other new features are covered in Learn Microsoft Windows 8.

Specific differences between Windows 8 and Ubuntu are covered in the Ubuntu vs Windows 8 article.

So Which One is the Best?

If you have been keeping track of the “score,” you probably noticed that Windows edges out Ubuntu slightly as the better operating system. In many cases, Windows is the better choice; however, the increased popularity of alternative OSs such as Chrome have signaled that many users are looking for a different experience from their OS.

For many, Ubuntu is actually the better choice. It is free, runs on a variety of hardware and is much more efficient (important for low end hardware that can struggle to run Windows smoothly). The great thing about Ubuntu is that it is free and easy to install. Using Wubi, users can experiment with Ubuntu without giving up the comfort of Windows.

Who knows…maybe you will like Ubuntu better and decide to make the switch into the open-source Linux universe. Whether you decide Ubuntu is actually a solution for you or not, Canonical has improved the software enough that it is certainly a viable alternative to Windows right now. Each year, Linux becomes more mainstream and don’t be surprised if you see a massive shift to open-source powered solutions in the next couple years – a shift lead by Canonical and the Ubuntu OS.