Head to Head: Linux vs. Windows

Competition is great for the consumer: it keeps products cheap, provides choices and encourages innovation. Remember when Microsoft’s omnipresent Internet Explorer browser reigned unchallenged for so many years? They dropped the ball. Without any competition to keep the IE department on the cutting edge, the browser stagnated, becoming a breeding ground for insidious exploits.

When Firefox made its glorious debut, what did Microsoft do? They beefed up IE’s security and added tabbed browsing—not much of an innovation, but at least it got them off their backsides. Where’s the incentive to keep the Windows lineage from becoming a complacent heap of code? What’s to motivate Microsoft to keep their flagship OS avant-garde? More and more, Linux is looking like an attractive alternative to the computing population.

Windows Pros:

Windows has come a long way from its 95 days. It comes pre-installed and configured on almost every consumer PC, and everybody is familiar with that little green start button. Hardware vendors are not dumb; compatibility with Windows is always a paramount priority on their list. To do otherwise would mean certain doom for their company. Because of the clout Windows commands from the hardware world, most peripherals—digital cameras, graphics cards, Bluetooth adapters, DVD burners and suchlike—work right out-of-the-box; things just seem to work most of the time.

Windows is just dead easy to use. Gone are the textual command-line days of DOS; if you can point and click your mouse, you can command Windows to do your bidding. Applications always come in familiar executable installation packages, or it’s simply a matter of popping in a CD or DVD and waiting for the installation dialog to display; following the “next” buttons is a painless process, and, before you know it, your new fangled application is neatly installed and accessible from the start menu. Window’s “ease of use” model is a direct result of designing the OS for “everyone”, not just for diehard computer aficionados.

Windows Cons:

Microsoft forces you to upgrade your PC and your version of Windows if you plan to run their latest and greatest version, and support is eventually dropped for older predecessors of the latest release of Windows. Each new major version of Windows sucks more resources and requires more power for an optimal run. Forget about running Windows Vista on a 486 box; you’re probably certifiable if you even attempt this.

Windows and its multitude of applications demand a pretty penny; most significant applications—think Adobe’s Photoshop, Macromedia’s suite of applications etc.—cost a considerable sum of money and upgrades are rarely free. There are, of course, so-called “student” versions of these applications, which are cheaper, but are stripped of options that the full, more expensive version provides.

Linux Pros:

Linux is making significant strides on the desktop. Linux is slowing maturing from the complex, arcane, server-based OS it once was into a useable desktop operating system for everyone. Don’t like the way your current desktop environment or window manager looks or feels? Install another one: GNOME, KDE, Fluxbox, IceWM and others. Linux empowers its users by giving them a choice. Do you desire a more Windows-like GUI for your day-to-day work? KDE’s look and feel closely emulates Window’s familiar interface. Do you need a graphical environment that doesn’t require a lot of resources to remain smooth and responsive? The Fluxbox window manager is the perfect petite GUI solution for you.

In the old days, installing software for a Linux distro meant horsing around with make files and compiling programs from scratch, a process that can be off-putting to non-programmers. With the advent of “package management tools” that some distro’s provide, installing software becomes a simple matter of typing a one line command in a shell; installing software packages and their accompanying dependencies can’t get any easier than this. Ubuntu’s Debian take on package management is widely adored, and Redhat’s RPM software packages can be found all over the internet.

Linux Cons:

Installing a Linux distro can quickly become an overwhelming endeavor. If you’re not comfortable with partitioning your hard drive or tinkering under the hood if something goes wrong during the installation, you may be in over your head. Linux is pretty keen on automatically finding and configuring your hardware—videocard, display specifications, network cards etc.—but you may have to manually configure some of your peripherals if Linux gets confused during the hardware detection process, which means you need to have some knowledge of the hardware in question.

Some hardware fresh off the assembly line may not have drivers—software that controls hardware—that are compatible with Linux. This is usually the case with cutting edge video or sound cards: they are so new that drivers haven’t been written to work with Linux. It’s a frustrating experience to find out that half of the hardware in your new PC won’t play nicely with Linux, and waiting 6 months for the drivers to be written, tested and debugged may not be on your agenda.

Some people find the vast number of choices Linux provides to be a negative; the overwhelming number of options Linux affords its users—various distros, a bunch of window managers and desktops etc.—can be quite frustrating to sort out. Which one is the right choice for me? Wading through a sea of documentation and testimonials can get tiresome quickly.

In the end, it’s all a matter of what you want from your computing experience. If you want to “play it safe” and have fewer headaches, then Windows is the perfect OS for your needs. If you’re feeling adventurous and love to choose from a wide array of options, then Linux may fit you like a glove.

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