Pick your poison: Linux or Windows

Windows vs Linux feature header

In this article we compare the open source Linux platform to Microsoft’s Windows, and evaluate whether there’s any merit to considering running Linux on your computer.

Many gamers will be familiar with Linux, or at least know it now exists after recent news about the open source OS with regards to gaming. Valve’s excellent Steam client is on the platform and growing every day.

With popularity slowly increasing as more titles are made to work on the platform or as more games and apps are run through WINE or have their own native equivalents, does it make sense to switch platforms and if you do, what are the equivalent apps available?

Lets take a closer look. For the purposes of this review, Wine (Wine Is Not an Emulator) compatibility only applies to games. For everything else, we’re looking at applications and services that run natively on each platform. Only well-known applications will be mentioned, as there are tons of apps out there that do more or less the same thing or suit a particular purpose.

Linux Windows
Cost to end-user Free R800 and upwards
Office application choices Libre & Open Office, Google docs, Office Web Apps, Softmaker Office Libre & Open Office, Google docs, Office 365 + Web Apps, Microsoft Office suite, Softmaker Office
Email clients Thunderbird, Evolution, KMail, Opera Mail, Pegasus Mail, Claws Mail Thunderbird, Evolution, Opera Mail, Pegasus Mail, Claws Mail, Windows Live Mail, Office Outlook
Web Browsers Google Chrome, Firefox/Waterfox, Opera, Epiphany, Konqueror Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox/Waterfox, Opera
Music/Video Players Rhythmbox, VLC, Songbird, Musique, Clementine, Boxee, Miro Windows Media Player, VLC, Winamp, Media Monkey, iTunes, Clementine, Zune Player, Foobar2000, RealPlayer, MPC, Gom Player
Instant Messaging Pidgin, Empathy, Skype, Digsby Pidgin, Skype, GoogleTalk, MXit, Digsby, Yahoo Messenger
Image Editors GIMP, GimpShop, Inkscape, Picasa GIMP, GimpShop, Inkscape, Picasa, Adobe Photoshop, Paint.net, Adobe Illustrator
3D Renderers Blender,  Art of Illusion, POV-Ray Blender, Art of Illusion, POV-Ray, Google SketchUp
Cloud Storage Ubuntu One, Dropbox, Skydrive ( through SME)  Amazon Cloud drive, Google drive, Skydrive, Ubuntu One, Dropbox
Games services Steam, Ubuntu Software market, tons of online stores including GOG, many games through WINE Steam, Origin, uPlay, online stores including GOG, Xbox Live Marketplace, Microsoft Store (Windows 8)

In this case, the list is really endless and can be expanded further. Just as there are applications available for free or as proprietary software on Windows, so there are fully-featured versions of apps that do the same thing on Linux. Some of them are free, others are paid for.

The beauty of both operating systems is that you’re not that limited for choice – just a glance at the table shows that there’s more choice for Windows users than ever before. And if you’re more comfortable with the way Windows works, you can still save money in other areas – using Libre Office, Thunderbird and GIMP in place of their paid-for counterparts like Office, Outlook and Photoshop.

Ubuntu and Windows 8 desktops_600Ubuntu and Windows 8 desktops

Ubuntu and Windows 8 desktops

In terms of user interfaces, both are easy to get used to. I’m not too fond of the way Ubuntu handles maximised applications but that’s okay because you can install any interface you’d prefer. Windows works more or less the same, but there are options, apps and skins to make it look and work the way you want it to. For fun, you can make both look and act very similarly to OS X.

However, where they differ is in third-party device support. For example, most printers do work on Linux but there are several brands who just enable the basics, while Windows gets the bells, whistles and fireworks. Several open-source projects, like HPLIP, do a great job at supporting printers in most versions of Linux but the experience isn’t always the same.

As far as driver support goes, though, you may struggle here and there with particular objects. Many peripherals and devices are natively supported in the Linux kernel but some require proprietary software to work properly, as in the case of graphics drivers from Nvidia, AMD and Intel. All three do support Linux to some degree, although its nothing like the support users enjoy on Windows or OS X.

Where they also differ is in telephonic support. Windows 7/ 8 comes with free phone support for a year and you can just pick up the phone and dial Microsoft or your hardware vendor’s support desk and, in most cases, someone will be able to sort you out. But with Linux, unless you’re an enterprise or small business user with a Red Hat license with support, you’re on your own. Its up to you to hire competent Linux admins or have someone within easy reach who can help out – this is the same for Windows as well, mind you.

Year after year I hear that “this is the year for Linux!” and if you’re a general user, that’s completely true – you can switch to Linux today and in most cases you’ll be fine. Certainly if you’re coming from something like XP, running Linux is a free upgrade to an OS that supports modern standards like USB 3.0 and SSD Trim, looks great and didn’t cost you a cent.

Steam on Linux

Steam on Linux

Steam for Linux does change the game significantly, though. If you already own a bunch of indie titles through Steam, most of them are already playable on the Steam for Linux client. Already there are over 110 titles playable and more are coming, including Valve’s Half-Life 2 and Portal and Left for Dead series.

However, many AAA titles are already available for the Mac, which uses OpenGL for graphics rendering. Porting most games over should be a trivial exercise and with communities like Gearbox’s forum users petitioning for a port for Borderlands 2 to Linux, and with more companies making native clients for Mac, like EA’s Origin, gaming on Linux will improve with time.

Gamers still do have an issue with compatibility for today’s games and even though Wine does a great job for most titles, it won’t support the AAA blockbusters like Battlefield 3. You’re better off sticking to Windows or dual-booting into the OS just for gaming if those are the games you play.

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  • UltimateNinjaPandaDudeGuy

    Linux people will be WAY more intense about this, BUT I work on both (mostly CLI on Linux). In the end I use Windows because it runs ALL my games and other stuff. The moment Ubuntu catches up 100% then boom I am there! Also for a matter of fact if Chrome OS could do everything Windows does then I would be there. My whole life is on my google account o.O

  • Andrew Craucamp

    I have a Windows partition specifically for gaming. Since Humble Bundle and the release of Steam for Ubuntu there has been a flood of games available for the platform. I now only boot to Windows for Skyrim. The Windows era is about to expire.

  • Unas

    Nothing beats MS Office for me, I’m a student and Visio is a godsend. I use Ubuntu+PlayOnLinux for Office.

  • http://twitter.com/TallShaw Andrew Shaw

    I find Ubuntu too much effort for it to be a viable option for me. Beauty of windows is that everything (mostly) just works. Until that changes, I’ll stick with windows.

  • Sgt.Romeo9

    Why do people always always leave out Audacious as a music player, it’s Linux Winamp alternative, it even supports Winamp skins. Also you didn’t add Chromium as a browser for Linux. Scribus could also be added as an alternative to Microsoft Publisher. There are a few other apps but as you mentioned you’re just going to list the popular ones however these 3 apps are quite popular to have and use if you’re running Ubuntu.

  • Gourry Gabrief

    I recon it might be too much effort to switch, but it’s just the switch that requires effort. However I can confirm windows doesn’t just work. Or it just works for a basic configuration, as does Ubuntu. In fact, in term of default drivers ubuntu supports more hardware than windows.
    You want something that just works in any case? Buy a mac and empty your wallet.