7 Key Differences Between Windows & Linux You Should Know About Before Switching

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linux windowsLinux has made some serious headway over the past decade, elevating itself from “that open source operating system” to “wow, this thing is actually usable!” There’s been a gentle but definite trickle of users away from Windows toward the freer option of Linux and maybe you’re thinking about making that leap. But should you?

From an objective standpoint, there are real and compelling reasons why you should switch, but I’m not here to convince you one way or the other. This article is meant for those of you who are leaning towards making the switch already. If that’s what you want, great! You should know, however, that the switch is not exactly a cakewalk.

Here are some fundamental differences between Windows and Linux. Read through them and be absolute certain that you’re willing to put up with the learning curve because there’s nothing worse than jumping headfirst into something unexpected.

File Structure

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The fundamental structure of Linux is completely different from Windows–as it should be, considering that it was developed over a separate codebase with separate developers. You won’t find a My Documents on Ubuntu, nor will you find Program Files on Fedora. There are no C: or D: drives.

Instead, there is one single file tree and your drives are mounted into that tree. Similarly, your home directory and your desktop directory, they’re both part of that single file tree. Technically, you’ll need to learn a whole new filesystem and its architecture; practically, it’s not very hard, but the difference is still there.

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No Registry

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Have you heard of the Windows registry? If you haven’t, here’s an extremely fast crash course: it’s a master database of all the settings on your computer. It holds application information, user passwords, device information–pretty much anything you can think of. If it’s not stored as a file, it’s probably stored in the registry.

Linux doesn’t have a registry. The applications on a Linux machine store their settings on a program-by-program basis under the hierarchy of users. In this sense, Linux configurations are modular. You won’t find a centralized database that needs periodic cleaning here.

Package Manager

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On Windows, you often need to fiddle with this thing called an installation package. You visit some website, go to their download section, and click on the link that sends you an .exe file. You run it and the program does its thing and that’s when you consider it to be “installed.” And when you want to remove programs, you have to mess with the Control Panel. Right?

With most Linux systems, you won’t have to deal with that anymore. Instead, you’ll have something called a package manager, which is essentially a center for browsing, installing, and removing program packages. Instead of visiting the Firefox website, you can just search your package manager’s repositories and download it straight.

Personally, this is one of my favorite differences between Linux and Windows.

Interchangeable Interfaces

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The Windows interface hasn’t experienced much innovation in a long, long time. Sure, there’s Aero that came with Windows Vista. Before that, XP made some small improvements over Windows Classic. But the Start Menu, Taskbar, System Tray, Windows Explorer–all of it was fundamentally the same thing.

On Linux, the interface is completely severed from the core system. You can switch up your interface environment without mucking about with reinstallations and whatnot. There’s GNOME and KDE and the more recent Unity, as well as a number of lesser-known varieties that all focus on different aspects.

Command Terminal

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Linux has a (fading) reputation for being the operating system for geeks and that reputation mostly comes from the prevalence of the terminal. What’s a terminal, you ask? It’s that black box with traditionally green text that you can use to execute commands. In other words, it’s like Windows Command Prompt on crack.

If you’re going to switch to Linux, you must be open to learning about command structures because you will find yourself using it frequently. I’m sure there are graphical workarounds (such as opening config files in a text editor) but it’s hard to beat the power and efficiency of a terminal that does exactly what you tell it to do.

Driver Settings

Because Windows has such a widespread grasp on the PC market, driver manufacturers tend to focus their efforts on that one operating system. Which means companies like AMD and Nvidia prioritize Windows over Linux. Which means you may end up pulling out tufts of hair in frustration as you try to find the latest compatible drivers for your system.

Then again, it depends what you’re going to use while on Linux. If all you need is a word processor, a web browser, some form of instant messaging and email, then it would be passable, if not inconvenient, to have missing drivers. But if you want to play games, you may want to reconsider. (Then again, you’ll have a hard enough time playing mainstream games on Linux to begin with.)

Do-It-Yourself Attitude

All in all, the Linux environment really calls for a do-it-yourself mindset. The kind of people who would most benefit from the freedom and openness of Linux are the people–men and women alike–who enjoy exploring, learning, and experimenting with what they’re given. Every Linux computer is unique, and that uniqueness comes from having to personalize a bunch of settings to your hardware and setup.

If you made it this far in the article and still think Linux might be worth your time, then congratulations! You’ve leaped over the largest hurdle and survived. As long as you have the proper mental preparation (knowing that Linux won’t guide you by the hand) and as long as you have the will to live (knowing that you’re likely going to have to reinstall Linux once or twice  before you get the hang of it), you’ll find yourself enjoying Linux in no time.

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