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

linux windows

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

windows vs linux

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

windows vs linux

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

windows vs linux

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

linux windows

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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Comments (120)
  • harley

    I’m not an computer expert by any means, but I didn’t have a great deal of trouble navigating Linux. Trial and error, Google AND most of all the Linux forums & community were my best friends. My son (and computer geek, IT, general fixer) said “Mom, don’t be afraid to play with it”. I took his advice & have used system restore with Windows many times & spent hours playing with Linux.

  • WB7ODYFred

    WINDOWS users want to give Linux a try on a USB Flash Disk Driver? Two windows utilities to help you.
    Check out Linux Live USB a free Windows Program to install a Linux Distributions to a USB Flash Drive. There are more than 360 choices, one of them being PuppyLinux 528 150Mbytes! Others distros Mint Linux, MACPUP 529 188 mybytes, Zorin 6.0 Lite, Sabayon, Solous, Bodhi. Read up and pick one.
    http://www.linuxliveusb.com LinuxLive USB Creator Powerful yet easy-to-use
    Then boot from the USB drive and now you can have secure banking at home and play with Linux programs.

    Download a Linux Distribution .ISO file from http://www.distrowatch.com
    Use this free utility to burn an .ISO file to either a CD burner or to a DVD burner on a WIN7, Vista, or XP machine.
    http://alexfeinman.com/isorecorder.htm
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISO_Recorder_Power_Toy

    I read though this website recommended below “6 light weight distributions” Puppy is mentioned there. I have used puppy linux for about 6 years now and like it very much. I have used Puppylinux on 128MB computers with 500Mhz Pentium III CPUs or K6 cpus. Last night I used the latest PuppyLinux 5.5beta on a dual core i3 Intel CPU with a radeon graphics, very fast. I used the application “Frisbee” to connect to wireless internet with WEP security password. WPA2 is supported also. So TROLL CLARK January 25 2013 comment, I say, “Use it average JOE 6pack User! No need for $300 of books! Just a $8 USB Flash disk drive or a 25 cent CD-R disk ” Thanks ELMO for fighting against WINDOWS FUD from a TROLL. Clark listed above is windows 32 Tools that does everything for you, with the click of a GUI button. Now go ahead and make your own choice of a linux distro installed to a USB Flash Drive. Boot it and then tell us how hard it was to use over windows, with a real list of problems, not made up generalities. You might learn something new and that would be a good thing in life.

    http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/6-lightweight-linux-distributions-give-pc-lease-life/
    http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/making-linux-a-genuine-windows-replacement/

    http:/www.puppylinux.org Main Web site for PuppyLinux
    http://puppylinux.org/main/Download%20Latest%20Release.htm Download here.
    http:/www.puppylinux.com
    http:/www.puppylinux.info

    http://puppylinux.org/wikka/Puppy53 Slacko PuppyLinux version
    Slacko 5.4 Slackware 14 based repositories/
    Download site for Slacko PuppyLinux http://01micko.com/download.html

    http://www.linuxmint.com/ Really Like Linux Mint
    http://www.linuxmint.com/download.php

    What is relevant to this Office thread is an puppylinux application YASSM “yet another Samba shares mount” which allowed my to create a “Shared Folder” on a WIN7 computer and then transfer files from my Desktop PuppyLinux computer to that Shared Folder. So a puppylinux computer could fit in a Windows network environment.
    Wine on PuppyLinux can be used to run Windowss programs, So this might be the way to
    have a newer OS that supports Windows XP business programs for business customers.

    For senior citizens with older hardware, PuppyLinux brings new life to their existing hardware. Browsing, media playing, writing, secure online banking, games.

    http://murga-linux.com/puppy/viewtopic.php?t=37198 Keepassx 0.4.3 for keeping track of passwords for multiple websites.
    http://www.itnews.com.au/News/157767,nsw-police-dont-use-windows-for-internet-banking.aspx

    Secure Your Online Banking With A Linux Live CD: I’d rather be safe than sorry – I’m into an ounce of prevention.. banking online through a Linux Live CD is my ounce of prevention.
    – Bill Mullins

    Another use that should be a top use: online banking. Because Linux is much less susceptible to banking trojans, a Linux box – either installed or even better a live CD (because it can’t be infected with anything) – should be used to do all online banking. For further security, the box or CD should be kept off the Internet entirely until it’s needed for banking – except for updates in the case of an installed system.
    – Richard Steven Hack

    I hope you try out PuppyLinux either on a live CD or on a USB flash disk and see if it helps you in your computer repair business to create satisfied customer.
    Double Post to make this one look better.

  • Clark

    Linux is ONLY for programmers. Do not be fooled by comments of how easy it is to learn. I spent 6 months and $300 on books trying about 5 or 6 different ‘flavors’ of Linux. ALL of them use different syntax and require you to be very familiar with command line usage. Each shell uses a different set of commands (like learning a different language for each and every shell). Because each flavor is different, each one will work with some programs, each with something call dependencies. Each package has it’s own dependencies and conflicts. This means that the more you install on your Linux OS, the more likely there will be conflicts with other packages. I have been unable to get most programs to even function properly. It’s a TOTAL headache/nightmare! I hate Linux almost as much as I hate the Federal Government. I cannot stress enough how utterly impossible Linux is for the average user to operate. DON’T DO IT! You WILL be sorry!

    • Elmo

      You are just so stupid! Can’t you just shut the hell up? The only different syntax is in the package manager – EVERYTHING ELSE IS THE SAME. Each shell is the Bourne Shell. Dependencies and conflicts? What are you using, freaking Slackware? Anyway, aside from that, you are one idiotic dick for spending $300 on Linux books (which I don’t believe for one second you stupid liar) when there are hundreds of free, up-to-date eBooks that could help just as much. You are one idiot troll. At least TRY to be realistic. When there are thousands of average Joe users switching to Ubuntu all the time with no problems, comments like yours are just so in-congruent so as to be utterly laughable.

    • dragonmouth

      TROLL!!!

    • Bharadwaj Raju

      My dad, he knows almost NOTHING about computers, yet managed to get onto my Linux PC and use it without problem. The only complaint from him was, “Why is the taskbar on left?”

  • Anonymous

    The last key difference:
    Linux Rocks.

    • Richard L

      For me I gave up on linux when Win7 became to frustrating to use.
      One example was trying to get a wi-fi printer to work after after my friend changed the router. You would think all you would have to do is open the printer control panel and type in the new IP. Well 35 minutes later the printer works as well as it did on the old router.
      For the fun of it, on my Mint machine, I opened the printer management and pressed “Add new printer”. In way less than a second it came back with HPXX.
      I hit yes 30 seconds later it was printing!
      My boss knows where the on switch is of his computer, had window problems, I set him up with Linux until I could find the time to fix his problems. Linux works so smoothly for him that he won’t let me near his Pc.

  • RandJ

    What a lively discussion on an excellent article.

    If I may share my real life experiences with those who are thinking of Linux vs Windows.

    I am not a geek but I do learn and remember things that can make a computer work better. I have explored Linux several times in the past and really liked Mint and found it to be very problem free. But it couldn’t run the big games. The other thing that kept me from Linux was VLC player. Nothing else can do what VLC does.

    I am now here in Indonesia to help kids (and adults) learn. Because I have some computer knowledge, I am the local computer expert here at the school. Every week I repair or re-install W7 in someone’s computer. (They all want to use facebook and that is where the 247 viruses come from that crash the computers, according to my Malwarebytes Anti-Malware scans.) It takes 4 days to install and update W7. With the new Microsoft Security Essential (free from Microsoft) most all virus’ would be detected and taken care of. But, as I remind all the students and staff here, Windows must be kept updated weekly. As the internet here is slower than time, and is very expensive, people will not update. (BTW most all the Windows systems here are pirated.)

    Now, being tired of working so hard, and someone from another institution asked for my help in educating children, I decided to look into Linux again. I decided to try Edubuntu for two different reasons: First because of all the free educational software (the people here like free), and secondly for the free LTSP package (I can afford free). I downloaded the ISO and put it on a USB to load into the netbooks that most everyone has and it worked flawlessly. To add updates took no more than two hours. I plugged in my cel phone as the modem and it connected without any issues or extra software. (With W7 I have to use Nokia PC Suite which has to be reloaded occasionally because of power outages.) After the updates I made a new install disk with all the recent updates on it, and now install the latest Edubuntu with updates. Can’t do that with W7. But with W7 I make a restore image for each computer in case it crashes. (Takes up most of my external 2TB drive.)

    Edubuntu installs and works in the old computers that we have that can handle no more than 512 Mb of memory, allowing the use of 11 more systems. LTSP allows for using computers with no hard drives or nonworking USB ports.

    Networking on Linux is just as easy as W7, but there is much more functionality because you can easily share desktops in a classroom or network, and the internet connection between all of them simply works. I have been trying to get W7 Internet Connection Sharing to work for more than three months now.

    The only computer I could not get Linux to work in was my desktop. Come to find out that it is because I have an nVidia card installed (for my games). Remove card and Edubunto installs easily.

    For developing countries, Linux is the only way to go (IMHO). However, I still use W7 because I am addicted to my games. When Steam gets Portal 2 for Linux, there will be little use for W7, except to fix other peoples computers. Even VLC player is working excellently now in Edubuntu.

    to Scutterman – using Linux on old hardware is one of the best reasons for switching. If people here had to purchase a new computer. then it will probably be with W7.

    to dragonmouth – to a “non-regular” use like myself, Linux is about the same to use because I have to search for fixes for W7 as much as for Linux. For the people that are new to computers, Linux should be the first choice to learn (IMHO). And for the “regular” Windoze users, moving over is really not an issue other than MS Office.

    to Joel – thanks for a good honest article. Each system has its good and bad points, and you showed no bias for either one. Well done.

    to everyone else – try it on a USB stick without installing and see if it has the features that you want. No harm done and you can always use the USB stick for something else. I think you will be pleasantly suprized.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.