At MakeUseOf, we cover Linux quite a bit as the “alternative” to Windows and Mac OS X. However, those aren’t the only three operating systems out there — there’s also the BSD family of Unix-like operating systems, which are technically speaking different from Linux.
In the name of fair competition, it’s time that we gave BSD operating systems some recognition as well. And there’s no better way to do that than to compare them against Linux. What’s different about BSD operating systems, and should you be running it instead of Linux? How does Linux and the best BSD desktop OS, PC-BSD, compare on the desktop?
How Linux and BSD are Similar
Let’s take care of the similarities first, of which there are plenty. Both operating systems are open source and Unix-like, so a lot of the same programs and utilities run on both of them. Even on the desktop, both operating systems will look similar as they both typically run the same desktop environments, including but not limited to GNOME and KDE. Firefox, GIMP, and many other popular open source applications also run on both systems.
So when you only try to look for big, noticeable differences, you’re not going to find any. It’s really down to smaller, behind-the-scenes details and the consequences thereof that make the difference.
Kernel vs. Operating System
First of all, “Linux” is actually just the kernel that bridges the gap between software and hardware. Linux distributions are made by groups of people (or organizations) who bundle the kernel together with whatever overlaying software they’d like. Thankfully, the fact that every Linux distribution has certain things in common (the Linux kernel, among other things) allows for software that’s simply written for “Linux” to work on most distributions.
BSD, on the other hand, is usually an entire operating system and not just the kernel. There are multiple BSD operating systems that do have differences among themselves, but it’s easier and pretty correct to just collectively call them the BSD family as they all come from BSD Unix.
Which brings me to my next point: BSD operating systems are more “Unix” than Linux is. Because of legal reasons, operating systems in the BSD family cannot actually call themselves Unix but just Unix-like, but they have a long lineage of Unix heritage. The BSD operating systems, along with AIX, HP-UX, Solaris, and even Mac OS X (via Darwin, which is based on BSD) can trace their roots all the way back to the original creation of Unix.
On the other hand, Linux joins Minix as the only two operating systems that are Unix-like and inspired by Unix, but don’t have any actual ties to the original Unix.
Then there’s the difference in licensing that Linux and the BSD family use. While both use open source licenses, Linux uses the GPL which favors users by forcing developers to release any of their modifications to GPL-licensed software as open source and with the same license.
The BSD family uses the BSD license, which favors developers by allowing them to take open source software, make modifications to it, and then keep it proprietary if they wish rather than forcing them to release their changes as open source (although they still could if they wanted).
It’s because of the BSD license that Apple could use various BSD bits (including from FreeBSD) and create Mac OS X as a mixed source product. Google was able to create Android despite using and modifying the Linux kernel (and other GPL-licensed software) because they release the mobile operating system as open source and don’t have a problem with doing so.
Finally, if you’re comparing Linux and BSD as a desktop operating system, you have to look at vendor support. When you exclude Mac OS X (as it’s technically BSD, but from a user’s perspective we consider them separate), then vendor support isn’t that great for BSD operating systems. It’s not bad, but Linux has it better. Out of the two, the chances are higher that software will be written for Linux rather than a BSD operating system. Graphics drivers are better and more numerous on Linux (both proprietary and open source), and in turn there are far more games available on Linux than BSD.
PC-BSD, which is based on FreeBSD and is the easiest BSD operating system to install for desktop purposes, is certainly usable and looks similar to Linux thanks to the use of the same desktop environments. However, once you try to do more and more, you’ll start to find its limits.
Although Mac OS X has quite a few things going for it that other BSD operating systems do not, it’s still not an easy win for Mac OS X when compared to Linux.
Technological Advantages of BSD
However, the different BSD kernels have many different implementations of various technologies, some of which are proven to be superior to Linux. FreeBSD is known for having a fantastic networking stack, and OpenBSD is known for being about as secure as humanly possible. NetBSD can run on more architectures than even Linux can, including a toaster. So BSD operating systems aren’t bad from a technical perspective, but there’s simply less support for them by third-party developers than for Linux. With enough support, you can do whatever you’d like on an operating system.
On The Desktop, Stick With Linux
In the end, most users will want to stick to Linux for their desktops as there are multiple reasons why Linux is better on the desktop. However, if this article has made you more curious about BSD operating systems, then feel free to try some out in a virtual machine or on a spare computer. It never hurts to know what’s out there.
What features of BSD operating systems do you like that they have or do better than Linux? Why would you pick one or the other? Let us know in the comments!
Image Credit: Forrestal_PL