Operating Systems: Unix vs. Windows

Which OS is best?

Installing a new operation system on laptop
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An operating system (OS) is a program that makes it possible for you to interact with all of the software and hardware on your computer. The most popular OS is Microsoft Windows, but there is a cheaper, more flexible option: Unix.

Unix vs. Windows: How Do They Work?

There are two types of operating systems:

  • With a command-line operating system (e.g., DOS), you type a text command and the computer responds according to that command. The computer response is in text format.
  • With a graphical user interface (GUI) operating system (e.g., Windows), you interact with the computer by selecting pictures and buttons in a graphical interface. You select these graphical elements with a mouse, keyboard, or touch screen.

The Windows operating system is intended to be used with a GUI, its command line is for those with advanced computer skills.

Unix gives you the option to use either the command line for more control and flexibility or a GUI which many people find easier to use.

Unix and Windows: A Competitive History

Unix rose from the ashes of a failed attempt in the early 1960s to develop a reliable time-sharing operating system. A few survivors from Bell Labs did not give up and created a system that provided a development environment described as "of unusual simplicity, power, and elegance."

Since the 1980s, Unix's main competitor, Windows, has gained popularity due to the increasing power of microcomputers with Intel-compatible processors. At the time, Windows was the only major OS designed for this type of processor; however, a new version of Unix called Linux, also specifically developed for microcomputers, emerged in the early 1990s. Since Linux can be obtained for free, it's a more cost-effective choice for individuals and businesses.

On the server front, Unix has been closing in on Microsoft’s market share. In 1999, Linux surpassed Novell Netware to become the top server operating system behind Windows NT. On the client front, Microsoft dominates the operating system market with over 90 percent market share.

Advantages of Unix

Unix is more flexible and can be installed on many different types of machines including mainframe computers, supercomputers, and micro-computers. Other advantages of Unix include:

  • Unix is more stable and does not go down as often as Windows does, so it requires less administration and maintenance.
  • Unix has greater built-in security and permissions features than Windows.
  • Unix possesses more processing power than Windows.
  • Unix is the leader in serving the web. About 90 percent of the internet relies on Unix operating systems running Apache, the world's most widely used web server.
  • Software upgrades from Microsoft often require the user to purchase new hardware or prerequisite software, this is not the case with Unix.

Unix also inspires novel approaches to software design, such as solving problems by interconnecting simpler tools instead of creating large monolithic application programs.

Macintosh computers run a variant of UNIX that you can access by going to Applications > Utilities > Terminal.app. You can even use your Mac to log into a UNIX server.

Advantages of Windows

While the Windows OS is more limited than Unix in terms of what it can do, there are still many benefits to using Windows:

  • Windows is easy enough for anyone to use.
  • Windows software is supported by Microsoft and technical issues are easily resolved.
  • Windows supports a massive library of software programs, utilities, and games.
  • Windows offers better backwards compatibility and extensive plug-and-play support.
  • Microsoft provides automatic updates that enable support for new features and hardware; with Unix, such updates must be performed manually.

Unix vs. Windows: Which is Best for You?

Because of Microsoft’s aggressive marketing practices, millions of people use the Windows OS that came with their PCs. These people either enjoy the convenience of the pre-installed operating system or they're not aware that there are operating systems like Unix and Linux.

If you're unsure which OS to use at home or for your business, consider one of the varieties of Linux or Unix. The mostly free or inexpensive open-source operating systems, such as Linux and BSD, are very attractive to aspiring and experienced computer wizards because of their flexibility and control. Many of the smartest programmers are developing state-of-the-art software free of charge for the fast-growing "open-source movement."

No single operating system offers universal solutions to all your computing needs. It is all about having choices and making educated decisions.