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 allows you to interact with all of the software and hardware on your computer. The most popular OS by far 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.
  • With a graphical user interface (GUI) operating system (e.g., Windows), you interact with the computer through a graphical interface with pictures and buttons by using the mouse and keyboard.

While Windows obviously falls into the latter category, Unix gives you the option of using either command-lines (more control and flexibility) or GUIs (easier).

Unix and Windows: A Competitive History

Unix has been in use for more than three decades. Originally it 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, has emerged in recent years. Since it can be obtained for free, Linux is 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's Netware to become the top server operating system behind Windows NT. On the client front, Microsoft is still currently dominating 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 much greater 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.
  • While 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, so technical issues can be 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 users who have no idea what an operating system is have been using the Windows OS that came with their PCs. Many others are not aware that there are operating systems other than Windows.

If you are trying to decide which OS to use at home or for your business, you should at least give Linux/Unix your consideration. The mostly free or inexpensive open-source operating systems, such as Linux and BSD, are very attractive to (aspiring) computer wizards thanks to 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 one single type of operating system can offer universal answers to all your computing needs. It is all about having choices and making educated decisions.