Operating Systems: Unix vs. Windows

Which operating system is better?

An operating system is a sophisticated computer program that makes it possible for you to interact with the software and hardware on your computer. If you're like millions of people who have bought a PC, you use the Windows operating system that came installed on the machine. But did you know that you can use other operating systems, such as Unix, instead? We reviewed both Windows and Unix to help you determine which operating system better meets your computing needs.

UNIX vs Windows

The information in this article applies to Windows 10 and UNIX V7, which is aligned with the Single UNIX Specification Version 4, 2018 Edition. (Note that Unix refers to a family of operating systems, while UNIX is the trademarked name of the technology owned by The Open Group.)

Overall Findings

Unix
  • Created in 1969, now owned by The Open Group.

  • Command-line interface (CLI)–based operating system.

  • Built-in security, but updates must be installed manually.

  • Built on an open standard, but the Single UNIX Specification provides a standard and ensures continuity across different distributions of Unix.

  • Has a steep learning curve.

Windows
  • Originally released in 1985.

  • Graphical user interface (GUI)–based operating system.

  • Compatible with thousands of applications and utilities.

  • Updates and fixes can be downloaded and installed automatically.

  • Huge support community.

  • The code is proprietary, owned by Microsoft.

Unix arose from a failed attempt by several employees of AT&T Bell Labs in the early 1960s to develop a reliable time-sharing operating system. Despite the failed attempt, Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie of Bell Labs didn't give up. They created an integrated development environment described as being "of unusual simplicity, power, and elegance." The operating system took off, and today it runs many of the world's web sites and cloud computing platforms.

In the 1980s, an up-and-coming competitor to Unix called Windows began gaining popularity, in part of the increasing power of microcomputers with Intel processors. At the time, Windows was the only major operating system designed for this type of processor, and Unix was largely used on servers. Today, there are distributions of Unix and Unix-like operating systems such as Linux that you can run on a PC.

Interacting With the Operating System: Windows Is Easier to Use

Unix
  • You must run commands from the terminal to interact with the operating system.

  • You can install a desktop or windows manager to run on Unix, but you still need to know basic Unix commands.

  • Unix offers fine control and flexibility.

Windows
  • Designed for use with a mouse, trackpad, or touch screen.

  • User friendly.

  • Windows also offers a Command Prompt window for fine control and flexibility.

There are two types of operating systems:

  • CLI-based operating system. You type a text command in a terminal, and the computer carries out that command. The computer's response is in plain-text format.
  • GUI-based operating system. You interact with the computer by selecting objects such as buttons, icons, and menus on the desktop or in applications using a mouse, keyboard, or touch screen.

Windows is designed for use with a GUI. It has a Command Prompt window, but only those with more advanced Windows knowledge should use it. Unix natively runs from a CLI, but you can install a desktop and/or windows manager such as GNOME to make it more user friendly.

Ease of Use: Unix Has a High Learning Curve

Unix
  • Portable and consistent.

  • String utilities and commands together.

  • Significant learning curve.

Windows

Unix is flexible, and you can install it on all types of computers, including mainframes, supercomputers, and microcomputers. Unix also inspires novel approaches to software design, such as solving problems by interconnecting simpler tools instead of creating large, monolithic applications.

The Windows operating system is more limited than Unix in terms of what it can do, but it's relatively easy for anyone to use.

Software: Extensive Support With Windows

Unix
  • Built-in security and stability.

  • Updates don't require software purchases.

  • You must install operating system updates manually.

Windows
  • Troubleshooting problems can be tricky.

  • Extensive support from Microsoft plus a large user community.

  • Compatible with thousands of applications, tools, and utilities.

Unix is more stable and doesn't crash as often as Windows, so it requires less administration and maintenance. Unix has greater security and permissions features than Windows out of the box and is more efficient than Windows. Unix also has a massive online community that you can draw on for troubleshooting or learning new command-line skills. Operating system upgrades from Microsoft often require you to purchase new hardware; this isn't the case with Unix.

Microsoft maintains a massive knowledge base for its operating system. That knowledge base coupled with a vibrant user community can help you resolve any technical issues relatively easily. Windows supports a large library of software, utilities, and games as well as extensive plug-and-play support. You can configure Windows to install updates automatically to improve security as well as add or improve features. With Unix, you must install such updates manually.

Final Verdict: It Depends on What You Want Your Operating System For

If you just want to surf the web and play video games, do homework, or work from home, Windows is a great choice. Certainly, it's more widely used on home computers than Unix, but it's also expensive both to purchase and to maintain. Unix is a potentially less expensive (depending on the distribution you choose), more flexible option. If you're just starting out with Unix and don't want to invest in a formal Unix operating system such as IBM AIX or Sun Solaris, free versions are available, including FreeBSD and various Linux distributions (Linux is a Unix-like operating system).

If you're an aspiring or experienced computing aficionado, however, and like to tinker and customize your operating system, these mostly free or inexpensive open source operating systems are attractive because of the flexibility and control they offer. To make Unix and Unix-like operating systems even more appealing, many smart programmers are developing state-of-the-art software free of charge for the fast-growing open source movement.