Fundamental Differences Between Linux and Windows

Jack Wallen
Dec 10, 2008
Updated • Jul 8, 2014

Anyone who has pondered the idea of migrating from Windows to Linux knows there are differences between the two operating systems. But just what are those differences? Many people considering this migration might be more apt to make the jump if they know just what the differences are. So I thought it would be a good idea, in the spirit of helping users make the leap, to outline some of the fundamental differences between Linux and Windows.


In the current state of the economy, cost is a factor that will drive more and more people away from costly solutions to free solutions. That is one area that Linux can not be denied. It is free. Linux has been free since its inception. Why is it free? Because it is created by a vast community of developers who do not work for a single company. Linux is not a company. Red Hat is a company and they package a distribution of Linux that has a pricetag, but they are not Linux.

The vast majority of the software created for Linux is also free. But does this lack of price tag make Linux (and other open source software) of any less quality? No. In some cases open source software is better than its proprietary counterpart. Back in the late '90s I did a cost comparison of a full Linux installation (at the time it was Red Hat) vs WIndows. To get a Windows-based system running with equivalent software that came with the Red Hat installation would cost the user over $4,000 USD.


I am not talking about freedom as it is applied to the open source metaphor. I am talking about freedom from how a single company thinks your computer should work. With Windows you are locked in to how Microsoft feels the operating system should work. Microsoft thinks a taskbar, a start menu, icons, and a system tray create the best desktop. For some that may be. But for many users it is not the best choice. Myself? I prefer a minimalist desktop without the standard desktop pieces. If I were using Microsoft I would be out of luck (unless I employ a third party, proprietary solution). With Linux I can make my computer do and act exactly how I want. I am only limited to my imagination and my time.

File system Hierarchy

First and foremost Linux uses a single hierarchical directory system. Everything in Linux begins in the root directory which is the "/" and drives will be labeled /dev/sda, /dev/sdb, etc. Windows, on the other hand, uses a multiple hierarchical directory system that depends upon the amount of drives in the system. When Windows boots, each drive will be assigned a letter which serves as a root. So in a Windows system that contains three drives there will be three roots (such as A:, E:, and F:). In a Linux system only one drive will hold the root directory. If other drives are mounted on that same system they will be mounted in /media/. But even if you have multiple drives on a Linux system, you will only have one root directory. The differences certainly do not end there, but for the sake of length, I will move on.

Hardware Support

This is where things can get a little tricky. Because Microsoft is so embedded in the retail market, most hardware is created with Windows in mind. Because of this it is possible to get, with the right drivers, most hardware to work with Windows. With Linux hardware support is dependent upon the developers being able to either hack together a workable solution or get the hardware maker to work with them and hand over the specs. There are only a few instances where hardware simply won't work with Linux. In these cases it is a matter of hardware vendors not releasing specs. But in general you will find out of the box Linux support to be pretty fantastic.

In my case I find modern Linux distributions to be better at detecting hardware than Windows. But if you are one of the unlucky few that has hardware created by a less-than-cooperative vendor, you might have trouble. Google your hardware for Linux support in case you are unsure.


This is another area that will be hotly debated until the end of the operating system as we know it. Whether driven by market share, hatred, or vulnerability Windows simply has far more weaknesses than Linux. One of the primary differences is the root access metaphor. In order to do any serious damage to the Linux system one has to have access to the root user, which means the root password. Without that password, you're not getting very far. This does not mean there are not exploits to, say, Sendmail or Apache or MySQL. Another major difference is when a vulnerability or a bug is found the development community of the affected software is typically very fast at plugging the hole. Microsoft has a proven track record of taking far too long to patch similar holes.

Final Thoughts
There are plenty of other differences between Microsoft and Linux. Can you think of any? If you are a new user, what differences have you found to be most difficult to get beyond?


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  1. Ahomicidaltaco said on September 4, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    I have never used Linux but I know that there is very little support for pc gaming from developers.

  2. Me said on April 27, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    “sda can be considered an acronym for “special device a”.”

    The S used to be SCSI and normal discs would be named HDx. Now with all the SATA discs it would be easier with SDx.

  3. Ben Straub said on December 15, 2008 at 7:24 pm
  4. fromtheyard said on December 14, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    it is a known fact that the linux community is basically opensource. they mainly need to focus on hardware support at the present time, otherwise they are doing a great job.

    opensuse, fedora, ubuntu and many others seem to be churning out distributions every year, which we think is unnecessary. take a look at Windows XP, its been going strong for more than six years !

    you need to take a single operating system and work on it thoroughly with bug fixes, hardware support, software support etc. this is what the linux community has to learn. developers think that endusers are fascinated by a new version of a particular distribution every year; but thats not true…we want just one operating system that runs smooth, something that is perfectly supported with necessary patches, so that we dont have to download a livecd/dvd every year !

  5. RogueSpear said on December 14, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    I’ll get this first little part out of the way – if all you purchase are Windows licenses, you get no support. Just try to get some support. I dare you.

    Ok, with that out of the way… It appears to me that Linux is at a “chicken and the egg” scenario. The biggest problem, IMO, preventing large and wide adoption of Linux in the home is hardware support. To be more specific, it would be native support of video adapters and wireless network adapters. The entire topic is riddled with things that don’t make sense to me.

    I am guessing that ATI (AMD) and nVidia have not completely opened up their specs because it would somehow jeopardize “trade secrets”. The problems I have with that premise are that PC based gaming seems to have been dying a slow death for years now, in fact I’ve completely given up on computer gaming in favor of consoles. So why are these powerful 3D cards running the video scene? Another issue is why don’t they open up the specs on old products? I would think that opening up all of your specs to adapters which are say two generations removed from your current products should keep you a little insulated from tech thievery. I have a few older machines as work with Matrox G400 cards. Those cards are like 10 years old! Open it up already.

    The other big issue is that hardware doesn’t seem to be nearly as profitable now as it was years back. So when a manufacturer is coming out with their newest and best, all of the development for the drivers will go toward Windows. Which makes sense from their perspective I suppose, but it’s just one more contributor to this cycle of “not a large enough installed based to matter” vs. “the installed base isn’t growing due to lack of hardware support”.

  6. ANameIsAName said on December 11, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    When you point to file system differences you make no distinction which is better. Do you have an opinion on this? Per your description I can see no advantage to either. Rather I would think: You say “toe-may-toe” and I say “toe-mot-toe”.

  7. Dell said on December 11, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    jack says: in my defense i can say this: in over ten years of using Linux, on desktops and servers, for personal and professional use, i have never had a virus, rootkit, malware, attack, or anything of that nature. in

    The reason for that is because majority people use windows. As i said before if windows is no more then it is obivious that hackers will turn to macs and linux.

  8. jack said on December 11, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    in my defense i can say this: in over ten years of using Linux, on desktops and servers, for personal and professional use, i have never had a virus, rootkit, malware, attack, or anything of that nature. in my experience using windows? i can’t say the same thing. so my real world experience says that, yes, Linux is more secure than Windows. that is MY experience. i am sure there are others who have had the same luck with windows.

  9. unixostamer said on December 11, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    before finding out america ppl thought there were only europe n africa. thats that all ppl r thinking right now:) they always debate n compare windows to linux. i know i know its till u find ur hidden giant – BSD

  10. Stefan said on December 11, 2008 at 11:43 am

    Hrm, some thoughts from me as well..

    I guess this has several reasons. While I would deny every single statistic about “this one’s better than that one” right from the start, the felt relation is indeed that Linux is more secure. Why? A few years ago, only hardcores used Linux, and they usually know what they are doing. So there goes the biggest factor for errors and attacks called “User”. Then, due to the relatively small group of *NIX systems compared to Microsoft, it wasn’t as lucrative for malware-authors to concentrate on Linux instead of Windows. It was more difficult to exploit, much smaller target group, more experienced users. Why bother?
    But with Linux gaining more market share, it certainly is more interesting for them now.
    Also, please do not confuse malware with full-time-hackers.
    The third one, which is just undeniable, is that one of the biggest liabilities on windows-systems (we’re btw. talking end-user here – not corporate) is the fact that you got administrator-rights from the start. That’s just not true in Linux, so there’s a no-brainer.

    But don’t get me confused. With the right knowledge – which is necessary for a secure Linux as well – Windows is easily as secure as Linux, palming off the blame to the application level, but without that knowledge? Mom’s out-of-the-box home ‘puter? Nope. Not a chance. Not in the world.

    Yeah, try to raise the support for Windows-software if you got a serious problem. Or – if things go down real hard – try to get them to take responsibility for their software. If you take freeware, it’s community support, if you pay for it, it’s ‘professional’ support. No OS involved whatsoever.

  11. DELL said on December 11, 2008 at 10:29 am


    Well as you say linux is more secure than windows right now, I agree with you. But bear in mind if windows looses out on other os it will not be long when hackers turn to this operating system.

    As far as i know you have been told to write stuff about linux but if i read your posting i see half of it as windows.

    Do something new !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  12. Sevy said on December 11, 2008 at 12:34 am

    Well, we are talking about 2 different worlds, 2 opposite parallel universes. Any *nix is developed by people to people, while any Win32 is developed by brands for biz and people.

    So far, this would imply alot in case of responsibilities of software producers. Let’s say I have a shop (whatever activity implies money and security) and I get a bankrupcy due to an OS’es bug and hackers blah blah blah… at least I have someone to refer to and bring them in tribunal.

    But what you do if you use a system given under GNU license “As is”?

  13. Paul said on December 11, 2008 at 2:01 am

    As someone who uses both linux and windows i would disagree with a lot of this. Why not write about Linux in its own rite, the web is full of Windows v Linux bs. How about the fundamental differences between major Linux distro’s, Redhat v Debian based and i think my-t-man would like a post on the Linux file system for beginners.

  14. Roman ShaRP said on December 11, 2008 at 1:30 am

    Almost every free linux software is present in windows (recompiled or rewiterd by the same programmers of the linux version)at free cost, gimp, openoffice, name a software released under a linux distro that is not present in the windows ecosystem; the very same or another that have the same characteristic.

    As a software hobbyist, I don’t subscribe to this point of view. Try to look into Ubuntu repository and then try to find all the similar apps for Windows. And some programs are free for Linux and commercial for Windows.

    As for hardware support – yes, there are some pitfalls (and in Windows there are too – once I tried to install a Bluetooth device not certified by MS – and after that I cursed all the Bluetooth at all). But Linux out-of-the-box system works better than Windows out-of-the box before drivers installing.

    And then after installing Windows I should waste my time killing annoying things built in it (run XP-AntiSpy if you don’t understand what I’m talking about), I have to install Firefox because I don’t trust MS Explorer, I have to install Media Player Classic because I hate buggy dinosaur WMP, I had to hack registry to avoid “Link to” addition to name of links… and so on. When I installed my first Linux, I was shocked by the ease and speed of its installation. And I don’t want even think about Vista…

    The biggest difference, on my opinion, is style of work in system. You need to read some book about it – like those “Linux for non-geeks” I’m reading now.

    The pleasant experience: repositories with thousands of apps, automatically categorizing itself into menu after installation.
    The tricky things: file permissions, new system of terminal commands, another folder system…

    But it’s interesting and fun to learn. I like my experience in Linux so far, even I’m still at newbie level :)

  15. Thinker said on December 10, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    I use both Linux and Windows, and I think there is no much future for linux.
    Things you say here are MYTHS spoken for years. Security: there are many comparison, that shows Windows 2000/2003 SERVER is more secure than Linux. IMHO – it’s more dependent of administrator, than system. And hackers are more likely to hack into Linux system than windows. Malware is other thing, and this mostly is a problem of users knowledge.
    Cost is also a Myth. I got 7 linux servers and cost of making it stable and secure is higher than buying a Windows license. And there is NO SUPPORT. Freeware programs sucks, when you have to do something pro. I use programs on linux, that are no longer developed. That’s pain, when you have no other application to choose. Commercial applications are developed much better.
    “In my case I find modern Linux distributions to be better at detecting hardware than Windows. ” <- that sounds like a lie to my face. Everyone knows, that hardware with only Windows support is something common. But other way? I never heard.

    Anyway, Linux zealots often speaks about their OS much more better than it is in fact. I use Linux for handling my web-game. I’m a programmer since 1992 and never had such problems in DOS, then Windows with programming, like in Linux. Some task that I know how to easy do in Windows in Linux are so complicated, that I cant do them, and my Linux-master friend can’t do them too.

    1. Ben Badgley said on April 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm

      First, please stop trolling. It is not very appealing to read. Second, I do not know how programming in Linux could be difficult. It is an operating system for programming, by programmers. Maybe you’re an illiterate programmer? There is plenty of documentation about programming in Linux readily available. You can use vim to code. Gcc handles compiling c, c++, and even java if I recall the docs correctly. Programming is about writing instructions, attention to detail. This means you should also follow instructions.

      0. Quit trolling.
      1. Use a search engine.
      2. Read about programming in Linux.
      3. Program and enjoy.
      4. Repeat.

  16. jack said on December 10, 2008 at 11:23 pm

    my-t-man says: edit

    I am confused first you say “drives will be labeled /dev/sda, /dev/sdb, etc.” then later its “In a Linux system only one drive will hold the root directory. If other drives are mounted on that same system they will be mounted in /media/.”. Also for my sake what does “dev” stand for and I assume the “d” in “sda” is drive so what’s the “s”. Thank you for the article I have been considering linux for a while but the naming conventions have always been less than intuitive.”

    i can see how it is confusing. let me give a shot at explaining. notice that both sda and sdb are in the /dev directory. and also notice that /dev is under the / directory. so both sda and sdb would be housed within the system’s root directory.

    dev is a directory. you can think of it as the “device” directory.
    sda can be considered an acronym for “special device a”.

  17. Marc said on December 10, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    I do not want to start flame wars or endless debates. Now that is clear, Linux is seriously lacking in support for those few things, no matter if the manufacturer is an MS b**ch or if the linux dev are lazy, they just don’t work:
    -ACPI with anything Sony on it
    -Wireless for certain Intel cards, dropped signal galore
    -Anything with the word TV in it from ATI (not the new AMD/ATI)
    -Support for certain older Asus boards like the A7n8x or the newer A8nSLI-SE for example. The drivers from Asus suck big time and even the newest Ubuntu do not have raid drivers for those (marvell chips mostly)
    -Anything Wacom has doggy support…now I allow myself to blame Wacom for ignoring Linux altogether and cutting corners of linux drivers, linux dev have nothing to blame themselves for companies who lock away their proprietary code.
    -Powered USb devices may or may not work, if they respect the USB standard and don’t add custom pins (example: digital cameras) they should work perfectly…if not…very good chance that you’re out of luck.

    Then again, is hardware support that perfect on windows? PLEASE, I hope to God nobody will have the nerver to answer yes. If you build or have built windowz PCs you should have a big smile on your face right now and agree with me….yellow triangle with a “!” in the middle…just because you installed the drivers in the wrong order or plugged the USB device before installing the drivers (that does not respect the USB standard btw).

  18. my-t-man said on December 10, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    I am confused first you say “drives will be labeled /dev/sda, /dev/sdb, etc.” then later its
    “In a Linux system only one drive will hold the root directory. If other drives are mounted on that same system they will be mounted in /media/.”. Also for my sake what does “dev” stand for and I assume the “d” in “sda” is drive so what’s the “s”. Thank you for the article I have been considering linux for a while but the naming conventions have always been less than intuitive.

  19. RG said on December 10, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    Cost and (to some extent) reliability are the differences in my opinion.
    Security would be more of a problem at the desktop level if more were using Linux, server level security is another issue in my opinion.
    Even though it is closed source the wide usage of Windows does give it flexibility because there are so many ways to work with it as evidenced by software availability. The same applies to Support, wide usage means there thousands of places to get support for Windows.

  20. Dotan Cohen said on December 10, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    There is a heated discussion going on right on on the Ubuntu mailing list. The zealots think that Ubuntu can do everything, and the few things that it can’t (lexmark printers, for instance) are not Ubuntu’s fault. I say that it does not matter who is at fault, if it doesn’t work than it doesn’t work.

    The biggest difference between the system is the zealots. Linux would be much better off without all the religious fanatics pushing it down our throats. Note that I’ve been using nothing but Linux for over three years now.

  21. GRTerrero said on December 10, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Yeah! LAWYERS!!!

  22. Marco said on December 10, 2008 at 9:12 pm

    Almost every free linux software is present in windows (recompiled or rewiterd by the same programmers of the linux version)at free cost, gimp, openoffice, name a software released under a linux distro that is not present in the windows ecosystem; the very same or another that have the same characteristic.
    A person could have a windows system full of great software at no cost…apart the windows license of course.
    Personalyse windows interface is as simple as personalize the linux interface, there are tons of software (commercial and free) for that and of simple use..or very advanced if you want , there are sites dedicated to hack the windows interface with free software , want a minimalistic desktop you could have it, there are various desktop managers (free) that could replace the one in windows.

    of others point of your article i could not debate…cause serious risk of flame wars^^

    1. Lawrence Sim said on June 16, 2012 at 7:50 pm

      Actually Linux (I use Ubuntu) has proven to be very fast in my experience. 22 seconds to startup after entering password and 4 seconds to shutdown, even with a lot of software installed on my Ubuntu, my Windows takes 5 minutes to start-up and 2.5 minutes to shutdown.

      For windows supported games, there’s WINE, and there’s virtualbox, Windows XP works fantastically well on virtualbox on my machine. I have a Windows XP on virtualbox installed, that is where I install all my windows applications. In fact the only thing I use windows for is Microsoft Word and far more advanced uses. Even with Windows XP or 7 running in virtualbox, I can still use Linux without any lag.

      Ubuntu Linux used with the windows manager Compiz has all the eyecandy available, and which Mac users will probably envy.

      Yup, Linux has its weaknesses. And I admit I like no other interface except Ubuntu’s Unity coupled with Compiz eyecandy effects. And Linux has definitely brought out the inner geek within me. Lol

      Otherwise, as a normal user, I use my PC for entertainment! :)

      These days, I use Windows only as a fallback session, in case Ubuntu crashes. But this is usually not the case. I have passed the learning curve required to use Linux successfully. In fact, I have crashed Linux many times. I still find the speed of Linux unmatched by Windows.

      My PC specs is an Intel i7 with 4 GB RAM. Perhaps my specs make the speed of Linux possible on my PC too.

  23. LethAL said on December 10, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    A good read and a very good job so far, Jack. Also, your writing is generally more coherent than the others’.

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