Ubuntu vs. Windows 8: Which Is Better Overall?

Monday May 20th 2013 by Matt Hartley
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It's much easier to find a system with Windows 8 pre-installed, but Ubuntu offers a better interface and better apps.

Thanks in part to mixed reactions to Windows 8, a growing number of disenfranchised Windows users are giving Ubuntu a second look. In this article, I'll be offering my own comparison between Ubuntu and Windows, explaining where each has its strengths and which OS offers something better overall.

Market Advantage

In most areas, computers are readily available to purchase from a variety of outlets—big box stores to specialized resellers. One significant advantage Windows has over Ubuntu is in the sheer number of computers pre-installed with the Windows operating system.

Even with the tremendous growth Ubuntu has experienced over the past couple of years, Windows remains the market leader in terms of brick and mortar stores. Why is this you ask? My guess is that Windows, and the myriad of software products that can be up-sold with it, make brick-and-mortar stores more money. After all, when was the last time you went to a big box store to purchase open source software? Exactly, it doesn't happen because the software is available for free elsewhere online.

The real problem is that in order to get a PC with Ubuntu pre-installed, you're looking exclusively at online retailers. And to make matters worse, these PCs with Ubuntu pre-installed are available via vendor-specific storefronts only, rarely from online shopping sites like Amazon. Because of this challenge, the purchaser of the Ubuntu PC must either rely on a Google query or know specifically which PC vendor they wish to go with.

Thus, Ubuntu loses out on the adoption side of things—all because Windows has managed to maintain such a firm grasp on brick-and-mortar store availability. And that puts Ubuntu squarely behind Windows in terms of a market advantage.

Cost to Operate

Ubuntu is available to the masses free of charge, while upgrading your copy of Windows on an existing PC will come at a financial cost. Where things become less clear, price-wise, is when you consider many people are going to find themselves purchasing new computers, which, as detailed above, come with Windows already installed.

So the basic breakdown is this—if you're buying a new computer, then the cost of the operating system is a moot point. This applies to both Windows and Ubuntu. If instead, you're going to be installing the operating system onto an existing PC, then Ubuntu is the clear winner here as Windows ranges in price from costly to ridiculous.

Default Apps of Note

One of the most annoying things about Windows is that you don't get an office suite out of the box. Unless you've made arrangements with your PC vendor ahead of time to purchase Microsoft Office, you're left to locate an office suite on your own. By contrast, Ubuntu offers LibreOffice by default. This means as soon as Ubuntu is installed, you're ready to get to work without any extra delay.

The next application that matters to most people is the default email application. Both Windows and Ubuntu offer default email clients right out of the box. Ubuntu 13.04 offers Thunderbird, which according to Mozilla, will be supported through 2013. Back on the Windows front, the Windows 8 email client is built heavily into both its live tiles and to the operating system itself. This means unlike Ubuntu, Windows users are likely to find themselves sticking with this tool as it's already "baked in" with the OS.

When comparing Thunderbird with the Windows 8 email client, there is one important difference to be aware of. Thunderbird supports POP email, while Windows 8's client doesn't. These days, this is less of an issue than it used to be. But for some legacy POP email users, it could be a deal breaker. So thanks to Thunderbird, Ubuntu wins in email client support if you're a POP user. Otherwise, for the rest of us, it's really a matter of which user experience is preferred.

Next up, we have cloud services. On Windows, this means SkyDrive. For Ubuntu fans, this is going to be UbuntuOne. On both platforms, the cloud service is nicely tied into the operating system to provide a seamless experience. Where things differ is that SkyDrive is very "file focused," honing in heavily on Microsoft Office, whereas Ubuntu does not. Both SkyDrive and UbuntuOne offer solutions for streaming music; however, UbuntuOne differs in that they offer a store for purchasing music.

Now, attempting to determine which platform is ahead here really comes down to your priorities. If you're willing to forgo the tight integration Windows offers with Office365 and SkyDrive, then you may find that Google Drive is more than enough to meet your workplace needs in the cloud. And since Google's solution is completely free, there’s something to be said for avoiding the Microsoft office cloud solution. Why pay for a service if you can get it free?

As for music management in the cloud, both SkyDrive and UbuntuOne offer music players that will stream your music to you remotely. But only Ubuntu offers you a built-in music store from which to purchase new music from and the ability to store it in their cloud. In the end, which cloud solution is better depends on your skill level and what functionality you're looking for. For the tech savvy, Ubuntu wins. For newcomers to technology, Windows does since everything is so tightly integrated for ease of use.

The final application that needs to be compared is the calendar. Under Windows 8, the calendar application is able to sync with Outlook and it also provides a live tile for instant viewing. Jumping back over to Ubuntu, the calendar provided is basically non-existent. Ever since Ubuntu dropped integration with the Evolution personal information manager, Ubuntu has lacked a proper calendar. And while it's quite doable to use Sunbird and various Mozilla supported extensions to make two-way syncing to Google calendar possible, Ubuntu really drops the ball with its lack of proper calendar support. Windows wins this one, simply because users aren't left without the use of a decent calendar experience. Thankfully there are installable calendars available under Ubuntu to compensate. It’s just unfortunate that they’re not integrated by default.

User Interface

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of any desktop operating system is how the the target user perceives the interface. Despite a rocky start, Ubuntu's Unity desktop has grown on new and existing Linux enthusiasts alike. And while there is a little bit of a learning curve for new users, it's worth noting that at no time is the desktop "hidden" from you.

Unfortunately, Windows isn't able to make this claim. With the release of Windows 8, users are presented with different tiles, from which you're supposed to find your way to the desktop. Worse, Windows depends entirely too much on a blend of confusing menus, and bouncing your cursor from left to right to locate places you've already been.

The simple navigation under Unity, while not for everyone, isn't that confusing. Because the dash overlays your desktop, you'll never find yourself getting lost. The same can't be said of Windows 8.

With Ubuntu's Unity, I'm able to search for a specific application or document, or I can easily browse for it if I prefer. In Windows 8, locating anything on the OS can be a complete mess.

Having used both desktops extensively, I think there is no question that Ubuntu wins this match. The Windows 8 tile layout and hidden menus may look interesting, but they're without question the most non-user-friendly user interface I've ever used on a desktop operating system.

Software Discovery

Finding new software is important when it comes to trying a new operating system. It can help us be productive by providing new tools to get things done. Both Ubuntu and Windows offer software stores from which we can find new software titles at our leisure. But this is where the similarities end.

The Microsoft app store is available as a tile via Windows 8. There are other ways to get to the store, but this is the most straightforward. Once you've logged in, you're then free to browse around and locate software that you think might meet your needs.

The same applies to the Ubuntu Software Center, except that it offers something you're not likely to find in the Microsoft store for Windows–apps worth using. While Ubuntu gets its fair share of grief for various aspects of the software center, it's surreal how poor the quality is with the apps found in the Windows app store.

Both Ubuntu and Windows have room for improvement in the quality of apps offered in their app stores, but I expected a lot more from Windows as they've spent insane amounts of money reaching out to developers.

So who comes out on top? Ubuntu, because of the fact that they've spent much less money to accomplish an app selection that, in my opinion, surpasses the quality of software found in the Windows app store.

Closing Thoughts

When doing a software comparison of Ubuntu vs. Windows, there's going to be a lot of ground to cover. The purpose of this article wasn't to offer an extensive side-by-side comparison. Instead, I wanted to tap into specific areas that I felt could affect anyone looking to try either of these platforms.

During my work on this project, I discovered something amazing. If you're able to put the need for legacy software titles behind you, there's nothing stopping you from moving over to Ubuntu full-time. The biggest challenge I see for Ubuntu is getting it onto more PCs in brick-and-mortar stores. Windows wins in terms of availability and functionality, whereas I'm confident that someone who's willing to customize their Ubuntu install will find it to be superior to Windows overall.

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