Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux: What are the Key Differences?

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Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux: What are the Key Differences?

Key Points:
  • Windows, Mac, and Linux (and its numerous distros) are the three most prominent operating systems on the current market.
  • Microsoft Windows currently holds 87.56% of the desktop/laptop OS market, with macOS having a 9.54% share and Linux 2.53%.
  • The vast majority of GNU/Linux distros are completely free for anyone to use, including the most Windows-like distribution—Ubuntu.
  • Apple designed macOS to run on the company’s proprietary-developed hardware, which is quite pricey.

An operating system is software that, in addition to allowing for the management of a computer’s hardware and resources, provides users with a set of shared services that make it possible to execute various programs.

One way to conceive of an operating system is as an “intermediary” program that sits in the middle of all the other software on your computer. It manages the basic yet fundamental responsibilities, such as the administration of files and memory, as well as the management of processes, input-output management, and the control of peripheral devices.

Operating systems were developed to make the usage of computers easier. In the early days, programs were written to run on specific computing machines, which meant that they were incompatible with any other hardware.

Luckily, computers have made leaps in technological advancement, and modern computers nowadays are powered by modern operating systems:

  • Windows
  • macOS
  • Linux

In this article, we’ll compare each one and look at the best use cases, features, and some of their unique drawbacks. So, let’s break them down below!

Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux: A Side-by-Side Comparison

CostFreemium, costs approx $150 to access all featuresFree, but comes on a pricey hardwareMostly free, some distros offer premium versions
Hardware QualityVery versatileProprietary hardware, very high-qualityVersatile, can run on low-spec PCs
Ease of InstallationEasyVery easyRequires some computing knowledge
Software CompatibilityUnparallelIt has its own app ecosystemOpen-source substitutes for proprietary software
Ease of useEasy to useVery easy to useEase of use dictated by distro
Security and StabilityGenerally good, has plenty of updatesVery good, fewer updates (which is a good thing!)The safest and most stable OS

Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux: What’s the Difference?

Windows, Mac, and Linux (and its numerous distros) are the three most prominent operating systems on the current market. Alhough all three are widely used, there are significant differences between Windows, Mac, and Linus operating systems. For example, Windows is the most dominant operating system in the personal computer market.

In fact, Microsoft Windows currently holds 87.56% of the desktop/laptop OS market, with macOS having a 9.54% share and Linux 2.53%. The rest of the consumer desktop/laptop OS market share belongs to Chrome OS and other smaller operating systems. In this section, we’ll discuss some of the key distinctions between the three operating systems.

However, before we continue, we’d like to point out that we won’t focus on the developer’s aspect of each system, like file structures, shells, and various registries. Instead, we’ll focus on aspects like usability and software compatibility, costs, ease of use, security, and all other aspects that are of concern to the average consumer.

windows vs chromeos
Windows has the largest market share at 87.56%.


Price Comparison

When it comes to price, the vast majority of GNU/Linux distros are completely free for anyone to use, including the most Windows-like distribution—Ubuntu. That doesn’t mean that every Linux distro is free; for example, Zorin OS is free to use, but it offers a paid version with a few additional features.

Windows is a different story. Most PCs aimed at the consumer market come with the latest Windows pre-installed, free of charge. Somewhere around 2016, Microsoft adopted a freemium model for its Windows OS, meaning anyone can download, install, and use Windows free of charge. Admittedly, you’ll be somewhat limited to more basic features that are still more than enough for an average PC user. Business and power users, on the other hand, are different matters.

Lastly, we have macOS, which is Apple’s operating system. The OS itself is free of charge, but Apple designed macOS to run on the company’s proprietary-developed hardware, which is quite pricey. Sure, users can install macOS on any PC, but there are chances that they’ll run into hardware/software compatibility issues. This leads us to our next point.

MacBook Pro M1 15 inch
macOS comes pre-installed on Mac computers, free of charge.

©19 STUDIO/Shutterstock.com

Hardware Quality and Compatibility

Apple’s primary mission as a corporation is to provide high-quality goods, and the company’s most recent computer models are typically the ones that lead the industry in terms of overall performance. Because Apple is responsible for the design and development of its hardware and software, the compatibility between Apple’s hardware and operating system is probably fine-tuned to a greater degree than with Windows or GNU/Linux.

With that said, MacOS is fantastic for users with creativity/productivity in mind. However, it’s not the best option for interactive entertainment, such as gaming. With that said, hardware quality and compatibility are where Windows and Linux shine, since both can be installed on more basic sub-$500 machines. Windows 10, which is still supported by Microsoft, has pretty mild hardware requirements, while a newer iteration, Windows 11, requires CPUs with at least two cores and a Trusted Platform Module version 2.0.

With that said, any machine that can run Windows 10 and 11, or even an older version, Windows 7, can run most Linux distros. In fact, there are lightweight Linux distros that are specifically aimed at older computers that can’t handle modern Windows operating systems.

Ease of Installation

Before we dive into software compatibility, we need to discuss ease of installation, or how easy it is to install a specific operating system. macOS is perhaps the easiest to install; all Mac computers come with the pre-installed operating system, and installing a fresh copy is relatively easy from within the system—-not to mention that all iterations of macOS are free. In addition, updates are issued regularly—though not as frequently as on Windows—and they’re very easy to install as well.

Windows is slightly different. While most consumer-bought PCs come with Windows pre-installed, some PCs ship out without an operating system, so users would have to know how to install a fresh, clean version of Windows OS, or have a computer repair shop do so for them. With that said, Windows is a freemium software, and while most people can use it for free, power and business users would have to pay for a license—costing around $150.

Linux isn’t usually loaded onto new PCs unless the customer at the store requests it. Users can DIY the installation, but it does require basic computer skills and knowledge to download the distro, load it onto a bootable USB, and install it. Luckily, there are tons of instructions on how to do this on the internet.

Software Compatibility

This is where Windows shines; since it has the largest user base, most software developers create apps and software that run on Windows OS, which makes it incredibly versatile. Installing said software is straightforward due to the built-in installation wizard that guides users through the installation process.

Windows is also the best for gaming since most hardware and software solutions are manufactured with the system in mind. In addition, the system has built-in options to extract maximum performance from its hardware. Conversely, Mac isn’t good for gaming, despite Apple’s continuous efforts to make its system gaming-friendly.

However, the operating system has a deep integration with Apple’s app ecosystem, which makes installing and managing apps and third-party software incredibly easy—probably easier than on Windows. The best part about macOS is the fact that it comes pre-loaded with fantastic creative tools.

Unfortunately, compared to Windows and macOS, Linux’s usability is somewhat limited. Its user base isn’t as big, and nearly all software created for the OS is an open-source substitute for Windows or macOS software, which may not be as good as the proprietary counterparts. Several distros are actually good for gaming, and one of the largest game digital stores, Steam, is making its own SteamOS based on the Linux Debian distro.

Linux comes in many different distros, some of which are very good for interactive uses, like gaming.


Ease of Use

Windows and macOS are incredibly user-friendly operating systems since both offer plenty of features to everyday users, ranging from entertainment and creative work to business productivity. The difference between the two mostly comes from hardware specifications since macOS is made to run on proprietary hardware, which is almost always high-quality, while the computers’ internals typically dictates the performance of Windows.

Both companies have implemented biometric safety features; before Microsoft’s introduction of Windows Hello in 2015, all biometric solutions were third-party hardware implementations. Nowadays, both Mac and Windows keep their customer’s biometrics stored on home servers. However, Microsoft has adopted touch-screen computing, whereas macOS hasn’t.

With Linux, the ease of use is basically dictated by the distro users choose. The previously mentioned Ubuntu, ZorinOS, or Linux Mint are as straightforward to use as Windows or macOS, while others, like Arch, are designed for more advanced computer users.

Security and Stability

Broadly speaking, Linux distros are regarded as the most stable and secure OSs nowadays. The open-source nature of Linux is actually its biggest advantage, as it allows for quick bug identification and rectification since a lot of people can work on the issue and fix it.

macOS is fantastic, and any bugs that occur are rectified promptly. Security breaches aren’t common, and the system is generally stable as it runs on proprietary hardware. But the same can’t be said about Windows. Windows is actually the least stable and secure among the three, as its compatibility with a broader hardware spectrum also introduces a wider margin for error.

Additionally, considering that it’s the most popular OS, most malware is specifically developed to target the Windows OS. Malware is also developed for macOS, but it isn’t as common. Finally, Linux distros are generally regarded as very well-protected against but not immune to computer viruses, and several Linux-targeting malware were identified just recently.  

Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux: 4 Must-Know Facts

  • The Unix OS was developed by Ken Thompson, who’s currently developing the Go programming language, and Dennis Ritchie, who created the C programming language. It greatly influenced the later creation of GNU/Linux and macOS.
  • Microsoft released its first text-based OS, called MS-DOS, in 1981. It still needed a graphical user interface (GUI) to make it more accessible to the public, so Microsoft made Windows 1.0 in 1985.
  • macOS, previously called OS X, was the first OS to have a built-in GUI when it was released in 1984.
  • The GNU project was started in 1983 by Richard Stallman, who wanted to create a free Unix-like OS—at the time, Unix was the property of AT&T and thus wasn’t available for public use.

Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux: Which One is the Best?

Unfortunately, there’s no clear-cut answer on which OS is the best. It all comes down to personal preference and intended use.

Windows offers plenty of choices, and it’s the most versatile of the three. macOS has a fantastic app ecosystem geared towards creativity. Linux and its numerous distros are considered the most stable operating systems, with a fantastic community supporting the open-source system.

Up Next:

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the first operating system?

The very first operating system used for real work was GM-NAA I/O, and it was made in 1956 by General Motors’ Research division for its IBM 704 computer. For comparison, modern PCs have more than half of a million times more computing power than IBM 704.

Can you play games on macOS and Linux?

Yes, generally, you can play games on both macOS and Linux. However, there are usually severe compatibility issues when gaming on macOS. When it comes to Linux, it really depends on the distro—some of them are entirely gaming-oriented.

Are operating systems free?

Most Linux distributions and all versions of macOS are free of charge. Windows is a freemium OS, which means that typical, average users can use the OS for free.

What type of OS is Windows?

Windows is a group of several proprietary graphical operating system families developed and marketed by Microsoft.

What are the most prominent operating systems on the market?

There are five major OSs that currently dominate the IT market, and those are Apple macOS, Microsoft Windows, Android OS, Linux, and Apple iOS.

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