Ubuntu Linux vs Windows Vista: The Desktop Battle

[ Sunday, 2 December 2007, michuk ]

It may be a brave opinion but I predict that Ubuntu Linux and Windows Vista are going to be the two operating systems that will take over the largest chunk of the desktop OS market during the next couple of years. This comparison is based on my experience with both systems during the last couple of weeks on two different computers.

Author: Borys Musielak

For the purpose of this article I am going to focus on Gutsy Gibbon, a recently released version of Ubuntu Linux and Windows Vista Business Edition which is about one year old. This is to avoid confusion that we are talking about some different animals, since both Ubuntu and Vista provide a number of alternative versions differing in features and target user (although I’m completely lost when it comes to say what the reason for different Vista version is).

Also I would like to mention that this is by no means a full comparison of these two selected systems. I chose to focus on things that seem to have the biggest importance for the end user (like me) who just starts to use a new operating system. These things include: general look and feel, software and hardware support, stability and maturity. At the end I’m going to cover some of the advanced features, too.

So, here we are…

General look and feel

My first impression when I saw Windows Vista installed in a computer store was “wow, this looks pretty modern”. My first impression when I saw Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon was “wow, it looks pretty simple”. No offense here — default desktops of both systems are nice and elegant. They are however very different. Microsoft guys made a bold decision to reorganize the old good Windows look and feel. Old childish-looking desktop has been replaced with a more business-friendly one. Also the behavior of the main desktop elements changed a bit. This has a positive refreshing effect but at the same time confuses whole lot of people used to the traditional way “Start” menu and desktop works (fortunately you can still revert to “traditional” behavior in the preferences) . Gutsy Gibbon, on the other hand, did not introduce many changes in the main interface. It still comes with GNOME, precisely version 2.20 of this environment, and except for minor polish in details, it looks pretty similar to the first Ubuntu system — Warthy Warthdog — released 3 years ago, in 2004. This is not an accusation at all — to the contrary — I believe that this is what most of the people prefer and expect.

Windows Vista desktop Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon desktop
Default desktop side-by-side
Windows Vista large Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon large
Custom desktop with large icons in Vista and Gutsy
Windows Vista menu Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon menu
Main menu side-by-side

After a first look at the desktop I started exploring the user interface of both. In Vista I easily added a few widgets to my desktop: a clock, a weather widget and sticky-notes. I also played with different ways the icons can be displayed on the desktop. I got used to the new looks pretty fast and I have to say I like it way better than the looks of Windows XP which was always the first thing I used to change when I was forced to work with that OS. In Vista I chose to stick with the default selection in most cases and I felt good with it.

To be precise, I like the default look & feel of Ubuntu as well. apart for being just clear and elegant, it is very consistent as well. In Vista I had big trouble finding certain options or configuring stuff. Things just were not located in places I would expect them to be. The huge start menu does not make it easier, either. I have a feeling that apps and folders are placed pretty randomly around it. No such problem in Ubuntu. In order to look for files and folders, there is a “Places” menu. For configuration there is “System”. In “Applications” I find only the programs, grouped nicely into meaningful categories, as opposite to company names.

But this all is pretty subjective and you can find it the other way around. It probably mainly depends on your habits and personal preferences.

Score for looks 1:1

Windows Vista computer Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon computer
“Computer” folder in Vista and Gutsy
Windows Vista home Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon home
“Home” folders compared

Getting additional software

So I had some fun with the default desktop already, now I want more fancy stuff to play with. This is where additional software come in place. In Ubuntu I launched the Synaptic Package Manager and selected tons of additional programs, such as Opera Browser (I like the choice), Psi (my Jabber client of choice),K3B (for burning CDs), Mozilla Thunderbird (for e-mail, I can’t stand Evolution), DigiKam (the best open-source simple image viewer and manipulating tool), and ubuntu-restricted-extras package which installed for me Java, additional fonts, multimedia codecs and Flash player for all browsers — something I hate to do manually. The whole process took me some 10 minutes and I had Ubuntu loaded with all my favorite apps. Nice job, Ubuntu!

In Vista it did not go all that nice. As there is no central repository of open-source apps, I had to manually install all of them browsing through different web pages and wasting time clicking the Next and Finish button a million times. I was all set after some 45 minutes. Still not bad. But I knew where to look for. Why isn’t there apt-get for Windows, yet? A reliable one? Bill only knows…

Ubuntu 2 — Vista 1. But game’s not over yet!

Windows Vista control Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon control
Control panel of Vista vs Ubuntu’s gnome-control-center

Hardware support

Both systems detected all my hardware without complaining. My wireless card worked. The screen resolution has been set properly. The sound was nice. No problems whatsoever. Issues started to come when I wanted to do some extra stuff.

I connected my Nokia phone to my laptop using USB cable. It had a similar effect on Vista and Ubuntu — in both cases it asked me whether I wanted to import my photos. Sure I did. Unfortunately only Vista allowed me to do so. In Ubuntu the phone disconnected after downloading 2 pictures. Unplug/plug back in trick did not happen to work. I still could not import my photos from a mobile. This sucked.

Then I wanted to turn off the computer for a while. I never really turn the computer off. I hate relaunching all the running apps. I hibernate it or suspend instead, depending on how much time I plan to be away. Hibernation (suspend to disk) worked perfectly in both systems. Vista only took faster to wake up ((which surprised me since it took longer to boot). Suspend to RAM aka “sleep” worked only on Windows, though. Ubuntu told me it had “issues”. I don’t care for them. It failed. It shouldn’t.

Before you start bashing me… My laptop is all Intel-based. Intel likes open-source and releases its drivers on open-source licenses. If not, it publishes the specs. My laptop should be fully supported in Linux. That’s what I would expect, at least. That’s why I’m not buying from NVidia or Lexmark. Still it failed to do things Vista had no problem with. I was not impressed.

I haven’t tried Bluetooth support and SD card readers, yet. But I suspect doing so would not change the overall view considerably.

Ubuntu 2 — Vista 2. The game starts anew.

Stability and maturity

I have only used both operating systems for only a few weeks on a daily basis. Thus it’s hard to produce some firm verdict which of them is more stable and mature. One should suspect Vista since it has been on the market for almost a year now while Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon has been just released. My observations are, however, of a different kind. Here are some random notes I’ve made while using both OSes:

  • Vista seemed to have a bad influence on some of the standard applications I tend to use. For instance, simple app like Notepad++ used to crash for unknown reasons (never had this effect in XP). What is even more strange, after crashing I could not start the application again. The reason was its process still residing in the system, even though there was just no application window anymore. After a while I got used to using the CTRL+ALT+DEL combination, searching for a zombie app and killing the process explicitly. Still, not a very nice thing to do that was…
  • Internet Explorer 7 hung up when I tried using a website with Java applet on it. There is not JRE installed in Vista by default.
  • Ubuntu, on the other hand didn’t really like Firefox. It crashed every now and then after loading it with the following add-ons: AdBlock Plus, All-in-ne Sidebar, Tab-Mix-Plus, Del.icio.us and Google Toolbar. Firefox with same add-ons worked fine on Vista.
  • Compiz and poor video cards is not a great duo. Compiz with poor video driver support is even worse. I stopped using it when it kept putting my system into amazingly strange states from which I could get out by hitting CTRL+ALT+Backspace (kills X) only.
  • Using suspend to disk or RAM is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you gonna get when it wakes up. Usually it’s poorly functioning video, networking or hotplug system. Restarting dbus often helps. Rebooting computer always helps. But why use suspend when you still need to reboot? Curiosity…
  • When Vista hangs up, reboot is required. When Gutsy hangs up, X restart is enough. Is this way better? No it isn’t. It shouldn’t crash in the first place!

So summing up, Vista and Gibbon are equally unstable, at least in my hands :P Perhaps Vista is a bit more random. Ubuntu just hangs up in well-defined situations (e.g. when I want it to suspend). Still no excuse. It may do better next time but for now…

It’s still 3 — 3 and we are two laps to go!


OK, here I have to admit: Vista sucks. It takes 2 minutes to load on my Intel Core 2 Duo 1.2Ghz, 1GB RAM Toshiba laptop as opposed to something around 45 seconds for Gutsy Gibbon. Its user interface is slower too, the apps take longer to launch and the general feeling is a bit clumsy. I honestly can’t believe why this is the case since I couldn’t really notice many significant changes in functionality between Vista and XP. Still it runs like a turtle.

However, I have to admit that on a powerful moder 3Ghz, 4GB RAM desktop, Vista worked just wonderful and I could appreciate its fancy looks and nice graphics. Was it worth to sacrifice as many system resources only to get some additional bliss? Hello no.

Funny thing is that Ubuntu put a lot of similar windowing effects to Gibbon (thanks to setting Compiz the default window manager) without compromising on responsiveness.

Point for Ubuntu. It’s 3:2 for the Debian-derivative.

Flexibility, Advanced features

One of the main things I require from an operating system (and any program actually) is that it should bend to my needs, not vice-versa. I like to have the power to change any particular option I want but I don’t want to spend a lot of time looking for “tweak your OS” kind of programs on the Internet, analyze their effect on the general stability of my system and so on. Basically I want the OS to provide me with sensible defaults but not hide advanced features at the same time. I want to use them as well! As both Ubuntu and Vista target “Joe user” I knew I won’t find these systems perfectly adjusted to my needs just from the start. However, Ubuntu did a way better job in adjusting to my needs.

It’s about the features, idiot. Ubuntu — just like any other GNU/Linux distribution — give me tons of advanced features for free. Its powerful console enables me to perform tasks such as image resizing, file management, port forwarding, system monitoring, remote administration and tons of others relatively easy. Things for which in Windows I need to employ Cygwin (which is basically a UNIX emulator) or expensive third-party apps, in Ubuntu I have for free.

This is not all. Ubuntu gives me an incomparable level of configurability for my desktop needs as well. I can adjust my desktop to my needs almost to an infinite extent. I can choose a very basic desktop (like WindowMaker or Fluxbox) for maximum performance, I can opt for KDE for the configurability and features. I can employ a custom file manager, window manager or session manager, not relying on the default choices made by the distributor.

In general — I have the power to change. I have the freedom to change. Some people don’t like the choice. Some people even prefer not to be given any choice. Lot of people in Poland and Eastern Europe miss the communists since they gave no choice — everyone was equal. Equally poor and unprivileged. But people are different. They are not machines. I don’t want anybody to force me to behave in a certain way. Whether it is Google, Microsoft or Josef Stalin. Thus I choose the flexibility and choice, even though in some cases this may mean lower quality or fewer features. This is my choice. Yours may be different.

Point for Ubuntu. It’s 4:2 and it’s game over. Still remember that I’m biased.

Windows Vista polishlinux Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon polishlinux
Firefox running polishlinux.org in both systems


So, to sum it up. Here are the profiles of Vista and Ubuntu users. Just find out which one is you :)

Vista user Ubuntu user
If you are new to computers or only used Windows XP or earlier before, you are a good candidate for a Vista user. You also need to have a very modern PC (if you purchased a new one during the last year, you are likely to be Vista-compatible) and easily adapt to changes since Vista really is a bit different than XP (and no, it’s not the lack of the “Start” button that is the hardest to accept :P ). If you are a bit more literate with computers that your auntie or if you have a bit older PC than a brand new Intel Core2Duo or if you are more demanding from your operating system than “it should just work”, go for Ubuntu. Before doing so, just make sure none of your key software is Windows-only, since fighting with Wine to make it run on GNU/Linux may be a terrifying experience for a newcomer.

Conclusions if any

As you can see both systems have their glitches but in the end both should work for you, as long you don’t try to “fix” too many things on your own. It’s always good to have a computer guru available as your first aid with the OS, especially at the beginning. Finally, in both cases make sure your hardware is supported. Both OSes are pretty new so not all the hardware (especially exotic WiFi adapters, TV cards and so) is supported, yet. If you don’t know how to check that, just buy a computer with operating system preinstalled. It’s easy these days to buy either a Vista or Ubuntu laptop or Desktop. Dell supports both of them, as one possible choice.

About the Author

Borys Musielak

PolishLinux.org creator and editor in chief. Professionally -- J2EE consultant in London City. Personally -- free software enthusiast and lobbyist.

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