Comparing Windows And Ubuntu

If you're used to Windows, and want to get used to Ubuntu, you might find this page useful.

This page isn't intended to compare “good vs. bad,” it's just intended to get you used to the different ways you will work with Ubuntu, compared to Windows. You can decide for yourself whether you like Windows or Ubuntu better, but hopefully the transition from Windows to Ubuntu won't be quite as painful, after reading this article.

Desktops Compared

We'll start with the most obvious differences between Windows and Ubuntu: What you see on the screen, when you log in.

The Windows Desktop

First, a refresher on the Windows screen:


The bulk of the area is taken up with the desktop. The desktop is usually hidden — or at least partially hidden — when you have other windows open.

If you wish, you can store documents on the desktop, for easy retrieval, or put shortcuts to applications. These are the icons that were pictured in the screenshot above. A shortcut is not an application, it's simply a pointer to an application. You can have many shortcuts to the same application.

At the bottom of the screen, in Windows, is the Taskbar. You always have one, and only one, Taskbar, which is at the bottom of the screen, by default. If you wish, though, you can move the Taskbar to the top, left, or right of the screen. You can also resize it, if you wish, to make it wider.

When you want to launch an application, you use the Start Menu, which is accessed using the button labelled “Start.” As the name implies, when you click this button, you will be presented with a menu of options; programs you can launch, perhaps links to your documents, and other links to documents you've recently used. You can also access the Control Panel from here (discussed later).

You can also put other toolbars within the Taskbar. For example, in the screenshot above, there is a Quick Launch toolbar, with application shortcuts in it. If there are applications you use on a regular basis, you can put shortcuts into the Quick Launch toolbar, and they'll always be handy.

At the opposite end of the Taskbar from the Start Menu is the System Tray, which shows different which display the states of various applications, and a clock. The icons that show up in your system tray will vary, depending on the applications you currently have running.

And in between the Start Menu and the System Tray, Windows uses the rest of the Taskbar to list the various applications you have running. (In the screenshot above, I didn't have any applications running, so none showed up.)

The Ubuntu Desktop

The Ubuntu desktop is a little different, but still, it should look pretty familiar to you.


The desktop works pretty much the same way. As with Windows, you can store documents or shortcuts here, except that in Ubuntu, shortcuts are called Application Launchers. If you insert a CD or a DVD, or plug in a USB drive, an icon for it will show up on the desktop. Once you eject the disk, or remove the USB drive, the icon will disappear again.


One difference you will notice is that icons for documents in Ubuntu try very hard to look like the documents they're representing. For example, an icon for an image will look like the image, or an icon for a text file will show some of the text.

The first main difference between Windows and Ubuntu is the Taskbar; in Windows, you have one, whereas in Ubuntu, you can have as many as you want, and they're called Panels. By default you have two, one at the top and one at the bottom, but you can create more, if you wish, or even get rid of the ones that are there. These panels can have various objects in them; application launchers, etc. You don't need a Quick Launch toolbar; you can put application launchers right on a Panel, wherever you wish.

You use the Menu Bar to launch applications, similar to the way the Start Menu works in Windows. It looks a bit different, but the concepts are exactly the same. If you don't like having the Menu Bar at the top left-hand side of the screen, you can move it to wherever you wish, on any Panel. You could even have multiple instances of the Menu Bar, if you really wanted (although I can't imagine why you'd want to).

The equivalent to the System Tray is the Notification Area. As with the Menu Bar, you can move this wherever you want, on any panel you want. The clock, in Ubuntu, is a separate item in the Panel, so you can actually have it separate from the Notification Area.

As with Windows, programs you have running will show up in the bottom Panel. (There were no applications running in the Ubuntu screenshot either, so there were no applications listed.) You also have a button, at the very bottom left-hand side of the screen, which can minimize all windows to show the desktop (or unminimize them, if they're already minimized), and, at the bottom right-hand side of the screen, is your Trash, which is similar to the Recycle Bin in Windows.

Right beside the Trash icon is the Workspace Switcher. We'll talk about workspaces later on.

Working With Windows

Working with windows is very much the same in both Ubuntu and Windows:

  • Each window has a title bar, which shows the name of the application (or other information)
  • There is an ‘x’ button at the top right-hand side of each window, which can be used to close it
  • Most windows also have buttons, beside the ‘x’ button, for minimizing the window, or maximizing/restoring it.
    • Minimizing hides the window altogether. To get it back, you click its button at the bottom of the window.
    • Maximizing will make the window cover the entire desktop (except for the panels/Taskbar).
    • “Restoring” will put the window to the size and location it was before it was maximized
  • You can also maximize or restore an application by double-clicking its titlebar
  • If you want to resize a window — make it bigger or smaller — you simply hover your mouse over the sides of the window, until it changes shape. You can then drag the sides of the window, to the new size you want. (Not every window can be resized, so don't be surprised if you're not able to do it.)
  • If a window isn't maximized or minimized — that is, if it's “restored” — you can move it around the screen, by dragging its titlebar
    • In Ubuntu, you can also drag a window by holding down the Alt key, and dragging the window with the mouse. (That is, you don't have to use the titlebar, you can drag using any part of the window.)

Applications Compared

Both Windows and Ubuntu come with some programs built-in. Some are convenience programs, such as text editing programs or calculators, and others are critical to the operating system itself, such as utilities that are used for configuration.

Configuration: The Control Panel vs. the System Menu

In any operating system, there are many, many things that can be configured. How your sound card works, what screensaver you're using (and how often it comes on), what your desktop looks like, etc.

In Windows, you do much of this from an application called the Control Panel.


As shown, Control Panel contains icons for all of the different aspects of the operating system you can configure. (In Windows parlance, the icons in Control Panel are called applets.) When you double-click one of the icons, the applet opens up, and allows you to configure to your heart's content. Every applet is used for configuring something different, so they all look different from each other.

In Ubuntu, there is a similar concept, except that you do it through the System menu. There are two sub-menus, called Preferences and Administration:

  • The Preferences menu is used for things that are very user-specific; what screensaver the user is using, how the user wants windows to appear, etc. If you log onto Ubuntu, and change the things in the Preferences menu, and then you log out and I log in, my settings from Preferences can be completely different than yours.
  • The Administration menu is mostly used for settings that are system-wide. Enabling restricted drivers, or updating the system's libraries, or things like this. If I do something in the Administration menu, it will affect the operating system for all users.

Browsing the File System: Windows Explorer vs. Nautilus

No matter what operating system you're using, you'll spend a good portion of your time looking around the file system for particular files. Whether it be documents you need to work on, or configuration files you need to edit, or log files you need to read; you'll need to find particular files.

In Windows, you use a program called Windows Explorer. There are two ways you can use Windows Explorer; with or without the folder pane.


On the right-hand side of the application, you can see the contents of whatever folder you're currently looking at. Directories look like file folders — and, in Windows, “directories” are often called “folders” — and files have different icons, depending on what they are. (For example, Word documents would use the Word icon, and text files would look like Notepad icons, etc.) Double-clicking any file will open it in its default application, and double-clicking any folder will open it.

If you have the folder pane open on the left, you can also navigate through directories by single-clicking any folder. Any folder that has sub-folders under it will have a plus sign beside it, clicking it will expand that folder, and show its sub-folders. If you don't have the folder pane on, there will be a different pane in its place, with various shortcuts you can use, suggested by Windows. For example, if the directory you're looking at has a lot of music files in it, there might be a link to play the music in Windows Media Player, or if there are a lot of images, there might be a link to start a slideshow.

In Ubuntu, you use a program called Nautilus to look around at the file system. It actually works very much like Windows Explorer.


In Nautilus, you also have a left-hand pane, that may show a folder-view of the folders you're looking at, or various other things:

  • Places: Similar to the Other Places link, in Windows Explorer (without the folder pane).
  • Information: Information about the current folder; how many items it contains, when it was created, etc.
  • Tree: A folder-view, similar to Windows Explorer's folder pane
  • History: Folders you've looked at recently.
  • Notes: Allows you to create your own notes about a particular folder.
  • Emblems: Different icons, that can be associated with files or folder.

As mentioned in the discussion of the Windows desktop vs. the Ubuntu desktop, one difference you'll quickly notice between Windows Explorer and Nautilus is the appearance of the files. In Windows, a text file has a particular icon, that looks like a text file, whereas in Nautilus, a text file gives a preview of some of the text in that file. In Windows, a movie file looks like a particular icon, for your default movie player, whereas in Nautilus, a movie file shows a preview of the movie.

Text Editors: Notepad and WordPad vs. gedit

If you need to edit a text file, you have a couple of choices in Windows: you can use Notepad, or WordPad.


Notepad is an extremely simple text editor. It does text files, and no other kinds of files; it has very basic search and replace capabilities; it can only edit files up to a particular size. It is, however, easy to use, and loads up quickly, because it's so simple. WordPad is a text editor too, but it can do other types of files, such as Rich Text Format (RTF), which is a format Microsoft used to use quite a bit1. If you really need a powerful text editor, you might download a program like TextPad.

In Ubuntu, you get gedit. Since I've written an entire page on it, I won't cover it here, but click the gedit link to read about it.

Web Browsers: Internet Explorer vs. Firefox

This is a bit of a strange category, because these browsers can be used on either system. However, by default, you get Internet Explorer in Windows, and Firefox on Ubuntu.


Depending on the version of each browser that you're using, the capabilities of each are pretty comparable. If you compare Internet Explorer 7 with Firefox 2, you'll find that both browsers have tabbed browsing (and the functionality works very much the same in each), both applications are very stable, and both applications are comparably fast. There are a couple of bonuses you get with each browser, though:

  • Plugins: Firefox was built in an open way, that allows anyone to create plugins or extensions for it. This means that you can download hundreds (if not thousands) of tools to enhance how the browser works. And, even though most of these extensions were not built by the people who built Firefox, they can still be automatically updated when there are updates or bug fixes, just like the core browser can.
  • Zoom: Starting with version 7, Internet Explorer has a very nice Zoom feature. Prior to IE 7, the best you could do was increase or decrease the size of text on a page, but with IE 7, you can zoom in or out on the entire page, including images. It doesn't sound like an important feature, but it's very handy. (Actually, many of the features that have been introduced into browsers in recent years — including tabbed browsing — don't sound all that important, but when you start using them, you realize how handy the features really are.)

By the way, if you really want to, you can also run Internet Explorer on Ubuntu, by using a program called Wine, which is a “Windows Emulator.” You can download a version of Explorer that you can run in Ubuntu at the IES 4 Linux web site web site (which also has instructions for installing Wine, if you don't have it).

Multimedia: Windows Media Player vs. Ubuntu's Software

When I say “multimedia,” I really mean music (including physical media such as CDs as well as sound files like MP3s) and videos (including physical media like DVDs as well as video files such as MPEG and AVI files). No operating system is complete without some way of playing music and video.

With Windows, you get Windows Media Player.


Windows has always included Windows Media Player — at least, as long as I can remember2 — but it didn't used to be a very important part of the system. But around the time that people started downloading MP3s, and watching more videos on their computers, Microsoft decided that they'd better beef the product up. As with all Microsoft products, it has become very slick, although you might find it more bloated than other multimedia applications.

On the other hand, Ubuntu can be just plain confusing, because there are many choices for multimedia applications. By default, you get three:

  • Sound Juicer is used for “ripping” music from CDs. (That is, taking the songs from the CD, and creating digital files, such as MP3.)
  • Rhythmbox is used for playing music, including sound files and CDs. Like Windows Media Player, it can maintain a “library” of all of your music, and you can sort/search by Artist, Album, Title, etc.
  • Totem is used for playing movies, including DVDs etc.

(I did a full screenshot of the entire desktop, for Rhythmbox, to illustrate that there is an icon in the Notification Area, which you can use while you're playing sound files.)

Things are made even more confusing because you can also use Sound Juicer or Totem to play music files. And these are just the defaults; if you use the Add/Remove Programs application, there are many, many other applications you can download to play multimedia files. (And, of course, if you want to play multimedia files, you'll have to follow the instructions for Setting Up Audio/Video Codecs.)

Pictures: Paint vs. GIMP

Even if you're not a graphic artist — and how many of us are? — you'll still find yourself needing to create or edit a picture, from time to time. Whether it be creating a screenshot, or cropping a photo, or trying to edit some red eye out of a family picture, you'll need to do something.

In Windows, you do this with a program called Paint.


Paint is a very simple application, and it doesn't take too much training to use it. Of course, because it's so simple, there are many things you can't use it for (or can't easily use it for). However, in recent versions of Windows, Paint has been updated to handle different types fo files (bitmap, JPEG, GIF, etc.), whereas it used to deal exclusively in bitmaps.

In Ubuntu, you get a program called the GNU Image Manipulation Program, or GIMP.


However, aside from the fact that you get Paint included with Windows and GIMP included with Ubuntu, it's not really fair to compare the two products. GIMP would be more accurately compared with a program like Photoshop — it's a very advanced image editing tool.


Actually, I don't really have anything to say about calculator programs, except that both operating systems come with them.


“Monolithic” vs. “Modular”

One of the biggest differences between Windows and Ubuntu — or any Linux system, for that matter — is one that you'll never, strictly speaking, notice, and yet the effects will be subtly there all the time. And that difference is that Windows is monolithic, whereas Linux distributions are modular.

In a monolithic system like Windows, there is just one, big, complex system, called Windows. When you get Windows, you get everything; the software which is responsible for drawing a “window” on the screen, Paint, Windows Media Player, Internet Explorer, it's all part of the operating system.

A Linux distro, however, is modular. Ubuntu is not one big operating system, in the same way that Windows is; it's actually a large number of applications, all bundled together, to create a working system. Whereas Microsoft built all of the parts of Windows, Ubuntu was built by many different teams of developers; the people who developed GIMP didn't necessarily have anything to do with the people who built Nautilus, or the people who built Totem.

So which is better, monolithic or modular? Like most decisions, when it comes to software, there are tradeoffs to both ways.

Monolithic Modular
Support is easier; Microsoft supports all of Windows, including the applications that are bundled with it.

Quality is consistent. When Microsoft releases a new version of Windows, all of the software is tested, right down to the calculator program. So, all Microsoft bashing aside, you can be reasonably sure that all of the software will work. (If you're downloading different parts of the operating system from difference sources, there may be difference in the quality.)

The flip side to that, however, is that a bug in any area of the operating system can cause problems in seemingly unrelated parts of the operating system. Since it's all one big piece of software, you can get surprised when one application can bring the entire system down.
You get more choice with a modular system. Don't like using Nautilus for browsing the file system? There are other applications you can use instead. Don't like the desktop manager? You can even download a different application to take care of your windows, too! (For more detail, see the Graphics on Linux article.

With the choice comes the potential for features that you might never get in a system like Windows. For example, Microsoft wouldn't have the resources to dedicate to creating a graphics program like GIMP; by the time they'd put that many resources into the application, they'd have to charge for it, to make it economically viable. But the open source community can devote their resources to a program like GIMP, and if it's free, it's just as easy to bundle it with a distro like Ubuntu.


Most of this page is devoted to different ways the two operating systems do the same thing. In this section, however, I'm introducing a feature that Ubuntu has, that Windows doesn't: The ability to use more than one workspace.

In Windows, you have one Desktop, and one Taskbar. All of the applications you're using show up on that one screen. But in Ubuntu, you can have multiple “workspaces;” when you switch to one workspace, you'll see the applications you've put there, and when you switch to a different workspace, you'll see the applications you've put there.


It allows you to segregate your applications (e.g. have Evolution on one workspace, for your email, and your work-related documents on another, and maybe some browsers on a third, for reading the blogs you want to keep up to date on.) Having multiple workspaces is kind of like having multiple tabs, in Firefox; it might be kind of handy, but is it really that useful?

See the Compiz page for some interesting ways you can use desktops.

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