Windows 8.1 vs Ubuntu 13.10 vs MacOS X 10.9

Roughly every two years, I compare the latest versions of the 3 desktop Operating Systems with the largest market-share — Windows, MacOS X and Ubuntu.

A sort of “Desktop OS Battle Royale” where only one system can emerge victorious.  Without further ado…

Fight2012

We’re going to be looking at the latest releases of these system — Ubuntu 13.10, Windows 8.1 and MacOS X 10.9 “Mavericks”.

Here’s how this is going to work.  I’m going to go through a number of different categories, and declare a winner in each.  Then I’ll tally up the scores and declare a single, ultimate winner.

At which point we will all make fun of whichever two systems lose.  But, you know, in a really sportsman-like way.

Look and Feel

Let’s get the most subjective category out of the way, right up front.  Aesthetics.  Look and feel.  Visual beauty and consistency.  Let’s look at how the big three systems stack up.

Now, the traditional logic suggests that the most elegantly designed, cohesive system will be MacOS X, Windows will look slightly ugly and Ubuntu (being Linux) will be a complete crapshoot.  I find the reality to be quite different.

Notesin109The current release of MacOS X (aka “Mavericks”) I found to be a bit of a visual mess.  Some elements look, in all honestly, quite beautiful.  But everything in this system seems to clash with everything else around it — applications bundled with the system use wildly different design styles.  It feels like Apple is trying too hard to shoehorn iOS into MacOS here.  And the result is a strange Frankenstein of two systems that should never have been combined together.

Windows 8.1 is, on the other hand, quite elegant and beautiful looking.  But it also suffers from that Frankenstein effect.  With Windows 8.1 you basically have two different user interfaces — the elegant, tiled Metro and the traditional Windows desktop.  The two look different as night and day and I found switching between them to be a bit visually jarring.  Neither interface looks bad at all… just extremely different.  Different metaphors.  Different design aesthetics.  Metro and the traditional Windows Desktop look like they could have been designed on different planets.

ubuntu-screenshot-2Which brings us to Ubuntu 13.10 and their Unity user interface.  Which is both good looking and consistent.  The individual visual elements aren’t, by themselves, any better looking than what you’ll find in MacOS X 10.9 or Windows 8.1… but they all work together quite nicely.  Because of this the overall look and feel of Ubuntu is just so much classier and easier on the eyes.

ubuntu100Look and Feel Winner: Ubuntu 13.10

Ubuntu looks like it was designed by a single person with a vision of how it should look.  Windows was designed by two people having a fight.  And MacOS X was designed by one person with 57 different split personalities.

Available Software

At first glance, this is a fairly simple category.  How much quality software is available for each platform?

MacAppStoreBut the truth is, all three have a huge library of pretty amazing software (included with each system by default, available through the built-in software stores and simply available elsewhere on the internet).

Even categories of software that have been traditionally dominated by one particular platform now have viable options on all three.  Graphic design work on Ubuntu?  Software development on MacOS X?  Absolutely.  There are plenty of amazing applications out there for all three systems.

And with all platforms having a well designed software store (Ubuntu’s Software Center, Windows’s Store and Apple’s Mac App Store), finding that software is a piece of cake.

But, and here’s the cold, hard truth.  There is still far more software for Windows.  Granted, just like with any platform, much of that software is total garbage.  But there is still a relatively gigantic library of high quality apps for Windows

win8100Available Software Winner: Windows 8.1

There may be a ton of great software available for MacOS X and Ubuntu… but nothing compares to the sheer volume of choices available to Windows users.

Gaming

Video games need to be talked about in a different category than productivity software.  They’re simply… different.

And, traditionally, Windows has been king of gaming.  Go into any computer or game store and you’ll find row upon row of games built for Windows.  With maybe a handful of games for MacOS X… and, if you’re lucky, one box in the corner for Linux.

steam-for-ubuntuBut things have been changing radically in the gaming world in the last few years.  More and more titles have been appearing for Ubuntu (and Linux in general).  Sales events such as the Humble Indie Bundle have pushed Linux gaming forward.  And Valve’s move to bring Steam to Ubuntu brought a huge amount of gaming legitimacy to the platform.

Add on top of this Valve’s recent move into game consoles and systems (the Linux-based SteamOS) — bringing with it a large number of AAA titles to Linux-based systems — and it becomes clear that there is a major shake-up in the gaming world.  The dominance of Windows, while still there, is clearly slipping.

Win8Ubuntu100Gaming Winner: Windows 8.1 and Ubuntu 13.10 (a tie)

At this point both Windows and Ubuntu have become viable gaming platforms.  With Ubuntu (and Linux in general) making huge leaps forward.  Leaving MacOS X in the dust.

Customizability

Being able to customize your computer, to meet your needs and match your personality, is critical.  For many of us, our computer is our main tool used for both work and play.  And, just as we want to be able to wear our own clothes and cut our hair the way we want… having a customized computer is pretty doggone important.

Let’s not beat around the bush here.  MacOS X is absolutely terrible at this.  There was a time, in the long distant past, when MacOS was a fairly customizable system.  Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case for many years.  You can change your desktop wallpaper and move around a few icons.  But, in the end, your Mac is going to look like everyone else’s Mac.

Windows 8.1 has at least some basic customization options beyond this (such as changing window colors).  Which is certainly a step up from what’s possible on MacOS X.  Still nothing earth-shattering.  But better.

KDE411EmptyWhich brings us to Ubuntu 13.10.  Now, Linux-based systems have long been astoundingly good at customization — allowing you to install whole new desktop environments (such as KDE or GNOME) to help you to make your system look, and behave, just about any way you can imagine.  And, in that regard, Ubuntu 13.10 still handily beats Windows and MacOS X in this area.

However.  Ubuntu’s Unity interface itself is astoundingly un-customizable.  How looks is how it looks.  It is, by default, locked down — with very few options for customization — in a similar way to MacOS X.  You can, of course, still install different desktop environments (rather easily, I might add)… but the stock user experience is surprisingly locked down.

ubuntu100Customizability Winner: Ubuntu 13.10.

Ubuntu 13.10 held on to this category.  But only barely.  If Windows had improved the customizability options a bit further… this category might have gone a different way this time.

Performance

There are two ways to talk about performance.  There is raw number crunching performance (the kind you get with benchmarks) and there is perceived performance (how peppy a system feels when using it).

The reality is, all three systems are capable of crunching numbers quite well.  And even performance of 3D gaming is excellent on all three (though with a slight edge going to Ubuntu and Windows depending on the benchmark).

So let’s talk about perceived performance for a bit.  When you launch an app, how long does it take?  When you open a file browser, how quickly do folders with large numbers of files appear?  Does the system seem to lag and get bogged down when using it?  These are pretty important questions — as they can make the difference between enjoying using a system… or wanting to throw your computer through a window.

DoomThe loser here is clear.  MacOS X is just plain pokey compared to the other two.  The “spinning beach ball of death” is a commonly understood metaphor for “sitting and waiting for your computer to do something” at this point.  The cold, hard reality here is that MacOS X tends to just… lag.  And freeze up.  A lot.  Even on extremely expensive hardware.

That’s not to say that all is perfect in the other systems.  Ubuntu 13.10′s Dash (part of the Unity interface) can be extremely laggy and slow to respond.  Even on high-end systems.  Most of the rest of the system is far snappier than MacOS X… but the Unity Dash is a pretty critical part of Ubuntu.  And its slowness is noticeable.  And, often, aggravating.

Windows 8.1 is… wow.  Actually quite snappy.  In using the system, even on a low-end netbook, I very rarely had to wait for the user interface to respond.  Apps launched quickly.  Large amounts of files displayed in a snap.  And there certainly was no spinning beach ball of death.

win8100Performance Winner: Windows 8.1

I should note that Windows only takes this crown by a hair.  Ubuntu 13.10 is right on its heels.  MacOS X on the other hand… let’s just say Apple has a lot of catching up to do.

Virtualization

Being able to run a virtualized system is of paramount importance to so many industries.  The benefits of being able to run, self contained, virtual machines with various systems is astoundingly useful.

VirtualBox_screenshotAnd there are a plenty of great packages to run virtual machines (including VMWare and VirtualBox) on all three major platforms.  Want to run Ubuntu on MacOS X?  No problem.  Want to run Windows on Ubuntu?  No problem!

Want to run MacOS X on Ubuntu… uh-oh.  We’ve got a problem.

Apple, in their infinite wisdom, have artificially restricted you from being able to run MacOS X in a virtual machine under another OS.  Because, I assume, they hate us all and want our lives to be difficult.

Windows and Ubuntu?  No problem.  You can run them in any virtual machine you like, on any platform you like.  Because putting an artificial restriction on that would be just plain silly.  And mean.

ubuntu100Virtualization Winner: Ubuntu 13.10

While Windows runs great in a VM, I have to give this one to Ubuntu due to the free license.  Because of this you can spin up as many Ubuntu virtual machines as you want without worrying if you have enough license keys.

The Final Verdict

Time to tally the scores…

Windows 8.1 : 3

Ubuntu 13.10 : 4

MacOS X 10.9 : 0

So… this is a bit weird.  The scores are the same as the last time I did this (nearly two years ago).  But the results in each category are not the same.  Windows stole the performance crown from Ubuntu.  And Ubuntu managed to tie with Windows in the Gaming space.

Which I find incredibly interesting.

Regardless.  One thing is becoming crystal clear.  MacOS X is simply not competitive with the other platforms at this point.  And it’s been this way for a number of years now.  While Windows 8.1 and Ubuntu 13.10 both have their drawbacks, both have some significant strengths as well.  MacOS X simply lacks a clear reason why it would be used over one of the other platforms.

Time to declare the winner…

Ubuntu 13.10 Wins.

[Full disclosure: I use all three of these systems, extensively, in my work.  However, my primary machine does not run Windows, Ubuntu or MacOS X most of the time.  I tend to run openSUSE, Android and Haiku as my main systems.  So I am very un-biased when it comes to the three systems in this little battle royale.]

Share Button
  • Ron Archer

    Ubuntu 13.10? While I agree on many points, you should check those “distrowatch” stats, Linux Mint is the “Desktop” experience that more people than ever (during 2013) were drawn too. Although based on Ubuntu (for it’s robustness) Mints default desktop interface, Cinnamon is far cleaner and more usable “out of the box” that Ubuntu’s touch-centric GUI, let alone Windows 8 or even Mac OS.

    Don’t take all this the wrong way I am a proponent of Touch interfaces (love my Android tablet), on a touch-screen device, but, most laptops and desktops are not there yet. When touch-screens or leap motion type devices are the normal way of working on a standard computer (coming soon) then Ubuntu’s lenses will be more at home to work with.

  • JaSauders

    I’m not trying to dog on Mint in the slightest, as I find it to be an extremely solid distro (and I respect the hell out of them for listening to users far better than some other distros out there), but using DistroWatch as some sort of definitive way to measure distro popularity is very inaccurate. They are simply page clicks, not any way to indicate that that’s their actual popularity. There was also an article published within the last few months that showed that Ubuntu’s actual usage still outweighs Mint substantially, as their report is from actual web site hits which checks installed software (distro included), whereas DistroWatch is just random page clicks. So as I’m on elementary OS right now, if I click on Mint on DW, I just +1′d Mint even though I don’t have Mint on this laptop.

    Again, not trying to dump on Mint, it’s a REALLY great distro, but it’s far from accurate (something even DW would attest to). :)

  • Ron Archer

    I agree “Distrowatch” in inaccurate as even they say they are, however, my main point is none the less valid until touchscreens are the norm. This in part is why Windows 8 is not selling as well as Windows 7 or even XP which sadly many people I know still use.

  • JaSauders

    I hear you. Many Windows users I know are gripping onto Windows 7 for dear life, or use Windows 8 in desktop mode 100% of the time, which really only detracts from their mobile agenda to begin with.

    I do have to say, though, that in terms of blending between a touch centric and mouse/keyboard centric interface, Ubuntu definitely hits the mark better than Windows 8. The best Windows 8 has to offer is two interfaces in one, while Ubuntu is just… one interface. In time I’m sure we’ll see how things really shake out, but for the time being, I think Bryan hit some good points.

  • JiMMaRu

    err .. all the games available on steam on Linux also supports Mac , so Ubuntu doesn’t have that much of an advantage over OSX

    On the other hand , there are still lots of windows only games, I don’t think a tie is the correct verdict

    And I use Windows and OSX [dropped ubuntu after having issues with video tearing that couldn't be solved, still using server version though] never had any problems with neither of them performance wise [didn't face this spinning beach ball , but I have only been using OSX for a year so yeah]

    regarding the interface , I think all of them look crappy now .. Gnome 2 was great but then the movement to those weird tablet oriented interfaces made everything look crappy .. can’t chose a proper winnr here

    just my 2 cents (or 4 ?)

  • Bryon Wicklund

    The screenshots of OS X provided are not screenshots of Mavericks. There is still some iOS crossover but they have gone a long way in Mavericks to remove some of the non-unified looking peices of software. For example your screenshot of the ‘Notes’ app is completely changed in Mavericks.

  • bmullan

    @Ron Archer… Ron remember that DistroWatch itself doesn’t consider their numbers indicative of anything… “The DistroWatch Page Hit Ranking statistics are a light-hearted way of
    measuring the popularity of Linux distributions and other free operating
    systems among the visitors of this website. They correlate neither to
    usage nor to quality and should not be used to measure the market share
    of distributions. They simply show the number of times a distribution
    page on DistroWatch.com was accessed each day, nothing more.” http://distrowatch.com/dwres.php?resource=popularity

  • Stephen dela Cruz

    The PPA update on Mint sucks! You can’t update without disabling your firewall… other than that it’s a solid distro!

  • da_n

    I was a Mac OSX user since 10.2, watching it evolve, become very solid at around the Snow Leopard stage, then regress into a neglected step-child for the company which only gets silly features added from iOS. I have 2 Apple machines, neither of them has been upgraded to the latest version despite it being free; I have no interest in the features being offered. OSX is now very creaky, with an ancient filesystem and completely uncustomisable interface. It is by far the least interesting desktop OS on the market.

    I realise this might sound pretty insane given their revenues but I do believe Apple might have made a massive strategic mistake by putting so much of their focus on the mobile side, as users like me begin to abandon them for Linux. On the mobile side, the competition has more than caught up and hardware costs are coming down every year. I believe the golden age of mobile where Apple could milk their customers for enormous profits while they slowly iterated on their OS and hardware are not going to last long at all. Anecdotally, almost everyone I know is happy with their mobile device be it Apple or Android, and the compulsion to upgrade every 2 years is less interesting, they are ‘happy enough’ with what they have. Meanwhile Apple sidelining their desktop users (pro users in particular) into the slow lane while they kept a laser focus on the iPhone/iPad will result in serious repercussions for them. I think their market share of desktop users will drop off a cliff soon, revenue from future iPhone/iPad sales is going to go down, and Apple will really begin to feel the hurt. Crazy? Perhaps, but everything works in cycles, and I think Apple’s has peaked and now on the downward spiral, and they might fall hard.

    Personally I see this as another bonus for Linux adoption. Windows 8, whilst having some interesting and innovative features, is not proving to be a UX success with users. Of course this will not stop it from being an enormous success due to it’s entrenched nature, but again I think Windows has peaked.

    Whatever happens, 2014 and beyond will prove to be a very interesting for Linux, I just wonder if Canonical is the right company to adopt new users, they are also suffering from focus issues in my opinion and might be poor custodians, the achilles heal for Linux adoption.

    Anyway, could be completely wrong, speculation is always fun though.

  • Jecht_Sin

    I understood where this was going after seeing Linux winning the Feel & Look contest. Please… I do at most everything with just a couple of clicks on OS X. Try to do that with Linux.

  • George Patchett

    I’ve had my Macbook for a number of years now and dual-booted with linux a couple of days after OSX Lion was released. I now just find some things in OSX so horrible and irritating that linux just doesn’t do. My laptop isn’t an iPhone, the hardware inside it is meant for powerful sound and graphical design, not collecting Facebook and Twitter notifications. I think LINUX is taking over which is nice, but since I’ve seen many other linux distros and followed Canonical quite a way, Ubuntu seems a bit messy in what its aims are for the future :P

  • kamrat

    Give me an example to work with and I will try on my Linux machine.

  • Philip Rollins

    Must say as for performance it will be system dependent not really up to the operating system. What I mean is a OS wont double your processor speed, the bus speed, the RAM speed, your disk drive speed, or any other speed. The app responsiveness would be given to windows due to SuperFetch (no it does not suck all the time), how ever you can install something like lxde in Ubuntu rather than Unity and you will probably have a better GUI experience for speed (in terms of Windows and Mac, there are lighter weight options as well open-box being one). Customize, there are themes for Windows all over some to make it look like Mac and Ubuntu even thought with default customization perhaps Ubuntu would win though I have never messed with Unity yet. Personally I am unbiased in any of them, they’re all great and have their purpose, servers (hello Linux), desktop applications (hello Windows), iOs developer (stuck with Mac for Mac Store) and believe they are just like programming languages each has their own purpose and we need experience in multiple environments so give them all a go in the end, though Mac is rather expensive but based on the hardware it’s about normal price there’s just nothing for the broke college kids like me.

  • bwat47

    I have a macbook air 2013, just the base config with 4 gigs of ram. OSX 10.8 which it came with was a bit sluggish, but I’ve found that 10.9 performs *very* well. I haven’t noticed any slowness or lag with osx 10.9 on this machine, always very snappy and responsive. granted I haven’t tried ubuntu or win8 on this machine yet, but I definitely wouldn’t call mavericks sluggish.

  • CN456789

    When I purchase my notebook this year, I will be putting Linux onboard. I currently have a mac mini and love it. Sometimes I do miss Windows, but I make do. Unity 8 looks great and that is what I have been waiting for. As I am in college, I can’t completely use Linux. I Libre Office can save in Word format, but I already own Office 365 for 4 years free. I still want to use it.

    However to the common user, Linux isn’t feasible to most. I learned how to operate Windows when I was in the 2nd grade. Had no idea Linux existed. Mac OSX didn’t look anything like it does now and only used it once during that time, when it was load onto a floppy disk. I digress.

    If the user base is to grow for linux. Canonical needs to look at making itself more appealing to schools. I could operate Windows with my eyes, as most people can, because a lot of people were conditioned as children to use the system.

    Once you get to university, you find a lot Institutions using Mac OSX exclusively. At least the college I went to did.

  • Michael Lum

    This is a very nice article. I will say that the end user has to contend with ecosystems. Fortunately, iTunes is also available in Windows, and MS Office is available on the Mac. For me, Ubuntu is a bit new to be throwing serious cash into at this stage. I have too much invested already in other ecosystems. I have an Android phablet for mobile connectivity, Windows for home and office desktops, Macbook Air and Pro for traveling, and iPads for watching movies on the go. There’s always a right tool for the job, though I’m hoping the Samsung Ativ-9 Book 2014 will be a good compromise, and allow me to use that as my go-to travel device with great battery life!

    The “Metro” Start page with its active tiles looks pretty cool, but being forced to use it means it gets in the way of the desktop, i.e., it hides the desktop view to switch to the Start screen. Why should I have to leave the desktop to open another program to my desktop? This is visually disruptive. Obviously, Microsoft wants to keep their familiar desktop reverse compatible with software, but move forward with touch capability. Software and devices must be practical, convenient, and consistently intuitive–this latter point has been the biggest issue I have had with Microsoft. Once I get proficient with their software, they change it.

  • Natosports Apparel

    Thanks for a good feedback. My Mac has been running pretty slow. I need a new computer, and now are looking into Ubuntu. But Ubuntu doesn’t run Adobe Photoshop, which I use quite often.

  • http://somewhere.com/ FMN

    Yayyy, I generally agree with this article.
    When asked to use MacOS, my first reaction would be “Urgh”

  • BartWillemsen

    Distrowatch is not a good source to look at stats for which Linux distro is the most popular. They only uses the clicks on their own website as a source, which of course is not reliable.

    When you look at other sources (I use the number of likes on Facebook, Google trends and Google+ “plusses”, as well as information released by Canonical and the Linux Mint project) you see that Ubuntu us by far the most popular Linux distro right now.