Android vs iPhone, Mac vs Windows – there are countless debates over “which is better” in the tech world. Most of these, however, boil down to something simple. What’s your personal preference? Do you care about gaming? What’s your budget? These simple questions can settle most of these debates for good. One debate that isn’t so simple, however, is macOS vs Linux.
As a techie, it’s been my experience that this is a much more heated debate. There are actually substantial differences and similarities between these two platforms. And, admittedly, I don’t consider Windows a competitor in this debate. It’s pretty lackluster in my experience.
This debate is especially important if you’re a developer and are interested in using the environment that’s best for your needs. This post will be exploring the differences between these systems primarily in the context of the average user. Occasionally, though, we’ll go deeper for the devs.
Also, just to put it out there: I have not used Linux extensively and am a die-hard macOS fan. I will be doing my best to not let that influence this comparison (I’m not here to sell you anything) but just bear that in mind.
Alright, let’s get into it!
- What is Linux?
- What is macOS?
- Which version of Linux is most similar to macOS?
- macOS vs Linux: Where Linux beats macOS
- macOS vs Linux: Where macOS beats Linux
- macOS vs Linux: Other differences between the two operating systems
- macOS vs Linux: Who should use which?
- macOS vs Linux: Picking the right OS for you
What is Linux?
Linux is an open-source operating system. If that sounds like nonsense to you, here’s a breakdown of those terms:
- Open-source software is software whose source code you can view and edit. You can’t edit the code that makes Microsoft Word run because Microsoft owns that code. The same goes for macOS. You can, however, change, copy, cut, add, etc., the code of open-source software.
- An operating system is the software that runs your computer. Windows, macOS, iOS, iPadOS – these are all operating systems. They make the user accounts, files and folders, windows, menu bars, etc., that comprise the computer you’re using right now.
So, Linux is software that runs (or in a way, creates) a computer. And it’s open-source, meaning that you can peek under the hood and modify as much or as little as you like. This can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing or a major selling point if you do.
Linux has been around since the 1990s and has remained a free open-source project during that time. This is why you may have the impression that it’s a more “technical” operating system, even though there are plenty of user-friendly distributions of Linux (more on that later).
What is macOS?
Though I assume most of you are familiar with macOS, it’s only fair to give it a description alongside Linux.
macOS is the operating system for Apple computers. If you’re using an iMac, MacBook, Mac mini, or Mac Pro, then I’d bet a hefty sum on the wager that you’re using macOS.
macOS is in some ways the exact opposite of Linux. It’s not open-source in the slightest. In fact, it’s one of the most locked-down operating systems around.
Apple has locked macOS down for a few reasons. First, it gives Apple total control over your computer and its features. This allows Apple to create a very streamlined and simple experience while also reserving a lot of control and flexibility on its end.
Second, macOS is proprietary. Apple makes its money by selling you a Mac that comes with macOS preinstalled. By making macOS exclusive to Mac devices, it forces would-be users to buy a Mac to access the operating system.
macOS used to be called OS X, by the way, which is the name you may be more familiar with.
Which version of Linux is most similar to macOS?
I mentioned Linux distributions earlier, and we’re going to go a bit deeper into that concept here. As far as I know, there isn’t an analogous feature in mainstream operating systems, so it might be a unique concept to you.
Unlike Windows and macOS, which have one mainstream version, Linux comes in a variety of versions. You think of this like different models of cars from the same maker.
A Ford truck, van, and car are all going to look pretty similar and feel very similar on the inside. There will be, however, some key differences that make one kind of Ford vehicle better for one kind of driver.
This is kind of how different Linux distributions work. Some look a lot like Windows, others look more like macOS, and more still are totally unique. It all depends on your preferences and needs from the Linux OS.
So, which distribution of Linux is most like macOS? Well, that depends. Are you asking which is most like macOS in features, build, or looks?
No distributions completely hit the mark for all three. But if looks are what you’re going for, Solus, BackSlash Linux, and Pearl OS were all designed to mimic the feel of macOS. Pearl OS is especially akin to macOS. If you’re worried about being overwhelmed by the change in OS, go with Pearl.
That said, we’re not going to be comparing a specific Linux distribution against macOS. There are far too many for that. These are just recommendations for those considering the switch.
macOS vs Linux: Where Linux beats macOS
Alright, now that we’ve established who our competitors are, let’s get into the main points of the macOS vs Linux debate. We’re going to start with the areas where Linux has the upper hand on macOS. Remember, neither OS is necessarily “better” than the other. It’s just about your priorities and which one can best meet them.
Customization and personalization
The first point that, unsurprisingly, goes to Linux in the macOS vs Linux battle is customization. A closed operating system can’t win against an open-source system like Linux.
Linux gives the user total control over everything. Every color, feature, icon, character, and byte can be altered by the user. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the lack of personalization and control available in macOS. If you’ve found yourself among that camp, then you’ll be happy to call Linux your home.
Not only can you go into the source code and tweak Linux yourself, but you can also download packages, extensions, themes, and distributions that have already done this for you. Want an experience that looks like Windows? How about macOS? Or something unique? Maybe you’re a developer and want an OS built around a developer’s needs?
All of these things and more are easily available in Linux. Additionally, many of the apps that are developed for the Linux OS are made by open-source enthusiasts. That means many of these apps are also open-source themselves. So the apps on Linux are more editable as well.
There are only so many ways to say it: Linux easily wins here.
Privacy and security
Another front that goes to Linux is privacy and security. And this one might be more surprising at first glance. After all, isn’t it Apple who is the privacy-first tech company? Aren’t Macs immune to viruses and malware?
Yes and no. When it comes to mainstream tech companies like Google and Microsoft, yes, you are getting a more secure, private system when you choose Apple. But Linux’s strength in this area comes from two points.
First, as you might have guessed, there are privacy-centric distributions of Linux. These are more secure than macOS and offer built-in features that you can only get from third-party apps on macOS.
Second, Linux is way, way less popular than macOS. Despite its reputation, Linux is in many ways a fringe OS. Because of this, there aren’t that many developers creating viruses for Linux. They’re putting their attention into more popular systems like Windows and Mac.
And third, because Linux is open-source, there’s no way to hide malicious, privacy-violating code or features. Everyone would know about it and shut it down. With macOS, we only have Apple’s word to go on. And most likely, in some ways, even if small, Apple is violating its commitment to privacy. We’ve already seen this in the scandal from a few years back when Apple was caught listening to Siri requests without telling users.
There is no one behind Linux who owns it or wants to do anything like this, so you can have total confidence that what you do on your computer is between you and your computer. Unless it occurs on the web, in which case you’ll need a VPN or some similar solution.
Runs on any hardware
Linux also wins in the macOS vs Linux when it comes to hardware. Or, at least, when it comes to running on your hardware of choice.
As mentioned, the only way to get your hands on macOS (at least above the table) is to buy a Mac. Otherwise, you’re out of luck.
Linux has no such restrictions. You can download Linux onto nearly any computing device you can buy. That includes Macs, Windows PCs, Raspberry Pis, and a whole host of other devices. If it runs binary, you can probably find a configuration of Linux to run on it or at least make your own.
Doesn’t cost a dime
Not only can you run Linux on any hardware you like, but it doesn’t cost anything to do so. With Windows or macOS, you have to purchase a specific computer to get the OS and, if you’re buying a Windows PC, you have to pay even more to install the OS on it.
Linux has no such fees. It’s completely free to download, install, edit, and do whatever else you want with it. The only thing you have to pay for is the hardware, and if you already own a computer, then you already have all of the hardware you need.
Compared to the cost of a Mac, this one’s a no-brainer in the macOS vs Linux competition. macOS has nothing on the price of Linux.
More robust for developers
The last point that goes to Linux in the macOS vs Linux comparison is how robust it is for developers. To be clear, macOS is great for developers, too. You can build just about anything you want in the macOS operating system. It comes with development tools and there are plenty of third-party tools to round out what macOS doesn’t come with by default.
But even with all of that, you can’t rewrite the system itself. With Linux, you can create automated scripts, develop and install your own programs, test software, control which programming languages your computer reads, and far more.
For the developer that wants as much control as possible, Linux is the dream OS.
macOS vs Linux: Where macOS beats Linux
Those are all of the points that Linux has over Mac. Now it’s time to look at the other side of the macOS vs Linux conversation. These are the points where macOS comes out on top in the comparison. If you’re considering macOS over Linux, here are the advantages you’ll see.
macOS offers improved performance with deep hardware integration
First and foremost, macOS offers nearly unparalleled performance. This is thanks to the deep integration it has with the hardware that it’s built on top of. Unlike Linux, which is rarely running on hardware that it was meant to be paired with, macOS is always running on hardware that was built for it.
Nearly every component inside of a Mac computer was designed and built by Apple. And the OS running on that hardware was also built by Apple. This is how Apple can consistently create high-powered computers with seemingly underpowered specs. It’s able to create such an ideal mesh between the hardware and software that it can eek performance out of its devices that keep it at the forefront of personal computing power.
Linux runs well, to be sure, but it can’t match macOS in this department. In many ways, just like freedom is Linux’s specialty, performance is Mac’s.
Offers better creative apps
Another point goes to Mac in the macOS vs Linux comparison for creatives. Apple has far better creative apps and tools available to artists and creative professionals. This is largely because Apple markets its products directly to this demographic.
Despite WWDC and how much Apple talks highly of developers, the backbone of the macOS market has long been creatives. Photographers, musicians, graphic designers, and digital illustrators have access to the best apps and the best performance when using a Mac computer.
Not only that, but many of these great apps come free with macOS. GarageBand, Pages, Preview, and others are native to macOS. And other great apps like Final Cut Pro are exclusive to macOS as well.
In short, if you do any kind of creative work, macOS is at the top.
Ideal for developing apps for Apple devices
Of course, it comes as a shock to no one that macOS is the ideal environment for developing apps for Apple devices. It comes pre-stocked with all of the tools you need to do so, from Xcode to resources like Swift Playgrounds that will help you learn the fundamentals of developing Apple apps.
You can technically develop apps for Apple devices in Linux, you’re going to have a difficult time. You’ll either need a virtual machine or accept the fact that you’re just going to be building for jailbroken devices.
There’s not much more to say on this point. If you want to develop Apple apps, then you should stick to Apple products.
Enjoy the perks of the Apple ecosystem
This one is far less technical and much more of a personal preference. If you like the Apple ecosystem, you’re going to miss it when you jump to Linux. There is no equivalent in the Linux environment because Linux is solely a desktop OS. You’ll be leaving behind one of the best selling points of Apple products.
Although the Apple ecosystem isn’t for everyone, those that enjoy using it will know how valuable it can be. It keeps your data secure, allows for benefits like app sharing and content-aware features like Handoff, and much more.
Linux can be a pretty isolated experience, which might suit some people’s needs. But if you have more than two Apple products, you’ll probably feel the loss of Apple’s ecosystem of products when you make the switch.
macOS offers a better user experience
Lastly, this might be more of an opinion depending on how you look at it, but I believe that macOS offers a better user experience. When comparing macOS vs Linux, macOS feels smoother, faster, and easier.
It’s true that not everything on Mac “just works” like Apple would have you believe. Even still, though, it’s an incredibly easy OS to get used to. Installing and removing programs, managing your performance, running multiple apps at once, and switching between workflows is a seamless and simple experience.
Compare this to Linux, which doesn’t even install with a graphical interface until you install it from the command line. Linux by far offers a more technical experience, which is great for technical people. But the average user might not even get past the installation of Linux without running into a few problems. macOS, on the other hand, is excellent right out of the box.
macOS vs Linux: Other differences between the two operating systems
There are two other differences that I wanted to expand on before closing out this section of the article. These aren’t necessarily pros or cons of either platform, but something to consider if you’re having a hard time choosing between the two.
Linux is open source
First, as mentioned, Linux is open source. This has a variety of benefits that we’ve already touched on, and they’re benefits you shouldn’t ignore. Open source features are something that Apple will never offer. You can’t even find this on more flexible operating systems like Windows.
If you’ve never used an open-source OS (and if you’re reading this article, I assume you haven’t) it’s hard to describe how much of a game-changer it can be. I imagine it’s difficult for long-time Linux users to even consider moving to other platforms after using Linux for so long.
There are multiple distributions of Linux
Another feature of Linux is that, by default, the Ubuntu version of Linux doesn’t come paired with a GUI. That means there’s no graphical interface, just a command line where you can enter commands.
To create a graphical interface with windows, icons, and a mouse pointer, you need to install a distribution of Linux. I covered a few of these earlier in this post, but there are tens of Linux GUIs to choose from. And if you’re savvy enough, you can technically create your own.
macOS, on the other hand, only comes with a single distribution. And you don’t have a lot of options when it comes to personalizing your experience on macOS. This is by design, but it might not be a design you like.
macOS vs Linux: Who should use which?
Alright, now that we’ve covered all of the differences between macOS vs Linux, it’s time for the real question of the day. Who should be using which platform?
Of course, it will ultimately come down to your personal preference. But I will try to give some insight into who I feel each platform is best suited for.
Developers, techies, and “hardcore” users should go for Linux
Based on the points we’ve covered in this post, I would recommend Linux to the technical crowd. That includes developers, techies, and so-called “hardcore” users. People who want to tinker with their computer, treat it like a machine and not an appliance, and get their hands dirty with the OS.
That’s not to say that you have to use Linux in this way. You could just as easily use Linux without ever using any of its more technical features. Just install a user-friendly GUI upfront and forget that you’re using the “hardcore” OS for technical wizards.
But if that’s your approach, then I’m not sure why you would choose Linux over another platform, especially macOS. By comparison, macOS has much more to offer as a basic OS. Using Linux without diving into its technicalities would be like purchasing a truck and never putting anything in the truck bed.
The only two exceptions I can think of are those using Linux because they’re on a budget or those who are very particular about their privacy and security. For these groups, Linux does have an edge over macOS. But as someone who cares about budget-friendly options and privacy, I can’t say I consider these points to outweigh everything else that macOS has to offer.
If you own multiple Apple products, like macOS, and prefer to keep things simple, stick with Mac
For everyone else, I would recommend macOS. It’s a much easier system to use, it comes with the Apple ecosystem, it’s fast, powerful, secure, and mostly private. It has perks, like being built into Apple’s services, a robust backing of high-quality apps, and has an elegance and simplicity to it that (I feel) is unmatched by other operating systems.
There is indeed a bit of a walled garden feel to macOS. You can be disconnected from other happenings in the tech world, and you certainly don’t have anywhere near the level of control that you would have while using Linux.
Even still, as someone who has been locked into that walled garden for several years now, I have to say that I don’t miss being on the outside at all. I never consider switching or feel that I’m missing out.
This is a preference, but I think for the majority of people, the pros of macOS will outweigh those of Linux. There’s a reason Linux has mostly stayed within a particular crowd of the tech world. It’s not a bad reason, but it’s there nonetheless.
Or, download a virtual machine and use both!
The last point in this macOS vs Linux comparison is one that maybe should be at the top of this post rather than the bottom. You can just use both! A virtual machine is a (generally free) app you can download to your Mac. It emulates a desktop environment using whatever software you like – including macOS and/or Linux.
You can download apps like UTM and in less than an hour be running Linux on your Mac or macOS on your Linux PC. I’ve used this to run Linux and it’s a pretty solid solution. Just know that whichever OS is being emulated is going to run slower than it would normally. This is just an attribute of emulated software.
But yeah! There’s no need to choose. Just pick the one you want more and then emulate the other one as a virtual machine on your computer. I will say that it’s a lot easier to emulate Linux than it is macOS, but you can emulate either with the right know-how.
macOS vs Linux: Picking the right OS for you
And that’s it! That’s everything you need to know to settle your macOS vs Linux debate. At the end of the day, these are both excellent operating systems. Whichever you choose, you’ll most likely end up happy and eventually find it difficult to think of using the other. Just stay away from Windows!
For more insights, news, and guides on all things Apple, check out the rest of the AppleToolBox blog.
See you next time!