Comparing Windows and Linux stability

In my experience, Ubuntu 12.04 is less stable than Windows 8. Ubuntu is more likely to freeze, crash, or otherwise act badly than Windows.

When I say this, people point out that Ubuntu is not the Linux kernel and that the problems I see come from the GUI or from Ubuntu itself. I can believe that.

So Linux is really stable when you don’t run it on a desktop. But the same is true of Windows. If you set up a Windows server and treat it like a server — don’t install random consumer software, don’t browse the web on it, don’t play games on it, etc. — then Windows is really stable too.

When people compare the stability of Linux and Windows, they may be biased a couple ways. First, Linux is more often deployed on servers and Windows more often on desktops. So they may unintentionally be comparing Linux servers to Windows desktops. Second, they may be thinking that Linux users’ computers are more stable than Windows users’ computers, which is probably true. Linux users typically know more about computers than Windows users. They are more able to avoid problems and more able to fix them when they occur.

I suspect the most important factors for a computer’s stability are how it is being used and who is using it, not what OS it is running.

68 thoughts on “Comparing Windows and Linux stability

  1. I do agree.
    However, what I noticed in my small corner is that most of the time, such instabilities are due, somehow, to the graphic driver I use with Ubuntu Unity. Or at least, always due to the window manager… Which can be bad when compared to windows 8 (which has been surprisingly stable for up to now)

  2. Please change your title, as you have pointed out, you are comparing a full OS (windows) versus a kernel (Linux) in the title, but then you go on about Ubuntu, a GNU/Linux OS. Incidentally you are not comparing apple for apple and haven’t stated your mileage using both OS.

    Ubuntu 12.04 is NOT the latest iteration of the Ubuntu family and just one among “oh so many” distribution of GNU/Linux. And it would be better compared to Widows 7 in regard to the release time of both OSes. I am not suggesting anything regarding your anecdotal experience of ‘linux’, but given the confusion that your title imply, you give you reader the opportunity to jump to conclusion.

  3. Ubuntu 12.04 is the latest version of Ubuntu with long term support, so I believe it is most comparable to Windows 8, the latest version of Windows with long term support.

    The kernel vs. OS distinction is somewhat irrelevant in the discussion of desktop computing. You can’t run the Linux kernel directly as a modern desktop. In the experience of most desktop Linux users, Linux == Ubuntu.

  4. As a Linux fan, I am embarrassed that “we” are so defensive.

    In the XP days, Linux was (in my experience) more stable than Windows. W7 makes that less true. Ubuntu *may* also make that less true (from the other direction). (disclosure: having used Ubuntu, I am no longer pleased with that distro, so I’m tainted again)

    Even in the XP days, Windows was significantly more stable than it had been. Further, my experience led me to believe that corporate configuration conspirators had more to do with XP crashing than did the OS itself. So it comes back to agreement with your premise.

    Even in the XP days, Linux was suffering bloat and hand-holding madness (all distros, but Ubuntu is the worst on this point), drawing it away from its origins as an unencumbered POSIX variant.

  5. I normally stop reading when I realize that the comparison under discussion lacks data (“my anecdote differs from your anecdote” arguments), but I hung in there until the mention of user behavior.

    Applause. That’s a huge factor in stability.

    One further, I’ve seen the same problem w/ Ubuntu, and finally had to leave it in favor of Linux Mint for just this reason.

  6. BTW, I’m not an advocate for Windows or Linux. I’ve used both for a long time. Both have gotten much better. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

    For what it’s worth, I wrote this post from a machine running Ubuntu. For the particular work I’m doing lately, I can do it faster using Ubuntu, even though Ubuntu fails occasionally.

  7. In my anecdotal evidence, most instability in OSes of various flavours and versions I’ve seen was down to buggy drivers (most notably, a dodgy graphics card will befuddle any OS); beyond that hurdle, the stability of W8 and U12.04 is comparable; and I’m pleased to say “comparably high”.

  8. If you want a stable desktop stick with GNOME2 (or MATE as its called these days). Either go for RHEL/CentOS/Scientific 6, or a distro that has a well supported MATE version (there are a few odd conflicts when using MATE in fedora).

    I used unity quite a bit while it was beta, and accepted a few crashes. Crashing the graphics server is not something i’d tolerate in a release version (though i have not run ubuntu desktop recently, so i can’t really comment on its current stability).

  9. “In the experience of most desktop Linux users, Linux == Ubuntu.”

    And this is how crappy half-assed articles like this get written.

  10. Sure, stability depends on whether you’re installing a new app every day or not. I find OSX stable for what my family and I do these days

  11. It would help to read a book on OS architecture before writing something like this. You are not at the technical level where you can even define “stability”, much less construct methodology to measure it.

  12. I have read several books on OS architecture. I’m using the word “stability” in its colloquial sense of how often the computer is usable. If my computer is always in a usable state, it’s stable. The more often it’s not usable, the less stable it is.

  13. DUDE, you have NO CLUE what the F### you are talking about.

    Linux is 200% more stable than Windows “anything”

    IF (and I do mean IF) what you say is true then why are 80-90% of the webservers running various flavors if Linux !!!!!!

    FURTHERMORE, It is a fact that Microsoft is running a Linux box in front of their “windows” servers to protect their own asses from VIRUSES & WORMS, ETC !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. I’ve found the same as you using Ubuntu and Windows. Ubuntu is now so bad that I’m looking around for a new Linux. Windows 7 works very nicely on my current laptop, ubuntu does not…this is largely down to drivers. Both run fine on my desktop though.

    I used to be a lot more evangelical about operating systems than I am now. Ultimately, they are just a substrate for the applications I want to use.

  15. My experience with comparing Windows 8 and Ubuntu has been similar; Ubuntu has been riddled with crashes and bugs for several years now, since Unity was introduced. Gnome Shell has been similar in Ubuntu. However, I have had *no* glitches or crashes whatsoever since I have swapped to Debian Testing, and in Debian much of the hardware that I had consigned to abandonment while I used Ubuntu suddenly works without a hitch. Now, Ubuntu should not be considered representative of the Linux desktop overall — Canonical’s attempt to transform Ubuntu into a mobile OS has been at great cost to the desktop experience.

  16. Duaine: I agree that Linux is stable on the server. Maybe more stable than Windows. I don’t know, and I didn’t say. I only said that in my experience, both OSs are quite stable on the server. And I said nothing about succeptability to viruses or any other point of comparison.

    If what I say is true then why are 80-90% of the webservers running various flavors if Linux? I believe I answered that. If the stability problems of Ubuntu do not stem from the Linux kernel, then it’s plausible that a server instance, closer to the bare Linux kernel, would be more stable.

    BTW, I’ve used Linux off and on since 1994.

  17. I routinely use both Linux (as a desktop… but not Ubuntu) and Windows (7… but not 8). It’s not exactly the comparison you are making, but it’s not apples and oranges mismatch. The time between any sort of OS crash is maybe 2 years for Linux and about 1 year or so for Windows. Crashes are infrequent enough that I can’t really say which is more stable with any reliability, but
    for many practical purpose stability differences are pretty much in the noise in either case. YMMV

  18. Hey John,

    How about Android? is the following statement evaluate to TRUE or FALSE?

    ( Android === Linux ) ?

    What ever is your conclusion on the above, what do you do about Windows Mobile/Phone 7/7.5/8 ? And how do you differentiate this from ChromeOS ?

    Just a few question to point out that dumbing down to layman terms a comparison on such a heated topic is not in your best interest.



  19. I have used both windows and linux heavily every day, both in a desktop (ie, not a server) context since at least the year 1999 (i was using windows before 1999, but not linux). Linux was more stable than windows circa 1999 because the comparison was with windows 98, the last of the non-NT kernel OS’s from MS. Since XP though, i have never had windows crash on me ever. Not even once. On Linux, X would go down, gnome-panel would crash, I’d get lockups when plugging in USB hardware etc. Since about 2009, Linux (I run Debian testing) has been just as rock solid as windows, but i think the stigma that windows is less stable is mostly FUD at this point. MS does a lot of things wrong and windows is in many respects very much more awkward to use than linux, but i think they have got the stability thing down pat.

  20. I haven’t used Win 8, but in several years of using Win 7 (before switching fully to Linux Mint) I think I only blue-screened it twice. One important distinction, though, it’s that it is rather easy to restart a frozen X-server or reload a borked desktop in Linux, usually with no loss of work in progress, and much faster than a full reboot. With Vista I was perpetually loading the task manager in sometimes futile attempts to restart the Explorer process. Win 7 was much more stable than Vista, but when it crashed it always meant a full reboot (and all work lost).

  21. Usually the readers of this blog are pretty civil. Maybe you were linked somewhere, or OS comparison really excite some nerves.

  22. I have been running and updating the same installation of debian for over 8 years, no reinstall needed whatsoever, and it is very stable. New machine? rsync and grub-install. I even duplicated it to a notebook after I finally got one.

    I agree that linux flavours vary radically in stability. You should try others or specify your articles better.

  23. This kind of assertion, and discussion, is really without value unless the two operating systems are on the same hardware, running the same apps, and tested in a controlled scenario. Too many things can influence the outcome, otherwise.

    Video drivers for Linux are at a disadvantage because FOSS developers must reverse-engineer an ever increasing range of proprietary cards. AMD and Nvidia make half-hearted efforts to release closed binary drivers for Linux. I avoid them when I can, finding their installation routines especially prone to mischief.

    I’ve used Linux on the desktop for years. In the last decade, I’ve found the prominent distributions to be very stable. Betas and spins from obvious ‘one guy in a basement’ efforts should be avoided because Linux lacks the financial resources to conduct broad in-house testing.

    I just had my first real prolonged exposure to Windows (7 & 8) in a decade while helping a friend. Style preferences aside, things worked fine. But… the font rendering was just plain awful, on multiple machines. (In a pro photo studio with high-end stuff.). Tried futzing with Cleartype, smoothing and unsmoothing, playing with hardware acceleration in browsers, etc. Nothing improved things or, frankly, noticeably changed anything.

    That’s a great weakness for Windows. Text can be rendered on Linux that is far superior to what I saw in Indows.

  24. Hi,
    as a fresh Linux user I have experienced many stability issues with Ubuntu 13.04.
    I just switched to other distros .. now I use Mint 15 Cinnamon with no problems.
    Today, I go on W7 only for photo-editing works.

  25. Hi John,

    I was a software engineer at both Apple (iPhone & Xcode teams) and Microsoft (Visual Studio team). I agree with you 100%. Windows gets such a bad rap but no one ever stops to consider the sheer install base and installation complexity with which Windows must contend. Like it or not the number of Windows installations still dwarfs all other OS.

    Darwin (NEXTSTEP, BSD-based) is relatively stable too… but attach OS X’s gui (plus system services, etc.) and all of a sudden it isn’t nearly as stable when taken as a whole.

    I am not an OS expert but I’ve seen portions of the source code for Windows (XP, Vista, and 7), Linux, and OS X (10.5, 10.6, 10.7). They all have their flaws.

  26. I never got the Linux zealotry and I was a linux admin for years. Yeah it is really cool that server has been up for 2 years without a reboot but what practical purpose does that have for a desktop user? I’ve had win 7-8 crash on me maybe 6 times as a dev over the last 3 years. I don’t think I’ve ever lost data. Everytime I compile Visual Studio auto saves everything. I use a word processor once every couple years to update my resume. I just simply don’t do anything requiring frequent saving that isn’t already configured to autosave. I instinctively ctrl-s all the time anyways.

    I also love how linux zealots whenever you point out that KDE is junk in a particular way will say well that isn’t linux that is the shell, etc. Somehow the linux kernel is this amazing think that the typical person never sees by itself and … “we promise” … never crashes. But MS has to take all the blame everytime its shell freezes or a third party driver brings it down (~80% of crashes from what I’ve heard). Use the tool that you are most comfortable with chances are that less then once every few months crash isn’t a significant inconvenience so judge by other factors.

  27. You are contradicting yourself.

    Your first line: “Ubuntu 12.04 is less stable than Windows 8″
    Your last line: ” the most important factors for a computer’s stability are how it is being used and who is using it, not what OS it is running”. That means that one OS is not more stable than another OS, ergo Ubuntu is NOT less stable than Windows.

    See? :-)

  28. Maarten: You left off the first part of my first line: In my experience, Ubuntu 12.04 is less stable than Windows 8. I’m the same user, using both operating systems the same way.

  29. In the last two or three weeks, Ubuntu has frozen three times and crashed with a black-and-white screen of death once.

    Then just yesterday, after writing this blog post, I had three terminal windows open when I stepped away from the computer. When I came back, two went away for no apparent reason. Also open applications switched to low resolution, maybe 800 x 600, while my background remained high-resolution. I rebooted and things are OK for now.

    I may try a new Linux distro. I’ve also thought about getting another computer for running Linux, a headless server that I only interact with via the command line.

  30. Sounds like you’re noticing some of the same issues I had — the freezes, anyway, can usually be fixed by going into a virtual terminal with Ctrl+Alt+F1 and restarting Unity. Often you won’t even lose your work that way.

  31. Try Fedora. If it is the kernel, RedHat employs a large percentage of the active kernel developers, so their kernel is usually the most stable and works best with a range of hardware. Alternatively, switch from binary drivers in Ubuntu to the open source drivers, the crash could be in the nVidia blob if you have nVidia hardware. Or switch from Unity or whatever on-crack UI that Ubuntu is experimenting with these days to something more mainstream (XFCE is a good choice, GNOME 3 is not).

  32. In my experience one can work very well both on a linux, mac or windows machine. The stabilities are very similar, based on personal experiences working for long periods on one system or the other.

    However on a Windows system one misses a centralized way of easily discovering, installing and updating pieces of software. But all in all I think one can work on a Windows-system perhaps just as well as simply Ubuntu Linux.

    Happy working

  33. Luke: +1 for “Unity or whatever on-crack UI that Ubuntu is experimenting with these days” :)

  34. I run Slackware 13.1 on my home laptop, and it never crashes. (At least, I can’t ever remember it doing so.)

    My work PC is still Windows XP, and while it is pretty stable, it will, every few weeks or so, reboot without warning.


    – at home, my window manager is DWM, which is about as minimal as a window manager can be while still being functional; the only apps I run with any frequency are Chrome and a bunch of XTerms (mostly for Mutt, Vim, and Clojure REPLs);

    – at work, I have to more or less live within Office 2010, with a ton of plugins for Outlook, and Lord knows what else running in the background; and even with the inevitable freezes and crashes of Office, I almost never lose data, and rarely have to restart the whole machine.

  35. I’ve never been a big fan of Ubuntu, and I’ve had lots of problems with it every time I tried to use it. Also, I simply don’t like how it works.

    On the other hand, I fix Windows computers all the time, and they have issues that Linux (in general) simply can’t have (like the one I’m working on right now: user profile was messed up, needed to fix the registry to solve the problem. With no “user profiles” and no registry Linux simply can’t have that problem!)

    Thus I don’t use Ubuntu, and I lothe Windows. What I *do* use is ArchLinux, with XMonad, on a laptop. I have had problems, but it boils down to either me tinkering with my machine, a hardware issue, or – even more rarely – a software issue that’s fixed rather quickly (had issues with suspending, for like a day, updated & no more issues.) Also, I *LIKE* knowing what software I’m using. True I’ve lost track of a few things, but I know my system pretty darn well. If I was more patient I’d use Gentoo (or Funtoo to be on the bleeding-edge) and compile it all!

    …but that’s just my 2 cents…

  36. Pretty sure Canonical isn’t going after the Arch and XMonad market with Ubuntu.

    Which is another way of saying that if you have an interest in, much less understand, how an operating system works, you’re in a pretty small minority. Linux, because it’s rooted firmly in FOSS (you won’t be bothered to learn about FOSS unless you have at least some knowledge of and interest in software development) Happily, Linux offers all kinds of choices to people who fit that profile.

    The rest of the planet, though, wants their computer to be, if not a toaster, at least a phone. Poke it here and it does this. Poke it there and it does that. Command lines are antedeluvian and filesystems are so 1990’s for those folks.

    I’ve been a Linux user for longer than most folks. I realized a long time ago that what I expect from a computer is not what most people expect.

  37. @joncr – I totally agree with you! Which is why, even though I love Linux, and can’t stand Windows, I almost never recommend Linux to anybody unless I know they have half a clue as to how a computer works and does it’s thing. Canonical is doing generally a good thing – the same thing Microsoft did with computers in the 80’s, and Apple did/does with smartphones – making them more accessible to the general public. Do I like their product? No. But I see the benefit, applaud them for their effort, and use XMonad cause it’s *WAY* freaking cooler than Unity! It may not look as pretty, but I’m a hell of a lot more effective than with some UI-prettyness getting in my way. (which is nice every so often, but I’m mostly better off without it)

    And, I figured that the crowd reading John’s blog might know a thing or 2 about computers… maybe not necessarily what makes ZFS so freaking awesome, but at least that you have an operating system, that runs programs, and is the interface between you and the machine… (yeah, that’s where I work, where people don’t know that there is a thing that is the liaison between human and silicon! :-/ )

  38. Justin: I recommend Linux to people all the time — in the form of Android or ChromeOS. I have also had success converting people who pretty much only use a Web browser anyway to get some extra mileage out of their old machines, by letting me instal Fedora on the machines and then setting XFCE up to look and work like Windows. These days, Linux UIs (with the exception of Unity!) are really not that complicated for people to learn, and this has been true for at least the last 10 years.

  39. Luke: I’m not really sure why you would conclude Unity was complicated to learn, particularly after concluding XFCE isn’t. Unity has plenty of faults, but I would never accuse it of being difficult to learn, especially considering how derivative it is:
    Taskbar(Windows, on left) ↦ Launcher(Unity)
    Panel(OS X) ↦ Panel(Unity)
    iOS’s Home, Android’s Launcher, Windows 8 Start screen, OS X’s Launchpad ↦ Dash(Unity)
    The HUD has an empty preimage*, but it’s also entirely optional and really is intended as a power user feature, so it doesn’t really need to be easy to learn.

    Overall, I see nothing that would be a stumbling block to someone entering Linux through Ubuntu for the first time — except for Unity’s proclivity to crash and the defectively useless implementations of just about all of its (arguably) good ideas.

    *I think I ought to be able to use math jargon here, right? Hopefully those \mapsto symbols show up properly too.

  40. @Justin: More than a few people I know do all their personal computing on phones and tablets, while their PC — usually a laptop — gathers dust.

    The primary use of personal computing devices is communications. That’s always been true. Even if we aren’t addressing any specific individual, we love to publish tidbits about ourselves. Hence, Facebook and Twitter, and such.

    Communications is more about the network linking people than anything else, so people naturally migrate to using the cheapest and most convenient devices.

    Something like Windows 8 is an attempt to push into that market. The touch interface is just a means to that end.

    Canonical deserves accolades for working so long and so hard, with no real payoff, to deliver a Linux desktop that caters to all those people. Many folks in the FOSS community seem to be annoyed by this. Sometimes I think they imagined that Linux would become popular when all those folks in the suburbs morphed into little RMS clones and began reading email in emacs.

  41. @joncr: “Sometimes I think they imagined that Linux would become popular when all those folks in the suburbs morphed into little RMS clones and began reading email in emacs.”

    This WILL happen! It WILL!

  42. Adam: I have tried forcing myself to use Unity before, and gave up in frustration. It’s just too weird and quirky relative to other desktop environments. I also watch my much less technical boss, who sits next to me, sitting there cursing all day about Unity as he can’t figure out how to do the most basic stuff (window icons are on the left, so he doesn’t see them, the window management icons can disappear behind the menu bar at the top, windows are collapsed into groups in the toolbar, and it’s not obvious how to a window back once it’s not on top, window switching doesn’t work in any sort of standard way, etc. etc.). But he refuses to try another UI, so he’s stuck with it. I also mentioned in my earlier post that when I set up XFCE for people, I set it up for them so it looks/feels just like Windows (or GNOME 2). Once set up in that way, nobody seems to know or care that they’re not using Windows, so yes, XFCE can be completely intuitive to non-techie people. (I agree it’s a pain to configure, but once it’s done, it feels completely natural to people.)

    But these opinions on high-level UIs don’t matter much, they are trounced by replies about XMonad and DWM :-)

  43. @Luke: I’m not using Unity, but I have used it. I’m not sure what you mean by your boss’s “windows icons”. Unless they are covered by something, he ought to be able to see them, on the left or any other edge.

    I believe the window controls aren’t being hidden by the panel when the window is maximized. They are intentionally not shown. I agree this is less than helpful. Perhaps it’s a half-baked imitation of how OS X handles maximized windows. There, though, the panel goes away, too, and the windows de-maximizes in response to the keyboard, mouse or touchpad.

    Windows are, in effect, minimized to their icon in the Launcher. (Same thing, different visual metaphor.) Right clicking on an icon pops out a list of that app’s open windows. If only a single instance of an app is open, left clicking on its on should shift the display to that instance, even if it’s in another virtual desktop.

    There’s a key combination to shuffle between apps/windows.

    Holding down the Windows key for a second or two generates a popup detailing all the keyboard functionality in Unity.

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