Written by Ankush Das
Translated by LCTT – Donkey
We often compare Linux and Windows, so what’s the difference between macOS and Linux?
The differences between Linux and Windows are obvious, but Linux and macOS look similar to many people.
Both can run Unix commands on the command line and are very different from the user experience in Windows. At the same time, not all apps and games on Windows can run on macOS and Linux.
That’s why some people think of Apple’s macOS as a Linux-based system. But this is not the case. Despite the similarities, macOS is not Linux.
There are many differences between these two Unix-like operating systems, and I’ll point out the similarities and differences between the two in this article.
Let’s compare apples and orange penguins.
macOS has a fascinating history. Its foundation was developed by Steve Jobs’s NeXT computer company, when Jobs was not working at Apple. Technically, it is BSD derived from the Mach kernel and Unix.
At that time, NeXT developed the NeXTSTEP operating system to drive the devices and computers it designed. Although it received some attention, it did not have great success. Apple then reinstated Steve’s seat on the board of directors as part of the deal by acquiring NeXT and making the NeXTSTEP operating system the foundation of macOS.
That’s why macOS is an operating system that combines Unix components with Apple’s proprietary technology.
Instead, Linux (kernel) is a free and open source alternative to Unix.
Linux is not an operating system, it requires components such as the desktop environment to become an operating system. There are many Linux-based operating systems, called distributions.
For simplicity, we refer to these operating systems as Linux operating systems rather than specific distributions.
The official name of the macOS kernel is XNU. The abbreviation stands for “XNU is Not Unix.” According to Apple’s GitHub page, XNU is “a hybrid kernel that combines the Mach kernel developed by Carnegie Mellon University with components from FreeBSD and a C++ API for writing drivers.”
The BSD subsystem part of its code is “typically implemented as a user-space server in a microkernel system”. The Mach part is responsible for the underlying tasks such as multitasking, protected memory, virtual memory management, kernel debugging support, and console I/O.
The macOS kernel combines the features of the microkernel micro kernel (Mach) and the macrokernel monolithic kernel (BSD), while Linux is just a macrokernel. The macrokernel is responsible for managing CPU, memory, interprocess communication, device drivers, file systems, and system server calls.
macOS leverages Unix components, and Linux is built as an alternative to Unix. So, what do they have in common?
Both can use Unix commands, bash/zsh, and other shells. Maybe the default shell will be different, but you can set it to your liking. Other than that, I can’t think of any similarities.
About a decade ago, we could say that Linux/macOS offered fewer applications. But times have changed. Over the years, both have evolved software ecosystems and game support, which we will discuss later in this article.
macOS is a closed-source operating system, meaning you can’t see the full operating system source code.
Of course, you can get the source code of some macOS (mostly GNU) libraries. There is also XNU kernel code for developing macOS and iOS operating systems. But you can’t just use this code to build a clone of macOS and install it on any hardware.
Not having a source code isn’t the end of the world, but you’ll get less transparency because of Apple’s claims and practices to protect and enhance your experience with your computer.
Some argue that a closed source should be kept for security reasons. However, both open source and closed source face security threats.
The difference between the two is that compared to Apple, which has a limited number of employees, because there are many developers in the open source community, the open source software will be fixed quickly.
Unless you trust Apple without reservation, the open source model of Linux is superior.
macOS is designed for desktop and laptop use. It is ideal for video editing, graphic design, and audio editing.
When it comes to Linux, there are many things you can do. You can use Linux to:
Of course, the experience of using it on various platforms is not the same, but Linux can run for a variety of use cases.
So, if you like Linux, you can choose to use Linux on other platforms for a comfortable experience.
When it comes to user experience, it depends on personal preference.
macOS provides a pleasant user interface. Detailed animations and high-resolution wallpapers, icons, which are visually appealing.
You can expect a relaxed and seamless experience across the platform.
With Linux, you get the same delightful and easy-to-use user interface.
Unfortunately, the user experience varies depending on the desktop environment installed in different distributions.
You can view the list of best desktop environments. You can even opt for a Linux distribution like macOS.
For example, if you use Pop!_OS, Ubuntu, Zorin OS, or elementary OS, you’ll have a great experience.
If you’re using a distribution like MX Linux or something else, the user experience may not be comparable to macOS.
Overall, the out-of-the-box experience of Linux is inconsistent, but if you know what you’re doing, it’s enough.
If you’ve been using Windows before, you’ll be confused about the Linux interface at first.
If you want an operating system that allows you to make changes to every aspect of it, macOS is not for you.
Although most of the time Apple’s designs will be aesthetically pleasing, not everyone likes them.
If you want to personalize, control, and customize the specifics of your operating system a lot, Linux should be the perfect choice.
You can choose to customize the user interface according to your needs, use a variety of different elements, and play to your liking. Check out our KDE Customization guide to explore the possibilities.
While this is great, it can backfire when customizing content on Linux systems, messing it up. Therefore, you need to learn and explore the content you want to customize.
The hardware is where macOS is “battered”.
If you want to get macOS and have a good experience, you need to buy expensive Apple hardware.
For example, the basic configuration of a laptop that supports macOS starts with 8 GB of memory and 256 GB of storage for $1200 or more.
Unless you want to multitask with swap space frequently and already have cloud storage, buying an Apple device would be a bad idea.
In contrast, if you don’t want to spend a lot of money but still want to configure your system (PC/laptop) with a nice configuration, it’s easy to buy a device with 16 GB of memory + 512 GB SSD to run Linux for around $800.
Personal note: I’m used to 32 GB of memory + 500 GB of SSD storage. In order to get this kind of multitasking space (without using swap space), I will have to pay a premium to Apple.
Some skilled “tinkerers” try to run macOS on non-Apple hardware. Such a system is called the Black Apple Hackintosh, but it is certainly nowhere near as comfortable as running Linux on a normal computer.
With an app or tool that Apple made for macOS, you get a best-in-class native experience on macOS.
Yes, you may have to purchase these apps. However, unlike some subscription options, you can get a one-time purchase option through macOS.
For users who want to design, edit videos, edit photos, and have ideas, if you don’t mind investing, macOS’s software suite should be a good choice.
Free Apple tools (like iMovie, Keynote, etc.) are good in themselves. Use them in conjunction with advanced tools like Final Cut Pro, Affinity Designer and you’ll get a world-class editing experience. Don’t forget, creative tools like Adobe are also available on macOS.
In addition, Apple has strict guidelines for apps on its platform to enhance the native experience of third-party apps (free or paid).
That’s why many designers and editors prefer to use macOS over other operating systems.
For the Linux platform, you can use great free and open source software to replace some macOS-only applications. Unless you like or have experience with macOS-specific applications, you should not have problems using software for Linux.
The experience of native apps is based on the Linux distribution you’re using.
It may not be as perfect as macOS, but if you’re not a professional-level video or graphics editor, you shouldn’t have any problems.
While Apple has made good strides in making its new M1/M2 chips as powerful as possible, macOS currently has poor support for gaming.
A few games work fine, and most are not officially supported. To be honest, buying a Mac for gaming isn’t what it’s for.
With regard to Linux, many AAA and indie games work well. Of course, there are some problems with some games. However, as Valve pushed the game’s official support for Steam Deck, even the latest releases like Spider-Man: Remake were recognized by Steam Deck.
Ultimately, this will help improve the Linux platform’s support for games.
Also, considering that the PC graphics market is almost back to normal (close to or below the suggested retail price), you can get a decent PC version or laptop without worrying about performance bottlenecks.
Would you spend more than $1800 on a Mac with 16 GB of memory and 512 GB SSD, or a PC/laptop with 32 GB of RAM (or more) and at least 1 TB SSD (or more)?
That’s up to you.
The package manager allows you to quickly find, install, or uninstall software from your operating system.
Linux has always had an advantage in package management compared to any existing system.
You get options like Flatpak, Snap, Synaptic, and more.
However, Mac users don’t have any package managers to rely on by default. Fortunately, options like Homebrew make it extremely convenient for macOS users.
Of course, it also supports Linux. Therefore, you can use it on multiple devices to simplify operations.
Apple does not release specific plans for its operating system updates.
For example, macOS Ventura (which is about to be upgraded at the time of writing) abruptly abandoned all Mac devices prior to 2017.
Interestingly, previous versions of operating systems supported an average of about seven years, but with the changes in updates, it now seems to be about five years.
For the chips designed by Apple, this may not be a simple answer. However, software support for at least 4 to 5 years is secure.
Linux gives you options. If you want a stable operating system with no feature upgrades and only focus on maintenance and security, the LTS version of a Linux distribution can provide you with five years of updates for free. This mainly applies to Ubuntu or Ubuntu-based distributions such as Linux Mint.
In addition, there is an Ubuntu subscription project where you can last for ten years to get security updates.
And, more than that, you can also choose a rolling release to get continuous frontier updates with no end time. As long as your hardware is up to the task, you should be able to update your operating system without problems.
macOS is arguably good value for money if you need it.
It is not recommended that users who only need to go online, send email, and perform some tasks that can be performed on any platform purchase macOS.
macOS is still a niche choice.
However, as Linux has improved, it has become a useful choice for users who were previously Windows/macOS, computer students, developers, creative professionals (like us), and a wide range of potential users.
There are many reasons to choose Linux over macOS (and vice versa), but that’s my opinion.
What are your thoughts on macOS vs. Linux? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
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