Department of Engineering

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Unix Myths

People unfamiliar with Unix sometimes have derogatory opinions about it which people new to Unix often confirm by experience. Some Unix set-ups can be a cultural shock to those familiar with MacOS/Windows machines, but things often aren't as bad as people make out.

  • Unix is difficult - It's certainly more difficult than some computer systems, but that's partly because it offers more facilities. People not used to the idea of files and directories having owners might find Unix pedantic. If their MacOS/Windows machines were set up with user accounts, networking, and a choice of user-interfaces, then they might find their machines difficult too.
  • Command lines are so unfriendly - You're welcome to type commands in Unix if you want to, but nowadays it isn't usually necessary. An operating system is the layer of software that reads files, starts programs, etc for other programs. Between this layer and the user there can be a command line (like a PC's DOS or Command prompt) or a program with windows and icons. On the Teaching System we offer both ways of working. The graphical alternative isn't exactly the same as on a PC or Mac (that would be illegal) but for common operations it's similar. It may lack some of the utilities you're familiar with though - we don't have graphical ways to do everything that can be done from the command line. For example, there's no graphical "Find" or "Find File" utility and no centralised folder of control panels.

    Once you get used to typing commands in, you might find it a less cumbersome way of working than using the mouse. Changing the suffix on a 100 files from jpeg to jpg can be tedious with a mouse.

  • Unix is old - It is, but unlike some other old operating systems, it's still here! It has facilities that MacOS and Windows are only now adopting. Unix has had years to optimise these facilities (multi-tasking, virtual memory, etc). Rather than reinvent the wheel, Apple based their operating system on Unix.
  • Unix is slow - The X-based graphics often seen on Unix machines wasn't designed with speed as the top priority, and so on a Unix machine graphics can be many times slower than on a Mac or PC. This is the downside of being able to run a program on one machine (maybe a powerful but distant one) and have the graphics appear on another (the one in front of you). But graphics aside, Unix is usually comparable speed-wise, at the very least.
  • Unix is expensive - A version of Unix (called Linux) for PCs is cheap - or even free. There's also FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, etc.
  • Unix doesn't have good games - Well, Macs run a version of Unix. For free versions of unix, Quake, Heretic, SimCity and Civilisation are available (see but the range is narrow. Some of the better known applications like Word are hard to find on Unix too, but free alternatives sometimes exist.