QGIS versus ArcGIS

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When considering which GIS desktop software to adopt, two of the most popular choices are Esri’s ArcGIS and Quantum GIS, also known as QGIS.  While each option offers a suite of options which includes desktop, mobile, and web offerings, this article will focus on what some of the main similarities and differences are between ArcGIS for Desktop and QGIS Desktop.

QGIS Versus ArcGIS by Category

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QGIS is a freely downloadable open source GIS software suite that has a popular desktop option, mobile, and web component.

Esri’s ArcGIS is a commercially available suite of software that includes three desktop versions with varying levels of complexity, mobile, and web components.


Since QGIS is FOSS (free and open source software), there are no licensing concerns.  QGIS can be loaded on any computer.  ArcGIS is restricted through a seat license.  Single install versions of ArcGIS are regulated through a licensing key.

Development Process

QGIS is developed has a paid core of developers but also depends in part on volunteers.  ArcGIS is a commercial GIS software package developed by paid staff members of Esri.


Esri’s ArcGIS for Desktop only runs in a Windows PC environment, although there are some hints from Esri staff that a native Mac based version is being seriously considered.  In the meantime, users with Mac computers can only run ArcGIS for Desktop using either a virtual machine setup or Bootcamp.

QGIS is cross-platform and can be installed and run on Windows, Mac, or Linux machines.

Loading Time

QGIS has a faster startup time than ArcGIS.


Both QGIS and ArcGIS functionality can be extended thorough scripting (Python) and plugins (or extensions in ArcGIS).


Esri has a well established knowledge base, peer support forum, and technical support system for its ArcGIS product.  QGIS offers peer support via the gis.stackexchange.com site.  Anita Graser of the blog also notes that both user and technical support for QGIS are available via OSGeo.org’s mailing lists.


Esri still enjoys the lion share of the mainstream GIS community.  Most government and commercial agencies use Esri products over any other GIS package.  QGIS’ acceptance is growing but is mostly popular in academic circles and in arenas where open source software is the norm.

Spatial Analysis

ArcGIS has more out of the box spatial analytic capabilities:  hillshading, to overlays, map algebra, surface approximation, network analysis.


A side-by-side test by Don Meltz measured significant performance differences in the Clip operation.  Meltz found that a clip operation on 20′ contours took over 12 hours on ArcGIS versus a little over 17 minutes using QGIS.


ArcGIS has better annotation capabilities. There are more native cartographic output options with ArcGIS.

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