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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4 thoughts on “QGIS versus ArcGIS”

  1. Not big in GIS but I needed to open a GML file and investigated various GIS programs, and yes it was QGIS that seemed to handle this easily not like the others.

  2. ,I am sorry to say that this article is full of approximation, if not total nonsense.
    Qgis has support from the community very active mailing lists, knowledgeable people on stackexchange. But you can get commercial support from various companies around the world, most of them employing core developers. The big difference here is that you are not tied to a specific vendor, which gives you more freedom and independance. this tends to push the global support qualitylevel up.

    Qgis is not developed by volunteers, but mainly by people who are paid for that.I thought the “free software developers are hobbyist” idea disappeared a decade ago…

    As for users, we see a lot of them in all domains, private and public, and not only academics. The French ministery of environment has recently started to switch from mapinfo to qgis,which is now part of their global IT strategy, just like postgresql/postgis (a strong complement to qgis) is recommended by a directive the prime minister himself.

    Qgis processing capabilities are currently enhanced a lot through three sextante extension,which acts as a wrapper around a lot of geoprocessing toolkits with a big amount of algorithms, namely grass,saga,orfeo toolbox, ftools, R, gdal/ogr and all python gis libraries.

    About output quality, your arguments are a bit… void!

    • If that’s the case, somebody had better tell the QGIS team to stop looking for volunteers: “The QGIS Project is always looking for volunteers to join the different teams and contribute to this wonderful open source project!” http://www.qgis.org/en/documentation/developer.html

      Esri also has extensive secondary support through an army of vendors and business partners. I was highlighting the main avenue of seeking support for both softwares and I will add the resource that Anita Graser provided.

      And yes, there are always instances of QGIS usage in other industries. One can always name an example here and there. Esri still dominates the commercial industries with over 70% of market share.

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