27 Differences Between ArcGIS and QGIS – The Most Epic GIS Software Battle in GIS History
The Differences Between QGIS and ArcGIS
You probably grew up using ArcGIS… or QGIS…
And every day, you sit down at your computer desk
…and you do the same thing:
You open up the same ArcGIS software…or QGIS software (albeit a newer version) because that’s what you know best.
But have you ever asked yourself:
Can I get MORE from using different GIS mapping software?
We navigate you through the differences between ArcGIS and QGIS because you’ll be more efficient and more advanced of a GIS user.. It’s a head-to-head GIS software showdown with the star-studded lineup in the GIS industry – ArcGIS vs QGIS..
1 QGIS mind-blowingly consumes all types of data
ArcGIS has broken more hearts than anyone for consuming data.
No questions asked. QGIS has the edge for consuming data. QGIS is versatile. It’s cutting edge when it comes to consuming data.
QGIS uses the GDAL/OGR library to read and write GIS data formats. Over 70 vector formats are supported.
QGIS was born to work with PostGIS. But the list goes on for GIS format consumption… ENC, shapefile, geodatabase, MapInfo formats, Microstation file formats, AutoCAD DXF, SpatiaLite, Oracle Spatial, MSSQL Spatial databases, WellKnownText (WKT)…
Instead of pounding the pavement to load your NetCDF files, QGIS will consume it for YOU.
Instead of wasting time trying to add space-delimited files, the QGIS interface lets you roll it in 24 hours a day. (Because setting custom delimiters in QGIS is even better than Microsoft Office.)
Instead of poring over piles of conflicting and confusing GIS formats, simply consume it with QGIS.
ArcGIS has broken more hearts than anyone for consuming data.
While QGIS has won my heart.
2 Simplicity is beauty for user experience
You never realized how powerful the ArcGIS “Add Data” could be, did you?
Yes this “Add Data” button:
You laugh now, but think about it:
This one button simplifies adding data because it recognizes all GIS formats.
Do you want to add a spreadsheet? Do you want to add a raster? Push the “Add Data” button. It’s that easy.
In QGIS, do you want to add a spreadsheet?
Click the “Add Vector” button. Select the all data formats drop-down.
The separate buttons in QGIS (add vector, add raster, and PostGIS, add SpatialLite, etc) is tolerable but adds confusion.
Another instant crush is the splash screen in ArcMap that displays your latest map documents. Retrieve old MXDs because we all have to return to unfinished business. This feature is available in QGIS by selecting Project > Open Recent .
Simplicity is a thing of beauty for use experience.
And ArcGIS execution is genius.
3 Explore your geodata with ArcCatalog and QGIS Browser
QGIS Browser and ArcCatalog are stand-alone GIS data management applications.
These applications help many manage their raster, vector and GIS data. They give basic preview functions but the focus is on data access and organization.
Pin down missing data sets by using the filter and search tools. It’s like your own personal Google search engine. With ArcCatalog, it’s not only for data, but also maps, models and tools.
A part of managing data is creating metadata. When was it created? Who is the creator? How was it made? The answers can be found in metadata.
Over the years, metadata has evolved into a variety of formats (ISO, FGDC, INSPIRE and NAP). ArcCatalog rises to the occasion giving users the option to select their own metadata standards.
Both QGIS Browser and ArcCatalog help to easily navigate in your filesystem and manage geodata…
The edge goes to ArcCatalog because of its options.
4 Fearlessly join tables in ArcMap and QGIS
When you join a table to spatial data, you’re putting each row on the map.
Creating table joins is intuitive in ArcGIS. In ArcMap, you can right-click a layer and select ‘join’. You can also join via the layer properties.
And it’s really just as simple in QGIS.
In QGIS, you can join tables with the layer properties. When you make a table joins in QGIS, it gives the option to rename the prefix of that specific join. With multiple joins, this is a useful feature.
But both are winners in my books.
5 ArcGIS and QGIS hit the bullseye for coordinate systems and projections
The first data set you add to ArcMap determines your coordinate system.
When other data sets are added in other coordinate systems, ArcGIS will project the data “on the fly”. This means the layer will match the initial layer and data frame’s coordinate system.
A ‘Unknown Spatial Reference’ means there’s a datum conflict. In this case, ‘unknown units’ will appear in the bottom right corner of ArcMap and you should use the Define Projection tool.
QGIS has support for 2,700 known coordinate reference systems (CRS). It allows you to define global and project-wide CRS for layers without a pre-defined CRS. It also allows you to define custom CRS and supports on-the-fly projection of vector and raster layers.
Both ArcGIS and QGIS handle CRS in a user-friendly way. Issues have risen with .PRJ in QGIS. But that’s a thing of the past.
6 ArcGIS Online loads your arsenal with real world GIS data
When you open the ArcGIS Online’s data catalog, you’ll feel like a kid on Christmas. Unwrap thousand of gifts like government data, detailed basemaps and crowd-sourced information.
The basic ArcGIS license gives you access to ArcGIS Online – a GIS data goldmine.
A generic search for “environment” returns over 2887 GIS datasets. 2887. USDA Wildfires, NOAA Damaging Winds, World Climate Total Annual Precipitation, Ocean Bathymetry Basemap. This would make any environmental researcher squeal in delight.
The bottom line is that ArcGIS Online (AGOL) is a rich source of GIS data. It helps you analyze and make even more powerful and knowledgeable decisions.
Remember that with great power comes responsibility. Use the power wisely, my friend.
7 Licensed to geoprocess
“Licensed to geoprocess” sounds like a really bad movie. ArcGIS is the villain forcing you to connect to your license. QGIS is the open source hero.
ArcGIS has a very good geoprocessing framework. Very solid. Very extensive.
But your license level determines which tools you can use in ArcGIS. A basic license still gives you access to a large number of powerful tools. An advanced license gives you access to everything.
Now this part is important:
There are no license levels in QGIS. Open source QGIS software does not limit which tools can be used.
If you want to use the erase tool in ArcGIS 10, you’d have to turn on the advanced license. If there are no available advanced licenses, it means you can’t use the erase tool. (You could use the free trial of ET GeoWizards).
Now, take this to the bank:
The erase tool is readily available in QGIS in the Vector Analysis toolbox. (It’s the Difference tool) Same as the symmetrical difference tool, which isn’t available with a basic ArcGIS license.
There’s tool integration with GRASS and SAGA GIS, this gives you the necessary horsepower at your disposal to solve almost every geospatial problem.
QGIS is working on its geoprocessing framework which is already impressive. But in the end, you really are licensed to geoprocess in ArcGIS. It’s like a bad horror movie with the inconvenient 999999 error.
This makes QGIS a dominant winner in this category.
Have no fear, the plugins are here
Sorry, you thought we were talking about QGIS, didn’t you?
We all know you can engineer specialized analyses with plugins. QGIS has boatloads of pluginsto solve everyday GIS problems. Over 300 of them.
But what you may not have known is that ArcGIS has plugins too. There are solutions for practically EVERY GIS problem.
Free integration with R stats (Geospatial Modelling Environment), Marine Tools add-on, NetCDF interoperability, ET GeoWizards, ArcGIS Patch Analyst,…With Esri’s latest addition for an app store of their own – ArcGIS Marketplace, even more plugins will be rolling out like clockwork.
There are paid (and free) solutions for almost any spatial problem you can think of. Esri has nailed every corner of the market including gardening. You have to understand how scalable and unique Esri is to solve your geospatial problem.
QGIS is a lean-mean vector processing machine…
but it just doesn’t has the variety of specialized tools available in Esri.
9 Raster processing in both QGIS and ArcGIS are crazy, stupid useful
The Spatial Analyst extension packs the most punch for raster data manipulation.
Whether it’s simple math (map algebra and conditional toolset), statistics (multivariate, neighborhood or zonal toolsets), or generating value surfaces (interpolation, density or overlays), ArcGIS raster-based tools are rock-solid. The Spatial Analysis tools also offers specialized tools for groundwater, hydrology, cost surfaces and solar radiation. Other options are to filter (reclass or extraction tool sets) or simplify data (generalization toolset).
In QGIS, the raster calculator tool performs map algebra with a little less math and trigonometry functions. QGIS has multiple ways to perform interpolation. Ordinary and universal kriging are separate tools in QGIS, but in ArcGIS it’s a radio button under the kriging tool. GRASS r.cost is for cost surfaces. QGIS wins for more filtering options. There are groundwater and solar radiation tools in QGIS, but not like ArcGIS
We could continue. But choose not to bore you.
It’s difficult here to pin down a winner, as both stand out for having a plethora of raster manipulating options.
10 ArcGIS Geostatistical Toolbox is crowned winner because it teaches you stats
Have you ever tried to assemble furniture without the instruction manual? Practically impossible, right?
When you run tools in the ArcGIS Geostatistics Toolbox, the instructions and output explanations are so clear that a child could understand the results.
When you run Moran’s I, the report output delivers a concise explanation. You know if your data is auto-correlated or not.
In QGIS, you need a good understanding of the tool beforehand. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But you don’t get the silver platter like ArcGIS 10.
The exploratory regression tools in ArcGIS are well made because the outputs allow users to connect statistics with their data. This saves time for analysts.
The Group Stats plugin in QGIS is neat. It’s like an interactive pivot table creator integrated in QGIS. The columns are your statistics types (average, minimum, variance, etc). Rows are categorical fields such as place names or watersheds. Add a value field and push calculate. Voila, your pivot table is generated.
When you can make difficult concepts straight-forward, you become a winner in my book. And ArcGIS is best at teaching geostatistics.
11 You have x-ray vision using QGIS remote sensing tools
Silently in the vacuums of space, satellites are passively and actively collecting the various EM spectra of Earth. Satellites like Sentinel 2a and Landsat-8 are the exciting ones making data more ubiquitous to GIS analysts.