Originally posted on xyHt Monday 2nd Feb: http://www.xyht.com/uncategorized/qgis-v-arcgis/

Okay, so I’m likely to get lynched but before all the lovers/haters come out of the woodwork, I’d like to remind everyone that these two systems are both great achievements. We are looking at 2 software which have changed the way we look at the world and the way we think about the world around us. The have allowed us to communicate issues and information in near real time and saved many lives….before you assume that I am criticizing one or the other software, I wish to point out that it doesn’t matter too much which is better as whichever one you use is the best.

That said, I’ve worked in GIS for over 15yrs and been involved in testing (functionality & stability) of both systems for corporate entities and have found both systems to have little “niggles”, mostly noticeable due to the years of using both software. So, to the developers, this is my list of things I would like fixed….to the new users, this is my personal view of how the software compares (but remember these are MINOR niggles)….and to the other users out there I am interested to hear how you feel or whether I am alone in this.

1. Price

QGIS is an Open Source (Free subject to GNU license conditions) Geographic Information System that works on almost all operating systems and comes out of the box with a desktop application. There is also mobile & web versions which can be installed.

Examples of outputs

ArcGIS from ESRI is a proprietary GIS which offers a free 60 day free trial and also a free viewer (subject to license). The ArcGIS system comes in several different “Models” depending on the expected use, these are Basic, Standard & Advanced. Pricing is based on this core system choice & then any “Extensions” to this system, for example 3D capability, spatial analysis tools , tracking analyst tools – (see more here). ESRI also provide as part of the system access to their ArcGIS Online & a huge repository of data which can be used under the ESRI license. Further purchase allows web & mobile capability.

Examples of outputs

2. Interface

QGIS: Those familiar with a GIS will imidiately recognise basic functions such as adding layers, measuring, identifying & selecting. As with other GIS, there are a multitude of “other buttons” which provide further functionality & can sometimes be daunting but all toolbars are dockable & it is extremely easy to set the interdace and functions as you like it.

QGIS Interface

From a GIS professionals point of view, the coordinate system feedback is a little clumsy or rather, invisible…when changing between coordinate systems there are few options for changing information or ensuring the correct system is being used. Furthermore when setting coordinate systems for data frames there is little control for setting individual transformations for items & the interface does not show enough detail on the coordinate system being chosen (which false eastings/northings does the selected system use? etc)

In contrast QGIS makes using different data formats a breeze, ENC data, shapefile data, PostGIS or even fgb amongst a few are easy to consume and draw up. It is clear and easy to see which formats can ber accessed from which point and also where they are layered. Symbolising the data is a cartographers dream with more options than you could ever use, turning simple maps into works of art.

QGIS allows map production through another window which is almost like opening another add-on software called “Print Composer” although this is quite different and seemingly unnecessary to begin with, after a few weeks of use the extra functionality and the fact that it runs in a separate window is a blessing, providing some really nice capability.

ArcGIS: Out of the box there is a certain familiarity to ArcGIS, there are all the tools you would expect but it all has a slight 1990s “technical software” feel about it, though again, as with QGIS, there is hundreds of strange buttons and frames.

ArcGIS Interface

Rather that starting with an empty screen, ArcGIS loads previous projects and shows you a selection to choose from on load (see below for more detail) – to the new user, this could be quite confusing.

With ArcGIS 9.3, ESRI integrated the data browser (know as ArcCatalog) into the software so that you can “Google Search” for your data from you local file server which makes for finding data extremely easy.

Adding new data (not through the browser) can be confusing initially, I remember in the early days spending 5mins every data looking for the “add data”. Once in, trying to add data is a little technical due to having to “set” the folders you want to access data from. If you get over these initial hurdles there are lots, if not hundreds of symbology options which allow you to render you maps with style. The one thing I will say here is that you can’t help but be a little disappointed if going from QGIS to ArcGIS as the ArcGIS uses fonts as its base for many of its symbols & there are few options for where layers conflict or using your own created symbols.

Map production is simple with ArcGIS and utilises the map frame to display the map output. Creating templates and defining boxes and labels is very easy and intuitive. Again, as with other areas of the ArcGIS system, options are hidden behind other options which are behind further options which can be confusing for the uninitiated but once used for a few weeks are quite logical.

Where ArcGIS shines from a GIS professionals point of view is that coordinate system interface. When using conflicting datum there is clear questions raised over how this should be dealt with through use of drop-downs with options for transformations. Furthermore at anytime you can select a layer or map frame to see detail on the coordinate system being used. Where the necessary coordinate system isn’t available or where some customisation is require, the interface for adjusting the datum is very simple to even the novice with further options to set favourite coordinate systems or frequently used coordinate systems.

Load time:

Authors note  – this shouldn’t really be a subsection, instead discussion should be on features/extras/stability but it is such a discussed issue that it had to be noted.

QGIS: Loads like most other software (MS Word, Excel, Photoshop etc) the only niggle is the “did you know” pop up which appears to give advise on the software….okay, this can be removed after the first use but be warned if using a dualscreen set up and it can disappear & you find yourself wondering why you can’t add your data!

ArcGIS: As stated above, it is great that on start up it provides you with a few of your recent projects to work with through an initial splashscreen. Only to do this, ArcGIS has to read all those folders which you connected (see adding layers in ArcGIS above) to find and verify the data before the screen shows. If, like many GIS professionals, you have hundreds of projects running in multiple locations, it can take a fair while to get started. To many new users it is a bit of a gripe as it makes the system seem a little slow and clunky.


QGIS: Out of the box there is basic spatial analysis functionality & statistical analysis available. There is also a large geoprocessing toolbox which utilises many of the tools & functions from other software such as GRASS, SAGA and R to allow complex tasks and also build flowcharts (called geoprocessing workflows) where many tools can be linked together to automate things.

Like ArcGIS, QGIS also has “plug-ins”, with QGIS these are built by both developer and user alike which means that some are nothing more than shortcuts but as a whole many of the plug-ins provide the professional with tools such as (here is a small sample of the hundred plus FREE plug-ins):

  • QGIS2Threejs -Provides 3D rendering & sharing capability through webGL, allowing provision of interactive 3D models via the web brower
  • OpenLayers Plugin – Open Streetmap, Bing, Google & Stamen basemaps available at no cost to use under your data
  • CADTools – Allows survey style & technical editing with chamfer, parallel & offset editing options
  • Profile Tool – If you have a DEM or DSM as a layer, you can simply draw a line anywhere to extract the profile of the surface as an image or in graph format.
  • Ordnance Survey Translator – Converts Ordnance Survey GML format data to any other (OGR) geospatial format
  • OpenGeo – Allows WYSIWYG mapping and load to the (open source) OpenGeo web mapping system.
A model created with the QGIS2Threejs plugin
A model created with the QGIS2Threejs plugin

Through update on the OSGEO4W site, WMS/WFS data can be served directly from QGIS (QGIS Server) to your web map service and is, again, WYSIWYG. Then, if you are using the Ubuntu operating system, you can add the QGIS Web Client to enable full web mapping with tools direct from your QGIS desktop.

QGIS has a large community of developers and supporters with a multitude of backgrounds & this really helps when you come across a problem, issue or analysis which QGIS might not support. Sometimes a developer can see how useful it will be to the software to include the tool or process & it can be up in the “Master” (the working development build which is available to download) within hours OR you could pay someone a small fee for helping out (more like a donation than a fee) to help develop your tool (I’ve normally paid between £50-150) OR there is huge support on GIS StackExchange, where you could get immediate help from the wider GIS community. The only thing to note is that unless you opt for commercial support (which is VERY cheap), you are relying on the good will of volunteers who are extremely passionate about the software, so sometimes when you have a tight deadline and it is all falling down around you, you don’t have that safety net…..though if you need that, purchase some commercial support!

ArcGIS:  Depending on the package you chose (See pricing above), will depend on the amount of extras and functionality you have out of the box. To be comparable in this instance, I will base my view from the “basic” package.

The basic package, although sounding relatively low on features has quite a few tools. There are 100+ geoprocessing tools & also advanced editing options. What is obvious though is that even with the basic package, there is integration with the ArcGIS Online facility whereby you can access hundreds of data from detailed basemaps to user created data (including some government data such as census & crime).

To better perform analysis in your area of work, ESRI provide many extensions (at cost) to the ArcGIS suite, some of which are listed here:

  • ArcGIS 3D Analyst – A full suite of tools for manipulation and display of 3D data including creation of surfaces, DEM. DSM, TINs, 3D analysis (3D buffers, line of sight etc) & also access
  • ArcGIS Geostatistical Analyst – Allows you to model, simulate & evaluate statistical data related to your geodata
  • ArcGIS Network Analyst – Provides network-based spatial analysis tools for solving routing problems. –
  • ArcGIS Tracking Analyst – Extends the time-aware capabilities of the ArcGIS system with advanced functions to let you view, analyze, and understand spatial patterns and trends in the context of time.
  • ArcGIS Data Interoperability – Gives more data formats for ArcGIS to use
Modelling 3D cities using ESRI Extension CityEngine
Modelling 3D cities using ESRI Extension CityEngine

ESRI sells the ArcGIS for Server which “bolts on” to the ArcGIS Suite to provide full web map capability in a WYSIWYG environment. Originally you needed to be quite technical to use this extension but thanks to the hard work of the ESRI development team, there is now a simple button “Send to web”, the Server system also supports provision of WMS/WFS/WCS formats. For those who don’t wish to commit to such a system, there is the ArcGIS Online (at an additional cost) which provides a web mapping capability without the need for a server, the online maps are held on the “GIS Cloud” (ESRIs Servers). Again, this is very simple and data can simply be uploaded to the ArcGIS Online direct from the desktop, with this service the price is based on amount of consumption rather than a fixed cost like the other extensions.

ESRI, for a fee, provide dedicated support 24/7. Having had experience with calling about transformation issues & speed issues, they are very hit & miss, rarely have I had a bug fix or work around the same day but that said they are very helpful & try their best.


QGIS: Has a core team of developers who concentrate on the software improvement & there are commercial companies who offer tools and software development at cost. Further to all this, QGIS utilises Python for it’s tool development and has an extensive library of documentation and an online community where help can be obtained.

Being a born “Tinkerer” I have found it not too complicated when push comes to shove, to get into the gubbins and make adjustments, for example adding a geoprocess or changing a coordinate system reference. Where this is built in a modular fashion with open standards (its designed for this type of “tinkering”), it is easy to set right when you make a mistake.

ArcGIS: Development is led by the ESRI development team and commercially led. This is not to say that there isn’t an opportunity for development….many of the new functionality within ArcGIS has come from user feedback and issues, also for cost ESRI is able to develop $$ anything you can dream of.

Like QGIS, the software utilises Python for build of geoprocessing tools and where the software is so huge, it can be quite daunting to get your head around how to call all the necessary components, though there is a wealth of information on the extensive ESRI training but I highly recommend getting some training.

Understandably the software is quite closed so tinkering isn’t so easy….though you have support if you do make too much of a mess.


QGIS: Here is where comparisons start to get a little tricky and keep in mind that I am writing this based on QGIS 2.6.1 & ArcGIS 10.2….QGIS runs as 64bit software, it utilises more than one core at a time for processing and it is noticeable. Working with raster data is a little faster than vector data but marginally. Working between different data formats shows no speed issues, the main issues arise when you are using data 4GB and above as you require the available memory to process and serve.

ArcGIS: As I write this ArcGIS works as a 32bit application, this means that it only utilises one core at any time and will use the RAM contiguously….but interestingly I have found that it will use well above the Windows recommended maximum RAM. In theory, 32bit Windows has a 4GB limit on RAM but ArcGIS will still consume RAM well over this – I currently use a machine with 16GB of RAM and find ArcGIS using it up!


 Niggles & Life savers



  • Although shadows are available for fonts, there is no option for point symbols.
  • Plug-in/Add-on documentation – There is a huge list of amazing plugins but little or no information on what they do or how to use them.
  • Annotation/Text labels are difficult to control, although there are many, many options, there are none to keep the labels a minimum distance (like a buffer) from each other OR an option to convert them to free labels in the map so that they can be moved freely using the mouse,
  • Personally, when I categorise data, I’d like to do it on multiple fields like NAME & CITY or STREET & TOWN.
  • Metadata – There doesn’t appear to be a way to read or write metadata to any of the required standards.
  • Table joins are not as obvious and easy as in ArcGIS.

Life Savers

  • Cartography is a synch with some beautiful and clever options which allow artistic maps.
  • The options for editing the legend of a map is amazing. You can alter layer names without ever needing to alter the layer name, you can adjust the legend layer order without adjusting map layers, there are also options to further add group titles and subgroup titles for any or all layers without affecting the map.
  • Consuming data – when all other GIS have you beating your head against the wall, you can guarantee that you can bring it into QGIS!



  • The symbol options are dated, mostly font based when many other GIS are providing more image & stylised options.
  • Although ArcGIS has many geospatial data formats it is able to use and write to, it is also very closed and predominantly uses the ESRI formats. In an age where the market is saturated with data it is frustrating to not be able to use PostGIS, ENC, RNC or raw LiDAR data in the basic version.
  • Why do I have to turn off the editing to calculate a field?!

Life Savers

  • Categorising and rendering statistical data based on multiple fields is easy, VERY easy.
  • Table Joins & Relates Wow! It is so good that when I work on statistical data in Excel I often find myself joining the tables (even when non spatial) in ArcGIS!!
  • There are so many options when it comes to labelling that you can always get the desired result….and when you can’t, you can convert the labels to graphic text and move it by hand!!


They are both great GIS


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I’d love to hear any other comments you might have on this, feel free to comment below.

Comment From Will Burt (@iamwillburt):

Niggles: QGIS Oracle DB Datasources & ArcGIS native KML support




  1. You are indeed brave to post a comparison, because as you mentioned people are always going to nitpick any results.
    I think you did well to try to be balanced. The part I miss from this and most other comparisons, is …which workflow and user profile are we talking about? You focused on small things which I suspect are a concern of a student at home or a struggling architect who occasionally transfers files to GIS for a quick analysis. What about the oil company? What about the environmental ministry, or the international shipping company? These users want mobile workforce automation, integration with business intelligence, decision-making dashboards, and special ELA pricing and corresponding support. These users don’t pick up an ArcGIS Desktop off the shelf and say, “hey the symbols are ugly; maybe I should tell my enterprise to use QGIS instead”. Sorry, at the mid-to-high end things don’t work that way. They pay for service and they get solutions to help get their job done. They do not buy GIS because maps are cool, but rather to do their job better and save money later on. ROI.

    So anyway, maybe a context set-up in the introduction section would help readers to make more sense of the comparison. What is the objective and who is the user we are assuming?

    Just a suggestion.

    Mike (Esri education market)

    btw: arcgis for home use costs $100. cheaper than Idrisi.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Michael. As you may see from my background, I have worked in many of the sections and areas you mention and yes, answers are of prime concern but you know what? They still grumble about the way it looks, the cost and the speed.
    As I state at the beginning, this is my personal opinion based on the way I have and currently use GIS from both a basic & advanced point of view.
    You ARE right of course, ArcGIS is only £100 for home use but I know many students & learners who are working part time jobs to pay their way and £100 is A LOT of money.
    I love ArcGIS, it is a scalable system but we musn’t hide from some of its failings, we should embrace them and further strive to improve it.

    1. Ad home edition: All I get is a note telling me to contact the local distributor. No way to just pay and download. I’m not even sure I can get it or at what price. That’s not 21st century customer service in my eyes.

  3. I like the fact you’re at pains to say they are both great options. It’s tough to try and be impartial and fair in a world where tribal allegiance tends to reign and mark you out as friend or foe! I’ve taught both and used both. I still do (disclaimer: for those that don’t know I now work at Esri).

    Just wanted to add that ArcGIS Pro (part of the 10.3 release) adds significantly to the Esri platform bringing 64-bit multi-threaded tech, improvements and new features. From my perspective (on the cartographic side of things), the symbology and graphics capabilities of ArcGIS Pro offer a rich new palette and opens up some great new opportunities for map-making.

    1. Thanks Kenneth, you know what? The QGIS v ArcGIS Pro is already being written, this time I think that I’ll expand on a few of the points which people are raising and which I deliberately glossed over this time.
      I am looking forward to comparing both software again and I sincerely hope that the new carto side of Pro is as good as they say, just as much as I am looking forward to trying some of the new shadow styles and multiple grids in QGIS.
      I’ll stand up in court and swear they are both great software, I couldn’t live without both in my life 🙂

  4. How about getting support in your every day work tasks? How long before you get help, usefull help?
    Or what about bugs in every x.0 release? How long to fix those until you can really use the new release?
    How much do you have to spend for training?
    I have been using both products for a while, and I have strong feelings on these, been burnt many times, and suprisingly the paid product is the one that fails me every time. But I would like to hear your views on this.

    1. Hi Duarte,
      I feel your pain, it took me 3yrs at work to get a machine capable of running interpolation on a 500mb point grid….and you pay good money for a bad memory leak stuffed system….but, I kinda like it too, maybe I’m a little masochistic but with ArcGIS at least I know where the bugs are and I have come to live with them. It’s not an excuse and they should be fixed but you know them…..With QGIS it has taken time but I am getting comfortable with the niggles….for example recently I was showing a hydrographer through using it (he needed something free but reliable) and it took us both an hour to work out how to accurately enter points at an x,y/long,lat location…..you tried it? ArcGIS you just edit and right click….

      Support/Training/Development are all subjects which are very hard to compare with these 2 software. ESRI provides so much amazing training that it is hard to fault them, whereas QGIS provide adequate free resources and there are an ever growing amount of free QGIS courses appearing. QGIS could never provide the same level of training or resource unless they got some serious funding or went proprietary!
      Support can be bought for QGIS just as you pay for ESRI maintenance, they are hard to compare as you could have a developer sit on your lap for the price of ESRI support….the only difference is that for a company using ESRI, the proprietary “buy-in” also provides some level of liability.
      Development of both software is a paid-for service (pretty much). ESRI make it easier for the average joe to do a lot themselves but then QGIS (as of 2.6.1) has a lot of integrated development options now and you can get some real cheap development (I’ve got plugins developed for $100 in the past).

      What are your thoughts and experiences of support, development & training?
      You mention bugs, has there been improvements in the latest versions of the software?

  5. re-reading my comment and your reply, I can see I was a bit harsh. Probably because of my level of frustration raising a bit over the years and culminating in the disaster 10.3 is revealing to be, at least for my use case.
    I’m usually a balanced user. I like both. I like using arcgis, both desktop and server. What gets me steaming is lack of support when we need it the most and a qc that’s a mistery to me. I don’t want to make this a list of complains so won’t list the issues.
    With qgis I get answers pretty quickly and even bugs corrected *if* they are critical. Sure it is a teenager comparing to arcgis, so there’s stuff it takes more steps to get done. Some things are not there at all. But what is there is compelling.
    For instance, cartographic capabilities are amazing and years ahead, like multi-threaded display, rule-based symbology, anti-alias (sig), dynamic image effects photoshop-alike (not just hillshade FCOL), central distribution of 3rd party plugins with automatic updating, and an oldie goldie – multiple printing layouts in 1 project. Some of these you will get with arcgis pro, but that’s another story. What is hard for a client to understand is how is it possible to take sooo long to implement anti-alias in your maps? Or multiple layouts? You have to wait 16 years? 16 years? Really? Sorry, I’m doing it again…
    So, yes, I like arcgis. I am a master jedi with it. But, it could take better care of me. I’m getting no love back 😉
    and qgis is just looking better and better…

  6. You can categorise in QGIS with two or more fields, with concatenation… Every renderer mode allows to use expression-based “field”. For example "City" || "Street" will work like an charm…

    There is an screenshot with example:

    1. Hi Tomasz,
      The Master version of QGIS now has QLR….I paid a developer to make group styling part of the system. Works like a dream too…..16days until the next QGIS release.

    1. Hi Sebastian,
      No, you are right. It is more to deal with the architecture of the software that it hasn’t got multi-threading enabled. I was trying to make it easy to understand to the non-technical user but in doing so I told a few white lies. So, to clarify, ArcGIS 32bit runs on 1 instance at a time and uses contiguous RAM but is held to one core as there is no multithreading within the software. What is interesting though, is that it will use well above the possible 4GB RAM, well into 32GB…..

  7. QGIS is very good for students and for some level of academic researcher. It is good because it is free! But lets just start making a map from beginning to the end or printing it than we will see how good or ugly is QGIS. For my view comparing the GIS with ArcGIS is like comparing a Spoiled child with a Serious man!

    1. Hi Rizah,
      As a long time member of the British Cartographic Society & a GIS Consultant for MANY years, I find your comment a little sad. Have you tried QGIS? There are many new sites which have showcases dedicated to the artistic output created, in many ways the cartographic capability in QGIS far exceeds ArcGIS, in fact it is my first choice of software for any presentation work of late.
      I would say that both software are for the professional GIS user. ArcGIS is the easy choice for those with money and little patience & QGIS is the innovators choice due to all the possibilities.

      1. Hi Dragon,

        I am working with ArcGIS sinc 2004 and in QGIS is my second experience year. A have applied both of them in the field of spatial/municipal and urban planning. As you know doing GIS is about making a map (doing a geographical research). Working in layout in QGIS i found it not suitable. While working in layout in ArcGIS is very similar to CorelDraw or other graphic programs.
        Beside this, i found QGIS without any capabilities working with 3D analysis and simulations in terms of building or other structures (perhaps i am wrong because of my short experience in QGIS).
        Also very difficulty and limited working with similarity option with (graphical modeler) ModelBuilder in ArcGIS.
        Perhaps you as a developer or supporter of QGIS developer might consider to innovate or copy some tools and capabilities from ArcGIS and AutoCAD Map 3D.
        However i do believe that QGIS is the best GIS Software because it is FREE.

        Thank you!

      2. I was there about 3 years ago myself, the cost of the ESRI licenses was always being questioned (one of the highest costs in the company)….I work in all stages of renewable energy consultancy and touch a little on urban planning. I agree that to begin with, the QGIS composer is a little fiddly, I found that after making a few templates and getting my head around the interface, although not as EASY as ArcGIS, the system had better functionality….did you know you could adjust how the legend draws up in the expressions?
        It takes a while but once you get used to it, your brain goes “of course!!” and it all makes sense. QGIS have a UX group which (I think) is run by Nathan Woodrow (@Madmanwoo). It might be worth chatting with him on your issues.
        ArcGIS works well for our company, I can set up a raft of templates, lock them down and automate all the text. So simple that I can trust most of the technicians to use the templates and not mess it up…..They are both great but for different reasons. ArcGIS needs to add more functionality (but not mess up the simplicity) whereas QGIS needs to improve the UX.
        Have you tried QGIS2Threejs? Its a plugin which uses WEBGL for 3D rendering in QGIS or have you looked at the QGIS globe? I am sure that if you spoke with the QGIS2Threejs guys about your needs, they could help at a very low cost to give you what you need 🙂
        ArcGIS is good at its ability to consume 3D data but I find it quite clunky to work with. TINS render with holes in, videos always play badly, there is no option for rendering….ArcGIS can be amazing with 3D GIS but I sometimes feel that it is only because the likes of CARIS, IVS Fledermaus & AutoCAD 3DSMax have not ventured into competing.

      3. To address the balance, although it may seem like I am fighting for QGIS, I am in fact setting the story straight. The fact that I mention ArcGIS very little in these comments is testiment to how robust, scalable and flexible it is as a system.
        I am consistently finding that in my replies, that I need to first tell people that the functionality IS there in QGIS (to make the comparison fair) before I justify my reasons. ArcGIS “just does it” no matter how pretty it is, it’s like a trusty dog ready to get your slippers….
        I think these comparison blogs are great as they highlight the advancements which each software has made and how even basic GIS is no longer about just making maps but finding answers to real world problems which we couldn’t see before….

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