27 Differences Between ArcGIS and QGIS – The Most Epic GIS Software Battle in GIS History

A head-to-head GIS software showdown with a GIS star-studded lineup

ArcGIS 10.3 vs QGIS 2.8.1

Last Modified: Jun 11, 2016

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

GIS File Formats

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.

Arc Bonne Projection

While QGIS has won my heart.

Learn More GIS Formats: The Ultimate List of GIS Formats – Geospatial File Extensions

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:

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.

QGIS Add Buttons

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.

QGIS Browser

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.

Find More GIS Data: 10 Free GIS Data Sources: Best Global Raster and Vector Datasets

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.

Join ArcGIS

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.

Join QGIS Tables

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.

ArcGIS Coordinate Systems

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.

QGIS Coordinate Systems

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.

Master Map Projections: Map Projections: Flatten the Sphere

6 ArcGIS Online loads your arsenal with real world GIS data

QGIS gives you a couple basemaps with the OpenLayers plugin.

OpenLayer Plugin

But it’s nowhere close to ArcGIS Online.

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.

ArcGIS Online

The bottom line is that ArcGIS Online 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.

Licensed to Geoprocess ArcMap

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.

Vector Analysis Tools QGIS

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.

This makes QGIS a dominant winner in this category.

Discover More Free GIS Software: 13 Free GIS Software Options: Map the World in Open Source

8 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 plugins to solve everyday GIS problems. Over 300 of them.

QGIS Plugins Repository

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.

ArcGIS Solutions

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.

Spatial Analyst ArcGIS

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.

QGIS Processing Toolbox

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.

For example:

When you run Moran’s I, the report output delivers a concise explanation. You know if your data is auto-correlated or not.

Moran I

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.

GroupStats QGIS

When you can make difficult concepts straight-forward, you become a winner in my book. And ArcGIS is best at teaching geostatistics.

Learn how to add the Geospatial Modelling Environment to bring R statistics to ArcGIS.

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.

QGIS and ArcGIS present a myriad of tools for remote sensing.. Some of these are like hand tools, like a chisel. Others are like power tools, like an electric drill.

The QGIS semi-automatic classification plugin lets you download Landsat imagery and classify them in a semi-automatic way. The Orfeo toolbox delivers a range of tools to filter, process and manipulate raster data. LASTools can be integrated to handle LiDAR. We found it difficult to set up. But LASTools has always been solid for LiDAR handling.

Semi Automatic Classification Plugin

When ArcGIS 10.1 added the image analysis toolbar, it instantly provided remote sensing analysts with the necessary tools to create samples, and perform unsupervised and supervised classification. Pansharpen, perform NDVI, orthorectify and interactively change the brightness, contrast and transparency. The LAS Dataset (LASD) is an awkward way to work with LiDAR. It still gets the job done.

Image Analysis Toolbar

No stand outs. But QGIS deserves an edge for remote sensing.

Want to Learn Remote Sensing? What is Remote Sensing? A Guide to Earth Observation

12 Route your next fishing trip with ArcGIS network analyst

Almost everyone has needed a routing analysis in their life.

  • Where’s the closest beer store?
  • What’s the fastest route to that beer store?

Here’s Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon:

Las Vegas to Grand Canyon

In ArcGIS, flick on the network analyst switch. Add your data to a network data set. Building a clean topological road dataset is the challenge. But after this, you’re ready to go.

Using the “Road Graph” plugin, QGIS calculates the shortest path. QGIS lacks some of the tools found in ArcGIS network analyst – Location-allocation, New OD Cost Matrix, etc.

The ArcGIS network analyst extension is the networking extension of champions.

13 Direct workflow (like a boss) using ArcGIS Model Builder

Have you ever wanted to put your workflow in auto-pilot?

Think about it for a second:

When you run redundant tasks as a scheduled model, you can sit at home in your bathrobe all day long (and still get work done.)

And ArcGIS Model Builder is the most intuitive, rock-solid, pragmatic way to automate geoprocessing jobs.

Model Builder

You string together sets of tools in Model Builder to automate processes. It has iterators to do “for” and “while” loops. Drop tools in your Model Builder Diagram and connect them together. It’s easy.

Go one step further:

Export your model and share with others. Or export as a Python script and customize it.

ArcGIS scripting is almost all run through the Arcpy module. Arcpy coding is incredibly easy because almost every tool in ArcGIS has a scripting tool of the same name already created (which you can easily copy and paste from Esri’s website). Automate everything.

QGIS has the same functionality as ArcGIS Model Builder and it’s called Graphical Modeler.

You graphically develop sets of tools in a specified order using QGIS Graphical Modeler.

QGIS Graphical Modeler

QGIS tends to crash often when using the modeler. It’s shaky. Save often.

For QGIS, you have PyQGIS. There is no QGIS module and you will be using GDAL a lot. You will also be using a bunch of other modules as needed for different projects. It can be difficult to figure out what to use and where it all is.

Despite the bugs, in the end you can achieve the desired results.

We love model builder. We love ArcPy. These are two of the brightest spots of ArcGIS.

Sharpen Your Programming Skills: Free GIS Programming Tutorials: Learn How to Code

14 Design a cartographical masterpiece in ArcGIS and QGIS

Open source skeptics think that ArcGIS is the only way you can create beautiful maps.

But QGIS is a viable option to create cartographic masterpieces. QGIS mapping interface is called ‘Print Composer’. It acts almost like another application.

Print Composer

… But once you symbolize and label features in your layout, this is when you realize that QGIS is a cartographer’s dream.

ArcGIS layout view is how to set up map templates and export map products. ArcGIS experts in various formats like PDF, JPG, SVG, AI, PNG, EPS and EMF. ArcGIS layout view is practical. It has tools to pinpoint your labels, set up mapbooks and link data frames with easy extent rectangles.

We like both QGIS and ArcGIS for all-purpose mapping.

15 Create symbology that rocks your readers’ world in QGIS

ArcGIS is loaded with stunning symbology on startup. We like the symbology by discipline (transportation, real estate, soils, weather, etc). It’s great for point, line and polygon styles. The existing symbology in ArcMap is beautiful, useful and plentiful.

QGIS misses the beat on pre-existing choices. Life would be easier in QGIS if it came equipped with symbology like railways and hatched polygons. Keep in mind: you can download and load them to your symbology palette.

QGIS Symbology

Where QGIS sputters, it makes up ground for its Adobe Photoshop-like array of fill options. It has more blending options than a symbology bakery: lighten, screen, dodge, addition, darken, multiply, burn, overlay, soft light, hard light and difference.

QGIS symbology options

Gradient fills makes QGIS a cartographer’s paradise. You can create simple gradients with two or multiple colors. Add the different types-linear, radial, conical. Save as a QGIS layer style file (*.QML).

But the icing on the cake is the “Color Picker”. It’s such a simple idea for selecting colors. You no longer have to write a RGB code again.

Color Picker

QGIS has some really advanced symbology. ArcGIS is practical and puts symbols in the hands of the cartographer. Both are winners in my books.

16 Design dynamite labels & annotation in QGIS

Labelling is fantastic in QGIS. QGIS is a whole new level of style.

  • Buffer text with a flaring glow.
  • Add drop shadows for style points.
  • Set transparencies, blending modes and offsets

These subtle differences give your labels serious pop.

QGIS Drop Shadows

While ArcGIS lacks some of the beauty of QGIS labelling, you can get surgical for placing labels with ArcGIS maplex labeling engine. Gain full control of exactly how and where you want to label features. Set label location and scale dependency. Curved and Parallel labelling is easy in ArcGIS. It’s smart.

The drawing toolbar is how to control annotation groups in ArcGIS. It’s not intuitive. Make a separate toolbar for annotations. But with a little practice you can control which annotation group labels belong to.

Placement Properties

The upside is QGIS beautiful labels. But placement properties and annotation favors ArcGIS.

Use This Mapping Checklist: 33 Map Elements to Include in Cartographic Design: A ‘How to’ Guide to Map Making

17 Become a map automation quarterback with Data Driven Pages

If you’re in the map-making business, you should use data driven pages in ArcGIS. It is your complete arsenal for automated map production.

The index layer is used to create each individual page. The Data Driven Pages toolbar and the Cartographer Toolbox is the one-two punch combo for mapbooks.

Data Driven Pages

The Cartographer Toolbox is how to create strip maps. If your map spans multiple projections, use the  Calculate UTM zone tool .

QGIS’ Composer has the ability to create an “Atlas” built-in, and it works very well.

Atlas Toolbar

Using Atlas Generation, select your coverage layer which contains geometries and fields. For each geometry in the coverage layer, a new output will be generated. Fields associated with this geometry can be used within text labels. A page will be generated for each feature.

Atlas works well. QGIS atlas and ArcGIS data driven pages are for quantity.

18 Hoist the anchor and sail away from two dimensions in ArcGlobe & ArcScene

It’s time to hoist the anchor and sail away from two dimensions.

ArcGlobe and ArcScene are stand alone programs using the 3D analyst extension. These applications give you a chance like no other to enter a world in 3D.

ArcScene is for small study area scenes. Extrude objects with amazing vertical exaggeration. The z-factor is your friend.


ArcGlobe is for data that spans the whole globe. Make your data come to life. Perform wicked fly-throughs.


Just make sure you enable your 3D analyst license before hand.

QGIS lacks decent 3D support. The Qgis2threejs plugin can catapult you in three dimensions. The Qgis2threejs plugin exports terrain data, map canvas image and vector data to your web browser.

QGIS 3D Visualization

But just don’t expect something as polished as ArcGlobe or ArcScene. Ya, ArcGIS is much better than QGIS for your 3D needs.

19 Design epic webmaps and tell your story

Webmaps are on the uptrend. The news industry, governments and businesses are using webmaps because they tell a story.

Web mapping is easy in ArcGIS. Cartographers send data to the web via ArcGIS Online. ArcGIS Online for webmaps is where the online maps are held on Esri’s GIS cloud.

ArcGIS Webmap

A cool trend are ArcGIS story maps because everyone has a story to tell. With ArcGIS, you can harness the power of maps to tell yours

QGIS Server provides a web map service (WMS). The WMS uses the same libraries as the Quantum GIS (QGIS) desktop application. Maps and print templates created in QGIS desktop can be published as web maps simply by copying the QGIS project file into the server directory.

QGIS Webmap

The slick South Perth and Swellendam, South Africa uses Leaflet clients and are example of QGIS server web maps.

20 Sail through turbulent times with ArcGIS animations

Have you ever wanted to animate your data?

Watch polar ice caps melt over time. Display global time-aware weather patterns. ArcGIS makes it an easy process to go from static to dynamic with its animation toolbar. GIS time series animations are easy in ArcGIS.

When you have a time-enabled field, scroll the time slider left-to-right. Watch your data change over time. A little preparation is necessary but nothing too painful. Export as a AVI and impress your boss.

Time Series Animation

The TimeManager plugin adds time controls to QGIS. Using time controls, you animate vector features based on time attributes. There is also an experimental raster layer support and interpolation between point geometries. You can create animations directly in the map window and export image series.

Time Manager QGIS

Animate Your Data: Time Series Animation in ArcGIS

21 Construct color-coded thematic maps

Social scientists often construct thematic maps because they show a particular theme connected with a specific geographic area

For thematic mapping in QGIS, cartographers have a range of options – graduate colors, graduated symbols, proportional symbols and dot density. Symbolize numeric data with pie, bar/column, histograms and text diagrams.

Equal Interval Classification

One of the unique tools in QGIS is the heatmap display. Take a point data set and instantly create a heat map (without raster conversion). Adjust the radius, color ramp, transparency and blending mode. In the end, the heat map renderer delivers live dynamic heatmaps for point layers.

You can symbolize multiple fields in QGIS using the “set column expression” or “rule-based expression”. But in ArcGIS, it’s fast, easy and intuitive using  unique values, many fields . Dot density maps and stacked charts are unique qualities to ArcMap.

Using both ArcGIS and QGIS, you can become a thematic mapping legend. Not the legend you see in a map, of course.

22 Create mind-blowingly detailed edits with ArcMap’s Advanced Editing tools

There are subtle differences between ArcGIS and QGIS editing. But not all editing tools are created equal.

For example:

You right-click to end a sketch in QGIS. You double-click to end a sketch in ArcGIS. You’d be surprised how refreshing it is to end a sketch with a right-click. It’s easy to mistakenly double-click when creating a lot of vertices.

QGIS offers a range of tools for editing like reshaping, splitting and tracing (with the AutoTrace plugin). Delete rings from features and create donuts with simplicity. You snap features using snapping options. The QGIS CadTools plugin provides 13 advanced tools. One of the bright features is rolling back edits in QGIS. This can only be done in the vertex sketch properties in ArcMap. Every vertex can be moved and removed.

QGIS Editor Toolbar

It’s painless to create data in ArcMap. ArcGIS has more options for advanced editing. You create features by setting up feature templates. The advanced editing enables tools like exploding multipart features, fillet/trim/extending curves and replacing geometry. The trace tool in ArcMap was sent from heaven.

Editor Toolbar ArcMap

23 You have 99 problems but a topology error isn’t one

  • Do points overlap polygons?
  • Do overlaps exist?
  • Should lines touch the boundary of polygons?


The only word I can describe topology in ArcGIS is genius. This is a genius toolbar.

If you’re worried your GIS data has errors (overlaps, gaps), ArcGIS supports richer, complex error checks with their topology tools. Inspect your topology with over 30 rules with the error inspector. Resolve topology issues with automatic or manual fixes.

Once your data is in a geodatabase, you can start creating topology rules.

ArcGIS Topology

QGIS delivers a couple of rules for topology: “must contain”, “must not have duplicates”, “must not have gaps”, “must not have invalid geometries”, “must not have multi-part geometries”, “must not overlap” and “must not overlap with”. You validate your geometry based on these rules, but how do you fix it?

QGIS Topology

ArcGIS topology fixing is interactive. One-by-one, you can go through errors and fix them.

Topology editing is a strong point in ArcGIS with a ton of options to fix editing errors.

Best of its kind.

Fix Your Digitizing Errors: Topology Rules in ArcGIS: How To Fix Digitizing Errors

24 Perform data entry like a pro

Both QGIS and ArcGIS are hard-hitting GIS data entry machines. They both provide similar functionality.

When you create a shapefile in QGIS, you are prompted to set up your fields (text, whole, decimal number or date). With ArcGIS, you create fields (integer, float, double, text or date) afterwards – unless you’re in ArcCatalog.

attribute table

When fields are created in QGIS, you can rename them using the Table Manager plugin. You probably thought in ArcGIS, you have to create a new field and copy the contents over to the new field. But the Alter Field (Data Management) can accomplish this

In geodatabases, users can set up subtypes, domains and default data entry. When users start entering attribute information, they can select from drop-down lists. This is how to steer clear from invalid entries when GIS analysts start going rogue.

Domain ArcGIS

Selection by location has been improved with its interactive selection tool. When records are selected, they can be filtered even more so (selected from, added to, removed from). The field calculator supports Python and VB to execute code.

One of the many quirks in ArcGIS is that you have to stop editing to calculate a field.

This does like a champ.

25 Locate XY coordinates by geocoding addresses

Geocoding is the process of giving XY values to street addresses.

One option to geocode is through ArcGIS Online Geocoding. This is a paid service requiring credits to use.

ArcGIS Online Geocoding Service

ArcGIS Desktop has its own way to geocode using your own data. To do this, you create an address locator. Find addresses using the Geocoding Toolbar. Type the location and add a labeled point.

If you want to avoid credit systems of any form, then you have two options in QGIS. Both are good options.

The MMQGIS plugin is great for bulk geocoding. This plugin takes a spreadsheet (CSV) containing multiple addresses and adds them to the map canvas as points.

The GeoCode plugin requires an address as input. Type an address.

QGIS Geocoding

Press OK. Watch your address appear on the map.

Geocode Results QGIS

Five for five. Boom!

We don’t like the idea of credits, or paying additional costs for geocoding. Go with QGIS for geocoding.

26 Alter geometries with data conversion tools

It’s any cartographer’s bread and butter to generalize features, to convert polygons to points or vice versa. And sometimes altering features can be tricky. But with QGIS on your side, it doesn’t have to be:

In QGIS, you can convert lines to polygons, points to polygons, or anything in between.

QGIS Conversion Tools

In ArcMap, it completely depends on the task. You may need the advanced license for data conversion.

QGIS has some pretty cool generalization tools too. These are used to simplify lines, aggregate points and polygons and more.

27 ArcGIS drowns readers with rock-solid examples and documentation (in a good way)

Documentation is superb in ArcGIS. ArcGIS not only provides in-depth documentation on how to use tools. It delivers sample data for you to get hands-on experience.

This is not to say QGIS documentation isn’t good. It’s informative. It’s well-written. It’s practical. But it hasn’t been rung through the dryer like ArcGIS.

Esri has Geonet.


While GIS Stack Exchange is the central community hub for QGIS users.

GIS Stack Exchange

QGIS support is very active. A dedicated volunteer community supports QGIS newbies. The ArcGIS community consists of staff and enthusiastic users.

They both are hit and miss when it comes to supplying answers to problems.

Let’s Wrap Things Up

GIS really comes down to just 4 simple ideas: Create geographic data. Manage it. Analyze it and… Display it on a map. These are the primordial functions and are served well in both GIS software.

You can’t go wrong with either GIS mapping software – QGIS or ArcGIS.


QGIS is free. It has multi-language support. It relies on volunteer efforts which is really good. It has huge support on stack exchange. The more you work in QGIS, the more hidden gems you find: interactive pivot tables with GroupStats, adding CSVs with simplicity and the stunning cartographical symobology and labeling options.

ArcGIS is one of the best GIS investments you could ever make. It’s expandable. It has the biggest user community to find answers. It provides tutorials with sample data for you to get hands-on experience. Model builder and automation are top caliber. The specialty software in ArcGIS extension is also a thing of beauty.

In the crudest terms, we’d rank it like this: ArcView Where does ArcGIS triumph?

Where does QGIS have an edge?

Last Updated: Jun 11, 2016

36 Comments on 27 Differences Between ArcGIS and QGIS – The Most Epic GIS Software Battle in GIS History

  1. 1. It’s GDAL or GDAL/OGR rather than OGR.

    2. Oh yes!

    5. I find dealing with CRS much MUCH easier in QGIS. In ArcGIS I always got lost in those absurdly complex dialogs.

    7. QGIS’ license is the GPL. It is not free of any license. Instead, it comes with a license that grants you the four freedoms:

    0. The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.
    1. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
    2. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
    3. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others . By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

    See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.en.html

    The tools used by QGIS (by default) are all free and open-source software as well.

    19. Check out qgis2web and QGIS Cloud

    23. Totally agree

  2. Great comparison. I am a big fan of QGIS but do use ArcGIS at work as this is the GIS of choice for part of my company.

  3. 28. MapInfo Label Display and Position

    For all the time I save using ArcGIS and QGIS I lose when it comes to label display and label positioning. The ability to select individual labels and use label style to change the anchor point, font, label line, rotation angle, offset and text in MapInfo without having to create another layer or add umpteen new fields and to maintain a consistent, logical view/connection between the mapping and layout/composer window is nirvana…unfortunately, it has few other redeeming features…maybe it’s simplicity…who needs another raster dataset in 2015?

  4. 2. So true !

    4. … and others : you completely forget to take into account the fact that PostGIS is a key companion to QGIS, and they work really well together. While you can join tables in QGIS, doing it in the PostGIS backend simply lets you touch a brand new world of capabilities.

    11. It is “Orfeo Toolbox” not “Ortheo”. You also forget to mention that ESRI is trying to push its own proprietary LIDAR format, which is really a bad move.

    12. Isn’t ArcGIS network analyst a licenced extension ?
    You can do location/allocation and more in QGIS thanks to GRASS.
    You can also directly use PgRouting (there is a QGIS plugin for that too) if you have a database

    13 : “For QGIS you have PyQGIS” not “PyGIS”. What do you mean by “there is no QGIS module” ? See “QGIS geoalgorithms”.

    16. You have automatic label positioning in QGIS, and you can also do manual positioning for the ones you want to surgically pinpoint, overriding the automatic position. You can use data-defined positions too, even computed ones. And also fully data-define all label’s properties. Curved labels are available in QGIS too, even if some corner-cases could be not that good-looking (very curvy lines). This is something which will be better in future versions, do not hesitate to contribute to funding.

    18. True, QGIS is not for 3D

    24. What about QGIS custom widget system, which you can edit in the Layer’s properties window ?

    26. … PostGIS is your friend (again)

    Wrap-up : It is totally wrong to say that QGIS “relies on volunteer effort”. QGIS has a community-driven development model. But most of QGIS developers are paid developers, whereas feature development is paid by a myriad of organisms. It has a full business ecosystem attached to it, and this is also a good thing.

  5. Another point of differences to consider, is cross-platform. If the user have a mac OSX or linux operating system, QGIS will be the way to go.

  6. Thanks for an excellent, well researched article. I’d expect it to be referenced by many people for years to come. As such, I encourage you to:
    1. List the versions of QGIS and ArcGIS which you have reviewed, so readers can determine how current this article is when they read it.
    2. Revise and update this article every 6 to 12 months, or after any major releases of the product.

  7. 1. QGIS had loads of geoalgorithm under the processing tools however they were never documented often leaving queries what they exactly do and how.
    2. Doing a point in polygon operation on large datasets found out that ArcGIS does well, and QGIS outcome is not good always.
    3. Nothing mentioned for both packages about the ability to drag and drop datasets and even aerial photo’s. By default QGIS does not present aerial photos in the correct colors.

  8. Great review, I used both myself with great success for various jobs that pretty well follow all your criteria – I could quibble on points but all yours are tops as they are.

    If you mention ArcGIS Online perhaps you should mention QGIS online, not just their web stack but also integration with the likes of AWS, or other service s.a. qgiscloud.com

    Also on licensing front, why not mention ArcGIS for Home use, a reasonable annual fee that gives you ArcGIS for Desktop Advanced for research & private use.

    And speaking of, ArcView, ArcEditor and ArcInfo are now ArcGIS for Desktop Basic, Standard and Advanced respectively.

    Last but not least, I think ArcGIS pulled ahead with ArcGIS Pro, subject for a follow-up?

    And speaking of follow-ups, another such post on ArcGIS Online vs. other web iterations?

  9. Great review! I’ve been using ESRI since 2002 and Qgis since 2011, I would like you to take note that integration of Qgis with OpenStreetMap and services like QgisCloud and CartoDB make a powerful combination for publishing online.

    Good idea to keep track of changes of this well compiled post

    And for now Qgis pluggins are limited, but growing, remember that Qgis is younger, much younger than ArcView.

  10. First off, great read! As a GIS user you should use all the tools at your disposal, you shouldn’t be limited to proprietary software but mix it with FOSS, some things do things better than other things! Find the right mix for the task at hand and make time and cost efficient decisions.

  11. I’ve been using Maptitude, Transcad and Transmodeler — the only truly simulation 3D GIS all from Caliper corporation and can assure you how versatile and easy it is when compared with the competition.

  12. Great article. I think It have some very valid points on both softwares. Also liked the idea of updating the article regularly because both software are receiving improvements every day.

    Please consider the following in the next update:

    6. QGIS have another plugin called QuickMapServices that along side with Open Layers gives you a variety of base maps. Still won’t win ESRI Online;
    14. A huge advantage of QGIS is to allow several print compositions in one single project. Also, since version 2.8, each layer can have more than one style, and you can choose what style to use in a particular map;
    19. On QGIS side it would be interesting to mention QGIS Cloud, CartoDB and Leaflet integration;
    24. Don’t forget all the QGIS edit widget. One can inforce data quality in any kind of data format

    Other nice stuff in QGIS:
    The field calculator bar in the attribute table, it’s quite convinient, and honestly I can no longer live without it.

    Virtual Fields, no longer need to put your data in geodatabase to automaticly update area and length attributes. Do an expression for that, you can even use transformation functions to calculate the area in a different Coordinate system.

    DBManager, query databases using SQL including spatial operations and add the result to the Canvas. Quite priceless.

  13. Hi,
    A great article to read and understand. I started with ESRI (good and revolutionary) but have deliberately shifted to QGIS. Simple reason….licence. I think this is the biggest reason to justify our growing geospatial data network for developing country like India.
    The plugins are the real champion along with integration of GRASS and SAGA to the QGIS Framework. Thanks to open source community. This can be taken to the remotest of villages, schools and collages with efforts on training and handling QGIS.

    Integration with new stuffs like Carto DB, MapBox…..and all new elements are really exciting and hope to see more and more.

  14. I’ve used both ArcGIS and QGIS extensively. What gives ArcGIS the advantage for my work is its ability to export maps directly to Adobe Illustrator format. In QGIS, you can export to SVG, but Illustrator often has trouble reading SVGs. So if you’re working with a designer or your maps are going into a printed report, ArcGIS has an edge over QGIS.

  15. Great article and I concur, you hit the nail on the head for many of the issues in both software.
    The only points I would mention are that:
    2. QGIS now has you previous maps on load within the main screen, along with a little screenshot.
    14. With reference to cartography you should mention the in built advanced effects which QGIS has such as shadowing and burning etc….far more options than the ESRI alternative.

    Very impressed, thanks for sharing!

  16. I’ve been using QGIS+PostGIS for some time now. Combining the capabilities of a fully capable relational database that is PostgreSQL, all of the spatial capabilities of PostGIS, and everything QGIS is capable of makes for truly incredible capabilities. Many times I can do all of my spatial analysis and geoprocessing by SQL in PostGIS, and then just use QGIS for visualizing. The biggest inconvenience in my life is getting data out of ESRI proprietary Personal and File Geodatabases and into PostGIS or any other open format that ogr2ogr handles better than gdb’s.

    QGIS integrates perfectly with PostGIS, and the capabilities to manage database in PostGIS from QGIS Browser is improving constantly. One of my favorite updates recently was the ability to save layer styles to the database, which makes it much easier to share with coworkers or others working on the database.

  17. Well done, factual and evidenced without too much bias either way.

    22. I recommend to all my ArcGIS editors to never, ever double-click to stop sketching for this reason. Always choose Finish from the context menu or press F2. Oh, and stop using StickyMove Tolerance 0 peoples!

    27. GeoNet is pretty disorganised and not terribly up to date, stackexchange is generally better for problem solving. The online documentation (manuals, white papers, tutorials) is ‘not bad’ but ESRI has a bad habit of getting a portal to a just usable state, then breaking it to make a new one. Google works better than it’s own search feature.

  18. Very nice post and fair comparation. Frankly speaking, I prefer to use open source thank commercial one. But I need time to adapt with new software. Instead pretty crapy to maintain the data we set up before.

  19. Great article.

    One note on #24. You say: “One of the many quirks in ArcGIS is that you have to stop editing to calculate a field.”

    This is not true you, can calculate fields during or outside of an edit session no problem. You have to stop editing in order to add a new field – if tha’ts what you meant.

  20. Always great to see a comparison.

    First of all a disclaimer: I might be biased as a work for the Danish Esri reseller – but still. We encounter so often that people only compare Desktop GIS functionalities. And not the GIS platform functionalities!

    ArcGIS triumph when you look at GIS as a platform and what fast value it now can bring to an entire organization and not just “GIS geek in the corner” – no doubt ArcGIS is for the GIS professional – but it is so much other as well – i don’t really see QGIS helping that non-GIS professional user that well.

    With a license of ArcGIS Desktop you are entitled to ArcGIS Online (including a bunch of native mobile apps and webapplication templates) and the new generation desktop ArcGIS Pro as well. So a proper comparison would be to include these two products – or even better compare GIS platforms and what that gives you.

  21. And what about speed? Please add a speed rendering and computing comparison. There is no contest. QGis is way faster. Total winner. And in 2016 we can actually say it has become a fully professional software with 100% functionalities. No one would have said so 10 years ago. Well done OSGEO community. The couple Postgres Qgis gives me unachieved depth of analysis and I recommend anyone approaching to the GIS world to avoid the readymade ESRI packages to fully experience a low level analysis with a spatial database like Postgres (Postgis). Just be patient and willing to learn.

  22. Great article. I downloaded QGIS a few years ago and taught myself how to use GIS. It has become an invaluable tool for my work as a self-employed consultant. I would not have been inclined to learn GIS had I had to pay what they were asking for an ArcGIS license.

    While QGIS is offered for free, they do accept donations. QGIS is underpinned by a talented group of dedicated, passionate developers who are steadily adding new features and improving this software and I encourage anyone who has benefited from their efforts to support them.

  23. This probably needs a bit of an update in a few places.

    3. ArcCatalog is definitely a big plus, extension to the QGIS browser functionality is a fairly common feature request and it’s easy to see why. The only problem is in 10.3 it seems buggy and sporadically refuses to allow drag and drop from catalog to map.

    5. I’d give Arc an edge on CRS mostly because of user friendlyness issues, mostly for newer users. Particularly for shapefiles (which newer users tend to default to) Q seems to forget what projection a file was set to on occasion and doesn’t throw warnings about using multiple CRS like Arc does. I’ve seen novice users get into a right mess in Q with about 3 different projections used in the same project for no reason at all, usually complicated by the openlayers plugin.

    14. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the ability for the QGIS composer to save multiple map setups. It’s bugged me for some time that ArcGIS can’t do this, even before I’d ever tried QGIS. My general impression is that QGIS has a significant lead in this area.

    16. Same for labelling, QGIS is at least equal on placement (and much faster at it) and ahead in the formatting options.

    22. QGIS has gained a trace tool now, but generally the editing seems a little more coherent in ArcGIS which I think helps newer users. Editing in ArcGIS is a very consistent affair with each tool acting in the same manner. In QGIS it’s still rather hodge podge at times.

    23. ties in with 22 really, the topology handling is a more assured experience in Arc.

    One last thing that perhaps isn’t covered is Arcs geodatabase format. I think this is good feature for intermediate users as it provides a (relatively) much more userfriendly way of moving to using databases for storing spatial data while with Q there’s a much bigger step in geekery between dealing mostly with shapes and starting to use Spatialite or, particularly, PostGIS.

  24. I’m a QGIS fan, it’s great in engineering projects (compare alternatives for a electric line or a road for example).

    There’s little lovely details in QGIS such as copying layer style. For example, If I have roads_A.shp and roads_B.shp , I don’t need to personalize each layer style, but I personalize roads_A.shp , then “copy style”, “paste style” on roads_B.shp and there it is.

    And the possibility to make lots of different maps (size, theme, orientation” with the same project and not having to make a new project for each map is beautiful.

    (Now I’m reading my comment, and I realize there’s been a while since last time I had to write something in english xD)

  25. As a fulltime esri user I still find this article awesome. Great comparison. However I do object to the “license” argument. Yes professional software costs money, so does Microsoft Office, Paintshop Pro and Eagle CAD software. And lets face it, most GIS professionals usually have the budget available. For regular Joe there’s always the Home Use program where you can get a full licensed (professional level) arcgis suite including most extensions for a couple of bucks (comparatively 100 bucks is just a few bucks if you consider the full license fee 😉 )

  26. Nice comparison. For the last year QGIS has been a part of my daily routine and I have almost one decade of experience with ArcGIS too. 🙂
    So here is one note to point no.1 for your consideration. If the user uses only ArcGIS Core and it doesn’t matter what edition is used, you are right. But it is a whole new story with the Data Interoperabilty extension. It allows you to read and write into more than 110 formats (vector files/databases and different types of nonspatial files/databases). But of course, there is the price to be paid for that luxury.

Leave a Reply