Python vs C: Compared and Contrasted (2023)

Python vs C Summary

In brief, C is an older, compiled, low level, procedural programming language. It has more control over itself and the computer, and it runs faster. Python, on the other hand, is an interpreted, high level, and object oriented programming language that’s easier to learn.

When comparing two programming languages—even two of the most popular ones—it’s not always easy to make a one to one comparison. The languages may be so dissimilar or used for such different purposes that it’s hard to match them against each other. Python and C, while having some similarities, are very different languages used for a wide range of software development tasks.

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If you’re wondering which language to start with, that’s going to depend on what you’d like to do with your programming. Let’s take a close look at both languages to see what they are capable of. But first…

Some history

Python vs C: Compared and Contrasted (1)

In some ways, C is the great-grandfather of all computer technology in use today. It was first developed in 1972 by Dennis Ritchie at Bell Labs. Its origins were entangled with the development of the UNIX operating system (in fact, UNIX is partly written in C). C is a statically typed, procedural language. There’s a bit of C in just about all the technology we use today. Part of the kernels for Windows and OSX are written in C.

Python was first released to the world in 1991. It was created by Guido van Rossum to be more easily readable than other languages at the time; allowing programmers to do what they need to with fewer lines of code. Python code is high level, dynamically typed, and multi-paradigm. It’s used by a wide range of companies in some very popular applications including Netflix, Pinterest, Spotify, and Instagram.

How Do Python and C Compare?

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Computer languages are classified as high or low level. This refers to how close they are to speaking directly with the computer in ones and zeroes. The closer a language is to this—the ‘lower levels’ of the machine—the more it’s considered a low-level language. Anything that is closer to human communication and syntax is higher level. Python was designed to be a bit more human readable than most languages, making it a higher level than C.

C is a compiled language while Python is interpreted. This means C is compiled directly to machine code—the lowest level of interaction with the computer that can then be performed by the CPU. Python has to go through some extra steps of interpretation before it can be used by the computer. This is due to its higher level status.

There’s a lot under the hood that Python will take care of for you automatically. One example of these built in functions is garbage collection. When you program, you create variables, data, all sorts of things that take up (usually) a tiny bit of memory. It’s very easy to do this repeatedly without much thought, but after a while, that memory use can slow things down. The garbage collector handles memory management so that you have that data when you need it, and when you’re done with it, it gets deleted.

Python has automatic garbage collection that you don’t have to worry about, whereas C has explicit garbage collection that you have to manage yourself. Why would you want this? There are advantages to having that control over a program’s operations at this level, especially as you get into more sophisticated coding (and this can aid your code’s speed. More on that below). This is just one example, but it illustrates a crucial difference in the philosophies of both languages: Python keeps it out of sight for you, while C gives you full access.

Python vs C: Which is Easier?

Let’s take a look at one clear, apples to apples, comparison. Below is the code used by Python to perform that classic first programming task: it prints the words “Hello world” on the screen:

print("Hello world")

Now take a look at the same task as written in C:

#include<stdio.h>int main(){printf("Hello world");return 0;}

Clearly it must be easier to get up and running with Python over C: in one you just issue the command to print a line, while the other requires bringing in a library, declaring a thread, and making sure you return an empty value. But does that necessarily make it an easier language? Yes and no. If your immediate goal is to get some text printed on the screen, then yes, Python is going to make much more intuitive sense for someone coding for the first time. C requires you to do a lot of mechanical work just to have the text display.

It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but imagine both languages are Lego sets. Think of Python as having a number of great prefabricated, custom parts that look just like the thing they represent. In this metaphor, C is a collection of tons of very small pieces that you can assemble into virtually anything, but obviously they’ll take more time. Which one is easier to work with? It depends on what you want to do.

C vs Python: Which Is Faster?

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There’s no contest here: C is generally going to be faster than Python. Obviously, this is very dependent on the conditions involved for such a comparison, but as far as comparing basic processing tasks, C is going to win. Why? The short answer is because Python is an interpreted language. Every action in the code needs to be interpreted by the main CPU to perform what’s required.

Python is run on what’s called a virtual machine. This is the process that does the bytecode interpretation to make what you’ve written into something that can be read at the machine level. C is a compiled language, which means that the code gets translated into machine code before running instead of at runtime like Python. C skips the extra step of interpretation that Python programs have to run significantly faster.

C also allows for manipulation of the code on such a small level that the programmer can closely fine-tune the performance of it. It’s not uncommon to do bitwise manipulation of data in a program. Just like the name sounds, this is working directly with the ones and zeros. A skilled developer can make their C code very efficient.

Like any of these comparisons, context is everything. If you’re interested in writing code for hardware or embedded machines, C is going to be the way to go. Tests have shown the difference running both on a Raspberry Pi and C is the clear winner.

So if it’s so fast, why bother with Python at all? As discussed earlier, Python is much quicker for getting code up and running. The fact is that you might not be doing heavy number-crunching all the time in the work you do. The measure of speed that’s useful to you may be that human factor. If so, then Python is going to be faster. So context and where you need that speed are both important in these comparisons.

Python vs C: Which is More Popular?

Currently, Python ranks third behind Java and C in one study. It is believed that, within three or four years, it will overtake those two languages to be the most popular. C and Python are both in high demand by employers.

As stated earlier, C is found in nearly every piece of computer technology used today. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean writing in C is a major part of a developer’s day. Python is in use by a number of major companies, such as Youtube, Industrial Light and Magic, and Google. Python is also one of the leading languages in use for data science applications, especially machine learning and AI.

Which Should You Choose: Python or C?

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There’s no question that Python is going to be an easier entry into the world of programming if you’re new to it. Its higher-level status means a lot of the work involved is kept under the hood. This doesn’t mean C is completely unapproachable to the newbie, though. But in terms of writing scripts and applications, especially if you’re brand new to coding, Python is going to be a more gentle and less frustrating introduction.

While C has a steeper learning curve than Python, the process of learning it can get you up to speed on a number of computer science concepts faster than learning other languages. You could spend years with other languages and not have to deal with concepts like algorithm efficiency, for example. That can be fine depending on the work you want to be doing: some developers can make a career doing excellent work without ever getting into those hardcore computer science concepts.

C also has the advantage of being a great introduction to other programming languages. Once you’ve had some experience with C, learning other lower-level languages is that much easier. As one C developer put it: “C has become something of the lingua franca of programming. C is a great language for expressing common ideas in programming in a way that most people are comfortable with. Moreover, a lot of the principles used in C…will show up in a lot of other languages you learn so you’ll be able to talk to people, even if they don’t know C, in a way that’s common to both of you.”

Whether you decide to pursue Node.js vs Python vs C, you’ll be learning a valuable skill that is robust, very in demand in the job market, and will keep you challenged for a long time. A good coding bootcamp will have both C and Python classes available. Also, many online course providers have introductory online C programming courses and Python courses for a nominal fee.


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