C is a procedural, low level, and compiled language. Java is an object-oriented, high level, and interpreted language. This means that Java uses objects, while C uses functions. Java is easier to learn and use, while C can do more and perform faster.
When the question “which language is better?” comes up, the obvious answer is “it depends.” Understandably, you want to make sure you’re investing your time and resources towards learning a language that you can thrive in and land one of the best tech jobs with. When choosing between Java vs C, you’re choosing between two of the oldest programming languages still in widespread, mainstream use.
Let’s discuss why the history of these two languages makes up an important part of computer science history in general, and which language is better to use under which circumstances.
C: A Beginning
C was developed in 1972 to use with the UNIX operating system, which at the time was being developed by Bell Labs. This was a crucial moment in computer science history as every operating system since then has its roots in UNIX (which itself was partially written in C). This means C is either present in or has influenced almost every piece of software used today.
C has also had an incredible influence on the languages that have followed it—including Java. While C is still used today for scripting and other behind the scene tasks, offshoots of the language like C++ or C# are now more widely used for apps and programs used by the general public.
Java: The Challenger
Java was developed by Sun Microsystems in the years between 1991 and 1995; originally to be embedded in digital televisions. Now it can run on a dizzyingly wide variety of platforms. According to Oracle, three billion devices currently have Java installed on them. The most widely seen platform for Java development is in Android devices, all of which use code written in Java language.
Java vs C: A Comparison
Let’s take a look at both languages and compare them on different fronts.
Java vs C: Object-Oriented vs Procedural
One fundamental difference between these two languages is that Java is an object-oriented programming language while C is a procedural language. What does this mean for you as a programmer? It’s a question of which paradigm each language uses to model working with a problem.
Java breaks the world down into objects: everything is modeled as a thing—an object—with certain qualities and capabilities. Objects are reusable and malleable, meaning you don’t have to continually reinvent the wheel when you’re writing. These objects then interact with one another in specific ways depending on their identities. A shape object, for example, won’t have a smell but it will have a color.
C, on the other hand, is a procedural language, meaning it will put data through different processes (which are called procedures or functions) as the program runs. A procedural program will start at the top and work its way down in a linear fashion. Although the code might re-route to different points in the program, it’s still following a specified sequence. You can almost think of it like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, following directions depending on data.
Neither way of working is inherently better than the other. Rather, it’s a question of what makes sense for the problems you’re tackling and (perhaps more importantly) what makes more sense for you as you’re trying to solve a problem.
C vs Java: Low Level vs High Level
C is a low-level language. This means that your interaction with your computer while writing in C is closer to the machine code (the ones and zeros) that is at the lowest level of the machine. It’s still using syntax that you’ll recognize with the English language, but it has less abstraction or distance from machine code.
Java is a high-level language: it has a syntax that’s more distant or abstracted from the machine instructions; it’s closer to human language. Because of this Java is typically easier to learn and use.
If programming languages were compared to human languages, a high-level programming language would be like Spanish is to English. Without training, it may seem hard to understand save for a few words, but Spanish is still relatively easy to learn for an English speaker. Low-level programming languages are farther from our natural language and closer to machine code, much like how Chinese is much farther from English.
Because they work closer to the actual machine code of the computer, lower-level languages are generally considered to be harder to read than higher-level ones, but more effective as they operate more closely with the hardware.
Another way to look at it is: A higher-level language is usually more human-readable but at the expense of obscuring a lot of the machinery and activity going on under the surface. A low-level language can be verbose and hard to follow initially, but you are privy to every machination.
Java vs C: Interpreted vs Compiled
There’s another very important point of difference that will get us into the guts of how computers read a program you write: Java is a semi-interpreted language—using the Java Virtual Machine (JVM)—while C is a compiled language.
Let’s break that down by looking at how we communicate with a computer. Whenever you write a program—no matter what language, high or low level—it’s always interpreted in some way by the processor. In other words, it has more steps of translation it has to go through to run your program. An interpreted program is like having a native speaker translate a text for you as you read it, whereas a compiled program is like having the full text sent to you already translated.
What does this mean for you as a programmer? Compiled languages have a reputation for being faster and more efficient than interpreted languages and allow for lower-level control, like memory management. As indicated by the name, they need to be compiled—the program has to be built by the compiler—before they can run. This means an extra step every time you make a change in your program.
Interpreted languages can run after any change without that extra step. Simply change what you want and run it. The trade-off comes with a slightly slower performance; although this is becoming less the case over time as interpreted languages are getting faster and faster.
C vs Java: Memory
One big task that C programmers have to manage themselves is memory management. When manipulating data in a C program, the developer needs to use calls like ‘malloc’ (memory allocation) and ‘free’ to outline whatever memory their program will need to use. Java uses something called a garbage collector to delete any objects that are no longer used. In other words, Java manages memory for you.
Think of it a bit like driving a manual transmission versus driving an automatic. If you don’t want to worry about switching gears and would rather just concentrate on driving, you’d get an automatic. But if you like the control that comes from managing the shifting yourself (for example, in bad weather), you’re going to prefer a manual transmission. If this is your first language, Java might be a little more approachable in this respect.
Java vs C Speed: Which is Faster?
If it’s a question of concern about the speed between Java and C, it’s a bit hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison.
One thing that does edge C ahead is that it is possible to write code that is extremely barebones with little overhead. That’s because it is a lower-level language, meaning it doesn’t need the same syntactical baggage a higher-level language requires. In addition, C has no built-in garbage collector to slow it down, and the language is compiled, meaning the language does not need to be interpreted on the spot.
Java is compiled into a lower language, then interpreted. It also has automatic garbage collection, and it’s farther from machine code in the first place. Because of this C code tends to run faster than Java, but difference depends on what’s being done and how well the code has been optimized.
Which Should You Learn First: Java or C?
Learning C is a little bit like learning Latin: you’ll have the basis for a lot of other programming languages, making it that much easier to learn them. C is used in a number of contexts for scripting and other lower-level tasks. However, odds are good you’re not going to write the next Angry Birds with it (but with a lot of work, you could).
Java is going to be slightly more approachable given it’s a higher-level language than C. The tradeoff is that you might not fully understand everything that is happening in a program at the expense of brevity and speed of learning. Although, if you wanted to take a deeper dive into what Java is doing, the means are there.
Java programming is much more widespread in use with application programming and other public-facing programs. You’re probably going to see more job listings that explicitly call for Java programmers, but even those numbers are dropping. Still, Github lists Java as the third most popular language in its repositories, meaning people are actively using it. While C is listed at number 9 (note that C++ and C#—two very popular offshoots of C—are at 6 and 5 respectively.
If you’re approaching programming for the first time, you’d understandably want to start with one of the easiest programming languages. Neither C nor Java can truthfully be described as easy, but they’d both give you a rich introduction to some important programming concepts.
And the Winner Is…
If you’re looking to learn a computer language to further your skills, both Java and C are excellent candidates and would be great foundations for continuing to learn other languages.
Learning C will force you to learn more “under the hood” aspects of programming as you deal with lower-level workings of computer science and software development. Java is an excellent introduction to object-oriented programming, which is a very widely used programming paradigm.
Part of being a developer is being adaptive to change, so either of these languages would give you a solid background to learn and adapt to whatever coding challenges come your way.