I find these two words appear together often, especially mentioned as tool and utility for the Unix operating system. So I am wondering about the difference between them.

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    Please can you expand your question with examples of where you have seen tool and utility used in a way that confuses the meanings. Apr 26, 2013 at 7:59

5 Answers 5


They are used pretty interchangeably when talking about software. One explanation from Wikipedia:

Utility software is system software designed to help analyze, configure, optimize or maintain a computer. A single piece of utility software is usually called a utility or tool.

"Tool" is sometimes reserved for items that are more robust, such as having a GUI or more functionality. One example of this distinction can be found in the description of the Visual Studio power tools:

Power Tools are a set of enhancements, tools and command-line utilities.

However, that distinction is mostly a matter of preference.

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    These two words are pretty much synonymous, but only in certain contexts, that of computer software. In other contexts this, naturally, won't work - a hammer is a tool, but it's certainly not a utility. In the US, utilities is used to describe the money paid for electricity, water, heating and other such household services, while tools is meaningless in that context. Context is everything. Sep 2, 2012 at 14:04
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    @AvnerShahar-Kashtan: Yes, I agree. Since the OP mentioned Unix, I felt that was the desired context and constrained my answer accordingly. Your explanation seems like it would be a good alternate answer for the broader meaning.
    – Lynn
    Sep 2, 2012 at 14:14
  • I think that your answer gave the OP everything he needed, but I just wanted to have a comment with disambiguation in case some future searcher in without the OP's context. :) Sep 2, 2012 at 16:22

Both tool and utility are nouns, but, while tool is a concrete noun, utility is an abstract noun, meaning the use one gets out of something. In computing, of course, both are Metaphors, since all computing terms are metaphors. But they're different metaphors.

Tool refers to the classic book Software Tools by Kernighan and Plauger, and the popular movement it spawned, leading ultimately to UNIX™ as the premier "tool"-based operating system.

Utility, on the other hand, refers to a particular kind of low-level "tool" programs, the "utility programs". This is the same construction as "utility outfielder" -- on the other hand, "utility crew" is a different construction that refers to the extension of Utility/ies to refer to electric, gas, water, sewage, and other common civic services.

"Utility programs" are the ones that do general-purpose software scutwork, like copying, compressing, sorting, and filtering. Many UNIX™ tool programs are utility programs -- rev, sort, ls, mv, head, etc.

  • It's a trade mark. In all caps. Sep 2, 2012 at 18:13
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    I’m aware of that. I’m also aware of the wars about it. Ken and Dennis always used Unix, and that’s good enough for me. The lawyers can go hang. People use Unix to mean anything that acts like Unix, including MacOS and Linux. That’s the common, and most normal, use. If you want the trademark, put a ™ there.
    – tchrist
    Sep 2, 2012 at 18:15
  • I'd intended to, but my Apple "Special Characters" folder needs to be restarted again. So sue me. Sep 2, 2012 at 18:19
  • @tchrist: A lot of people referring to "Unix-like" operating systems would use the term *nix.
    – Matt
    Apr 25, 2013 at 14:40
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    @JohnLawler: I'd prefer Asterisknix over anything else.
    – Henrik
    Oct 24, 2019 at 15:49

I tend to use tools for standalone programs designed to do a particular thing, and utils for libraries and components for building applications and tools.



something that helps you to do a particular activity.

because in Unix there are certain tools that executes some specific activity.


to use something in an effective way.

Same way there are some utilities that provides the user to do something very efficiently and effective way.


Regarding apps, utility is a type of tool handling infrastructure as maintenance (copying, formatting, partitioning, compressing, defragmentation). A tool is an app in general with a practical use, like an algorithm calculating some input.

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