Which Build System Reigns Supreme: CMake or Make? Compare with Real-code Examples

Table of content

  1. Introduction
  2. Background on Build Systems
  3. Comparison of CMake and Make
  4. Real-Code Examples
  5. Conclusion


Build systems are an essential part of software development, especially in the Android application development industry. A build system is responsible for automating the process of building an application by compiling source code, linking libraries, and generating the final executable or package for distribution. There are several build systems available, but CMake and Make are two of the most popular.

CMake is a cross-platform build system generator designed to build, test, and package software. It uses a scripting language that is easy to learn and highly customizable, making it a versatile choice for building complex applications. On the other hand, Make is a traditional build system that relies on a set of rules defined in a Makefile. It is a simple and reliable tool that has been around for decades and is still widely used today.

In this article, we will compare these two build systems in terms of their features, performance, and ease of use. We will use real-code examples to illustrate the differences between them and help you make an informed decision when choosing the right build system for your Android application development needs.

Background on Build Systems

Before diving into the comparison between CMake and Make, it's important to have a basic understanding of what build systems are and why they're important in the development process.

When building software, developers need to compile source code into executable code that can run on a machine. A build system automates this process by managing the dependencies between different modules of code, compiling the code in the correct order, and handling any errors that arise. A build system can also run tests and create installation packages for the software.

There are many build systems used in software development, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Some of the most popular build systems for Android development include:

  • Make: A widely used build system that has been around since the 1970s. Make works by reading a set of rules for compiling source code and building the software based on those rules.

  • Gradle: A build tool that is well-suited to Android development. Gradle uses a DSL (domain-specific language) called Groovy to describe the build process and dependencies between modules.

  • CMake: A cross-platform build system that can be used to build software for a variety of platforms, including Windows, MacOS, and Linux. CMake generates Makefiles or other build scripts that can be used to build the software.

Each of these build systems has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the best choice for a particular project will depend on a variety of factors, including the size and complexity of the software, the available hardware and tools, and the experience and preferences of the development team.

Comparison of CMake and Make

Make and CMake are build systems used to automate the build process of software development projects. While both are popular choices for developers, there are some key differences between Make and CMake.


Make is a build system that relies on makefiles, which are text files that contain instructions for building a specific application or library. The makefile specifies the relationships between source files and object files, and how to build each target. Make is a tool that takes these instructions and executes them in order to produce the desired output.

Make has been around since the 1970s and is a staple of UNIX-based systems. It is portable and is used in many open-source projects. Some of the advantages of Make include:

  • Simple and easy to learn.
  • Supports dependency tracking to only rebuild parts of the project that have changed.
  • Makefiles are human-readable and easy to customize for different build setups.

However, Make has some drawbacks, including:

  • Makefiles can become difficult to read and maintain as projects grow in complexity.
  • Make is not well-suited for cross-platform development.


CMake is a cross-platform build system that generates native build files for a variety of platforms and compilers. CMake uses CMakeLists.txt files to describe the build process in a declarative way. CMake can generate build files for a range of compilers, including Visual Studio, Xcode, GNU Make, and Eclipse.

CMake has several advantages over Make:

  • CMake allows for cross-platform development by abstracting platform-specific build details.
  • CMake is more readable and maintainable than Make in larger projects.
  • CMake supports more advanced build configurations, including release and debug builds.

CMake does have its drawbacks, including:

  • CMake has a steeper learning curve than Make.
  • Generating build files can be slow for large projects.

In general, CMake is a better choice for larger and more complex projects, while Make is a good option for smaller projects or for users who are more comfortable with a more traditional build system.

Real-Code Examples

To understand the differences between CMake and Make, it's helpful to look at some . Here are a few scenarios and how each build system handles them:

  1. Adding a new source file
  • Make: If you add a new source file to your project, you'll need to update your Makefile to include that file. This can be a bit of a manual process, and it's easy to accidentally leave out a file.
  • CMake: When you add a new source file to your project, CMake will automatically detect it and include it in the build.
  1. Building multiple libraries
  • Make: If you need to build multiple libraries as part of your project, you'll need to create separate Makefiles for each one (or add the library rules to your main Makefile). This can make the Makefile more complicated and harder to maintain.
  • CMake: With CMake, you can simply define each library as a separate target and CMake will take care of building them all in the correct order.
  1. Cross-compiling for different architectures
  • Make: Cross-compiling with Make can be challenging. You typically have to use special cross-compiling tools and specify the correct flags to ensure your code is being compiled for the correct architecture.
  • CMake: CMake makes cross-compiling easier by providing built-in support for it. You can specify which architecture you're compiling for and CMake will take care of the rest.
  1. Building for different platforms
  • Make: Making changes to a Makefile to support a different platform can be time-consuming, particularly if you need to make a lot of changes.
  • CMake: CMake makes it easy to support multiple platforms by providing built-in support for things like cross-compiling and platform-specific compiler flags. You can simply specify the platform you're building for and CMake will take care of the details.

Overall, both CMake and Make have their strengths and weaknesses. Make is a bit more manual and can be harder to configure for complex projects, but it's been around longer and is widely supported. CMake is newer and has some more modern features, but it can be a bit more complex to understand and configure. Ultimately, the choice between them will depend on your specific project requirements and preferences.


Both CMake and Make have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to building software projects. CMake offers a more modern and flexible approach, with support for a wide range of platforms and a more intuitive build process. Make, on the other hand, is more traditional and reliable, with a long history of use in software development.

Ultimately, the choice between CMake and Make will depend on the specific needs of your project. If you are working on a complex, multi-platform project with a lot of dependencies, CMake may be the better choice. If you are working on a smaller, simpler project with few dependencies, Make may be the more straightforward option.

Whatever build system you choose, it is important to understand how it works and how to use it effectively. With the right approach and the right tools, you can streamline your development process and create high-quality software more efficiently than ever before.

Cloud Computing and DevOps Engineering have always been my driving passions, energizing me with enthusiasm and a desire to stay at the forefront of technological innovation. I take great pleasure in innovating and devising workarounds for complex problems. Drawing on over 8 years of professional experience in the IT industry, with a focus on Cloud Computing and DevOps Engineering, I have a track record of success in designing and implementing complex infrastructure projects from diverse perspectives, and devising strategies that have significantly increased revenue. I am currently seeking a challenging position where I can leverage my competencies in a professional manner that maximizes productivity and exceeds expectations.
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