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What’s the Difference Between Ubuntu and Ubuntu-Based Distros?

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Linux Mint and elementary OS are both popular alternatives to Ubuntu—but they’re also based on Ubuntu. If you’re new to Linux, this can be confusing. Let’s try to clear up what this means and why it matters to you.

The Ubuntu Desktop

Ubuntu 19.04 file manager with desktop icons in the background

Ubuntu is a free and open source alternative to commercial, proprietary operating systems such as Windows and macOS. There’s a panel across the top that shows the time, system indicators, and a way to open an overview screen or dashboard that lets you access your apps. There you can also switch between windows and virtual desktops.

There’s a company behind Ubuntu called Canonical. Unlike Microsoft and Apple, Canonical doesn’t make most of what goes into its operating system. Instead, Ubuntu is made of free and open source components that come from individuals and teams from all over the world.

The interface I described above isn’t unique to Ubuntu. It’s actually a desktop environment known as GNOME.

Canonical uses these components to create a functional desktop experience that anyone is free to download. You can use Ubuntu for your general computing, office work, software development, and gaming. You can also use Ubuntu to run servers.

Are Ubuntu and Linux the Same Thing?

Not quite. The kernel, which is the part that enables software to talk to your computer’s hardware, is Linux. The Linux kernel is just one of many components Canonical uses to create the Ubuntu desktop.

One way to think of the difference between Ubuntu and Linux is that you can’t really run the Linux kernel on its own. It runs in the background, powering many different devices in your life, from gas station pumps to Android smartphones. The Linux desktop is less about Linux and more about all of the free and open source software that runs on top. That said, it’s more accurate to think of Ubuntu as Ubuntu Linux than as its own separate thing.

The Ubuntu Infrastructure

Ubuntu 19.04 app drawer with new icon theme

Ubuntu is much bigger than the desktop you download from ubuntu.com. It’s a community of developers and users. It’s also a collection of apps and programs gathered from many sources and used in different ways.

Most of the code that powers Ubuntu doesn’t come from Canonical.

What Is Ubuntu Based On?

Ubuntu is based on Debian, a massive project that does the same thing Ubuntu does, only in a way that’s a little less accessible. To clear things up, we’re going to have to establish a few terms.

  • Packages: The way developers distribute software for Linux. Apps, system components, drivers, codecs, and other software come in the form of packages.
  • Package Formats: Different versions of Linux organize packages using different formats. As of yet, there’s no single format that’s compatible with every version of Linux.
  • Repositories: Instead of downloading installers from a website, Linux software is usually found in a repository. Repositories are large collections of packages that you may access and download as needed. Linux app stores provide software in a way akin to Android and iOS, while more traditional tools are known as package managers.
  • Distributions: A distribution is a collection of software packaged in a way that provides a functioning operating system, along with the accompanying community and repositories.

Ubuntu and Debian are both Linux distributions, and Ubuntu uses the same DEB package format as Debian, though software isn’t always compatible between the two. Ubuntu provides its own repositories, but it mostly fills them with packages from Debian.

The Ubuntu Ecosystem

Linux Distro, Ubuntu

Ubuntu comes in many forms. The default desktop utilizes the GNOME desktop environment. There are different “flavors” that use different desktop environments. Kubuntu, for example, uses the KDE Plasma desktop. Xubuntu uses a different interface known as Xfce.

Canonical doesn’t work on these variants, but it does host them and all of their software. They use the same repositories as the default Ubuntu desktop.

Ubuntu-Based Distros

There are many distributions based on Ubuntu that Canonical has no relationship with (similar to the way Ubuntu is based on Debian). Linux Mint and elementary OS are two of the most popular examples. They both come from different teams and have their own unique experiences. One key difference between Ubuntu and Linux Mint is that the latter has an interface more similar to Windows.

Looks can be deceiving. Underneath, Linux Mint’s infrastructure is the same that powers Ubuntu. Likewise, when you open up an app store on Linux Mint and elementary OS, most of the software is the same as what you would get on Ubuntu.

What Does This Mean?

It means when you see a program that mentions Ubuntu support, that support isn’t limited to the Ubuntu desktop. That software will also run on official flavors of Ubuntu and unrelated projects that happen to share the underlying Ubuntu infrastructure. Steam says it works on Ubuntu, but you can run the same installer on Pop!_OS (another Ubuntu-based distro).

If you choose to install elementary OS instead of Ubuntu, you need to know that most of what applies to Ubuntu also applies to you. If Ubuntu doesn’t work on your computer, elementary OS likely won’t either. Similarly, if a game controller isn’t compatible with Ubuntu, chances are it isn’t compatible with your system. When you run into bugs, you may have more luck searching for Ubuntu-related solutions than searching for elementary OS.

Linux Distro, Ubuntu

But things (usually) don’t go in the opposite direction. Ubuntu cannot easily run software designed specifically for elementary OS. To explain this relationship, the Linux community uses the metaphor of a stream. Ubuntu is upstream relative to elementary OS (pictured below). Software runs downstream from Ubuntu. Water only flows one direction.

The further away you get from the source, the more chances to introduce bugs. Debian takes the source code for programs and packages them up into DEBs. Ubuntu restructures these packages and, for some, introduces its own tweaks; elementary OS then adds in a few more changes on its own. When something goes wrong, you now have multiple points on the chain to consider. Does the problem lie with the original source code, Debian, Ubuntu, or elementary OS?

Should You Use an Ubuntu-Based Distro?

That depends on your needs and expectations. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Are you happy with Ubuntu? If you’re happy with the default Ubuntu desktop, then stay with what you have.
  • Do you like Ubuntu but not the interface? You can swap out the desktop environment without reinstalling your distro. Or you can choose to install a different flavor of Ubuntu.
  • Do you like the Ubuntu infrastructure but not how it’s managed? If you have problems with Canonical, it may help to use an Ubuntu-based distro provided by a different community. Linux Mint, elementary OS, and Pop!_OS use the Ubuntu infrastructure, but they’re not as impacted by Canonical’s decisions as the official Ubuntu flavors.

If you don’t like the Ubuntu infrastructure, then it may be worth leaving the ecosystem entirely. There are plenty other Linux distros out there with different strengths and weaknesses. They may completely change your impression of Linux.

Read the full article: What’s the Difference Between Ubuntu and Ubuntu-Based Distros?

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