What’s The Difference Between Linux Distributions If They’re All Linux? [MakeUseOf Explains]

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When a user is first introduced to Linux, they might be told they’re using Linux, but they’ll quickly learn that it’s called something else. Yes, Ubuntu, Fedora, Linux Mint, Debian, openSUSE, and so many others are all variants of Linux, or “Linux distributions”. That’s cool and all, but if you give it a little thought, you’ll be asking yourself why there are so many different distributions in existence, especially if they’re all Linux anyway.

Windows has multiple editions, but they aren’t marketed as entirely separate operating systems, Mac OS X only has a single variant (at least for the desktop). So why are there so many different Linux distributions?

The Linux Kernel

Since all Linux distributions are still considered to be Linux, that means there’s at least something that they have in common, and that would be the Linux kernel. This piece of software is the core of the operating system – it bridges conventional software that you interact with such as your browser to the hardware that actually does all the work. It also includes a large number of drivers to provide support for whatever hardware you may be sporting.

That’s why it’s important to keep the kernel updated or to compile the kernel yourself if you have special needs. The Linux kernel receives contributions from developers all around the world, but Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, still manages what goes in and what doesn’t. No one has a problem with that, however, as the kernel has historically been functional for all use cases.

System Technologies

Once you start talking about anything besides the Linux kernel, things start to change. The distribution’s leaders can choose what software they include, such as which package manager they want to use (and the related package format), what display server to include, and any other extra tools. Distribution leaders have these options because each category of Linux software (such as a display server) can have multiple applications that approach the topic in different ways.

For the display manager example, a distribution could continue to use X.Org’s X-Server because it has been the standard for the past few decades, or the distribution could use Wayland instead because it provides new features and other needed updates. They could also use Mir as it is a fork of Wayland that is mainly developed by Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu.

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Desktop Environments

Some distributions can differ even simply based on which desktop environment they use. This case is seen with Ubuntu, where Ubuntu uses Gnome/Unity, Kubuntu uses KDE, Xubuntu uses Xfce, Lubuntu uses LXDE, and so on. Other distributions remain as one distribution but offer multiple “spins” that contain different desktop environments. An example distribution that does this is Fedora.

“I Can Do It Better!”

Other distributions exist because they like the technological aspects of another distribution, but wish to replace some software packages with others. A good example is Linux Mint as it is binary compatible with Ubuntu, but contains its own set of system tools, its own desktop environment, and a minty-green theme.

Goals & Ethics

Finally, a distribution can exist for reasons that have nothing to do with the software or technology behind the distribution, but rather its goals and ethics. For example, Debian aims to provide an extremely stable distribution (and therefore contains older software). Linux Mint aims to provide an extremely easy distribution for users of other operating systems like Windows and Mac OS X to use and get used to Linux.

Finally, Fedora exists to be the first to use the latest software, meaning that it uses both the latest versions of software and is the first to include or switch to a new technology.

Distribution’s stances on open source software also varies, which can be an important point for open source purists. As an example, Ubuntu doesn’t have an issue with including proprietary software in its repositories; it always includes the Steam gaming client and graphics drivers from AMD and nVidia. Fedora, on the other hand, has a very strong open source policy that prevents it from including any proprietary software in its repositories.

Items such as the Steam gaming client, audio and video codecs, and more, all need to be installed via third party repositories. Of course, at the end of the day you can do whatever you want with your installed copy of Linux no matter the distribution project’s policies, but such items can still matter to people.

Conclusion

Knowing how distributions differ from each other can help a lot in making or breaking your Linux experience. Not all distributions are meant to be used by everyone, so it’s important to choose the one that is most geared towards you and your preferences. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with giving any distribution a try (whether as an actual install or just in a virtual machine) because that can give you a good idea of what each distribution’s about.

Which distribution do you enjoy the most? Do you think it’s a good idea that there’s a distribution for each person’s tastes, or should there be only one “Linux”? Let us know in the comments!

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Comments (20)
  • Abdallah

    Well, I end’s up here, googling “what makes Linux distributions different while they are all based on the same kernel”,
    So I read the post, also the comments, and I didn’t get the answer yet!, as a beginner, it wasn’t a problem for me to face the reality that “linuxOS” or GNU/Linux is realized under many distributions, or flavors, with a little reading about that, Debian was automatically what I really need. But, with a little mashup, example :
    – I would like it to be running the latest Kernel (simple)
    – I would like to have some packages that’s run under other distros Like “Ubuntu” but unfortunately unsupported on Debian (That’s the point)?!!!
    If all distributions are running the same kernel why it isn’t possible to install packages of a distro in an other ?!!! more that that, Most of us knows that ubuntu is derivative of Debian ?!!! which is completely illogical to not support each other packages!!!
    I really enjoy my GNU/Linux OS but if linux is all about the freedom, I think the approch most communities pursuit, isn’t reflecting the real philosophie of what linux’s experience should be.

  • Eddie G.

    I would turn from the entire LInux community and Open Source software entirely if they decided to come out with just “One Linux For Them All”! The whole reason for me leaving Windows was because they didn’t give me any choice…….to choose what my desktop interface would be……what my “default” browser would be…etc. I have been using Linux for some time now and have tried a lot fo the different desktop interfaces……Gnome 3 (my personal favorite running on my Fedora machine!) Unity…on Ubuntu……..LXDE on Linux Mint…….XFCE on both openSuSEand Lite Linux…MATE on Snow Linux…Enlightenment on PCLinux OS and Cinnamon on Manjaro! If there was only one “flavor” of Linux it would be SUCH a bummer to have to install all of these JUST for a different package list, or application that isn’t available on one of the other distros! As far as I am concerned, I liken the choice of the many flavors of Linux as JUST that….it’s the “Baskin Robbins” of the computer world!….and if there’s a flavor you want that ISN’T there?…why you can go with Linux From Scratch or CRUX and “create’ that flavor yourself! Nah…..there’d be pure pandemonium should Linux ever tried to streamline everything and move forward with just ONE LINUX flavr for EVERYONE……(kinda sounds like…MICROSOFT!….No?)

  • Gregori G

    It’s great that it exist different Linux flavors. I’ve tried about five and that way you get to know which one fits best for you. The only thing I don’t like on Linux and really envy from Windows, is the fact it’s not that easy and Standard to install software on them. Even Ubuntu now has a kind of “Software store”, but thé problem is when what you need is not there. . There are a lot of extensions and compilation and stuff hard to understand, so you end up a whole day trying to install some programs. .. (By mistake I posted this answer somewhere else; sorry)

  • Gregori G

    It’s great that it exist different Linux flavors. I’ve tried about five and that way you get to know which one fits best for you. The only thing I don’t like on Linux and really envy from Windows, is the fact it’s not that easy and Standard to install software on them. Even Ubuntu now has a kind of “Software store”, but thé problem is when what you need is not there. . There are a lot of extensions and compilation and stuff hard to understand, so you end up a whole day trying to install some programs. .. (By mistake I posted this answer somewhere else; sorry)

  • dragonmouth

    “Choice” in Linux has a few definitions.

    When I started using Linux more than 10 years ago, “choice” meant that, during the install process, you could pick and choose the programs and applications that made up your system. I still remember spending literally hours pouring through Slackaware’s application groups, checking and unchecking the programs and packages I wanted to install. Sometimes I got a usable system, sometimes I did not. /grin/

    Unfortunately by the time I got proficient in the cookbook approach, Knoppix came out with the first Live CD and all the other distros at the time followed suit. The “choice” of which packages to install was no longer available to the user. The distro developers now chose what was to be included. Slackware held out for a while but it too joined the trend eventually. The user still had the “choice” of which packages to uninstall. The packages were not yet tied into the system files. Of course the user had the “choice” of which distro to install.

    Then along came Mark Shuttleworth and Canonical and his vision of a Windows-like monolith version of Linux, now known as Ubuntu. The only “choice” Ubuntu gave the users was what extra packages to install after the default install finished. The user has no choice about which apps are part of the default install. The user has no choice about which packages to remove because none are removable. All packages and apps are linked to one system file (IIRC, it is the ubuntu-minimal file). Any attempt to remove any app results in the removal of this system file and the distruction of the system. Can anyone say “Windows Registry”?

    There still are some Linux distros that offer real “choice” but they require more knowledge than novice Linux users have. Distros like Arch, antiX Core, Tiny Core start out with a core system and then let the user, with the help of command line tools, build a customized system. Then there are distros like Linux From Scratch, Source Mage and CRUX which offer the user just about complete “choice” in the make up of the final system but require expertise in compiling the Linux kernel.

    The only “choice” left to new Linux users is 1) whether to use it or not 2) which distro to use. So much for the famous range of choice in Linux.

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This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.