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

tux big   Whats The Difference Between Linux Distributions If Theyre All Linux? [MakeUseOf Explains]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

linux history beginning   Whats The Difference Between Linux Distributions If Theyre All Linux? [MakeUseOf Explains]

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.

Desktop Environments

kde screen   Whats The Difference Between Linux Distributions If Theyre All Linux? [MakeUseOf Explains]

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!”

linux mint 13 cinnamon desktop   Whats The Difference Between Linux Distributions If Theyre All Linux? [MakeUseOf Explains]

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.

fedora goals   Whats The Difference Between Linux Distributions If Theyre All Linux? [MakeUseOf Explains]

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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19 Comments -

0 votes

Alexandru Ionut

For the moment, I use Linux Mint Debian. This distro is very stable. When I start to use “linux”, Ubuntu was first distro. After 1 year I change it with LMDE, because mint interface is my favorite.

0 votes

Alexandru Ionut

edit: not mint, mate interface. sorry

0 votes

Cody Smith

I use (believe it or not) Gentoo on both of my machines (laptop and desktop), and I think that having different distros is important, as choice is and always has been a big part of the Linux eco-system, and that choice aspect is important not only for taste, but also helps make the who Linux eco-system a better learning experience that one can either take and continue to use in Linux, or just dump but still know, it ALSO helps please everybody’s tastes.

0 votes

Richard Steven Hack

I prefer to use a distro which is developed by a fairly large community, which has support from a commercial entity, and which has a history of decent quality assurance testing.

Which is why I use openSUSE. And this criteria leaves out a LOT of distros, including Ubuntu which has had quality control issues in the past, at least in my experience.

I recently read a report of someone’s experience with the latest Mint distro. It was a disaster for him. The sort of problems he ran into is why I wouldn’t touch that distro with a ten-foot pole. If you can’t even get the thing installed, it’s not worth using.

No distro is perfect. Currently I have one problem with openSUSE. When I use Firefox to download images, every fourth or so download causes Firefox to “freeze” for about five or more seconds. This is incredibly irritating. I can’t tell if this is caused by Firefox or the video drivers. I suspect the latter because the X server ends up consuming 100% of CPU after the system has been up for a while. This doesn’t appear to slow the system much overall, but it has a definite effect on Firefox. Other than this issue, however, openSUSE 12.2 is rock solid.

I need to upgrade to openSUSE 12.3 shortly. I do notice that every new version seems a bit more “bloated” than the last, which seems to be an issue for most of the main Linux distros, just like it is on Windows. I suspect both Windows and Linux will eventually become “unusable” just due to size. At least Linux has the advantage that it can be run in a “stripped down” version if one wants, using a lighter weight desktop environment when necessary.

As for the criticism heard frequently that Linux has too many distributions, making it hard for the average end user to pick one, frankly the average end user will never hear of ninety percent of Linux distros. Invariably they will end up with one of the “Big Five” – Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE, Debian, and Mandriva (now Mageia).

Fedora has long been known to be for more technical end users, as is Debian. Ubuntu and Mageia are known for being more end user friendly. openSUSE in my view fits nicely in the middle, so for now I’ll stick with it – until it screws up.

1 votes

Phill. Whiteside

I use (and test) lubuntu because I strongly believe in not throwing ‘elder’ computers into land fill or export them abroad to poison different country. I also use CentOS on my server system. The one thing Linux has is “choice” and whilst I’d never use a desktop version on my server, I find that most people who have VM’s on my server use ubuntu-server. That we have the choice can seem a little overwhelming to new people, but as they are all free to try…. and then free to keep – my advice is to go and read up on a few and try them out. Choose the one YOU like. Don’t be afraid to change a few months down the line as you learn more.

0 votes

dragonmouth

There are many other distros one can run on “elder” computers and I do not mean the minimalist ones usually mentioned – Damn Small, the whole kennel of Puppies, Slitaz. On my “elder” computers I have been running Mepis, PCLinuxOS, antiX, siduction.

0 votes

Doug Dieckmann

I used Ubuntu for a while just to keep an older machine going. But I shared it with another person who was not willing to make it work. I just like the idea of thumbing my nose at Microsoft.

0 votes

Vineed G

clean and informative article

0 votes

Brandon R

I use Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.

0 votes

anjan bhushan

I have tried a lot of distro, but have Ubuntu on my dual boot laptop.

0 votes

T.A. Walker

I’ve been using Linux for about ten years now, and to be honest I’ve never had a problem with the idea of many different distributions. To me, the closest analogy is with cars – do you ever hear people ask “why are there so many makes and models of car?”

With that metaphor, I think of distros like Ubuntu, Mint and OpenSUSE as like, say, a Ford or a Toyota, and Arch (my personal favourite) as like a custom-built, high-performance roadster. It’s not a case of one being “better” than the other (whatever that may mean) – some distros are more optimised for a particular kind of user than others. Frankly, I wouldn’t give an Arch-based PC to a relative (unless they were Linux-savvy), but I now find distros like Ubuntu too bloated and regimented for my own use, even though Ubuntu would suit most users much more.

In 2009 I picked up a refurbished Eee 701SD (the “original netbook” – remember the tiny one with a 7″ screen ahd huge bezel?). It took about two years before I discovered Arch Linux was the perfect “fit” for the 701: instead of being given a big fat desktop setup, you can custom-build the system that best suits the computer it’s going on. My Eee would crawl with “normal” Ubuntu (though one of the lighter variants might work well), but it zips along with Arch.

So basically, I see the different Linux distros available as a strength of the platform, not a weakness – you just need an idea of which one is best-suited to your computer and your personal needs, abilities, etc. THAT’s the elephant in the room…

0 votes

dragonmouth

“To me, the closest analogy is with cars – do you ever hear people ask “why are there so many makes and models of car?”
Put that way, there isn’t too many distros. However, to carry the car analogy a bit furrther, are like the same model but with different color paint and different upholstery. A blue Ford Fiesta and a green Ford Fiesta are still the same car even though one has cloth seats and the other vinyl ones.

“My Eee would crawl with “normal” Ubuntu”
My Athlon 64 PC would not be fast running Ubuntu. I don’t think it’s the processor, it’s the O/S. Ubuntu is heavy.

“you just need an idea of which one is best-suited to your computer and your personal needs, abilities, etc.. THAT’s the elephant in the room…”
The elephant in the room is the question of how does a newcomer to Linux determine the best distro for his PC and his personal needs/abilities when there are 300+ active distros listed in the DistroWatch database? Those familiar with Linux keep blathering on about “choice”. What many/most of them fail to realize is that for somebody coming from Windows or OS/X environment, where there is little or no “choice”, the amount of “choice” between Linux distros is disablingly overwhelming.

0 votes

jonen

i generally use ubuntu with kde. mainly for the good driver support (installing nvidia drivers manually is a project on its own), good software support and large userbase.

0 votes

Dani B

I’m using Kubuntu and Debian KDE. I’m also interested to u use Fedora.

0 votes

Jymm

I try new distro’s on a USB stick. I found two I like, and have installed one to a laptop and one to a desktop. They are Solus, and Zorin. To each his own. If you get the desktop you want. and the programs you need, that is the best for you.

0 votes

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.

0 votes

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)

0 votes

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)

0 votes

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?)