Debian vs. Ubuntu: Best Linux Distro for Laptops, Desktops, and Servers

Kris Wouk 19-06-2019

There is a seemingly endless list of distributions to choose from if you’re interested in Linux. That said, one of the most popular distributions is Ubuntu. If you’ve heard of Linux, chances are you’ve heard of Ubuntu.


You may have heard that Ubuntu is based on another distribution, Debian. Which one should you choose? Is it a matter of preference, or is easy distribution better suited to different use cases?

What Are the Major Differences?

At first place, Ubuntu and Debian seem largely similar. Both use the same package management system and you’ll often find software packaged for both. Below the surface, however, there are some key differences to be aware of.

Not all software available for Ubuntu is available for Debian due to license restrictions in the latter. Debian has a much stronger stance on free software. This applies to firmware as well, so not all hardware that works with Ubuntu will work with Debian.

Ubuntu also has Personal Package Archives, commonly known as PPAs, available. These let you easily install packages not available in the official Ubuntu repositories. This makes installing a wider range of software much easier than it is on Debian. Our guide to PPA installation and security Linux PPAs: Installation, Removal, and Security PPAs -- personal package archives -- are a way to install Linux software via the Terminal. But are they safe to use? How can you remove a PPA? And which are the safest PPAs to... Read More will help you out here.

The restrictions imposed by Debian aren’t as strict as those used by some other distributions, but it’s something to be aware of. Debian also has a different release cycle than Ubuntu. Both this and different license restrictions affect certain use cases, as we’ll see later on.


Debian vs. Ubuntu: Laptop Use

As you might have gathered from the above section, Ubuntu is often much easier to use on laptops than Debian. Part of this comes down to the third-party firmware and software. Much of the hardware on newer laptops lacks open source drivers, meaning you’ll have to turn to non-free binaries.

Some non-free binaries are available in the Debian non-free repositories, but a wider range of hardware is more easily supported in Ubuntu. This combined with the software available in PPAs means you’ll have an easier time getting up and running with proprietary software in Ubuntu.

Ubuntu desktop interface

One of the main advantages of Linux is how customizable it is. This means that with a little work, you can get Debian running on a laptop as well as Ubuntu. That said, you’ll have to put in a bit more work to get to that point.


Finally, if you want to run Ubuntu on a laptop, you can simply buy a laptop running Ubuntu. It’s possible someone sells laptops pre-loaded with Debian, but you’ll find plenty of laptops preloaded with Ubuntu.

Debian vs. Ubuntu: Desktop Use

When it comes to desktop use, Debian is easier to use than it is on a laptop, especially if you choose your hardware carefully. If you’re building your own computer this is easy. If you’re dealing with a pre-built computer, maybe less so. Have an older computer? There’s a decent chance your hardware is supported.

When it comes to installation, you’ll generally have an easier time with Ubuntu. This isn’t necessarily a plus for every laptop user, but it is for many of them. Configuration is also easy in Ubuntu; how easy Debian is to configure will largely depend on your desktop.

Debian desktop interface


The toughest time you’re going to have is with graphics cards. Nvidia offers drivers that will deliver decent performance for many of its cards. That said, if you want to use the open-source drivers you’ll have better luck with AMD cards.

If you’re looking to Linux alongside your Windows installation, you can dual boot either Debian or Ubuntu. That said, there are far more ways to run Ubuntu alongside Windows How to Install Ubuntu on Windows 10: 3 Simple Methods to Try There are many ways in which you can try Ubuntu. One of them is to install Ubuntu on Windows 10 using one of these methods. Read More .

Debian vs. Ubuntu: Server Use

Debian doesn’t have a bespoke server download. Instead, it offers a minimal base installer. The main choice is to pick the image for your CPU architecture. Once you’ve installed the base system you install the software you need. From here you can choose  server software or a more desktop-oriented installation.

In the case of Ubuntu, multiple installers are available. One is meant for desktop use, another is meant for server use. Still others are meant for other use cases. The server image is a relatively minimal install with no graphical interface and basic server software.


Different ubuntu downloads

Debian is frequently used in server environments for a few reasons. One such reason is its reputation for stability. This is due to the relatively older packages it ships. These have been tested and verified, so they’re less likely to have bugs.

Ubuntu is still a good choice for server software, but it tends to use newer versions of software. This is a plus if you need features found in newer software versions, but it does mean that packages aren’t as time tested.

Ubuntu server install

If you’re curious, we have a rundown of the key differences between the desktop and server versions of Ubuntu What Is the Difference Between Ubuntu Desktop and Ubuntu Server? Ubuntu ranks as arguably the most popular Linux operating system. But did you know that there is a desktop version and a server version of Ubuntu? Read More . Many of these apply to Debian as well.

Debian and Ubuntu vs. Other Distributions

What if you’re wondering about choosing Debian or Ubuntu instead of a distribution like Arch or Fedora? One of the key advantages of using either distribution is just how popular they are. If you’re looking for a tip for solving a problem, someone has likely encountered that problem on Ubuntu or Debian. This may not be true for other distributions.

This popularity helps when it comes to packages too. You’ll find DEB packages that run on Debian or Ubuntu for plenty of software. You may not find packages for other distributions. This is doubly true for Ubuntu, as its PPA system means you’ll find plenty of packaged software available.

Why Pick One?

For the most part, which distribution is best for you comes down to personal preference. Ubuntu is generally easier to use on the desktop while Debian is well-suited to server use. That said,  you can easily use Debian on the desktop or Ubuntu on a server. As long as your hardware is supported, you can easily use either.

That said, there may be other reasons you may not want to use Ubuntu, or Debian for that matter. If you’re curious why you might opt for another distribution, we can fill you in on the details. Check our guide to the best Linux operating system distributions The Best Linux Operating Distros The best Linux distros are hard to find. Unless you read our list of the best Linux operating systems for gaming, Raspberry Pi, and more. Read More for more.

Related topics: Debian, Linux Distro, Ubuntu.

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  1. Roger T. Imai
    June 29, 2019 at 9:56 pm

    Debian is decidedly leaner than Ubuntu, but does require more intermediate skill manual tweaking. I settled on Ubuntu on my laptop to maintain parallel UX with my wife's, on which I installed Ubuntu for the increased convenience.

    What is mildly concerning to me, however, is the hard promotion of Snap applications by Canonical. I am not finding them more reliable than the repo-based releases, despite their supposed library compatibility safeguards. I think Mark Shuttleworth should stop trying to force branding features on Ubuntu users. That Ubuntu is more user-friendly and reasonably more progressive than Debian Stable is enough for it to keep its market share dominance.

  2. Ruslan Alpizar
    June 21, 2019 at 2:56 pm

    Astralinux is by far the best distro out there so far, the most stable I've ever used, I'm staying with Astra

  3. ProDigit
    June 20, 2019 at 4:19 am

    I thought we'd get some hard data on performance. Instead we get some beginner estimates and opinions.

    • Kris Wouk
      June 23, 2019 at 11:02 pm

      What type of performance data would you be looking for, specifically? I'd love to know for future articles as well as a potential future update to this one.

  4. John Smith
    June 20, 2019 at 12:02 am

    "At first place, Ubuntu and Debian seem largely similar. "

    Please do some research before putting together an article like this.
    Ubutntu is a based on debian, adds its support and few other issues.
    This is just like comparing ink to water.

  5. dragonmouth
    June 19, 2019 at 10:49 pm

    AFAIAC, there two problems with Ubuntu (and its offspring):
    1) They are monoliths. You are stuck with the packages that were installed by default. If you try to uninstall any of them, "ubuntu-minimal" file will be uninstalled also which will make your system inoperable.

    2) In the past few days, Canonical, tyhe developer of Ubuntu, has announced that they consider .DEBs outdated and will change all their packages to Snaps, a "universal" packaging system that they have developed.

    Canonical does not control or vet PPAs so it is impossible to tell whether the software in them contains malware or not. The software that goes into distro repositories is vetted by the distro staff to make sure the packages are safe to use.

  6. John
    June 19, 2019 at 8:01 pm

    Please there are many distros that are not Ubuntu. Remember Ubuntu is Linux,but Linux is NOT Linux.

    • dragonmouth
      June 19, 2019 at 10:34 pm

      You mean Linux is not Ubuntu. Right? :-)

  7. dub
    June 19, 2019 at 6:54 pm

    Ubuntu is basically bloated Debian.

    I love Debian. I start with the most minimalist install possible then add packages and software until it works how I want it to.

    • dragonmouth
      June 20, 2019 at 12:47 pm

      Ubuntu is Window-ized Debian.

  8. Gavin
    June 19, 2019 at 4:46 pm

    Such a poorly written article.

  9. Bob Reed
    June 19, 2019 at 12:40 pm

    Ubuntu is often much easier to use on laptops than Ubuntu. Who did the proof reading?