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When you discover Linux for the first time, Ubuntu is likely to be one of the first recommendations. You may have even come across Ubuntu before learning about Linux itself. What makes Ubuntu so special? How is it different from other versions of Linux (known as Linux distributions)?
The short answer is “not much.” Once you learn how to use Ubuntu, you can switch to other distributions and find that most of the experience is the same. Ubuntu is also no longer significantly easier to use than its alternatives. But there are some key technical differences that make Ubuntu what it is.
1. Canonical Maintains Its Own App Repositories
Linux isn’t like Windows or macOS, where a single company develops most of the operating system. Linux is a compilation of components from many different sources. On top of the Linux kernel, you have a display server, a sound manager, a desktop environment, and the list goes on. A Linux distribution is a way of bundling and distributing this software together to form a functional operating system.
Like the operating system itself, Linux apps don’t come from a single source. Whichever company or community produces your chosen Linux distribution also provides a way for you to download additional apps.
Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, has its own computers filled with software to distribute to other computers. These computers are known as servers, and the mass collection of software is a repository.
The software on these computers first comes from the Debian project’s repositories, but that doesn’t mean the software is the same. Ubuntu may add additional apps, provide different versions, or include patches. The same is true of the many different system components and utilities that are also available for download.
There are many Linux distributions out there, but only a few host their own software repositories.
2. Canonical Provides a Patched Linux Kernel
We casually use the name “Linux” to refer to the entire operating system, but Linux specifically refers to the kernel. The kernel is what enables your computer’s hardware to communicate with the software. In other words, the kernel is the reason that when you press a button on your keyboard, something happens on your screen.
The Linux kernel is available for people to use to create their own operating systems. But there isn’t one version of the kernel. New updates come along all the time.
Generally, Linux distributions choose which version of the Linux kernel will power their operating system. They then try to patch features and updates from newer versions of the kernel back into whichever older release they’ve chosen to support.
Canonical not only ships the Linux kernel, it has a security team that tests the kernel and adds needed fixes. Canonical’s tweaks to the Linux kernel is one of the reasons the elementary team cites for why they’ve chosen to base elementaryOS on Ubuntu.
3. Ubuntu Has A Custom Desktop Theme
Appearances are often the easiest aspect of a Linux desktop to change, but this is the part that stands out to people to most. Ubuntu comes with its own themes, known as Yaru. This gives app windows on Ubuntu a look distinct from other versions of Linux.
The current look features black headerbars and a red close button, with a lighter variant also included. The Yaru theme extends to the icons, which are colorful and vibrant.
It’s worth noting that many app developers are not a fan of themes. Desktop themes can cause unexpected behavior, leading to users filing bugs for issues that stem from the theme rather than the app. Icon themes can also conflict with an app’s branding. Much of the software on Ubuntu is designed for GNOME’s default look and feel, not necessarily the way things appear in Ubuntu.
4. Ubuntu Ships With a Tweaked Version of GNOME
While Ubuntu comes in many flavors, the default version uses the GNOME desktop environment. Yet the Ubuntu screenshots you see across the web will differ in behavior from what you see on GNOME.org.
The key difference between Ubuntu and the default GNOME interface is the dock that’s always visible on the left side of your desktop. This is a tweak Canonical made to the GNOME desktop. Usually, GNOME desktops only display the dock when you open the Activities Overview.
Canonical has also expanded the dock to take up the entire height of the screen and moved the app launcher icon to the very bottom of the dock. Ubuntu comes with settings for configuring this dock, enabling you to move it to different sides of the screen or auto-hide when an app overlaps.
Canonical’s changes aren’t limited to the dock. App windows, for example, have minimize and maximize buttons in addition to the close button. Plus you can place files and folders on the desktop. This is not the case in standard GNOME.
5. Ubuntu Comes With Many Years of Support
All Linux distros come with varying support periods. You’re free to upgrade to the latest software at any time, but if you want to stick with an older release, you may stop receiving updates in a few years.
Ubuntu comes in two versions, a standard release that comes every six months and a Long-Term Support release that comes every two years. Standard releases receive support for nine months. LTS releases last for five years. That means Ubuntu 18.04 LTS should still receive updates after the launch of versions 20.04 and 22.04.
If you want your desktop experience to remain relatively consistent for years at a time, or you have a computer that you need to keep up and running with as little downtime as possible, then you may value the stability an LTS provides.
6. Ubuntu Has Universal Snap Packages Built-In
Installing software on Linux is simple if an app comes included in your distro’s repositories. If not, then the process has traditionally been somewhat of a pain. Often your only choice was to build the program using the provided source code or, in Ubuntu’s case, hope a Personal Package Archive was available.
Now there are multiple universal package formats that allow you to install Linux apps regardless of which distro you use. The snap format is one such option, and it comes from Canonical.
While you can use snaps on other versions of Linux (that’s the point, after all), Ubuntu comes with snap support built-in, and you know that snaps have generally been designed with Ubuntu in mind.
What Else Makes Ubuntu Special?
Many of the reasons to use Ubuntu are not due to the technical differences between Ubuntu and other Linux distributes. For example:
- Many third-party commercial software makers port software specifically to Ubuntu when developing for Linux.
- Ubuntu has the largest desktop Linux community, which increases your chances of finding fixes for bugs and other issues.
- There are a growing number of PCs that ship with Linux pre-installed, and Ubuntu is the most common option. Dell, for example, lets you choose between Windows 10 and Ubuntu.
If you would like a more in-depth look at Ubuntu, be sure to check out our beginner’s guide to Ubuntu.