My Linux journey began in the Ubuntu ecosystem. I installed Xubuntu on an old computer without an internet connection and played around with it. A year or two later, after suffering from a Windows crash that took all of my data with it, I transitioned entirely to Ubuntu 8.10.
Back then I distro hopped quite a bit, but Ubuntu was my anchor. Over the next few years, that changed. The more I used Linux, the more I valued the free and open source ethos along with the culture of collaboration.
I became increasingly put off by the direction Canonical was taking Ubuntu. Version 12.04 was a solid release, but nonetheless, I largely stopped using Ubuntu around that time.
I’ve since gravitated more toward Fedora. Sure, I spent years using Chrome OS and have immersed myself in Elementary OS for months, but Fedora has remained the happy place I can turn to when I just need a computer to do what I want it to do.
These days I’m still bothered by many of the changes I see coming from Canonical, but it doesn’t impact me all that much, because I switched a long time ago, and I’m happy I did.
You may think to yourself that Ubuntu must be the most popular Linux operating system for a reason. Well, if you’re using Linux rather than Windows or macOS, you’ve already come to the conclusion that what’s popular isn’t always the best.
Let’s take a moment to consider why a Linux distribution other than Ubuntu may be a better fit for you.
You Need Something More Stable
Recommended Distro: Debian
You heard Linux bolstered as a more stable alternative to Windows and macOS, so you were surprised when you experienced crashes and other funny behaviors. Where is that rock solid stability you were promised?
Well, as you may now know, Linux comes in many versions, and some are more stable than others. Ubuntu is based on Debian, a significantly larger project that packages most of the software that goes into Ubuntu.
Ubuntu actually uses the “Unstable” Debian repository of apps, and it provides its own patches on top of that. This leaves plenty of points for things to go wrong. So if you want something more stable, skip the middle man and go with Debian.
You’re Looking for New Apps
Recommended Distro: elementary OS
If you’re coming from the Windows world or have grown accustomed to the rate of new releases on your smartphone, checking a Linux app store can feel rather static. Many of us are using the same programs we fell in love with five, ten, fifteen years ago.
Still, there’s something to be said for variety. You want a Linux experience where new apps roll out every week or two? Check out elementary OS.
That distro’s pay-what-you-want AppCenter is currently attracting developers despite elementary’s relatively small number of users. Sure, it’s based on Ubuntu, but the experience feels entirely different and may suit you better.
You Want More Eye Candy
Speaking of elementary OS, have you seen those screenshots?
elementary OS is currently one of the most stylized, instantly recognizable versions of Linux on the web. You could say it looks like macOS on first glance, but those similarities are only surface deep.
If you like the look of Ubuntu but would like a spiffier theme, check out Pop!_OS.
Sure, there are other reasons to give System76’s distro a try, but the catchy look is one of the more obvious ones.
You Need Something Lighter
Recommended Distro: Puppy Linux
Whether you’re trying to squeeze as much performance out of your machine as possible, or you’re trying to breathe life into an old PC, Ubuntu can sometimes weigh you down.
If you know what to do, you can slim Ubuntu down yourself. But it would be easier to download a distro where someone has already done that heavy lifting for you.
There are plenty of lightweight Linux distros you can choose from. Want a name that’s easy to remember? Give Puppy Linux a try.
You Want More Control
You can add and remove components from Ubuntu, but there’s a limit. The way Canonical chooses to bundle certain packages prevents you from removing certain parts without breaking all the things.
Maybe you don’t like having to wait six months between releases when new software updates are always coming in. Why not just receive them as soon as they’re available?
If these things matter to you, Ubuntu will only leave you frustrated. Arch Linux, on the other hand, may just be your dream come true. Not enough control? You may want to consider Gentoo. Still feel limited? Screw it: build Linux from scratch.
You Desire Something Fresh
Recommended Distro: Solus
Ubuntu is based on Debian, and it now uses the same GNOME desktop that we’ve known for years. Every “new” distro seems to be another derivative of Ubuntu or Arch. Where’s all the original work?
The founder of Solus feels the same way. That’s why he started a distro that isn’t based on a pre-existing project. It also comes with its own desktop environment, Budgie, though you can install that elsewhere if it turns out Solus isn’t for you.
You’re Tired of Upgrading
New versions of Ubuntu come out every six months. If you don’t want to upgrade your system that often, you can stick with Long-Term Support releases that last for two years.
But maybe you would prefer to install an operating system once and never have to deal with switching to a new version again.
In that case, you want a Linux distro with a rolling release schedule. These gradually send out major and minor updates together, without you having to pay attention to what version of a distro you’re running. Rolling release distros often don’t even have version numbers.
Be careful though, because things can go wrong if the one part of your system ends up being incompatible with another. Sometimes it’s best to wait to install updates when you know you have time to fix anything that might break.
Like the idea? Then Arch Linux or openSUSE Tumbleweed may be the path for you.
You Want Something a Little More Current
Recommended Distro: Fedora
I mentioned in the introduction that I’m currently using Fedora. This is one of the reasons why. Fedora often develops and adopts new features before they make it into other distros, including Ubuntu.
Fedora strives to be on what it calls the leading edge of open source software, which is different from the bleeding edge that you get with a rolling release distro. On Fedora you get the perks of a predictable, tested release (every six months, like Ubuntu) without taking on the risks of managing a computer where major system changes casually roll in alongside minor app updates.
Part of the reason is that many innovations in Linux come from people who contribute to the Fedora project or work for Red Hat, Fedora’s corporate sponsor. Fedora also has a tendency to accept more new apps and app updates in between major releases, so the six months in between don’t feel as long.
You Only Want Free and Open Source Software
Linux is known as an open source alternative to Windows and macOS, but not everything you can install on the system is free.
Ubuntu in particular recommends proprietary apps and components, such as multimedia codecs. If you’re trying to get your hands on Slack or Steam, this is easier on Ubuntu than other Linux distros. Though even Fedora, which has a much stricter stance on proprietary software, now lets you download such apps from flathub.org inside GNOME Software.
Even if these distros didn’t provide access to proprietary software, some closed source code is baked into the Linux kernel itself. Think hardware drivers used to make Linux compatible with more PCs.
To use an entirely free system, you will want a distro that uses a version of the kernel with these “binary blobs” stripped out.
If you want a stable release, check out Trisquel (based on Ubuntu). If you prefer rolling, Parabola (based on Arch Linux) might be for you. What’s the drawback? Taking out the closed drivers means some hardware will no longer work. Even if you are able to install the distro just fine, you may not be able to get Wi-Fi to work without buying a special dongle.
Which Distro Is Right for You?
When someone’s switching to Linux for the first time, Ubuntu is an easy recommendation. Ubuntu is the most popular desktop distro, which makes it easier for you to find support and fix problems.
A great deal of Linux software is also often packaged only for Ubuntu, leaving users from other distros to build apps from source. But that doesn’t mean Ubuntu’s the best fit for everyone.