What’s the Difference Between Ubuntu and Ubuntu-Based Distros?
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Linux Mint and elementary OS are both popular alternatives to Ubuntu—but they’re also based on Ubuntu. If you’re new to Linux, this can be confusing. Let’s try to clear up what this means and why it matters to you.

The Ubuntu Desktop

Linux Distro, Ubuntu

Ubuntu is a free and open source Ubuntu: A Beginner's Guide Ubuntu: A Beginner's Guide Curious about Ubuntu, but not sure where to start? Everything you could possibly need to get started with the latest version of Ubuntu is right here, written in easy-to-understand, plain English. Read More alternative to commercial, proprietary operating systems such as Windows and macOS. There’s a panel across the top that shows the time, system indicators, and a way to open an overview screen or dashboard that lets you access your apps. There you can also switch between windows and virtual desktops.

There’s a company behind Ubuntu called Canonical. Unlike Microsoft and Apple, Canonical doesn’t make most of what goes into its operating system. Instead, Ubuntu is made of free and open source components that come from individuals and teams from all over the world.

The kernel, which enables software to talk to your computer’s hardware, is Linux. The interface I described above isn’t unique to Ubuntu. It’s actually a desktop environment known as GNOME GNOME Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Popular Desktops GNOME Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Popular Desktops You're interested in Linux, and you've come across "GNOME", an acronym for GNU Network Object Model Environment. GNOME is one of the most popular open source interfaces, but what does that mean? Read More .

Canonical uses these components to create a functional desktop experience that anyone is free to download. You can use Ubuntu for your general computing, office work, software development, gaming, and running servers.

The Ubuntu Infrastructure

Linux Distro, Ubuntu

Ubuntu is much bigger than the desktop you download from ubuntu.com. It’s a community of developers and users. It’s also a collection of apps and programs gathered from many sources and used in different ways.

Most of the code that powers Ubuntu doesn’t come from Canonical. Ubuntu is based on Debian, a massive project that does the same thing Ubuntu does, only in a way that’s a little less accessible. To clear things up, we’re going to have to establish a few terms.

  • Packages: The way developers distribute software for Linux. Apps, system components, drivers, codecs, and other software come in the form of packages.
  • Package Formats: Different versions of Linux organize packages using different formats. As of yet, there’s no single format that’s compatible with every version of Linux.
  • Repositories: Instead of downloading installers from a website, Linux software is usually found in a repository. Repositories are large collections of packages that you may access and download as needed. Linux App Stores provide software from repositories Linux App Stores Compared: Which One Is Right for You? Linux App Stores Compared: Which One Is Right for You? Windows users are being guided to an app store. macOS has had one for a while. Linux, meanwhile, has had an app store-style experience for years. But which one is right for you? Read More in an experience similar to what you encounter on Android and iOS. More traditional tools are known as package managers. You can also download software via the command line.
  • Distributions: A distribution is a collection of software packaged in a way that provides a functioning operating system, along with the accompanying community and repositories.

Ubuntu and Debian are both Linux distributions, and Ubuntu uses the same DEB package format as Debian, though software isn’t always compatible between the two. Ubuntu provides its own repositories, but it mostly fills them with packages from Debian.

The Ubuntu Ecosystem

Linux Distro, Ubuntu

Ubuntu comes in many forms. The default desktop utilizes the GNOME desktop environment. There are different “flavors” that use different desktop environments. Kubuntu, for example, uses the KDE Plasma desktop KDE Explained: A Look at Linux's Most Configurable Desktop Interface KDE Explained: A Look at Linux's Most Configurable Desktop Interface What does Linux look like? Sometimes, Unity; other times, GNOME. Oftentimes, though, Linux runs KDE. If you're not using the erstwhile K Desktop Environment on your Linux PC, now is the time to change! Read More . Xubuntu uses a different interface known as Xfce Xfce Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Speediest Desktops Xfce Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Speediest Desktops If you've recently switched to Linux and are finding things a bit slow going, you probably need a lighter desktop environment. One good option is Xfce. Read More .

Canonical doesn’t work on these variants, but it does host them and all of their software. They use the same repositories as the default Ubuntu desktop.

There are many distributions based on Ubuntu that Canonical has no relationship with (similar to the way Ubuntu is based on Debian). Linux Mint and elementary OS are two of the most popular examples. They both come from different teams and have their own unique experiences It's Time to Try Something New: Elementary OS Loki It's Time to Try Something New: Elementary OS Loki Elementary OS isn't your typical Linux distribution. Some would say it isn't a distro at all. But is Elementary really a usable alternative to Windows and macOS as its developers claim? Read More . Linux Mint’s default layout, for example, has much more in common with Windows Cinnamon Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Windows-Like Desktops Cinnamon Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Windows-Like Desktops When you see a screenshot, what you think is the "operating system" is more likely to be the "desktop environment" -- and Linux has a bunch of them, including this one called Cinnamon. Read More .

Looks can be deceiving. Underneath, the infrastructure is the same that powers Ubuntu. Likewise, when you open up an app store on Linux Mint and elementary OS, most of the software is the same as what you would get on Ubuntu.

What Does This Mean?

It means when you see a program that mentions Ubuntu support, that support isn’t limited to the Ubuntu desktop. That software will also run on official flavors of Ubuntu and unrelated projects that happen to share the underlying Ubuntu infrastructure. Steam says it works on Ubuntu, but you can run the same installer How to Install Steam and Start Gaming on Linux How to Install Steam and Start Gaming on Linux Installing Steam on Linux computers is straightforward, and the result is usually the same seamless gaming experience you had on Windows. Read More on Pop!_OS (another Ubuntu-based distro Pop!_OS Has Arrived: How Does It Compare to Ubuntu? Pop!_OS Has Arrived: How Does It Compare to Ubuntu? System76's Pop!_OS Linux operating system is available for download, and is also shipping as the default option on new computers from System76. Should you check it out? Read More ).

If you choose to install elementary OS instead of Ubuntu, you need to know that most of what applies to Ubuntu also applies to you. If Ubuntu doesn’t work on your computer, elementary OS likely won’t either. Similarly, if a game controller isn’t compatible with Ubuntu, chances are it isn’t compatible with your system. When you run into bugs, you may have more luck searching for Ubuntu-related solutions than searching for elementary OS.

Linux Distro, Ubuntu

But things (usually) don’t go in the opposite direction. Ubuntu cannot easily run software designed specifically for elementary OS. To explain this relationship, the Linux community uses the metaphor of a stream. Ubuntu is upstream relative to elementary OS (pictured below). Software runs downstream from Ubuntu. Water only flows one direction.

The further away you get from the source, the more chances to introduce bugs 6 Reasons Your Favorite Linux OS Is Plagued by Bugs 6 Reasons Your Favorite Linux OS Is Plagued by Bugs You found a new Linux operating system to try, and you loved it. But then it went wrong. Sometimes Linux gets buggy after a month or two. The question is, why? Read More . Debian takes the source code for programs and packages them up into DEBs. Ubuntu restructures these packages and, for some, introduces its own tweaks; elementary OS then adds in a few more changes on its own. When something goes wrong, you now have multiple points on the chain to consider. Does the problem lie with the original source code, Debian, Ubuntu, or elementary OS?

Should You Use an Alternative to Ubuntu?

That depends on your needs and expectations. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Are you happy with Ubuntu? If you’re happy with the default Ubuntu desktop, then stay with what you have.
  • Do you like Ubuntu but not the interface? You can swap out the desktop environment without reinstalling your distro. Or you can choose to install a different flavor of Ubuntu.
  • Do you like the Ubuntu infrastructure but not how it’s managed? If you have problems with Canonical Why Use a Linux Operating System Other Than Ubuntu? Why Use a Linux Operating System Other Than Ubuntu? There are hundreds of Linux operating systems (distributions) but you're probably using Ubuntu. Here's why you might want to switch to one of the Ubuntu alternatives. Read More , it may help to use an Ubuntu-based distro provided by a different community. Linux Mint, elementary OS, and Pop!_OS use the Ubuntu infrastructure, but they’re not as impacted by Canonical’s decisions as the official Ubuntu flavors.

If you don’t like the Ubuntu infrastructure, then it may be worth leaving the ecosystem entirely. There are plenty other Linux distros out there The Best Ubuntu Linux Alternatives and Why You Should Switch The Best Ubuntu Linux Alternatives and Why You Should Switch Just because Ubuntu is popular doesn't mean it's the right Linux operating system for you. Could a different flavor of Linux be a better fit? Read More with different strengths and weaknesses. They may completely change your impression of Linux.

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  1. Nikato Muirhead
    April 5, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    I was fine with this article until the writer said there was no package format that works on all distributions. There is one, it is called Flatpak, and is fast becoming the standard. It works everywhere, even on Endless OS

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      April 5, 2018 at 2:19 pm

      Linux comes in a lot of different forms. Flatpak, for example, isn't designed for servers, which is how many people use Linux. These are also very early days for Flatpak. Most software isn't yet available in that format, and many distros don't provide support out of the box. So it's more accurate for me to say to less technical readers that there isn't yet one format they can use to install most of their software on whatever version of Linux they're running.

      All that aside, yes, Flatpak is fast becoming the standard on desktop Linux, and that's a great thing to see!

  2. dragonmouth
    April 3, 2018 at 12:30 am

    Theonly difference between various versions of Ubuntu (Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu) and other distros based on Ubuntu (Mint, elementary, Zorin) are the cosmetics. The applications, utilities, etc are all Ubuntu. They all work the same, they have the same problems,. The various distros based on Ubuntu are like cars from GM. You have Chevy, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, GMC, etc. Different sheet metal, same chassis and drive train interchangeable parts.

    • NixDev
      April 4, 2018 at 3:28 pm

      Very true. Though the move to the root (Debian) may fix some issues that Canonical has introduced with their distro

    • Pariah
      April 5, 2018 at 3:59 am

      That is not entirely true. Mint has developed several applications and tools that are not available on Ubuntu.

      • NixDev
        April 12, 2018 at 5:41 pm

        With the dependencies met, they will work just fine. If it's FOSS, then it's available in one way or another.

    • brb
      April 7, 2018 at 11:34 pm

      Always found it amusing about the vehicles. For years you could get a Cadillac, Pontiac, Buick, Chevy or Oldsmobile. Same car except for the sheet metal and hub caps...at wildly varying prices, of course. Ford and Chrysler did the same thing. It's funny how much more people will pay for specific hood emblem.

  3. Allan E Gray
    April 2, 2018 at 6:59 pm

    Used Ubuntu (distos mainly) after switching from Win. Moved to Arch (Manjaro) and I'm not looking back, sorry Ubuntu.

    • Nikato Muirhead
      April 5, 2018 at 1:03 pm

      Arch is truly excellent.

    • brb
      April 7, 2018 at 11:39 pm

      Using Manjaro/KDE here. Never had any trouble with Ubuntu/Kubuntu until Kubuntu 16.04. That release was utter garbage and an embarrassment to Ubuntu, Kubuntu, KDE and the Linux world in general and should never have been released. Been with Manjaro for a year as of next week and all is well.