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

Ubuntu 19.04 file manager with desktop icons in the background

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 interface I described above isn’t unique to Ubuntu. It’s actually a desktop environment known as GNOME.

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, and gaming. You can also use Ubuntu to run servers.

Are Ubuntu and Linux the Same Thing?

Not quite. The kernel, which is the part that enables software to talk to your computer’s hardware, is Linux. The Linux kernel is just one of many components Canonical uses to create the Ubuntu desktop.

One way to think of the difference between Ubuntu and Linux is that you can’t really run the Linux kernel on its own. It runs in the background, powering many different devices in your life, from gas station pumps to Android smartphones. The Linux desktop is less about Linux and more about all of the free and open source software that runs on top. That said, it’s more accurate to think of Ubuntu as Ubuntu Linux than as its own separate thing.

The Ubuntu Infrastructure

Ubuntu 19.04 app drawer with new icon theme

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.

What Is Ubuntu Based On?

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 in a way akin to Android and iOS, while more traditional tools are known as package managers.
  • 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. Xubuntu uses a different interface known as Xfce.

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.

Ubuntu-Based Distros

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. One key difference between Ubuntu and Linux Mint is that the latter has an interface more similar to Windows 10 Reasons to Fall in Love With Linux Mint 10 Reasons to Fall in Love With Linux Mint Not sure which version of Linux to try out first? Linux Mint is a popular option, and one of the friendliest and most versatile versions of Linux available. Read More .

Looks can be deceiving. Underneath, Linux Mint’s 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 on Pop!_OS (another Ubuntu-based distro).

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. 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 Ubuntu-Based Distro?

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, 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.

Explore more about: Linux Distro, Linux Elementary, Ubuntu.

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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!

    • dragonmouth
      June 25, 2019 at 10:52 pm

      "there was no package format that works on all distributions"
      There still isn't one. There are three competing "universal package managers" - AppImage, Flatpak and Snaps. AppImage is the oldest and used to be really universal, or at least on the way to becoming so. Then Red Hat decided to develop, Flatpak, their own "universal packager". Then Canonical decided to play "me too" and developed their own "universal packager" called Snaps. Unfortunately for Canonical, other distro developers and packagers are not too interested in using Snaps. Just recently Canonical announced that they will no longer package their software in .DEB format, only Snaps format.

      There will be no standard "universal package manager" any time soon because, in this case, Linux's biggest strength - choice - has become it's Achilles' heel. Canonical wants to control Snaps and Red Hat wants to control Flatpak and both want to impose their packager on the rest of Linux community.

      As to which one of Flatpak, Snaps or AppImage is the best, no independent, objective tests have been done. So the best one is the one you like and know best how to use.

  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.