Linux Technology Explained

What’s the Difference Between Linux Distributions If They’re All Linux?

Christian Cawley Updated 09-06-2020

When you’re looking for a new Linux distro to install, you notice two things: the name, and the desktop environment.

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A quick browse shows obvious differences between Ubuntu, Fedora, Linux Mint, Debian, openSUSE, and many other variants of Linux. But why are there so many Linux distributions and what is the difference between them?

The 5 Key Differences Between Linux Distributions

Looking for a new Linux distro? At some point you’ll have wondered why there are so many different distributions, especially if they’re all Linux anyway.

You may know that Windows 10 has multiple editions, but they aren’t marketed as entirely separate operating systems. Meanwhile, macOS has a single variant (at least for the desktop). So why are there so many different Linux distributions?

Development of Linux distributions is thanks to various collaborative and yet disparate groups. Over the years since the Linux Kernel was first released, this approach has led to the creation of different distros.

At the core, it is Linux. But you will notice some differences between Linux versions, specifically:

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  • Desktop Environments
  • Package managers
  • Display servers
  • Goals and aims
  • Open source philosophy

But how much do these differences really matter?

1. Desktop Environments

What's the Difference Between Linux Distributions If They're All Linux? muo linux raspberrypi ubuntu mate menu 670x414

Most distributions seem to differ simply based on which desktop environment they use.

For example, Ubuntu offers several desktop environments depending on which flavor you choose. You can have:

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  • Ubuntu (the main version includes the GNOME desktop)
  • Kubuntu (KDE)
  • Lubuntu (LXQt)
  • Ubuntu Budgie (with the Budgie desktop)
  • Ubuntu MATE (the classic Ubuntu desktop)
  • Xubuntu (Xfce)

Other distros have a more modest selection of desktops available, however, often offered as “spins” that contain different desktop environments. An example distribution that does this is Fedora. Meanwhile, you’ll find the macOS-inspired Pantheon desktop on Elementary OS.

Check our guide to the best Linux desktop environments The 12 Best Linux Desktop Environments Choosing a Linux desktop environment can be difficult. Here are the best Linux desktop environments to consider. Read More to learn more about these differences.

2. Package Managers and Other Technologies

The people behind each Linux distribution can choose what software they include, such as file managers and package managers.

Distribution leaders have these options because each category of Linux software can have multiple applications.

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For example, several file managers are available for Linux, such Nautilus and Konqueror, each offering a different way to browse files.

Another example is Linux package managers Which Linux Package Manager (and Distro) Is Right for You? A key difference between the main Linux distros is the package manager; the differences are strong enough that it can influence your choice of distro. Let's look at how the various package managers work. Read More . Various methods for installing software are included with each Linux distribution, but they have an underlying package manager.

On Debian-based distros such as Ubuntu and Linux Mint, dpkg is the choice, accessed via the apt dependency resolver. For CentOS, RPM is the package manager, subject to commands using yum.

3. Different Display Servers on Linux

Under the hood on Linux you’ll find a selection of tools, applications, processes, and servers that determine how it runs.

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A key example of this is the display server. This software coordinates data between the computer hardware and the display, enabling the user to interact with the graphical user interface (GUI).

Historically, the X.Org Server has been most commonly used. Various alternatives are available, however, such as Mir, and SurfaceFlinger which is used on Android (which uses the Linux Kernel). The Wayland display server is seen as the future on Linux, with most popular distros adopting it.

4. Goals and Aims

Some distributions exist because they like some aspects of an existing distro but wish to replace some software packages. Meanwhile, Linux distributions can differ in their aims. For example, Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, but contains different system tools, desktop environment, and a minty-green theme. Its primary aim is to provide a simple stepping on point for Windows and macOS users to start using Linux.

Similarly, Debian aims to provide an extremely stable distribution (and therefore contains older software).

Beyond the realm of universal distributions, some Linux projects have specific purposes. For example, gaming distros like Steam OS, or multimedia distros like Fedora Design Suite.

5. Open Source vs. Proprietary Philosophy

While GNU/Linux is perhaps the most famous open source project, not all distros are 100 percent open source.

Project leaders have differing stances on open source, which can be a deciding factor for open source purists.

As an example, Ubuntu doesn’t have an issue with including proprietary software in its repositories. You’ll find the Steam gaming client is easily available, while graphics drivers from AMD and Nvidia can be installed. Fedora, conversely, has a strong open source policy that prevents it from including any proprietary software in its repositories.

Of course, at the end of the day you can do whatever you want with your chosen Linux distro. Regardless of the distribution project’s policies, there is no block on what you install.

In short, while many Linux distributions might have lofty aims of open source compliance, not all are open source.

What All Distros Have in Common: the Linux Kernel

Despite these differences, all Linux distributions are still considered to be Linux: but why?

They all have at least one thing in common: the Linux kernel. This piece of software is the core of the operating system, bridging the software that you interact with (e.g. the browser) with the underlying hardware that does all the work. It also includes many device drivers to provide support for whatever hardware you may be sporting.

That’s why it’s important to keep the kernel updated or to compile the kernel yourself if you have special requirements. Developers around the world contribute to the kernel, along with its creator, Linus Torvalds.

Use Linux’s Differences to Choose the Right Distro for You

Knowing how distributions differ from each other can contribute to making or breaking your Linux experience.

Not all distributions are meant for everyone, so choose the one that is most geared towards you and your preferences. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with giving any distribution a try to get a good idea of what it’s about.

Not sure where to start? Check our round up of the best Linux operating systems 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 .

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. EDWARD H CHOU
    June 13, 2019 at 5:07 pm

    Yes. I am now better informed. Since the Linux environment lends itself to the very activity which results in variants of Linux packages I would prefer the many variants of Linux packages not just one. If the owner is deciding to go private to a closed ended platform then we are discussing totally different issues.

  2. Pallavi
    October 29, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    I Think this was one of best article on Linux distributions. this is very simple and easy to understand .

  3. Anonymous
    August 10, 2015 at 8:01 pm

    For me, it's a very simple choice. It's got to be Puppy Linux....EVERY time. Very simple and easy to work with, extremely versatile.....and it has a fabulous community support forum. I've yet to find a problem I can't sort out in 48 hours or less. I'm happy with it; it does everything I could want (and then some..!)

  4. Abdallah
    April 26, 2015 at 10:40 pm

    Well, I end's up here, googling "what makes Linux distributions different while they are all based on the same kernel",
    So I read the post, also the comments, and I didn't get the answer yet!, as a beginner, it wasn't a problem for me to face the reality that "linuxOS" or GNU/Linux is realized under many distributions, or flavors, with a little reading about that, Debian was automatically what I really need. But, with a little mashup, example :
    - I would like it to be running the latest Kernel (simple)
    - I would like to have some packages that's run under other distros Like "Ubuntu" but unfortunately unsupported on Debian (That's the point)?!!!
    If all distributions are running the same kernel why it isn't possible to install packages of a distro in an other ?!!! more that that, Most of us knows that ubuntu is derivative of Debian ?!!! which is completely illogical to not support each other packages!!!
    I really enjoy my GNU/Linux OS but if linux is all about the freedom, I think the approch most communities pursuit, isn't reflecting the real philosophie of what linux's experience should be.

  5. Eddie G.
    August 20, 2013 at 11:11 pm

    I would turn from the entire LInux community and Open Source software entirely if they decided to come out with just "One Linux For Them All"! The whole reason for me leaving Windows was because they didn't give me any choice.......to choose what my desktop interface would be......what my "default" browser would be...etc. I have been using Linux for some time now and have tried a lot fo the different desktop interfaces......Gnome 3 (my personal favorite running on my Fedora machine!) Unity...on Ubuntu........LXDE on Linux Mint.......XFCE on both openSuSEand Lite Linux...MATE on Snow Linux...Enlightenment on PCLinux OS and Cinnamon on Manjaro! If there was only one "flavor" of Linux it would be SUCH a bummer to have to install all of these JUST for a different package list, or application that isn't available on one of the other distros! As far as I am concerned, I liken the choice of the many flavors of Linux as JUST that....it's the "Baskin Robbins" of the computer world!....and if there's a flavor you want that ISN'T there?...why you can go with Linux From Scratch or CRUX and "create' that flavor yourself! Nah.....there'd be pure pandemonium should Linux ever tried to streamline everything and move forward with just ONE LINUX flavr for EVERYONE......(kinda sounds like...MICROSOFT!....No?)

  6. Gregori G
    July 28, 2013 at 6:23 am

    It’s great that it exist different Linux flavors. I’ve tried about five and that way you get to know which one fits best for you. The only thing I don’t like on Linux and really envy from Windows, is the fact it’s not that easy and Standard to install software on them. Even Ubuntu now has a kind of “Software store”, but thé problem is when what you need is not there. . There are a lot of extensions and compilation and stuff hard to understand, so you end up a whole day trying to install some programs. .. (By mistake I posted this answer somewhere else; sorry)

  7. Gregori G
    July 28, 2013 at 6:22 am

    It’s great that it exist different Linux flavors. I’ve tried about five and that way you get to know which one fits best for you. The only thing I don’t like on Linux and really envy from Windows, is the fact it’s not that easy and Standard to install software on them. Even Ubuntu now has a kind of “Software store”, but thé problem is when what you need is not there. . There are a lot of extensions and compilation and stuff hard to understand, so you end up a whole day trying to install some programs. .. (By mistake I posted this answer somewhere else; sorry)

  8. dragonmouth
    July 17, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    "Choice" in Linux has a few definitions.

    When I started using Linux more than 10 years ago, "choice" meant that, during the install process, you could pick and choose the programs and applications that made up your system. I still remember spending literally hours pouring through Slackaware's application groups, checking and unchecking the programs and packages I wanted to install. Sometimes I got a usable system, sometimes I did not. /grin/

    Unfortunately by the time I got proficient in the cookbook approach, Knoppix came out with the first Live CD and all the other distros at the time followed suit. The "choice" of which packages to install was no longer available to the user. The distro developers now chose what was to be included. Slackware held out for a while but it too joined the trend eventually. The user still had the "choice" of which packages to uninstall. The packages were not yet tied into the system files. Of course the user had the "choice" of which distro to install.

    Then along came Mark Shuttleworth and Canonical and his vision of a Windows-like monolith version of Linux, now known as Ubuntu. The only "choice" Ubuntu gave the users was what extra packages to install after the default install finished. The user has no choice about which apps are part of the default install. The user has no choice about which packages to remove because none are removable. All packages and apps are linked to one system file (IIRC, it is the ubuntu-minimal file). Any attempt to remove any app results in the removal of this system file and the distruction of the system. Can anyone say "Windows Registry"?

    There still are some Linux distros that offer real "choice" but they require more knowledge than novice Linux users have. Distros like Arch, antiX Core, Tiny Core start out with a core system and then let the user, with the help of command line tools, build a customized system. Then there are distros like Linux From Scratch, Source Mage and CRUX which offer the user just about complete "choice" in the make up of the final system but require expertise in compiling the Linux kernel.

    The only "choice" left to new Linux users is 1) whether to use it or not 2) which distro to use. So much for the famous range of choice in Linux.

    • Ronn
      October 20, 2016 at 10:24 pm

      Febian If yiu use net install allows you to download a minimum and I mean barely, package and then download whatever packages you want.

    • Ronn
      October 20, 2016 at 10:25 pm

      Debian , if you use net install, allows you to pick what packages you want after a 'core' of minimum tools is downloaded.

  9. Jymm
    July 17, 2013 at 12:44 am

    I try new distro's on a USB stick. I found two I like, and have installed one to a laptop and one to a desktop. They are Solus, and Zorin. To each his own. If you get the desktop you want. and the programs you need, that is the best for you.

  10. Dani B
    July 12, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    I'm using Kubuntu and Debian KDE. I'm also interested to u use Fedora.

  11. jonen
    July 12, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    i generally use ubuntu with kde. mainly for the good driver support (installing nvidia drivers manually is a project on its own), good software support and large userbase.

  12. T.A. Walker
    July 12, 2013 at 8:14 am

    I've been using Linux for about ten years now, and to be honest I've never had a problem with the idea of many different distributions. To me, the closest analogy is with cars - do you ever hear people ask "why are there so many makes and models of car?"

    With that metaphor, I think of distros like Ubuntu, Mint and OpenSUSE as like, say, a Ford or a Toyota, and Arch (my personal favourite) as like a custom-built, high-performance roadster. It's not a case of one being "better" than the other (whatever that may mean) - some distros are more optimised for a particular kind of user than others. Frankly, I wouldn't give an Arch-based PC to a relative (unless they were Linux-savvy), but I now find distros like Ubuntu too bloated and regimented for my own use, even though Ubuntu would suit most users much more.

    In 2009 I picked up a refurbished Eee 701SD (the "original netbook" - remember the tiny one with a 7" screen ahd huge bezel?). It took about two years before I discovered Arch Linux was the perfect "fit" for the 701: instead of being given a big fat desktop setup, you can custom-build the system that best suits the computer it's going on. My Eee would crawl with "normal" Ubuntu (though one of the lighter variants might work well), but it zips along with Arch.

    So basically, I see the different Linux distros available as a strength of the platform, not a weakness - you just need an idea of which one is best-suited to your computer and your personal needs, abilities, etc. THAT's the elephant in the room...

    • dragonmouth
      July 17, 2013 at 8:12 pm

      "To me, the closest analogy is with cars – do you ever hear people ask “why are there so many makes and models of car?”
      Put that way, there isn't too many distros. However, to carry the car analogy a bit furrther, are like the same model but with different color paint and different upholstery. A blue Ford Fiesta and a green Ford Fiesta are still the same car even though one has cloth seats and the other vinyl ones.

      "My Eee would crawl with “normal” Ubuntu"
      My Athlon 64 PC would not be fast running Ubuntu. I don't think it's the processor, it's the O/S. Ubuntu is heavy.

      "you just need an idea of which one is best-suited to your computer and your personal needs, abilities, etc.. THAT’s the elephant in the room…"
      The elephant in the room is the question of how does a newcomer to Linux determine the best distro for his PC and his personal needs/abilities when there are 300+ active distros listed in the DistroWatch database? Those familiar with Linux keep blathering on about "choice". What many/most of them fail to realize is that for somebody coming from Windows or OS/X environment, where there is little or no "choice", the amount of "choice" between Linux distros is disablingly overwhelming.

  13. anjan bhushan
    July 12, 2013 at 5:50 am

    I have tried a lot of distro, but have Ubuntu on my dual boot laptop.

  14. Brandon R
    July 12, 2013 at 5:42 am

    I use Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.

  15. Vineed G
    July 12, 2013 at 5:26 am

    clean and informative article

  16. Doug Dieckmann
    July 12, 2013 at 1:17 am

    I used Ubuntu for a while just to keep an older machine going. But I shared it with another person who was not willing to make it work. I just like the idea of thumbing my nose at Microsoft.

  17. Phill. Whiteside
    July 12, 2013 at 12:33 am

    I use (and test) lubuntu because I strongly believe in not throwing 'elder' computers into land fill or export them abroad to poison different country. I also use CentOS on my server system. The one thing Linux has is "choice" and whilst I'd never use a desktop version on my server, I find that most people who have VM's on my server use ubuntu-server. That we have the choice can seem a little overwhelming to new people, but as they are all free to try.... and then free to keep - my advice is to go and read up on a few and try them out. Choose the one YOU like. Don't be afraid to change a few months down the line as you learn more.

    • dragonmouth
      July 17, 2013 at 7:40 pm

      There are many other distros one can run on "elder" computers and I do not mean the minimalist ones usually mentioned - Damn Small, the whole kennel of Puppies, Slitaz. On my "elder" computers I have been running Mepis, PCLinuxOS, antiX, siduction.

  18. Richard Steven Hack
    July 11, 2013 at 11:24 pm

    I prefer to use a distro which is developed by a fairly large community, which has support from a commercial entity, and which has a history of decent quality assurance testing.

    Which is why I use openSUSE. And this criteria leaves out a LOT of distros, including Ubuntu which has had quality control issues in the past, at least in my experience.

    I recently read a report of someone's experience with the latest Mint distro. It was a disaster for him. The sort of problems he ran into is why I wouldn't touch that distro with a ten-foot pole. If you can't even get the thing installed, it's not worth using.

    No distro is perfect. Currently I have one problem with openSUSE. When I use Firefox to download images, every fourth or so download causes Firefox to "freeze" for about five or more seconds. This is incredibly irritating. I can't tell if this is caused by Firefox or the video drivers. I suspect the latter because the X server ends up consuming 100% of CPU after the system has been up for a while. This doesn't appear to slow the system much overall, but it has a definite effect on Firefox. Other than this issue, however, openSUSE 12.2 is rock solid.

    I need to upgrade to openSUSE 12.3 shortly. I do notice that every new version seems a bit more "bloated" than the last, which seems to be an issue for most of the main Linux distros, just like it is on Windows. I suspect both Windows and Linux will eventually become "unusable" just due to size. At least Linux has the advantage that it can be run in a "stripped down" version if one wants, using a lighter weight desktop environment when necessary.

    As for the criticism heard frequently that Linux has too many distributions, making it hard for the average end user to pick one, frankly the average end user will never hear of ninety percent of Linux distros. Invariably they will end up with one of the "Big Five" - Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE, Debian, and Mandriva (now Mageia).

    Fedora has long been known to be for more technical end users, as is Debian. Ubuntu and Mageia are known for being more end user friendly. openSUSE in my view fits nicely in the middle, so for now I'll stick with it - until it screws up.

  19. Cody Smith
    July 11, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    I use (believe it or not) Gentoo on both of my machines (laptop and desktop), and I think that having different distros is important, as choice is and always has been a big part of the Linux eco-system, and that choice aspect is important not only for taste, but also helps make the who Linux eco-system a better learning experience that one can either take and continue to use in Linux, or just dump but still know, it ALSO helps please everybody's tastes.

  20. Alexandru Ionut
    July 11, 2013 at 10:30 pm

    For the moment, I use Linux Mint Debian. This distro is very stable. When I start to use "linux", Ubuntu was first distro. After 1 year I change it with LMDE, because mint interface is my favorite.

    • Alexandru Ionut
      July 12, 2013 at 2:25 am

      edit: not mint, mate interface. sorry