Meet the ‘Buntus – Ubuntu, its official variants, and how to choose between them

Ubuntu is arguably the most visible Linux distribution out there for home users. For many, it’s the first—and maybe only—distro they use. Dell has sold (and currently sells) computers pre-installed with Ubuntu, Google uses it for its employees, and Valve Software is developing a Linux version of its hugely popular Steam gaming platform for it. Ubuntu’s prominence within the tech world at large and its user friendliness make it an excellent starting point for beginners.

Ubuntu is developed by Canonical, a company that makes money by providing technical support to businesses that adopt its freely distributed OS. In addition to the regular version of Ubuntu, which sports the Unity desktop interface, Canonical officially recognizes a handful of variants that each put their own unique spin on the OS. In this post, we’ll take a look at the Ubuntu family of distros, what makes them different and why you should choose one over the other.

Ubuntu

Obviously, we wouldn’t have any of the other ‘Buntus without Ubuntu itself. First released in 2004, Ubuntu quickly became one of the most popular distros around due to its ease of use and beginner friendliness. Having used the GNOME desktop environment since its inception, Ubuntu saw a major change in 2011 when Canonical opted to use the Unity shell.

A new version of Ubuntu is released every six months, and each version is officially supported (meaning it receives security/package updates) for one and a half years. Every two years, a long term support (LTS) version is released that is supported for up to five years, which is attractive to businesses that desire stability.

At the time of writing, the most current version of Ubuntu is 12.04.1 (the “1” indicates an incremental update, which is unique to 12.04 because it’s an LTS release). Each Ubuntu release receives an alliterative animal-themed codename—for instance, 12.04 is known as “Precise Pangolin.”

Why you SHOULD choose Ubuntu

  • Online support- Among the ‘Buntus, vanilla Ubuntu gets the most headlines, so if popularity is your thing, this is the way to go. Vanity aside, however, Ubuntu’s popularity also means it gets the most discussion on forums and blogs across the Internet, which is great if you’re looking for solutions to a problem or learning how to do something. Quite simply, most tutorials and help articles are written for Ubuntu, not its derivatives.
  • Unity- For most users, Unity will be perfectly fine. It provides you with a sleek and attractive desktop that reminds me a lot of Mac OS X. Unity has several features that make extensive use of keyboard shortcuts. We’ll take a closer look at Unity in a future post.
  • Fully featured- Ubuntu provides applications most users are likely to be familiar with out of the box, which is convenient. LibreOffice is included by default, as are Firefox and Thunderbird. Being built on top of GNOME, Unity also relies on a lot of GNOME dependencies, which are also used for a lot of popular applications. Since these dependencies are already installed, in some cases you won’t need to download as many packages when you install a new program.

Why you SHOULDN’T choose Ubuntu

  • Older hardware- For a modern desktop OS, Ubuntu is fast compared to Windows 7 and Mac OS X. However, if you’re still using an old Pentium III desktop, don’t expect it to run well. As a general rule, if you’ve got anything older than five years or so, I would go with a lighter derivative such as Lubuntu.
  • Unity- This isn’t a typo. Although I said Unity is perfectly fine for most users, many among the hardcore Linux crowd hate Unity. Having used it myself, I don’t entirely understand the acrimony, but for a lot of users who liked their traditional GNOME desktop just fine, Unity was an unpleasant change. Like I said, for most people, Unity will be fine, but it does have its detractors.

Kubuntu

Kubuntu sports a KDE desktop environment. KDE looks and behaves much like Windows, as compared to vanilla Ubuntu, which has a decidedly Mac OS X feel to it. KDE also features a lot of snazzy visual effects.

Why you SHOULD choose Kubuntu

  • Windows-friendly environmentUsers transitioning from Windows will find themselves right at home in Kubuntu, with its traditional Start menu and taskbar. You don’t face the prospect of learning a new interface like Unity, making your switch to Linux a bit smoother.
  • KDE applications- If you’re a more experienced Linux user, you may have grown accustomed to using applications that are part of the KDE software package, such as Amarok (music player), Konqueror (browser), or Marble (maps). While these applications can be installed in any desktop environment, they integrate much more nicely with KDE, which has all the necessary dependencies and libraries already installed.

Why you SHOULDN’T choose Kubuntu

  • Older/low-end hardware- I recently ran Kubuntu on an approximately 3-4 year old computer. The machine ran regular Ubuntu fine—in fact, it was quite snappy. Kubuntu, however, was a different story. All the heavy visual effects simply bogged the computer down. They can be switched off, sure, but the underlying interface still gobbles up memory. For an older computer, or a newer one that simply isn’t as powerful, Kubuntu may prove to be too much.
  • Weird applications- It seems like there’s a K-themed application for everything in KDE. Rather than packaging something like Firefox, it uses Konqueror. For e-mail, you get KMail instead of Thunderbird. And instead of the popular Transmission bit-torrent client, it uses KTorrent. At any rate, you get the picture. The bottom line is, Kubuntu contains a lot of KDE specific applications by default. For someone new to Linux that is familiar with some of the more popular open-source applications, Kubuntu may be disorienting.

Xubuntu

Although it might sound like the name of an ancient Persian city, Xubuntu is actually a variant of Ubuntu that features the Xfce desktop environment. Compared to something like Unity, which is trying to be hip and trendy, Xfce offers a more traditional interface. Xfce is also not as heavyweight as Unity or KDE.

Why you SHOULD use Xubuntu

  • Midrange hardware (maybe?)- If you want an extremely responsive desktop but have middle-of-the-road hardware, Xubuntu might be a good choice. I say might because in my experience, Xubuntu is almost as much of a resource hog as regular Ubuntu. As a disclaimer, I last used Xubuntu at version 11.04, so there could have been improvements since.
  • Unity- If you’re scared away by that newfangled Unity interface, Xfce might be a breath of fresh air. It’s simple and has a Mac OS X feel, complete with a dock at the bottom of the screen, all without going quite as crazy as Canonical did with Ubuntu.

Why you SHOULDN’T use Xubuntu

  • Older hardware- As mentioned above, Xubuntu might be a good choice if you have midrange hardware. However, it definitely isn’t a good choice if you have older hardware, such as a six or seven year old computer running on a Pentium 4. In those situations, Lubuntu is a much better choice.

Lubuntu

Within the ‘Buntu family, Lubuntu is the baby. It only became an officially recognized variant as of 11.10, although it had been around before that. Lubuntu features the lightweight LXDE environment, which is ideal for older or lower-end hardware. I’ve written extensively about Lubuntu on this site, so if you’re interested in learning more, check out some of my other posts.

Why you SHOULD use Lubuntu

  • Older/low-end hardware- Designed from the ground up to be fast and efficient, Lubuntu is an outstanding distro for breathing new life into old hardware. Even on an old machine, it’s fast and responsive. In fact, even if you have a machine that can run the other ‘Buntus, you may want to give Lubuntu a spin just to watch it fly.
  • Familiar look- LXDE reminds me a lot of Windows XP—it’s simple, functional, and lets you do what you want without getting in your way. For someone migrating from XP on an older machine, Lubuntu is sure to be within their comfort zone.

Why you SHOULDN’T use Lubuntu

  • Eye candyIf bling is your thing, Lubuntu might not be the best choice. It’s got a fairly spartan interface that doesn’t feature many special effects. You can tweak it to suit your needs, of course, but if you want a desktop that will wow you with 3D cubes and flashing lights, it would make more sense to just download Kubuntu or vanilla Ubuntu.

Other variants

There are several more members of the official ‘Buntu family you might want to check out, although they’re more geared toward specific niches. Ubuntu Studio is basically vanilla Ubuntu with lots of media-creation software installed out of the box, which is great for artists, musicians, and the like. Edubuntu is, as the name implies, an educational variant geared toward children. Mythbuntu integrates MythTV and is designed to be used in home theatre PCs (HTPCs).

It doesn’t even end there. Ubuntu Server is intended to be run on servers, and doesn’t include a graphical user interface (GUI) by default. There’s also a business variant(Ubuntu Business Desktop Remix) that makes it easy for IT departments to deploy Ubuntu in an enterprise setting. And as if that weren’t enough, Ubuntu has been developed for smartphones and TVs, too.

These are just the officially recognized variants of Ubuntu—there are dozens of other derivative distros that use the Ubuntu codebase to make completely different spin-offs. Popular derivatives include Linux Mint, Bodhi Linux, Pinguy OS, and Trisquel, among many others. Think of these as being members of the extended ‘Buntu family—cousins, not direct relatives.

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Posted on October 12, 2012, in Discover Linux and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Meet the ‘Buntus – Ubuntu, its official variants, and how to choose between them.

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