June 19 2022

Debian vs Ubuntu: what's the difference? Which one should you use?

Let's see the pros and cons of two very similar and different distributions.

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Ubuntu e Debian are two of the most popular Linux distributions in history. Aside from that, they are closely related, which makes it difficult for new Linux users to sort out the differences between the two. Let's explore the comparisons between Debian and Ubuntu.

So, is Ubuntu the same as Debian? While many things may seem similar, or even the same, with these powerful distributions, there are some notable differences between them.

You can use apt-get commands to manage applications in both Debian and Ubuntu. You can also install DEB packages in both distributions. Many times you will find common package installation instructions for both distributions.

So what's the difference between the two if they're so similar?

Debian and Ubuntu belong to the same side of the distribution spectrum. Debian is the original distribution created by Ian Murdock in 1993. Ubuntu was created in 2004 by Mark Shuttleworth and is based on Debian.

Ubuntu is based on Debian: what does it mean?

Although there are hundreds of Linux distributions, only a handful of them are independent, created from scratch. Debian , Arch, Red Hat are some of the largest distributions that don't come from any other distribution.

Ubuntu is derived from Debian. It means Ubuntu uses the same APT package system as Debian and shares a huge number of packages and libraries from the Debian repositories. It uses the Debian infrastructure as a base.

Ubuntu VS Debian Scheme

This is what most "derivative" distributions do. They use the same package management system and share the basic distribution packages. But they also add some packages and modifications of their own. And this is how Ubuntu differs from Debian despite being derived from it.

Difference between Ubuntu and Debian

Hence, Ubuntu is based on the Debian architecture and infrastructure and uses .DEB packages like Debian.

Does that mean using Ubuntu is the same as using Debian? Not quite like that. There are many more factors involved that distinguish one distribution from another.

Let me discuss these factors one by one to compare Ubuntu and Debian.

Note that some comparisons apply to desktop editions while others apply to server editions.

1. Release cycle

Ubuntu has two types of versions: LTS and regular. The Ubuntu LTS (Long Term Support) version comes out every two years and they get support for five years. You have the option to upgrade to the next available LTS version. LTS versions are considered more stable.

There are also non-LTS releases, every six months. These versions are only supported for nine months, but have newer software versions and features. You need to upgrade to next Ubuntu releases when the current su reaches end of life.

So basically you have the choice between stability and new features based on these versions.

On the other hand, Debian has three different versions: Stable, Testing and Unstable. Unstable is for actual testing and should be avoided.

The test branch is not that unstable. It is used to prepare the next stable branch. Some Debian users prefer the testing branch to get new features.

And then comes the stable branch. This is the main version of Debian. It may not have the latest software and features, but when it comes to stability, Debian Stable is rock solid.

There is a new stable release every two years and it is supported for a total of five years. The first three years are by the Debian security team and the next two years by volunteers (in the form of the Debian LTS team). Next, you need to upgrade to the next stable version available.

As many as five years may seem, it must be considered that in mission critical environments, they could be extremely short and insufficient. In this regard it would be appropriate to evaluate different distributions such as those based on RedHat or RedHat enterprise Linux itself.

2. Software update

Debian's focus on stability means it doesn't always aim for the latest software versions. For example, the latest Debian 11 includes GNOME 3.38, not the latest GNOME 3.40.

The same goes for other software like GIMP, LibreOffice, etc. This is a compromise you need to make with Debian. This is why the “Debian stable = Debian stale” joke is popular in the Linux community.

Ubuntu LTS releases also focus on stability. But they usually have newer versions of the popular software.

You should note that for some software , installation from the developer repository is also an option. For example, if you want the latest Docker version, you can add Docker repository in both Debian and Ubuntu.

Overall, the software in Debian Stable often has older versions than Ubuntu.

3. Software Availability

Both Debian and Ubuntu have a huge software repository. However, Ubuntu also has PPA (Personal Package Archive). With PPA, installing the latest software or getting the latest software version becomes a little easier.

You can try using PPA in Debian but it won't be a smooth experience. You will run into problems most of the time.

4. Supported Platforms

Ubuntu is available on 86-bit x64 and ARM platforms. It no longer provides 32-bit ISO.

Debian, on the other hand, supports both 32-bit and 64-bit architecture. Besides that, Debian also supports 64-bit ARM (arm64), ARM EABI (armel), ARMv7 (EABI hard-float ABI, armhf), little-endian MIPS (mipsel), 64-bit little-endian MIPS (mips64el), 64-bit little-endian PowerPC (ppc64el) and IBM System z (s390x).

No wonder it is called the "universal operating system".

5. Installation

Ubuntu installation is much easier than Debian installation. I'm not kidding. Debian could be confusing even for intermediate Linux users.

When you download Debian, it provides a minimum ISO by default. This ISO has no non-free (non-open source) firmware. You go to install it and you realize that your network cards and other hardware will not be recognized. This requires a lot of patience and abundant competence, skills that are not always compatible in production environments where one must necessarily work at a fast pace.

There is a separate non-free ISO that contains the firmware but it is hidden and if you don't know it, a nasty surprise awaits you.

Ubuntu is much more forgiving when it comes to including proprietary drivers and firmware in the default ISO.

Also, the Debian installer looks old while the Ubuntu installer looks modern. The Ubuntu installer also recognizes other operating systems installed on the disk and gives you the option to install Ubuntu alongside existing ones (dual boot). I didn't notice this with the Debian installer during my tests.

6. Ready-to-use hardware support

As mentioned above, Debian mainly focuses on FOSS (free and open source software). This means that the Debian-supplied kernel does not include proprietary drivers and firmware.

It's not that you can't get it to work, but you'll have to add / enable additional repositories and install it manually. This could be daunting, especially for beginners.

Ubuntu isn't perfect but it's much better than Debian for providing ready-to-use drivers and firmware. This means less hassle and a more complete out-of-the-box experience.

7. Desktop Environment Choices

Ubuntu uses a custom GNOME desktop environment by default. You can install other desktop environments on it or opt for various desktop based Ubuntu versions like Kubuntu (for KDE), Xubuntu (for Xfce) etc.

Debian also installs GNOME by default. But its installer gives you the option to install the desktop environment of your choice during the installation process.

As far as we are concerned, in our systems work we do not remember having installed an advanced Window Manager, but only terminals and command lines.

8. Game

Gaming on Linux has improved overall thanks to Steam and its Proton project. However, games are very hardware dependent.

And when it comes to hardware compatibility, Ubuntu is better than Debian for proprietary driver support.

Not that it can't be done in Debian, but it will take time and effort to get it done.

9. Performance

There is no clear “winner” in the performance section, either on the server or on the desktop. Both Debian and Ubuntu are popular as desktop and server operating systems.

Performance depends on the system hardware and the software component used. You can modify and control your system in both operating systems.

10. Community and support

Debian is a true community project. Everything in this project is governed by the members of its community.

Ubuntu is supported by Canonical . However, it's not entirely a corporate project. It has a community, but the final decision on any matter is in the hands of Canonical.

As for support, both Ubuntu and Debian have dedicated forums where users can seek help and advice.

Canonical also offers paid professional support to its corporate clients. Debian has no such features.

Conclusion

Both Debian and Ubuntu are solid choices for desktop or server operating systems. The apt package manager and the DEB package are common to both and thus offer a somewhat similar experience.

However, Debian still needs a certain level of experience, especially on the desktop front. If you're new to Linux, sticking with Ubuntu will be a better choice for you. In my opinion, you should gain some experience, familiarize yourself with Linux in general, and then try your hand at Debian.

It's not that you can't jump on the Debian bandwagon from the start, but it's more likely to be an overwhelming experience for Linux newbies.

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