A wise man once compared Linux to vanilla ice cream. It’s pretty nice by itself, but if you add some flavors and toppings, it turns into something entirely else altogether. Debian and Ubuntu are just two of the many ‘flavors’ of Linux and count among the most popular Linux distributions around.
Debian and Ubuntu are both geared towards casual home users, though they can both accommodate hardcore programmers as well. The open-source community likes to posit them as worthy alternatives to Windows and OS X. In this article, we’ll see if this claim deserves any merit and tell you which Linux distribution – Debian or Ubuntu – deserves your time.
If you’re completely new to Linux, try taking this course on basics of Linux.
Debian: A Brief Introduction
When Debian was first announced in 1993, it was a one-man project helmed by Ian Murdock who was then a CS student at Purdue University. To give you an idea of the humble beginnings of the project, consider that the name ‘Debian’ itself is a portmanteau of ‘Debra’ – Ian’s then-girlfriend – and ‘Ian’. This would like Bill Gates calling Windows ‘Billinda’, after Bill and Melinda Gates.
The project was envisioned as a robust, open-source distribution of Linux with an emphasis on community-first development. With the release of the first 0.9x version in 1994, Murdock was able to raise significant interest in the distribution. Soon, the open-source community – which was still in its nascent stages – rallied around the distribution and helped turn it from a hobby into a robust, capable OS.
Many hardcore Debian users will tell you that Debian is as much an OS as it is a philosophy. While most Linux distros espouse the ‘free software’ philosophy, few embrace it as wholeheartedly as Debian. This can be seen in the Debian Social Contract, a document that lists the guidelines open-source developers must adhere to (‘ensuring that the OS remains open and free’ being the top item on the list).
Today, Debian is developed and nurtured by a strong community of passionate developers. There is no commercial organization at the helm; it is completely operated and maintained by the community. In a way, Debian is a demonstration of what collaborative creation can accomplish.
Ubuntu: A Brief Introduction
It’s difficult to describe the word ubuntu from which the Ubuntu OS takes its name. Of South African origin, ubuntu can roughly be translated to ‘humanness, human kind, and human spirit’. It has been appropriated to stand for ‘oneness’ – a philosophy Ubuntu and the open-source software movement subscribes to wholeheartedly.
Ubuntu is essentially a fork of Debian. For those of you who don’t speak geek, a fork is when a developer takes a copy of source code from one project and starts development on it independently, thereby creating something unique and distinct from the original. Unlike Debian, which is community powered, Ubuntu is developed by Canonical Ltd., a private company helmed by serial entrepreneur (and space tourist) Mark Shuttleworth.
Ubuntu was created with an express desire to make Linux more approachable to average users. As such, it has a slicker UI, better support for media, and an easier installation process. This can be seen in the respective websites for Ubuntu and Debian as well. Because of this user-friendliness, Ubuntu has quickly become the most widely used Linux distribution with an estimated 20 million users worldwide.
Now that we know how Ubuntu and Debian originated, let’s check out their features, pros and cons.
New to Linux? Master Linux command line with this course!
Debian and Ubuntu Compared
Before we begin, you must understand that Ubuntu is based off Debian, which itself is just another ‘flavor’ of Linux. Since Ubuntu shares much of its codebase with Debian, it is usually as fast, flexible and powerful as Debian. What Canonical – Ubuntu’s developer – basically does is add a bunch of extra features, a nicer interface (based on Unity, not GNOME – don’t worry if you don’t know what they are) and easier installation.
Thus, comparing Ubuntu to Debian is, in some ways, comparing a kernel of corn to an entire corn cob (Linux, of course, is the field where the corn is grown). They are similar in most ways, though still different in some.
With that out of the way, let’s get started.
Ease of Use
Take a quick look at Debian.org. Then head over to Ubuntu.com.
No points for guessing which distro is easier to use!
Debian is a developer-first Linux distribution. Although it is robust, secure and powerful, it isn’t exactly designed for those new to Linux. The developer community has worked tirelessly in the last few years to make the installation process and basic setup easier, but it is still leaps and bounds away from Ubuntu’s usability.
Ubuntu, on the other hand, is aimed at inexperienced first time users. This is reflected in Ubuntu’s company slogan as well – “Linux for human beings”.
Some Ubuntu features that make it easy to use for inexperienced users are:
Easy installation: You can download a copy of the Ubuntu installation image onto a CD or pen drive and start the installation right away. You can also try the software without installing. Lately, Debian has started supporting easy installation and live demo features as well.
Ubuntu software center: Installing new software on Linux is like battling a honey badger in a cage – never easy and seldom safe. The Ubuntu software center makes package installation somewhat easier, giving you access to popular tools and software with zero mucking around with sudo. Installing software on Debian, on the other hand, will still require you to fire up the command line.
Cloud storage: It’s nearly impossible to read any tech-related news and not chance upon the word ‘cloud’. Ubuntu includes its own cloud storage service, Ubuntu One, which makes it easy to move to the cloud – something utterly missing in Debian.
Media management: Ubuntu’s media (pictures, videos, music) management is very user-friendly – almost like OS X or Windows 7. This is a clear advantage for home and casual users who want to use Ubuntu as their primary computer.
If ease of use is a concern, go with Ubuntu – you won’t go wrong. Debian has its positive points, but approachability isn’t one of them. Power users and admins, however, will love Debian’s minimalism.
A common complaint among those switching from Windows or Mac to a Linux OS is hardware compatibility. Simply put, a lot of hardware just doesn’t work with many Linux distros. This problem is especially acute if you have rare, really old, or really new hardware.
Ubuntu’s developers have worked extensively to improve the OS’ hardware compatibility, and it shows. Ubuntu will recognize most current hardware and a bunch of old stuff too. This means you can start using Ubuntu right out of the box without searching for hard to find drivers.
Debian’s hardware compatibility, however, is a little sketchy. Debian released v7.0 of the OS (codenamed, ahem, Wheezy) in May 2013 which is more stable and secure than ever, but also utilizes a significantly outdated Linux 3.2 kernel (current version is up to v3.12). This can lead to many hardware incompatibilities, especially if you are using older (or very new) hardware.
Ubuntu is primarily meant to be used on desktop devices. Hence, it only supports hardware architecture commonly found in desktop computers – Intel x86, and Intel x64. Debian, on the other hand, will run equally smoothly on desktop computers (x86 or x64 architecture) to handheld devices (ARM architecture).
Here’s a full list of architecture supported by Debian 7 wheezy:
32-bit PC (‘i386’)
MIPS (‘mips’ (big-endian) and ‘mipsel’ (little-endian))
Intel Itanium (‘ia64’)
64-bit PC (‘amd64’)
ARM EABI (‘armel’)
ARMv7 (EABI hard-float ABI, ‘armhf’)
IBM System z (‘s390x’)
Ubuntu boasts better hardware support, though you may still have to search for specific drivers for some hardware devices. Debian, on the other hand, has better support for different hardware architecture.
Running Linux on a server? This course will teach you how!
Another reason why many Linux still lags behind Windows in adoption rates is the lack of compatible software. If you absolutely must use MS Office, or love to play games on your computer, you won’t find much to love on Linux.
Among Linux distros, Ubuntu supports the widest variety and volume of software. You won’t find MS Office or Photoshop, but you will still have the option to pick from hundreds of worthy alternatives. Some popular software alternatives in Ubuntu are:
LibreOffice: Alternative to MS Office. Works with Word, Excel and PowerPoint files.
VLC Player: Powerful media player that can run most media files without additional codecs.
GIMP: GIMP is a highly capable, free alternative to Photoshop.
Chrome and Firefox: You won’t miss much on Ubuntu when it comes to web browsers. The only major browser missing from Ubuntu is IE, although there’s little chance of anyone ruing its absence.
Steam: Gaming has always been a bone of contention between Windows and Linux users. The recent addition of Steam support in Ubuntu should quell some concerns for Linux users.
A lot of software that works on Ubuntu also works on Debian, though this isn’t always true. Overall, the Debian software library is poorer than Ubuntu’s. That said, most of the popular Linux software – GIMP, LibreOffice, VLC, Firefox – will work as well on Debian as on Ubuntu.
Ubuntu boasts a larger software library than Debian, making it even more attractive for casual users.
As far as stability is concerned, a stable release (see how a ‘testing’ release becomes a ‘stable’ release) of Debian is more robust than the rock of Gibraltar. You can say goodbye to blue screens and random system crashes; Debian will almost never go down – which is why it is so popular for enterprise-grade applications and web hosting.
Ubuntu, since it shares Debian’s codebase, also shares its stability, though the additional features have certainly made it slightly prone to crashes and bugs.
Both Ubuntu and Debian are way more stable than any Windows based OS. That said, Debian, because of its minimalistic features, beats Ubuntu on the stability scale hands down.
Both Ubuntu and Debian are significantly faster than comparable Windows operating systems. Debian is especially fast since it doesn’t come bundled with a bunch of performance degrading features and pre-installed software.
Ubuntu is faster than Windows, though the added features affect the performance when compared with Debian. Expect both Ubuntu and Debian to slow down over time as feature-bloat keeps piling up, though you’ll be hard-pressed to find an Ubuntu or Debian machine running slower than an equivalent Mac or Windows.
Both Debian and Ubuntu boast significantly better performance than Windows; you can’t go wrong in choosing either of them, though Debian has the slight edge.
Community and Support
The best thing about using open-source software is the sense of community it engenders. Both Ubuntu and Debian have strong, active developer communities, though Debian, since it is basically built by volunteer developers, has a much larger community.
Debian’s community tends to be more technically oriented. Ubuntu’s community, on the other hand, is more welcoming to newcomers and beginners.
If you’re willing to pay (a blasphemous word in open-source circles), you can get access to expert support directly from Canonical Ltd. for a fee. With Debian, you just have to rely on community forms.
Debian’s community is large and vibrant, though Ubuntu’s is more newbie friendly.
Debian typically has three release-types in the works. These are:
Stable: This is the stable, ready to deploy version you can use on your desktops and servers.
Testing: This is the version undergoing testing before it can become stable.
Unstable: This is the shaky, under-trial version mostly used by developers to tinker with the code.
Ubuntu, on the other hand, offers two OS versions:
Ubuntu LTS: LTS stands for Long Term Support. Ubuntu typically receives updates every six months. The LTS version, however, is released every 2 years. This means that the LTS version has outdated software and hardware drivers, but is also significantly more stable. The current LTS version is 12.04.
Ubuntu non-LTS: Also called a ‘standard release’, these are released every six months and feature the latest software. The current non-LTS version of Ubuntu is 13.10.
Ubuntu non-LTS releases are basically built upon unstable versions of Debian. The folks at Canonical take the best from Debian unstable, improve it, add the latest software and hardware drivers, and release it to the general public in the form of a standard release.
Ubuntu releases updates every six months; Debian’s stable releases are more sporadic, though you can always play around with the testing version. Ubuntu’s faster release cycle means that Ubuntu usually includes the latest software.
Debian and Ubuntu are meant for different users. Ubuntu is aimed at inexperienced users new to Linux, while Debian is a minimalist, no-frills OS created for developers, tinkerers and open-source enthusiast. If you’ve never used Linux before, we recommend going with Ubuntu. If you’re already familiar with Linux, give Debian a shot – you won’t be disappointed.
You can learn about more advanced Linux applications, such as running a Ubuntu Linux Server, in this course.