As if switching to a new OS wasn’t difficult enough, Ubuntu offers a variety of flavors for users to choose from. Although Ubuntu is at the heart of them all, each of these OS variations offers a completely unique user experience that has a significant impact on your experience as a Ubuntu Linux user.
Although each of these interfaces has its share of benefits and drawbacks, is one of them really that much better? If you are a novice user, is one choice better than another? What about advanced users? This article aims to compare each interface to help you choose the best Ubuntu flavor for your needs. If you are brand new to using Linux, don’t worry! Check out Introduction to Linux before continuing and learn the basics of using Linux as your desktop.
Brief History of Ubuntu
Ubuntu is an African word that means “I am what I am because of what we all are.” The creators of Ubuntu, Canonical, created Ubuntu has a way to share this ancient principle with PC users around the world.
Ubuntu is completely free and open-source. This attracts developers interested in creating a better desktop experience that is free from the constraints typically imposed by commercial software manufacturing. Innovation and a sense of community are two of the most attractive aspects of Ubuntu and its many variations.
The goal of Ubuntu is to create a fully-functional desktop environment that can be appreciated by users of all skill levels. While initial versions of Linux were designed for programmers and networking professionals, Ubuntu bridges the gap between popular platforms like Windows and OS X. The current release of Ubuntu, 13.10, provides enough functionality to be useable by almost any desktop user. The increased availability of cloud-based software solutions has also removed many of the software limitations commonly experienced when using any Linux distribution.
The fact is that the reasons not to use Ubuntu are dwindling with every new release. Actually, there are many good arguments for why Ubuntu is actually a better choice for many users in an era driven increasingly by new technology and the demand for better information solutions.
Ubuntu is actually available in eight different flavors including specialized versions for servers, mobile devices and OpenStack cloud configurations. This versatility has made Ubuntu one of the best choices for individual users and businesses alike. You can also use Ubuntu to run servers as described in Learning Ubuntu Linux Server.
It’s worth noting that all three desktop environments in this guide are based on the same source code. That is to say that all three are Ubuntu derivatives, but the user experience can be dramatically different depending on the user and the exact level of customization they are looking for.
From fully customizable distributions to powerful bash scripting commands, Ubuntu offers quite a few tools simple not found in Windows. You can learn more about Bash scripting in the Introduction to Bash Scripting course.
In the following sections, you will learn what each of these environments is good at (and what they are not) so you can make sure that you are getting the most out of your next Linux installation.
Ubuntu uses the Unity interface. Unity was met with significant opposition when it was first released a few years ago as a replacement to the traditional Ubuntu interface. Canonical attempted to create a modern UI with Unity that could compete directly with Windows and OS X. Although Unity was a little unstable at first, it has grown into a reliable platform that gives users more flexibility than other popular OS choices while maintaining a relatively simple navigational theme.
Unity is best recognized by the navigational dock on the left side of the screen. From here, users can quickly access their favorite programs – it makes multitasking easier than ever before.
Ubuntu relies on the Gnome 3 application architecture using Files (a derivative of the Nautilus File Manager).
This is probably the most popular option with people who are new to using Linux. It looks appealing, offers heavy social media integration and is stable enough to use a daily computing solution. The only real drawback to Unity is that it does not run very well on low-end, older hardware. There are much better Ubuntu solutions available for users wanting to resurrect an older machine using Linux.
More advanced Linux users might find the interface rather limiting compared to some of the other solutions available. An average Windows user, however, will feel right at home using this version and should only have to adjust to minor nuances of Linux (such as file system design and command line tools).
Although Unity “protects” novice users from the Terminal, there are always certain tasks that require Terminal commands. You can learn more about advanced Linux techniques in Mastering the Linux Command Line.
The K Desktop Environment (KDE) is probably the most popular interface for Linux. When the KDE is installed with Ubuntu, it is known as Kubuntu and provides an extremely customizable user experience that is reminiscent of the Windows 7 platform. Although many users still refer to this interface as KDE, the name was officially changed in 2010 (with the 4.4 release) to the KDE Software Compilation (KDE SC).
Kubuntu is self-sufficient thanks to its use of the Dolphin file manager. In its latest release, performance has been significantly improved so KDE can operate even on devices with older hardware. For users with modern, high-end hardware, there is a significant boost in processing speed thanks to the improvements made to the KDE.
Originally, Kubuntu was funded directly by Canonical, but more recently, Blue Systems took over. Blue Systems is the same company that funds Linux Mint, an extremely lightweight and efficient Linux alternative.
Kubuntu is an excellent choice for many users. It combines a sleek and effective interface with quite a few pre-installed tools that make it a very useable solution immediately following installation. Of course, the beauty of Linux is that it is easily customizable once installed and KDE integrates these customizable options extremely well.
KDE has been hailed as the desktop environment of choice for many seasoned Linux users because the level of customization and included features is on par (if not better than) most of the commercially available OSs currently on the market. Although Unity provides users with many of the same features, it is considered rather limiting as your experience and confidence with Ubuntu grow.
Xfce has been a powerful (and lightweight) Linux environment for a long time. In fact, Xfce can be run on a computer with as little as 40MB of memory – making it a perfect choice for older systems running low-end hardware.
For this reason, Xubuntu (Xfce + Ubuntu) is the OS of choice for owners of Google Chromebooks. The Chromebook runs on the Chrome OS; a rather limited experience that specializes in web browsing and Chrome web apps. Using a free tool known as Crouton, Chromebook owners can install Ubuntu on their device using Xfce to conserve the limited hardware resources present in most Chrome devices.
Xfce uses the GTK+ 2 libraries (the same as Gnome 2). Many changes have been made in recent releases to improve the overall user experience with good reviews from the Linux community.
In many ways, Xubuntu is a stripped down version of Ubuntu created for users who want complete control of their desktop environment without unnecessary files and programs. For instance, Xubuntu does not include LibreOffice (a powerful open-source productivity suite), opting instead for Abiword; a very lightweight and simple word processing program.
Xfce also doesn’t include Rhythmbox – a popular music library program found in Ubuntu and Kubuntu. Instead, Xfce uses gMusicBrowser. Although gMusicBrowser is effective, the interface is not as clean and most users prefer the sleek design of Rhythmbox. There is a template available that makes gMusicBrowser look and function very much like Rhythmbox, but unfortunately, much of the functionality is still lost.
There are many other software options that are unavailable if you choose to install Xubuntu directly. As an alternative, many people actually install Ubuntu with Unity and then download and install the Xfce desktop. This gives users the lightweight, reliable experience typically associated with Xfce, but the installed software options associated with a full Ubuntu installation.
That’s the great thing about Linux. There is literally no end to the amount of customization that is possible when you start combining various solutions to create a perfectly tailored desktop environment that meets the exact needs of a specific user.
Is One Option Better Than the Others?
With all of these choices, it may difficult for you to choose the best desktop environment for your needs. This is especially true when you are new to Linux and are unsure about the operating system and if you can use it to perform daily tasks quickly and easily.
The most well-rounded choice is Unity. Although this environment endured years of criticism, Canonical has been able to create an environment that works for most people. After all, isn’t that why so many people stay with Windows? It “just works.” Unity provides that same level of confidence for most users once they have decided to migrate away from Microsoft and its expensive licensing conventions.
Unity is not good for users that appreciate the customization of Linux in general. There are simple too many aspects of Unity that cannot easily be changed. These users are better off choosing Kubuntu. The KDE is a very powerful interface that even Windows users will find familiar. KDE is also slightly more efficient. This means that KDE can run very fast on machines with decent hardware and can even be used with older hardware (at the sacrifice of performance).
Xubuntu is best used for machines that have older hardware or for users that want a very stripped down version of Ubuntu that can be customized and improved as needed. Although it does not include many of the features commonly associated with Ubuntu, but many of these features can be added easily if you are willing to spend the time downloading and configuring these options on your own. The advantage to this approach is that the OS doesn’t become burdened with unnecessary software that often plagues more “complete” releases.
Ubuntu is unique because it lets you install all three environments and switch between them as needed. No other operating system, including Windows or OS X, allows this kind of flexibility from the OS. You could even use more than one option depending on what you are doing at the moment. For instance, you might decide that KDE provides the customization you need to efficiently complete work projects, but the ease of Unity might be more appealing on your days off.
Even if you compare Ubuntu to the new features found in the popular Microsoft Windows 8 platform, Linux still offers a solution that simply cannot be matched by commercial software companies.
Regardless of what desktop environment you choose, Ubuntu certainly offers a variety of choices that should cater to practically every PC user. Although none of these options are better than the other, each environment provides tangible benefits that can make the transition to Linux from another operating system much easier.