Comparing the Ubuntu Derivatives and How to Pick the Best One for You

Since its first release in 2004, Ubuntu has grown to become a driving force among the popular Linux distributions. From giving away free CDs (before broadband was widely available) to its long-term support releases, Ubuntu has often caused a stir. For some, it is the user interface that causes a problem. Where is GNOME? Where is KDE? Fortunately Ubuntu has several officially sanctioned derivatives that provide other desktop environments or tweak Ubuntu for specific purposes.

The official list of recognized Ubuntu derivatives is as follows:

  • Ubuntu GNOME – Ubuntu with the GNOME desktop environment
  • Kubuntu – Ubuntu with the K Desktop environment
  • Lubuntu – Ubuntu that uses LXDE
  • Xubuntu – Ubuntu with the XFCE desktop environment
  • Edubuntu – Ubuntu for education
  • Mythbuntu – Designed for creating a home theatre PC with MythTV
  • Ubuntu Studio – Designed for multimedia editing and creation
  • Ubuntu Kylin – Ubuntu localised for China

The first four derivatives replace the default Ubuntu desktop with one of the other popular graphical environments and the rest are special versions of Ubuntu for specific tasks.

Ubuntu GNOME


For many years, the major Linux distributions either came with GNOME or KDE and often users picked their distribution based on the desktop it provided. In many ways, those days have gone, but in case you want Ubuntu with pure GNOME then this is the distribution for you. Ubuntu GNOME adds a relatively pure GNOME desktop on top of Ubuntu. According to the maintainers, the Ubuntu + GNOME combination “is the best choice for those looking for a beautiful, simple, and usable operating system.” The desktop environment isn’t heavily customized as this Ubuntu derivative tries to provide GNOME the way the GNOME developers intended! One negative point about Ubuntu GNOME is the project is unable to provide LTS versions due to lack of manpower.



In many way, Kubuntu is the antithesis of Ubuntu GNOME. Like Ubuntu GNOME, it replaces the default Ubuntu desktop but this time with KDE. The project seems a little more active that Ubuntu GNOME and the team are able to provide LTS versions. Kubuntu emphasizes the stability of the KDE environment and the large variety of native tools for graphic, Internet, multimedia and office tasks.



Although Lubuntu could be seen as just another desktop replacement derivative, the goal of the project is actually to create a version of Ubuntu that is less resource hungry and will work on older hardware. To this end, the project uses the The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE) as its default GUI. Lubuntu can be installed on a Pentium II or Celeron system with a little as 128 MB of RAM, but for the system to be usable, you need 512MB. Unfortunately, there isn’t an LTS version (other than the initial releases) so you need to upgrade every six months to stay current.



Another popular light desktop environment is Xfce. Unlike Lubuntu, Xubuntu doesn’t try to especially make a version of Ubuntu for old hardware however its requirements are less than those of the standard Ubuntu. A full installation takes less than 5GB of disk space and once installed, you only need 512 MB of memory. There is also the benefit of long-term support. Each standard Xubuntu release is supported for at least nine months and LTS releases get three years of support.



The aim of Edubuntu is to get Ubuntu into schools, homes and communities and aims to provide the best free educational software available. It uses the default Ubuntu Unity shell but can fall back to GNOME on thin clients or older hardware. The distribution includes all the educational packages from the KDE project as well as educational suites like GCompris, Celestia and Tux4kids. It also includes the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP), a cost effective solution for deploying thin clients in the classroom (and elsewhere). The project offer long term support and it is recommended that if you are installing it a school, university etc to use Edubuntu 12.04 LTS, which is supported until April 2017 for both Servers and Desktops.



Mythbuntu is designed to turn your PC into a MythTV based PVR system. It uses the XFCE desktop and all the non MythTV related packages like LibreOffice, Evolution, and so on are not installed by default. The distro also provides a custom application called the Mythbuntu Control Centre for configuring the system. If you are already a MythTV aficionado then this distribution looks very convenient.

Ubuntu Studio


Designed for creative people, Ubuntu Studio offers a wide range of multimedia content creation applications for: audio, graphics, video, photography and publishing. As well as well known multimedia applications like Blender, Inkscape, GIMP, Scribus, and LibreOffice. This distro also includes things like Darktable, an application for processing RAW digital photo images; Jack, a a low latency capable audio and midi server, designed for pro audio use; and Rakarrack and Guitarix, two popular guitar amp simulators. Due to the nature of multimedia processing, you need at least 2GB of RAM, preferably more, to use Ubuntu Studio effectively.


These official derivatives not only let you pick an alternative desktop environment, they also let you run Ubuntu on older hardware or use a specialist version of Ubuntu. Some of them, especially Edubuntu and Kubuntu, also offer long term support like the regular versions of Ubuntu which can be very helpful if you are planning to use the OS in an organization or place of work.

If you have used any of these official derivatives, please share your experiences in the comments below.

Gary Sims

Gary has been a technical writer, author and blogger since 2003. He is an expert in open source systems (including Linux), system administration, system security and networking protocols. He also knows several programming languages, as he was previously a software engineer for 10 years. He has a Bachelor of Science in business information systems from a UK University.

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