Ubuntu is by far the most popular distro for people who want to try Linux for the first time. Without a doubt, it’s one of the easiest to use, is generously versatile in a wide range of situations, and everything from installation to initial setup is “touch and go.” The powerful APT package manager and wide feature set that appeals to Linux users from all walks of life gives all Debian distros a significant advantage over others. We offer a short walkthrough of several Debian-based distros for those looking for an Ubuntu alternative.
Ubuntu uses the GNOME desktop environment with a custom shell developed by its publisher. Although it provides a pleasant visual environment, your mileage may vary if you try to customize it to fit your workflow.
If you want a clean desktop experience, and one that you can customize to your heart’s content, you could try Kubuntu as an alternative.
Kubuntu uses the Ubuntu core, but with a KIDE Plasma desktop environment. This DE offers perhaps the most granular customization out there!
One caveat: If you’re accustomed to working with Ubuntu and GNOME, you might find the KDE style of doing things to be a bit unsettling at first. It throws so much at you that you may be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things you can do.
- Straight-up Ubuntu with a different desktop environment.
- The inclusion of KDE Plasma by default provides a clean platform to work with and minimizes some of the application crossover that happens when installing a Plasma over Ubuntu’s default GNOME.
- KDE’s “Discover” gives you a cleaner and more modern UI than Ubuntu’s default software manager.
- Ubuntu’s higher system overhead is still present in Kubuntu.
- The numerous customization options in Plasma can lead to choice fatigue for new users.
2. Linux Mint
Unless you’re using the most cutting-edge hardware, much of what you get in newer kernels and software isn’t absolutely necessary.
Linux Mint is a Debian-based distribution that prides itself on following the mantra of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Every single package in its repositories, including the flagship Cinnamon desktop it ships with, is meant to be for the long haul, prompting an upgrade only when absolutely necessary.
The downside of this is that some features you might be used to in some apps might not be there.
For example, RetroArch (a popular game emulation hub) on Linux Mint appears as version 1.7.3, and the package manager compartmentalizes a lot of the assets available to the program. Compared to the latest (kind of) stable 1.10.0 version, this one lacks some important menu options and its navigation is less intuitive.
On the other hand, it’s a remarkably stable Linux distro that doesn’t need as much tinkering as the others as long as you keep your activities simple.
- Reliable, stable, community-driven platform that is easy to build on.
- Like Ubuntu, Mint has a massive user base and a highly-active community willing to provide support for any problems you come across.
- It’s unlikely to hit you with radical changes to its software, making it easier to stick to one way of doing things.
- Mint’s default kernel can lag behind other distros by up to three years! This could cause problems with hardware compatibility if you plan on using newer components in your system. This can be mitigated by selecting another kernel version from the updater and booting with it.
- The software available in official repositories can be a bit dated compared to what you’d find in Ubuntu or even Debian.
Have you ever wanted to use Linux without touching a terminal? Do you yearn for the kind of VIP treatment you’d get from Apple?
If you answered “yes” to both, you may find Pop!_OS to be the distro you fall in love with. While it still has all the bells and whistles power users are accustomed to, it also offers perhaps the easiest experience of any distro out there.
Designed by System76 for its line of pre-built computers and laptops, this distro presents a significant overhaul to the Debian/Ubuntu standard that features a vast selection of software in its official repositories and a completely revamped software manager interface that’s more modern and intuitive.
Pop!_OS uses a modified version of the GNOME desktop that might be familiar to people accustomed to macOS.
- An incredibly powerful suite of up-to-date software with everything needed for all sorts of users, from hardcore gamers to consummate professionals.
- Pop’s desktop environment is highly workflow-oriented and easy to customize, with the possibility of adding extensions to improve functionality.
- The software manager is much more intuitive.
- Cohesive visual style that looks professional and modern.
- NVIDIA hardware is much easier to set up with Pop’s NVIDIA version.
- Running on a virtual machine like VirtualBox might present upgrade issues with its DKMS guest additions driver. You can remove the driver temporarily to upgrade the OS and use the terminal to do maintenance.
- Experience installing other desktop environments is less than ideal. Pop!_OS is driven strongly by GTK/GNOME.
Zorin is a Debian-based distro with a very clear focus: to mimic Windows OS as much as possible. If you have decided to switch from Windows to Linux, this might be your first choice of distro.
Although the download link has a price tag, it’s not payware. Scroll a little further down on the download page, and you’ll see two free editions: Zorin Core and Zorin Lite. The first option gives you the distro without any strings attached. The latter gives you a more lightweight version that the maintainer suggests will breathe life back into older systems.
There’s a little caveat with this sales pitch, though: testing both Zorin Core and Zorin Lite reveals that there is very little difference in the amount of resources they use. That’s normal, as applications you add (like browsers) will occupy the majority of the RAM overhead on your system.
The desktop environment is a heavily-modified version of GNOME made to look like Windows, and as such, may be difficult to tweak the way you’re accustomed to if you’ve used GNOME in the past.
On the other hand, Zorin is a great system for those looking to step into Linux from Windows who don’t want to over-complicate things.
- Sleek, modern looking design.
- The Windows-like interface provides some level of familiarity.
- Extremely easy to get into and start using.
- Software Manager is nothing out of the ordinary; it’s pretty much the same thing Ubuntu and Mint offer.
- Zorin’s update manager nags you as soon as you boot your system. To some, this may be an advantage, but GNOME’s default notification system is less intrusive.
- No quick access to terminal from applications menu.
- Visual customization is limited. It’s better to use something like Pop!_OS or Ubuntu if you want more flexibility.
5. MX Linux
MX Linux is made by two communities (antiX and MEPIS) that put their heads together for a clean distro and incorporates a unique visual style that reflects their most beloved work.
Unlike other distros that introduce a modified desktop environment, MX is available in three principal flavors: XFCE, KDE Plasma, and Fluxbox.
Although MX isn’t pitched as a particularly lightweight distro, it boasts an impressively low 0.5 GB of RAM usage on boot with KDE Plasma, something other distros in this list have trouble reaching.
MX Linux has historically been a remarkably stable distro that has proven itself as a great alternative to Linux Mint. The software available in its repositories is a bit more updated than what Mint has on offer, making it more comfortable for people running later hardware or looking for something that lags a little less behind other distros.
- Extremely stable platform with a “get it done” mentality.
- Ships with one of three desktop environments, with more available in spin-offs.
- Less dated than Linux Mint but preserves similar levels of stability.
- Light on system resources.
- Outside of XFCE, visual styling can be somewhat inconsistent (e.g., color mismatch in MX theme on Plasma).
- Holds your hand less than other distros and not for people inexperienced with the terminal.
If you care about nothing else than the ability to perform in an older system, Lubuntu is your best option in the Debian world. In our testing, this distro used only 376 MB of RAM on boot. This can further be reduced by running it outside of a virtual environment and disabling things like tray icons and power management services.
For most people, Lubuntu is probably not going to be the most visually appealing out of all the distros here, but that’s the price you pay for the incredible performance gains on dated hardware.
Its kernel, software repositories, and desktop environment (LXQt) are all geared toward providing a usable workflow without compromising on what hardware it can run on. You can put Lubuntu on practically any system and get it up and running within minutes.
That being said, this distro isn’t for the faint of heart. You have to be well-versed with the terminal and patient with the interface to get the most out of it.
- Extremely lightweight, suitable for decade-old systems or even older ones.
- Runs with the most bare-bones essentials and lets you build on it.
- Visual styling and customization leaves a lot to be desired. It looks less modern than other distros, but what do you expect from something that uses just shy of 400 MB RAM on boot?
- Limited graphical UI options for system management.
Designed in China, Deepin is a full-suite Linux operating system that offers a home-brew experience with a plethora of unique features and software. When it comes to uniqueness, nothing in the Debian world comes close!
The desktop environment bears the same name, and it’s the only one in this list that’s made from scratch for the distro itself. Upon booting the distro for the first time, you’ll immediately notice that everything from the core software to the user experience is far from what you’re used to seeing.
On boot, we found that it used 623 MB of RAM, making it relatively lightweight. But after a few minutes of testing, this figure ballooned up to 1.26 GB without any further gains. We’re not entirely sure what happened here, but it looks like the desktop environment itself fails to throw out some of the memory it allocated while we were customizing the panel and theme. This was fixed by simply rebooting and continuing to use the system normally.
Despite not selling itself as such, Deepin is an unusually fast and responsive system. Everything is snappy and loads within a reasonable amount of time – even when running on a hard drive. The system almost appears to be designed to run on lower-spec systems while maintaining the sleek and modern graphical interfaces of heavier distros.
- Comes with a very light custom browser that doesn’t look dated.
- Extremely fast and stable.
- Runs well on lower-spec systems with limited memory.
- Unique desktop environment and user experience.
- Issues with memory when customizing desktop are fixed with reboot.
- Official repositories are oriented towards Chinese users, presenting some limitations that require getting software from other sources.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Where do I start?
If you’re looking to get into Linux for the first time, try either Pop!_OS or Zorin. Both are extremely user-friendly and provide an easy platform to familiarize yourself. Pop!_OS is more fleshed out, though, and represents the gold standard for advanced use cases.
It looks very different from Windows, but don’t let that intimidate you! You’ll find that after a few minutes of looking through the interface, you’ll be running through your day.
2. Can I install apps through .deb files on all these systems?
Absolutely! Because everything in this list is based on Debian, you can easily install .deb files on your system.
3. If a distro has an LTS version and a non-LTS version, which one should I download?
Some of the distros in this list have two release branches: “long-term service” (LTS) and non-LTS or regular. LTS means that you can be sure the system will continue to receive support in the form of security and software updates for a longer period of time (usually two to three years if not more).
Install an LTS branch if you want to use a stable OS that just works. Install a non-LTS branch if you are looking to use the latest version of software and you don’t mind updating/upgrading regularly.
Image credit: EKSIPaper
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