Ubuntu received a lot of love in its earlier releases. It made many seemingly complicated operations, easier for beginners just coming into the world of Linux-based distributions. But around the time the Unity interface was launched, it started to get some hate, too.
Objectively speaking, the interface was not good or bad, it did its job well. But it did it differently than what most people were used to. Then, some other changes, like inserting ads in the launch menu and changing the interface once again to Gnome, made some users dislike the distro even more and people began to look for alternatives, with one of them being Debian. Since Ubuntu is created from Debian, the two are very similar at the core. However, with the changes Canonical made to Debian to create Ubuntu, there are also a lot of differences, some of them subtle.
Is Debian Harder to Use?
As far as the operating system is concerned, where configuration files reside and how the package manager operates, both distributions are almost the same. For a beginner, Debian might seem harder to use, but that’s not because the distro is more complicated.
It’s because Ubuntu comes with a set of utilities preinstalled that helps newbies to easily configure their systems. For example, it’s easy to install a video card driver with the help of a graphical application in Ubuntu. In Debian, however, this has to be done “manually,” by finding out what packages are required and installing them with the package manager.
Ubuntu can also be upgraded with a few mouse clicks, with the help of a graphical application that is preinstalled. On Debian, the recommended way is to follow these steps.
Users that want to learn how things work can choose Debian and do everything themselves. Once they know how all the pieces fit together, Debian is easy to use. But users that can’t be bothered with the details and just want the job done, with tools that automate these tasks, will be happier with Ubuntu.
Differences in Terms of Software Packages – Ubuntu
Ubuntu splits software into three categories: main, universe and multiverse. The packages in the main section get upgraded as often as necessary, patching bugs or security holes, and adding new features. The packages in universe are maintained by volunteers sometimes if someone really wants to do it, otherwise they remain the same for the duration of an Ubuntu release.
This means that some packages in universe might have the same bugs and security holes for a long period of time. Most packages in universe are not maintained by anyone. Packages in multiverse are the ones that are not free (as in freedom, not price).
Differences in Terms of Software Packages – Debian
Debian also splits software into three categories: main, contrib and non-free. Packages in contrib and non-free are partially, or completely, non-free software, as is the case for drivers, some audio codecs, etc. The notable difference is that normally all packages in main (and contrib and non-free, when possible) are maintained for the entire duration of the release. This means that every time a security hole is discovered, it will be patched in Debian (and pretty quickly, too).
The downside, though, is that (almost all) packages will remain with the same version for the entire duration of the release. This means that the Gnome desktop environment remains at version 3.22 forever in Debian 9. Even if Gnome is already on version 3.34. Debian 9 gets no new features for the Gnome desktop environment.
Generally speaking, Debian is much more stable. Upgrading software packages will almost never break something that worked previously. Ubuntu is pretty stable, too, but it occasionally upgrades something and then gets a black screen, a sound not working, or a new bug. That’s because Ubuntu pulls in new features constantly. And with new features, you sometimes get new bugs and unexpected results. Since Debian keeps almost all software frozen at the same version and only fixes security holes, it’s extremely rare to get surprises after upgrading packages.
Ubuntu has a default desktop environment, while Debian doesn’t. It’s true that you can choose a different Ubuntu flavor, like Kubuntu, that comes with a different desktop environment.
But in Debian there’s this sort of unspoken mentality to give the user an operating system and let him do whatever he wants with it. The “price” of this freedom is that no training wheels are offered. The user can choose what he wants, but he has to learn what the choices are, pros and cons, and how to do it. This means you can install multiple desktop environments or changes from one to another, easily, and rarely encounter problems.
On Ubuntu, however, because of some defaults, it can sometimes be tricky to migrate from, say Gnome, to MATE. Sometimes it just works, other times there are things that need to be fixed to make it work properly. The upside is that Ubuntu goes the extra mile to also configure these defaults in such a way that most users’ needs are covered without any extra effort required on their part.
Users that like defaults that just work will be satisfied with Ubuntu. Users that like to tinker, though, are going to be satisfied more with the Debian way of things.
List of Important Differences Between Debian and Ubuntu
To summarize, here is a more compressed list of key differences between Debian and Ubuntu:
- Most software remains with the same version, so it gets old, but it’s much more stable and with less bugs. Debian tries to remove as many bugs as possible before releasing a distribution.
- All packages get security/important upgrades on time.
- No default utility to help you with common tasks like installing drivers. Not hard to use but takes time to learn.
- Because the kernel is older, very new hardware is sometimes not supported.
- Much more flexible when you want to change system components, network manager, desktop environment, etc.
- Extremely reliable when it comes to upgrading from one release to the next.
- No extra security layers installed by default. Can install but manually. However, starting with Debian 10, AppArmor will be installed by default, so this can be considered true only for previous versions.
- Software from “main” gets a lot of feature upgrades, but the risk of inserting new bugs is increased.
- Software from “universe” almost never gets updated.
- Easier to install drivers, upgrade to new Ubuntu version, etc.
- Better support for very new hardware. Not everything will work, but you have much better chances on Ubuntu.
- Defaults are well-configured, but you may encounter problems when changing important system components like the desktop environment (after install).
- Easy to upgrade from one Ubuntu release to another but not always as smooth as Debian’s upgrades.
- Comes with AppArmor installed by default, which adds an extra layer of security to some sensitive applications.
To choose between the distributions is to decide what’s more important for each person. But generally speaking, beginners will be intimidated by Debian. Some Linux users start with Ubuntu and then migrate to Debian. Either way, anyone can test a Debian live image or Ubuntu live image and make a decision based on direct experience with the platform.