If you are a fan of Ubuntu but not a fan of Gnome, what can you do? You should know that you are not stuck to using the Gnome version of Ubuntu. You can install another desktop environment or simply use another “flavor” of Ubuntu that can be another desktop manager by default. Let’s see how they differ and which Ubuntu flavor would be better for you.
What is Ubuntu Flavor?
Ubuntu flavors are generally Ubuntu running with a different desktop environment. The default desktop environment used in Ubuntu is Gnome, but not everyone is a fan of Gnome. Some may be a fan of KDE, while others are more used to the older Mate desktop. The purpose of the various Ubuntu flavors is to cater to these groups of people. There are seven official Ubuntu flavors as of this writing. They are recognized and supported by Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu. The different flavors are:
- Ubuntu Budgie
- Ubuntu Kylin
- Ubuntu Mate
- Ubuntu Studio
The following is a breakdown of how each flavor differs from others.
Kubuntu 20.04 comes with the KDE Plasma 5.18 LTS desktop environment. KDE is much more customizable that Gnome, making Kubuntu the perfect choice for those who demand a modern, ultra-customizable desktop and aren’t afraid they’ll get lost among the dozens of options.
Kubuntu swaps all gnome-related applications for KDE alternatives. KDE, though, also has a broader variety of applications tied to it.
Extra software, as well as add-ons for the KDE desktop itself, can be installed through KDE’s Discover application. It’s as easy to use as Ubuntu’s default software store but looks a bit more complicated visually. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t advertise or prioritize snap versions of software in any way.
If you were using previous versions of KDE, you may also notice that the default music player has switched from Cantata to Elisa.
Plasma 5.18 has a new Global Edit mode that replaces the customization menu on the top right of the screen with a bar at the top center of the screen. From there, you can add widgets to the desktop, create extra workspaces, or access the desktop configuration options.
KDE supports a “Do Not Disturb” mode that suppresses notifications. It goes excellent with KDE’s support for Night Color, which tweaks the screen’s color temperature.
Like Gnome, KDE comes with three versions of its Breeze theme. Light, dark, and Kubuntu’s default, that looks like a hybrid of the other two.
To assist in its customization when tweaking its settings, KDE now presents a preview of the results arranged in a grid view. This grid view is also used when downloading new themes, helping to appreciate the differences more.
LXQt 0.14.1 is front and center in Lubuntu 20.04. If you need a lightweight, but functional Ubuntu flavor, you should give Lubuntu a try.
Quick but Basic Desktop
LXQt works like KDE, presenting a default taskbar with a primary menu, a task-juggling section, and an additional tray. Unlike KDE, though, LXQt trades vast configurability and visual effects for a more lightweight and straightforward desktop experience.
On the left of the bar are the main menu, a workspace selector, and links to favorite apps. On the right, you can find volume and network controls, access to the clipboard’s contents through Qlipper and to a calendar preview when clicking the clock. There’s nothing fancy, and everything works as expected.
A Ton of Themes
Lubuntu comes with many different LXQt and OpenBox themes that you can mix and match.
Since it’s based on Qt, Lubuntu uses KDE’s Discover application instead of Ubuntu’s default store for finding and installing new software.
As for how it is in daily use, Lubuntu feels like a “Kubuntu Lite” and is an excellent option for everyone seeking a less resource-heavy alternative to both Ubuntu and Kubuntu.
If you stuck with the older Lubuntu 18.04 version, you shouldn’t upgrade to 20.04. Early versions used the LXDE desktop, unlike the new version’s LXQt. Due to their very different structure, an upgrade from one to the other can lead to a broken desktop.
Unlike the Gnome and KDE flavors, Lubuntu 20.04 uses the Calamares installer. That means no support for installing the OS itself in a ZFS partition through the default initial setup.
Ubuntu Budgie uses the Budgie desktop environment that was initially found in the Solus project. Budgie is based on GTK+ and, in many ways, feels like a Gnome 3 from an alternative planet. It seems Gnome’s developers decided to stick with the way Gnome 2 worked.
Ubuntu Budgie is made for everyone who seeks a beautiful but straightforward desktop, which will work as expected but isn’t lacking in modern features and aesthetics.
Great Welcome Window
The Budgie flavor comes with a stellar Welcome Window that links to all the options anyone may need to tweak after installing a new operating system.
Budgie Welcome is split into three distinct sections. “Familiarity” allows the installation of a different web browser, tweaking the user interface, and keyboard shortcuts. “Post-Installation” allows language and input customization, new update and driver downloads, restricted extras, backup setup, firewall configuring, and management of users. Finally, “Troubleshooting” contains a single “System Specifications” page that presents a detailed report about the computer’s hardware.
Friendly, Modern Desktop
Ubuntu Budgie’s desktop looks sleek, aesthetically pleasing, modern, and has everything needed via a click.
By default, it presents a bar at the top of the screen from where you can access the primary menu, see the time and jump to related settings (and the calendar) as well as a group of icons on the right side. From there, you can access QuickNote that runs by default, jump to folders in your home directory or check the contents of removable devices, check out and control the network and audio, and can access the usual logout/shutdown menu.
Instead of including a task panel in its main bar, Ubuntu Budgie relies on the Plank launcher for access to favorite apps and the juggling of active ones.
Budgie desktop offers nine different themes that you can either apply instantly or install. What’s even better is that it also offers different Desktop Layout themes, among which two will probably look more friendly to people coming from Windows or Macs.
Budgie desktop bundles together its notifications with a group of applets. They are both accessible from individual icons displayed in the tray we described above but are presented as two tabs in the same panel on the right side of the screen. Those applets consist of a mini-calendar as well as audio controls – global, application, and device-based.
Unlike the other flavors of Ubuntu that target the whole world, Ubuntu Kylin is made for the Chinese audience. Although its beautiful UKUI desktop environment might render it enticing to everyone outside China, it ends up feeling restrictive and like you have to jump through hoops to use it.
Ubuntu Kylin’s UKUI desktop doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It presents the classic taskbar on the bottom of the screen with a primary menu button on the left, followed by links to favorite apps, a list of active windows, and finally, a tray with icons on the right side of the screen.
As expected, on the tray is the time and date that, with a click, show a mini-calendar. Next to them are icons for quick access to network connections, audio controls, and the Notification Center. This appears as a panel on the right side of the screen, but apart from notifications, it also contains a second section. From there, you can access the contents of the clipboard and access plug-ins whose name describes their purpose: “Clock Alarm,” “NoteBook,” and “feedback.”
Ubuntu Kylin offers its own software center, and this is where people outside China might start looking for a different distribution.
Unfortunately, everything in Kylin Software Center is in Chinese, with the occasional English program name. That includes its interface, all category names, buttons, and menu entries. And there doesn’t seem to be an option to change the language.
Ubuntu MATE is closer to Kubuntu in that, based on the MATE desktop environment, it presents a modern take on classic desktop tropes. As a true evolution of the Gnome 2 desktop environment, MATE is familiar and easy to use but doesn’t lack polish and shine.
Like Ubuntu Budgie, this is as close to a stable but modern Gnome 2 distribution as anyone can get. In direct comparison, MATE leans more towards classic Gnome 2 compared to the more modern Budgie.
Friendly and Useful Welcome Window
On the first bootup, Ubuntu MATE shows a Welcome window which contains useful options.
A “Getting Started” section presents links to all the options that are useful after a new installation. From those, you can:
- Download updates and drivers
- Change the language and input
- Set up backups
- Configure network shares
- Configure the firewall
- Set up users
- Install new software
- Install new color themes and swap between their “default,” light, and dark variant
- Change the Desktop Layout between four choices. There is the default MATE setup with two bars at the top and bottom of the screen, one that mimics Unity, with a bar on top of the screen and a launcher on the left side, and the two expected options that work like Windows or Mac OS X.
- Install more browsers and choose which one you want as the default.
You can configure the most critical aspects of your desktop from this window, and then start using your computer without having to hunt down more settings.
A Desktop for Everyone
Ubuntu MATE offers eight layout styles, and you’ll find at least one that feels familiar and friendly.
There is also an updated notification center which allows the user to define the number of visible notifications, automatically discard notifications by specific applications, and toggle a “Do Not Disturb” mode.
The installation of new software is done through MATE’s Software Boutique, which feels more polished than both the default Ubuntu store and KDE’s Discover app. There doesn’t seem to be a preference to snap versions of applications, but at the same time, it looks like the Software Boutique gives access to a somewhat limited selection of software.
Xubuntu comes with the XFCE desktop environment that skips glossy graphics and useless fluff to offer a light and breezy desktop experience. Although it’s fully featured as a desktop, it’s also resource-friendly enough to use on older or lower-end PCs.
Xubuntu is probably the only relatively “resource-lite” version of Ubuntu that’s best suited for old and underpowered PCs.
Straightforward Desktop Experience
The XFCE desktop presents a single taskbar at the top of the screen. It comes with a main menu button on the left and a group of icons on the right. From those icons, you can access notifications (and enable a “Do Not Disturb” mode), manage network connections and audio levels, and check a mini calendar by clicking the clock.
XFCE comes with a “dark” spin on its default “Greybird” theme, and four other styles that change how the visual elements look (toolbars, buttons, menus, windows, etc.). Unfortunately, for optimal results, you have to tweak the visual settings at two different spots.
The new version 4.14 of XFCE has better compatibility with Nvidia’s proprietary graphics drivers and solves past display flickering problems with V-Sync support through OpenGL.
Xubuntu uses the same software store as Ubuntu. So if you need to install more applications, they’ll only be a snap away.
Not for AMD
If you’re using an AMD GPU, it’s suggested you wait until the release of 20.04.1. The current version is known to have significant graphical issues with AMD GPUs, like missing window decorations.
The new version of this media-centric flavor gets all the benefits of the new kernel but is more of an evolution from the previous 19.10 release. It comes bundled with multimedia applications for every need, from audio to DTP. Theoretically, after its installation, you already have everything you need to make your own movie from scratch, from writing the first draft of its scenario to color-correcting and compressing the final cut.
It’s worth noting that its maintainers decided to jump ship from XFCE to KDE in future versions because of its “better tools for graphic artists and photographers.” Thus, any upgrade from this version onwards may result in breakage.
A Flavor For You
The above list contains the official Ubuntu flavor, though there are plenty of Linux distributions out there that are based on Ubuntu, such as Linux Mint. It’s almost a given everyone will find a desktop environment to like among Ubuntu’s official flavors or derivatives. If you need some help making a choice, check out our guide to Linux distros for beginners or the best Linux distro for Windows users.