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 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 several official Ubuntu flavors that are recognized and supported by Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu. The different flavors are:
- Ubuntu Budgie
- Ubuntu Kylin
- Ubuntu Mate
- Ubuntu Studio
- Ubuntu Cinnamon
- Ubuntu Unity
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Kubuntu 23.04 comes with the KDE Plasma desktop environment. KDE is much more customizable than 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 5.27 has a 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 1.2.0 is front and center in Lubuntu 23.04. 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 far as 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.
Unlike the Gnome and KDE flavors, Lubuntu 23.04 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 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 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 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, with two that will probably look more friendly to people coming from Windows or Mac.
Budgie desktop bundles together its notifications with a group of applets. They are accessible from individual icons displayed in the tray we described above and presented as two tabs in the same panel on the right side of the screen. Those applets consist of a mini-calendar and 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, 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 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 may 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 toward classic Gnome 2 compared to the more modern Budgie.
Friendly and Useful Welcome Window
On the first bootup, Ubuntu MATE shows a Welcome window that contains useful options.
A “Getting Started” section presents links to all the options that are useful after a new installation. These allow you to:
- 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 variants
- Change the Desktop Layout between four choices: 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, 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 that 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 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.
Since version 4.14, XFCE has seen better compatibility with Nvidia’s proprietary graphics drivers and has solved past display flickering problems with improved V-Sync support through OpenGL.
Xubuntu uses the same software store as Ubuntu. If you need to install more applications, they’re only a snap away.
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 releases. 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 since version 20.10 due to its “better tools for graphic artists and photographers.” Thus, if you are upgrading from an older version of Ubuntu Studio, you may experience software breakage.
Unlike the previous entries, Edubuntu is an Ubuntu flavor that does not stray away from the default Ubuntu look. Instead, it aims to provide a complete and comprehensive collection of educational software. This makes Edubuntu the perfect Ubuntu flavor if you are looking for an all-in-one kid-friendly Linux distribution.
For Learning and Play
While Edubuntu is primarily focused on providing a learning environment for students, it also comes with a bunch of high quality and informative games. For example, the default install comes with both the GCompris and gbrainy out of the box.
Good to know: education-focused programs come in all shapes and sizes. Learn more about some of the best kid-friendly software in Linux today.
Similar to a regular Ubuntu desktop, Edubuntu also comes with the Ubuntu Software Center. This means that you can install almost any type of software on top of the flavor’s carefully curated selection.
Aside from that, another key feature of Edubuntu is its ability to quickly customize and manage the software available in the system. It does this through the “Edubuntu Installer” and “Edubuntu Menu Administration” utilities.
Ubuntu Cinnamon is a relatively new flavor that aims to provide an official, Canonical-endorsed Ubuntu variant that uses Linux Mint’s Cinnamon desktop environment. It works by pulling the sources for Cinnamon straight from Linux Mint and only including the most essential packages.
This approach means that Ubuntu Cinnamon can take advantage of Linux Mint’s simple and intuitive environment without any additional custom software. As a result, this Ubuntu flavor often runs faster and leaner compared to Linux Mint.
Desktop Flexibility with Spices
A key feature of Ubuntu Cinnamon is that it can take advantage of Cinnamon’s desktop Spices. These are small applets and utilities that can augment Cinnamon’s base features.
For example, you can install the QRedshift applet that provides an easy-to-use interface for controlling your screen’s color temperature. Meanwhile, you can also install larger extensions, such as gTile, that can convert your desktop into a tiling window manager.
FYI: learn how to take your Linux desktop to the next level by installing bspwm and sxhkd.
Ubuntu Cinnamon also comes with the default Ubuntu Software Center. It is possible to install both traditional software packages and modern web apps without any additional configurations.
Ubuntu Unity is an elegant flavor that aims to provide an accessible yet powerful distribution centered around the classic Unity desktop. It does this by using the original Unity7 environment and modifying it to use the latest MATE software suite.
Spearheading Unity Development
The developers of Ubuntu Unity also took the mantle and started to maintain the legacy Unity7 environment. This includes updating dependency requirements as well as fixing outstanding bugs in the desktop code. As a result of that, the Unity desktop is now faster and works on other Linux distributions, such as Manjaro and Gentoo.
Aside from maintenance, Ubuntu Unity also pushes the boundaries of the Unity7 desktop. For example, a recent update introduced a new menu interface as well as a built-in notification applet that allowed you to see new system events.
One of the biggest downsides of using Ubuntu Unity is that it does not have a graphical software store. You need to be familiar with basic APT and Snap commands to install, modify and remove programs.
Tip: Learn how to use your distro’s package manager effectively through our cheatsheet.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it possible to switch to a different Ubuntu flavor?
Yes and no. It is possible to install the desktop environment and software packages that come with an Ubuntu flavor. However, an Ubuntu flavor often comes with specific package versions and configurations that a software package might not cover.
Can you use snap packages on Kubuntu?
Yes. You can do this by running the snap command from your command line. For example, running
sudo snap install firefox will bypass the Firefox APT package and install its Snap version.
Is it possible to upgrade from Ubuntu 17.04 to Ubuntu Unity?
No. While Ubuntu Unity uses a slightly modified version of the Unity7 desktop, it does not support any direct upgrades from either Ubuntu 16.04 or 17.04.
Image credit: Unsplash (Background), Wikimedia Commons (Logo). All alterations and screenshots by Ramces Red.
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