Old-school Ubuntu fans who aren't a fan of the new Unity-based direction of the operating system might find something to like in some of the official Ubuntu spin-offs.
With the release of Ubuntu 11.04 and now 11.10, Canonical's radical new interface known as Unity has split long-time Ubuntu fans. On one hand it introduces many new and innovative concepts and, on the whole, helps advance Ubuntu as an operating system for desktops and tablets alike. On the other hand, the rapid departure from a desktop environment that millions of users have become familiar with requires them to either learn an entirely new desktop or switch to another distribution.
However if you're a fan of Ubuntu but not Unity, there is an alternative. Popular as it is, Ubuntu has inspired a range of spin-off distributions that are compatible with the Ubuntu base. Not only are they built upon official Ubuntu releases, you can use the same repositories to keep them up to date.
While there are three official versions -- Desktop, Server and Netbook -- there are also a range of officially recognised spin-offs.
Here, we take a look at the options so you can decide whether they might be right for you.
We can't cover alternatives without mentioning the most popular -- the KDE-based Ubuntu distribution. Kubuntu is officially supported by Canonical and simply bundles KDE 4.0 in place of GNOME 3.0. If you're familiar with Linux desktop interfaces, KDE is the other white meat, a popular and well liked interface that underwent a massive overhaul before GNOME did with GNOME 3 and thus in many ways is ahead of the curve.
Where GNOME keeps things simple, KDE favours complexity. The interface and applications sport many more options than GNOME, but like the departure that GNOME 3 and Unity is from GNOME 2, KDE 4.0 is an entirely new desktop paradigm to learn. It is undeniably pretty – arguably more so than GNOME – as well as boasting many features GNOME currently doesn't match. Traditionally, Linux users are in either the GNOME or KDE camp, so if KDE is new to you and Unity hasn't been to your liking, Kubuntu should be your first port of call for something different.
Xubuntu is another officially supported distribution that uses the lightweight Xfce (originally XForms Common Environment, but no longer uses XForms at all) interface. Xfce has always been easy on memory – and fast, making it an ideal choice for older systems. It tended to be a bit ugly in the past and as a result doesn't sport all the visual bells and whistles found in GNOME or KDE.
However in recent versions this has changed, and Xfce now looks surprisingly slick while maintaining its lightweight persona. It still features and can run GNOME apps, and comes standard with a Mac OS X-inspired dock. If you're looking to run Ubuntu on a laptop or older desktop and you find Ubuntu or Kubuntu struggling, Xubuntu is an excellent alternative that sacrifices a little eye candy for much improved performance.
Lubuntu is newer to the Ubuntu family and isn't technically recognised yet as an official spin-off, but it should be. Like Xubuntu, it's a lightweight distribution that uses the LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) interface. Like Xubuntu it can run GNOME apps, but it comes with a suite of its own lightweight alternatives, like AbiWord instead of OpenOffice.org. Interestingly, it claims to do even better than Xubuntu for memory-constrained machines -- and in our testing, it weighed in at 100MB less after loading the desktop. It looks a little slicker too, with dual menu bars and a clean, well defined style. A perfect alternative if you're missing GNOME 2.0.
But wait, there's more! While these are the core alternative desktop distributions, there are three more spin-offs that are aimed at specfic market segments. These include Edubuntu
which provides a range of education programs aimed at kids; Mytbuntu
, which is an excellent combination of the home theatre MythTV toolkit and Ubuntu for media boxes; and Ubuntu Studio
, aimed at audio and video professionals and comes pre-installed with a real-time kernel for optimal recording duties.