What is the Distinction Between Linux Distributions If They’re All Linux?

When looking for a new Linux distribution to install, you notice two things: the name and the desktop environment.

A quick look shows the obvious differences between Ubuntu, Fedora, Linux Mint, Debian, openSUSE and many other Linux versions. But why are there so many Linux distributions and what's the difference between them?

The 5 main differences between Linux distributions

Are you looking for a new Linux distribution? At some point you wondered why there are so many different distributions, especially if they're all Linux anyway.

You may know that Windows 10 has multiple editions, but they are not marketed as completely separate operating systems. In the meantime, macOS has only one variant (at least for the desktop). Why are there so many different Linux distributions?

The development of Linux distributions is thanks to various collaborative, yet different groups. In the years since the Linux kernel was first released, this approach has led to the creation of various distributions.

At its core it is Linux. However, you will notice some differences between Linux versions, in particular:

  • Desktop environments
  • Package manager
  • Show server
  • Goals and targets
  • Open source philosophy

But how important are these differences really?

1. Desktop environments

Most distributions seem to differ only in the desktop environment they use.

For example, depending on the variant selected, Ubuntu offers several desktop environments. You can have:

  • Ubuntu (the main version includes the GNOME desktop)
  • Kubuntu (KDE)
  • Lubuntu (LXQt)
  • Ubuntu Budgie (using the Budgie desktop)
  • Ubuntu MATE (the classic Ubuntu desktop)
  • Xubuntu (Xfce)

Other distributions offer a more modest selection of desktops available, but they are often offered as "spins" and contain different desktop environments. An example distribution that does this is Fedora. In the meantime, you can find the macOS-inspired Pantheon desktop on Elementary OS.

Read our guide to the best Linux desktop environments

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to learn more about these differences.

2. Package manager and other technologies

The people behind each Linux distribution can choose which software they contain, e.g. B. File Manager and Package Manager.

Sales managers have these options because each category of Linux software can have multiple applications.

For example, there are several file managers available for Linux, e.g. B. Nautilus and Konqueror, each offering a different way to browse files.

Another example is Linux package managers

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. Every Linux distribution contains different methods for installing software, but they are based on a package manager.

For Debian-based distributions like Ubuntu and Linux Mint, dpkg is the choice that is accessed via the apt dependency resolver. For CentOS, RPM is the package manager that is subject to commands using yum.

3. Different display servers under Linux

Under the hood on Linux, you'll find a selection of tools, applications, processes, and servers that determine how it runs.

An important example of this is the display server. This software coordinates data between the computer hardware and the display and enables the user to interact with the graphical user interface (GUI).

In the past, the X.Org server was used most often. However, several alternatives are available, e.g. B. Mir and SurfaceFlinger used on Android (using the Linux kernel). The Wayland display server is viewed as the future on Linux, and the most popular distributions adopt it.

4. Goals and objectives

Some distributions exist because they like some aspects of an existing distribution but want to replace some software packages. In the meantime, Linux distributions can differ in their goals. For example, Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, but includes various system tools, a desktop environment, and a mint green theme. The main goal is to give Windows and MacOS users an easy introduction to using Linux.

Similarly, Debian wants to provide an extremely stable distribution (and therefore contains older software).

In addition to the field of universal distributions, some Linux projects have specific purposes. For example, gaming distributions like Steam OS or multimedia distributions like Fedora Design Suite.

5.Open source vs. Proprietary Philosophy

While GNU / Linux is perhaps the best known open source project, not all distributions are 100 percent open source.

Project leaders have different points of view on open source, which can be a decisive factor for open source purists.

For example, Ubuntu has no problem adding proprietary software to its repositories. You will find that the Steam gaming client is readily available, while graphics drivers from AMD and Nvidia can be installed. Conversely, Fedora has a strict open source policy that prevents proprietary software from being included in its repositories.

At the end of the day you can of course do whatever you want with the Linux distribution of your choice. Regardless of the guidelines of the distribution project, there is no block for your installation.

In short, while many Linux distributions have high goals for open source compliance, not all are open source.

What all distros have in common: the Linux kernel

Despite these differences, all Linux distributions are still considered Linux: but why?

They all have at least one thing in common: the Linux kernel. This software is the core of the operating system and connects the software you interact with (e.g. the browser) to the underlying hardware that does all the work. It also includes many device drivers that provide support for any hardware you may be using.

For this reason, it is important to keep the kernel up to date or to compile the kernel yourself if you have special requirements. Developers around the world, along with its creator Linus Torvalds, contribute to the kernel.

Use the differences from Linux to choose the right distribution for you

Knowing how distributions differ from each other can improve or improve your Linux experience.

Not all distributions are meant for everyone. So choose the one that best suits you and your preferences. There's absolutely nothing wrong with giving a distribution a try to get a good idea of ​​what it's about.

Not sure where to start? Check our summary of the best Linux operating systems

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