I’ve seen many people get frustrated with Ubuntu’s new direction in terms of its user experience, its recently worsening speediness, and its mixed-bag Unity interface. I was one of them! When I first tried Ubuntu back in 2008 (version 8.04 LTS), it ran like a dream on my shoddy 1.6GHz, 1GB DDR2 RAM, Windows Vista laptop. I loved GNU/Linux’s ease of use, efficiency, and its immunity to virtually all known malware. With each release, Ubuntu seemed to get better and better, with a slicker interface, better driver support, bugfixes, and a more diverse package repository every time.
When version 10.04 LTS was released, that’s when the shit hit the fan for me. I liked its new “Ambience” theme and I was enthusiastic about the improved Linux kernel release.
Later on, problems started cropping up. My wireless drivers broke down unexpectedly, 2D/3D acceleration performance was worsening on my integrated Intel GMA 965, the interface was getting increasingly sluggish, boot times were gradually lengthening, and despite my constant config file tweaking and fine tuning, my frail laptop eventually sank into a dependency hell.
I tried out Kubuntu instead for a while, but I didn’t like KDE, so I wiped it soon after. I tried Xubuntu, and while it helped speed up my machine a little, I couldn’t seem to get used to Xfce and its little quirks either, so that distribution was out the window as well.
Ubuntu version 10.10, however, was a far better performer on my laptop than 10.04, and with some more command-line knowledge and some system administration experience under my belt, I managed to keep Ubuntu chugging along for a long, long time on my weak laptop hardware. Those were reasonably happier days, and my programming experience flourished.
By then, I now had a fully custom-built desktop with a Core 2 Duo, 2GB DDR2 RAM, which could run Ubuntu a lot better than my laptop, so I migrated my data there. Still, I longed for an alternative distribution that would run more efficiently on my old lappy.
Much later, while online, I caught wind of the highly controversial user interface changes made in GNOME 3.0, as well as the not-very-well-received Unity interface being dubbed “the GNOME Shell replacement”. Spurred by the bad experiences with 10.04 and the recent news about GNOME, I felt that there wasn’t much of a future left for me in Ubuntu. Determined, I began searching for viable alternatives. These were the noteworthy distros that I found:
- Linux Mint
- Ubuntu Minimal Install
- Knoppix (haven’t tried it personally, so can’t review)
- Arch Linux
I haven’t used Knoppix, but I’ve been aware of it for a long time. It’s an extremely lightweight Debian-based Linux distribution, packed with hundreds of apps, which can be downloaded here. Try it out if you can!
Anyway, the above entries are sorted with the most practical *buntu alternatives at the top, and the least practical at the bottom. I will give a thorough review of each option in this list that I have personally installed and tested myself, along with the pros and cons of each, including hyperlinks to their respective project pages for download.
If Ubuntu runs fine on your computer, use Ubuntu! If it doesn’t work well for you, use an alternative. As they say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The most viable lightweight alternative to Ubuntu that still retains the point-and-click, drag-and-drop mentality would have to be Linux Mint. It is almost identical to Ubuntu, from the initial setup dialog to installing programs and updates. Not very technical and performs admirably for a direct Ubuntu derivative. You can choose between the Cinnamon, GNOME, KDE, Xfce, and LXDE desktop environments. Also available is a convenient Debian-based Linux Mint ISO for even better performance (see more about Debian in the next review below).
- Startup and overall performance is very good.
- Based on the latest version of Ubuntu (or Kubuntu), but is much lighter on resources.
- 100% binary compatible with *buntu & Debian packages, plus full support for PPA repositories, which is a very welcome feature. 😀
- The easiest distribution for a Ubuntu/GNOME user to adjust to, next to Debian.
- Installs non-free codecs and software (Flash & MP3) by default, which may be legally problematic in some countries.
- Like Ubuntu, the system chugs along fine for a while, but eventually suffers a severe performance hit, though it is much, much less drastic than vanilla Ubuntu.
Get it from Linux Mint’s home page.
If you are coming Ubuntu arena, and you want something different that will give you a great performance boost but retains the awesome “aptitude” and “apt-get” package manager, then why not install pure Debian? Debian is the GNU/Linux distribution that Ubuntu itself is based upon, and has been around since 1993. It’s faster, more stable, it isn’t overly simplified like Ubuntu (don’t worry, you can install GNOME/KDE/Xfce/Fluxbox/etc. on top easily), and it’s simply less bloated. It is an extremely mature distribution with a simply enormous community of users and developers. When installing, you can pick which available GUI you want to use, or even not select one at all and use your computer through the command-line.
- Hugely faster startup and performance.
- Extremely stable and crashes less since it a has more stable kernel and drivers.
- Is almost entirely binary-compatible with Ubuntu .deb packages.
- Its root account is enabled by default, which is technically more secure if you follow good password practices. If you really want it disabled, execute
sudo passwd -l rootas a sudo-privileged user.
- A good, stable, no-frills distribution that is easy to adjust to, if coming from an Ubuntu variant.
- Since it has more stable packages, you probably will have less than up-to-date software.
- PPA repositories are a *buntu-only thing. 😦
Get it from Debian’s home page.
Ubuntu Minimal Install
If you still feel at home in Ubuntu and you don’t want to switch to another distribution, try installing the Ubuntu mini ISO! It writes a thoroughly slimmed-down Ubuntu installation to your disk and when you log in, you are, like Debian and Arch, greeted not by a desktop environment but by a command prompt. You can then install and configure any X desktop of your choice and customize your package selections from the ground up. Note that while this still doesn’t completely solve the performance problems or any driver issues that you may have, it still can improve your desktop experience considerably. Like Arch Linux, don’t bother if you aren’t comfortable using the command-line.
Ubuntu Mini Pros:
- Decent startup times at initial install (still a little slow, when compared with other distros, and will only get slower as you add more drivers and daemons).
- Still uses
aptitudeand retains the massive Ubuntu repos.
Ubuntu Mini Cons:
- Still vulnerable to the Ubuntu-characteristic “slowdown” that degrades its performance over time (though much less drastic).
- As with any Ubuntu install, it has lots of metapackages that consume unnecessary disk space.
Get it from Ubuntu’s Minimal ISO page.
My second-favorite preference is Arch Linux, as it’s kind of like the blazing-fast Gentoo Linux without the learning curve. It’s much easier to use and set up, boots up in seconds, and has stunning documentation! When you install it and edit your config files, you are greeted by a command prompt. Then, you can use the package manager (appropriately named
pacman) to update your repository listings and install packages, similar to aptitude in Ubuntu/Debian. Very fast, but don’t bother if you aren’t comfortable with a command-line.
If you need help learning how to use
pacman, but you are familiar with
aptitude, I provide a basic aptitude-to-pacman equivalents list below.
APTITUDE | PACMAN --------------------------------------------------------- aptitude pacman aptitude search [target] pacman -Ss [target] apt-get autoremove pacman -R $(pacman -Qdtq) apt-get clean pacman -Sc apt-get install [package] pacman -S [package] apt-get remove [package] pacman -R [package] apt-get update pacman -Sy apt-get upgrade pacman -Syu
- Blazing fast startup (better than most Debian installs)
- Lots of bleeding-edge packages available from the repositories (“core” enabled by default, when you enable the “extra” and “community” repos, the package choice is massive)
- The AUR gives access to bleeding-edge software packages at your fingertips with a simple
- Is a “rolling-release” distro; no need to upgrade to new releases every year. You can install Arch and keep it up-to-date forever.
- Easier than Gentoo and is approximately just as fast.
- Like Debian, its root account is also enabled by default, but can be disabled the same way if you wish.
- Absolutely stunning documentation and wiki! Easy to follow and full of neat tips and tricks that can benefit users of any Linux distro, not just Arch.
- Fairly manual installation process. You must be very comfortable working in the terminal, or perhaps determined enough to follow through the installation guide from the Arch Wiki.
- Breakage is somewhat common. My particular Arch installation is a little picky about wireless drivers.
- Has a very different directory structure than Debian-based distributions.
- Getting used to
pacmancan be a bit of a hassle for Ubuntu-only users.
Get it from Arch’s home page.
After all of my experiences with GNU/Linux, I must say that I still love Ubuntu, as it was my first Linux distribution. It is what first exposed me to the Free and Open Source software movements, as well as UNIX systems and low-level programming in general.
However, I feel that I have sort of outgrown it, like how a little boy outgrows a faithful bike that he loved. I now use Linux Mint on my desktop computer, dual-booting with Windows 7, and I have Arch and Debian installations in Oracle VirtualBox.
All the while, my aging laptop still runs Ubuntu 10.10 faithfully. In the end, I hope this will help you choose a good Ubuntu alternative.