If you’re looking for a Linux distribution, you’ve likely seen recommendations for both Debian or Ubuntu. Their similarities, and the fact that Ubuntu is technically based on Debian, blur the lines between them. Let’s explore the important differences.
Debian Has Lower System Requirements
If the device you want to install Linux on is light on resources, you’ll want to note Debian and Ubuntu’s differing minimum requirements. A Debian 11 desktop install requires at least a 1GHz processor, 1GB RAM, and 10GB storage. Ubuntu Desktop more than doubles those requirements with a 2GHz dual-core processor, 4GB of RAM, and 25GB of disk space.
That said, when we tested standard installations of both Debian 11 and Ubuntu Desktop 20.04, the pull on resources didn’t differ significantly, using about 1GB of RAM at idle. For older devices, this can be asking a lot, so you may want a more minimal desktop. That’s relatively easy to get with Debian, but for Ubuntu, you’re better off going with another “Ubuntu flavor” like Lubuntu or Xubuntu.
Why? Much of the resource consumption comes from the GNOME desktop environment (DE), not the operating system itself. You can reduce Debian’s weight significantly if, at install, you simply choose a lightweight DE like Xfce or LXQt instead of GNOME (optionally, deselect “standard system utilities” as well to forgo most of the preinstalled apps). On Ubuntu, you could get one of those DEs after installation, but that process is a bit more complicated and leaves you with an additional DE you might not use.
Ubuntu Makes Proprietary Software Easier to Get
Ubuntu and Debian take different approaches to the debate on free and open source (FOSS) versus closed source or “proprietary” software. When you first run Debian, you don’t have immediate access to proprietary software, which includes popular apps like Spotify, Steam, and Microsoft Teams. This also includes drivers necessary to make some critical hardware work, including NVIDIA GPUs. You can only get that proprietary software by adding specific repositories to your software sources, downloading DEB files from official websites, or installing them through services like Snap or Flathub.
In stark contrast, Ubuntu Desktop doesn’t hold any proprietary software back. Generally, if there’s a popular app available for Linux, you can get it with ease the moment you first boot up Ubuntu (an exception might be Google Chrome). Ubuntu will also make sure you get all necessary hardware drivers at installation, proprietary and otherwise.
Why the dramatic difference? Debian tries to serve a wider community by making it easy for people who are dedicated to the FOSS way of life to use Debian in good conscience. Ubuntu, however, prioritizes convenience for the everyday user who doesn’t care about code philosophies. If that’s you, you’ll likely find Ubuntu more appealing.
Debian Supports Older Hardware
If you’re thinking of reviving an aging device with Linux, you’re more likely to have success with Debian. That’s partly because Debian still maintains support for 32-bit architectures (also known as i386). Most consumer PCs released in or after the year 2009 use 64-bit architectures. But if your computer is from before that year, you may need a distribution (distro) that still supports 32-bit, such as Debian.
Ubuntu, in contrast, dropped full 32-bit support with version 18.04. Earlier versions with 32-bit support are still available for download, but standard updates have already ended. Extended security updates for version 14.04 will continue only until April 2024 and April 2026 for 16.04.
The decision to drop 32-bit allowed the Ubuntu development team to focus on serving modern users with modern devices. The Debian team, in contrast, carries on the 32-bit legacy so that outmoded but otherwise functioning devices can stay out of the trash bin. These are two different but honorable objectives, and which serves you better depends on your device.
Ubuntu Is Corporate-Backed
Ubuntu is maintained by an organization called Canonical. Debian, in contrast, is developed completely by a community of volunteers. Both offer their distros free of charge, but Canonical also offers paid support if you’re using Ubuntu professionally.
For the same reason, Ubuntu’s documentation tends to be more friendly to the average PC user, while Debian’s documentation has a more blunt, technically-minded tone and appearance. If you’re a computer geek, you’ll appreciate Debian’s approach, but others might find it uncomfortable or intimidating.
The corporate backing is also in part why it’s much easier to buy a Linux laptop or tower with Ubuntu pre-installed than one with Debian pre-installed. Canonical is able to make Ubuntu more prolific through business partnerships with retailers selling pre-built PCs.
Debian Is More Stable by Default
When you perform a regular install of Debian, your software all comes from a repository named “Stable.” All Stable software has been thoroughly tested to ensure reliable functionality. This sounds great, and it is great, especially if you’re running a server with Debian. If you’re using it as a desktop, though, the long wait for updates might feel too long. Security patches get pushed as needed, of course, but getting the latest features of your favorite software might take some serious patience.
You can dial things up though by changing Debian’s software source to from Stable to “Testing.” Don’t let the name scare you; the software there has already been tested for at least two days and confirmed to not have any critical bugs. Testing updates will arrive closer to (and maybe even sooner than) Ubuntu’s regular software branch.
That said, many Debian users take the middle road by using Debian Backports, which allows you to stay on Stable but get specific software (like Firefox or LibreOffice) from Testing. That way, you can stay up-to-date with the apps where it’s important while keeping the rest of your Debian system rock-solid stable.
Which Distro Should You Choose?
There are other, more cosmetic differences between Debian and Ubuntu. Generally, Ubuntu has a more progressive, forward-thinking feel. Some parts of Debian have an older, classic computing feel that you might find comfortable and nostalgic. Debian’s release cycle and Ubuntu’s release cycle also differ quite a bit, which is worth considering if you want to stay on one distro long-term.
If you want a general recommendation, Ubuntu will serve you best if you want to install any and all software without fuss. If your device is old or low on resources, though, Debian is probably the better option.
In many ways, Ubuntu and Debian will give you a more or less similar experience. In fact, that similarity is kind of a bonus: guides, solutions, and explanations for one often also work for the other, increasing the resources at your disposal. Also, something that’s possible on one can typically be achieved on the other, given enough work and know-how. That’s the beauty of Linux: you have complete control over your computer, and you’re never locked into one option.