Are Ubuntu Derivatives a Bad Idea?

Monday Jun 2nd 2014 by Matt Hartley
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Ubuntu-based customized distros have significant advantages, but beware of the downsides as well.

When most people think of Ubuntu derivatives, they usually categorize them into an "Ubuntu with a different desktop environment than Unity" category. However, according to Ubuntu, they refer to Ubuntu-based distros with different desktop environments as a derivative as well as distros using their own tools/apps/goals as customizations.

In this article, I'll be exploring the upside and downside to Ubuntu-based customized distros.

Linux Mint – The Go-to Ubuntu Alternative

Ever since its inception, Linux Mint has inspired those who didn't care for Ubuntu to try something based on it. Mint goes further than simply offering a Unity-free experience, it actually comes with its own "Mint Tools," in addition to its own desktop – Cinnamon.

Mint's differences start with the user interface it provides by default. While both Unity and Cinnamon are arguably modern looking desktop experiences, I promise you that if you park a newbie in front of Mint and ask them to locate and launch an application not visible on the desktop, they can do it easily. The same can't always be said for Unity, especially if they don't know what to search for.

On the flip side, however, some new Mint users will attempt to seek out assistance from the Ubuntu forums, since it has a much larger community of users from which to get help. While both distros share much of the same stuff on the back-end, there are some configuration differences that make using Ubuntu-specific advice problematic on a new Mint install.

Considering both points above, one has to ask themselves – is Linux Mint a good option as an alternative to Ubuntu? The obvious answer is that it depends on each user's experience. The fact is, most people are not familiar with Linux, which means those coming from Windows will definitely find the Cinnamon desktop to be much more familiar than Unity.

So what about stability? Factually speaking, bugs are going to be found on both distros. I've experienced bugs most recently on Ubuntu, but have also felt the sting of bugs with Mint when using past releases as well. In the long haul, I'd suggest that even if you dislike Unity, Ubuntu has proven itself to be the mature choice. And to present this point with greater clarity, consider this – Ubuntu Deb packages and PPAs. Yes, most of the time these will work okay with Mint, but there have been a number of occasions where they don't work as expected with Mint due to minor differences between the two distributions.

The last thing I would touch on is customization. Without question, Linux Mint wins this one. Ubuntu's Unity desktop is completely neutered unless you install a tweak application, along with applet-centric PPAs to include needed functionality. The fact that I need to use PPAs to simply access basic indicators is just painful. I shouldn't need to install PPAs, just give me the applet indicators instead!

Is Linux Mint a safe and viable alternative to Ubuntu? Mint's safety has been called into question a few times, due to its handling of security patches. Then again, I don't recall any world-ending moments of security lapses with Mint, either. So in my opinion, it comes down to personal choice: Potential regressions versus having the latest security patches. Mint allows you to make this choice easily, Ubuntu, not so much – it's all or nothing.

For my money, if you like the Cinnamon experience, I think Linux Mint is a great option. I'd even go so far as to suggest it's the ultimate option for Windows XP converts, because they'll feel more at home than with Ubuntu.

elementaryOS is just sexy

Like Ubuntu and Linux Mint, elementaryOS has its own desktop environment – Pantheon. The Pantheon desktop is a fork of GNOME, with a number of subtle changes made under the hood.

In addition, elementaryOS further distinguishes itself by offering its own email client and music player. Did I mention it offers one of the best looking user experiences out of the box I've ever seen? From default backgrounds to stunning icons, elementaryOS offers a stellar user experience with an Ubuntu base running at its core.

It’s so good that recently there was an OS X enthusiast who mentioned that it was quite usable from a Mac user's perspective, due to the design and deep thought that went into its overall layout.

Unfortunately, like other Ubuntu customizations, you're still limited to a smaller community size when dealing with challenges. And of course, elementaryOS is also a work in progress. So expecting it to behave like Ubuntu proper isn't the best idea. I recommend using this distribution with the understanding that there will be issues that come up, and you'll do well to accept that asking for help in the Ubuntu forums is going to lead to poor results.

At the end of the day, I find elementaryOS to be the best distribution out of the three in terms of thoughtful design. I love the idea behind Pantheon, and happen to think Geary and Musicare great apps as well.

Is this distribution ready for prime time? At this stage, yes, due to the hyperactive development and strong (be it small) community pushing this option into the world. I see those looking to move away from OS X finding this to be a compelling option. Short of the absence of certain legacy applications, my own wife found this distribution to easily be the best she's ever seen from a visual point of view.

Final breakdown

The Ubuntu team has made it clear that they're about convergence. If you disagree with this vision, you may find one of these customizations to be better suited to your needs. Ubuntu's vision seems to go deeper than mere convergence, however, with its desire to use their own display server instead of what is expected to become the industry standard. Still, Ubuntu is and will always be a powerful, easy to use Linux distribution for those discovering Linux for the first time. But this doesn't mean that it's always a natural fit for everyone.

Linux Mint is without question a solid option for Windows XP refugees. And for a casual newcomer, I'd feel safe in recommending it. But I might go so far as to point out that if you're looking for the same kind of no-nonsense feel, with better Ubuntu compatibility (then yes, it's a problem), I'd also suggest trying Xubuntu as a solid fallback. It not only runs on older hardware that Cinnamon might not, it also provides rock-solid Ubuntu compatibility.

Surprisingly, elementaryOS has proven to be much "faster" in terms of performance than Linux Mint. So I'd comfortably compare it to Xubuntu in terms of speed. Unfortunately elementaryOS still lacks Xubuntu's ultimate compatibility in terms of flawless PPA support and various Ubuntu libraries.

I think it's important to remember that elementaryOS and Linux Mint are customizations of Ubuntu, not merely derivatives. There are back-end differences that do in fact create issues when trying to blend "some" Ubuntu packages with these distros. Usually headaches come from select standalone packages and PPAs, as I've confirmed from Ubuntu's own Alan Pope during a recent Mumble room conversation about Ubuntu customizations. This isn't merely my opinion, this is a technical fact.

So, how does one decide whether or not going with a customization is the right idea when it comes to finding something based on Ubuntu? Here's my advice – if you're going to be using a lot of PPAs and standalone packages, consider sticking with derivatives instead of Ubuntu customizations if Unity isn't for you. Otherwise, I see no issue whatsoever in trying out elementaryOS and Linux Mint to see if they meet with your expectations.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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