debian vs ubuntu

Blanket statements like “Debian gives better performance”, or “Ubuntu is better for beginners” are still common. Such statements might’ve been true a decade ago, but the current relationship between the two is a lot more nuanced.

There are multiple versions of both Debian and Ubuntu now. Some are bleeding-edge, while others are very stable. Some are fairly bloated and resource-hungry, while others are minimalistic and resource-friendly.

As Ubuntu was derived from Debian, they had many similarities to start with but the line has been blurred even more now. So, we’ll cover the main differences between the two in this article and help you decide which one is right for you.

Debian’s History & Philosophy

Debian 11.6 (Bullseye)

Back in the 90’s when the free software movement was still in its early days, large projects like Linux distributions used to be developed by individuals or small groups. Debian played a major role in changing this. Its core tenets of creating an OS freely available to everyone attracted thousands of developers. 

Over time, Debian grew to be used by millions of users and spawned hundreds of forks, including Ubuntu. Even at present, the Debian project is one of the largest free software projects, with over 1,50,000 software packages and over a thousand active developers.

Debian is a community-driven distro. It’s always aimed to be a universal operating system, and to that end, has excellent hardware compatibility and software selection. We’ll focus on such aspects of Debian when talking about the differences.

Ubuntu’s Origin & Purpose

Ubuntu 23.04 (Lunar Lobster)

Ubuntu was originally made by a small team of Debian developers that wanted to create an easy-to-use distro. Due to this, Ubuntu has historically been similar to Debian. It was built on Debian’s infrastructure and shares a large number of packages with Debian. As the most popular distro, it’s also spawned hundreds of derivatives like Debian.

However, unlike Debian, Ubuntu is published by Canonical (a private firm). Some Ubuntu developers are volunteers while others are employed by Canonical. This also means Ubuntu has a profit-motive and generates revenue primarily through means like premium support. 

Contrary to Debian’s universal OS approach, Ubuntu is intended for Desktop and Server usage. Its hardware compatibility is still excellent among Linux distros, but it’s not on the same level as Debian. For instance, the newer Ubuntu releases no longer support 32-bit processors.

There are many other minor differences. Ubuntu locks the root user by default, while Debian doesn’t. Debian uses apt and dpkg for package management while Ubuntu also additionally uses snap. But it’s not worth diving deep into such details. Instead, we’ll focus on the more impactful differences to help you decide between the two.

Debian vs Ubuntu – Main Differences

Release CycleDebian Stable doesn’t have a fixed release schedule, but historically, new versions have been released roughly 2 years apart.Ubuntu’s LTS releases are published every 2 years, and interim releases are published every 6 months.
Desktop EnvironmentYou get to select the DE when installing Debian.Ubuntu ships with GNOME by default, but you can choose a different flavor, or install another supported DE after setting up Ubuntu.
DevelopersThe Debian community.Canonical and the Ubuntu community.
Target AudienceVersatile distro that’s ideal for users requiring stability. Not as beginner-friendly as Ubuntu, but still a decent option for new users.Works for users with different skill levels and use-cases. Excellent option for beginners.

Release Cycle

When downloading Debian or Ubuntu, you’ll notice that they have multiple release streams. Debian has three types of releases – Stable, Testing, and Unstable.

Unstable is where Debian is actively developed. All changes are initially made here (e.g., package uploads), and after some testing, they’re promoted into the testing stream.

Debian Testing partly follows a hybrid release model. Initially, it receives constant updates like a rolling-release distro. After it matures enough, new packages from unstable are held back. Once the bug count in the frozen testing distro is down to an acceptable number, it’s released as a Stable distro with a version number (e.g., Debian 11 Bullseye).

The stable stream is where Debian gets its stereotype of outdated packages and immutable stability from. But as you can see, if you want frequent updates, Debian Testing or even Unstable are viable options.

Ubuntu follows a fixed-release model. The long-term support (LTS) versions are published every two years and supported for 10 years in total. Interim releases are published every six months and are only maintained for 9 months. Basically, Interim is for users that want the latest Ubuntu version while LTS is for those who value stability.

If we had to rank these, Debian stable would be ideal for security and stability, followed by Ubuntu LTS, and then Interim. Users that want frequent updates can instead go for Debian Testing.

Desktop Environment

The most visible difference among different distros is the Desktop Environment (DE). Debian doesn’t really have a default DE. GNOME is selected by default during the installation, but you can easily select another DE, or not install one at all.

Ubuntu ships with a modified version of the GNOME DE. You can’t select the DE in the middle of the installation. Instead, you have to install a different Ubuntu flavor entirely (Kubuntu, Xubuntu, etc.) if you want a different DE out-of-the-box.

Alternatively, you can install your preferred DE after the setup on both Debian and Ubuntu. They both support various DEs like Plasma, Xfce, LXDE, MATE, Cinnamon, LXQt, Budgie, etc. 

If you install vanilla Ubuntu, the GNOME interface will feel similar to macOS. If you want a Windows-like desktop, you can instead choose Kubuntu or install KDE Plasma afterward. Or if resource usage is a priority, you can go for lightweight DEs like Xfce. The same applies to Debian as well. 


As stated, Debian is a community-driven distro coordinated by policies like the Debian Social Contract and the Free Software Guidelines. It’s developed with the principles of the GNU Project in mind. Many users are attracted to Debian due to such principles relating to freedom as they feel it’s very important.

Ubuntu, on the other hand, is published and commercially backed by Canonical. The community doesn’t have as much say in the direction Ubuntu’s development takes. For instance, Ubuntu isn’t as committed to free software. And Canonical has had some privacy-related controversies in the past with Ubuntu. 

Some users prefer Debian over Ubuntu due to such factors, but Ubuntu wins in some aspects too. Specifically, Canonical provides premium support which can be important in setups like enterprise server systems.

Target Audience & Popularity 

Ubuntu’s ease of use has always been one of its main selling points. It has excellent documentation and community support, which is also ideal for beginners. 

It’s great in terms of hardware and software compatibility, is commonly used in professional environments, and there are Ubuntu versions made for niche use cases. As such, it works well for experienced users too.

Essentially, Ubuntu is a versatile distro that successfully caters to a wide range of users. It’s not hard to see why it’s the most popular Linux distro.

Debian is similar, but it’s true that Debian sort of assumes that you have some Linux experience or technical aptitude. For starters, you can customize your installation a lot more compared to Ubuntu. 

When you encounter problems, you may find that the forum posts or documentation feel a bit more direct whereas you’d have more beginner-friendly explanations and handholding with Ubuntu.

This isn’t to say Debian isn’t beginner-friendly. Beginners can absolutely start with Debian. But when compared directly with Ubuntu, you do get the feeling that Debian targets users with some Linux experience, while Ubuntu is better suited for absolute beginners.

For experienced users, it mainly depends on their use cases. For instance, both Debian and Ubuntu are popular for server setups. If vendor support is important, Ubuntu may be the better choice. Or if you are comfortable with handling a bug or two, Debian’s testing release might be better for personal usage thanks to its frequent updates.    

Verdict – Debian vs Ubuntu

Stereotypes like Debian being outdated or Ubuntu being bad for performance aren’t necessarily true due to the multiple releases/flavors that both offer. Now, there are bleeding-edge Debian versions and performance-focused Ubuntu versions.

If you’re a beginner, you may find that Ubuntu is a bit easier to get started with. But Debian is very user-friendly too. Ultimately, they’re pretty similar so don’t stress too much about which one to choose. Just pick one and get started. For experienced users, the exact requirements and use cases should be the main factors when deciding between Debian and Ubuntu.

Anup Thapa

Senior Writer

Anup Thapa is a Linux enthusiast with an extensive background in computer hardware and networking. His goal is to effectively communicate technical concepts in a simplified form understandable by new Linux users. To this end, he mainly writes beginner-friendly tutorials and troubleshooting guides. Outside of work, he enjoys reading up on a range of topics, traveling, working out, and MOBAs.