With the release of Ubuntu 11.10, the Unity desktop is starting to mature. But what if Unity's just not for you, but you still want the convenience of Ubuntu's large community and Debian-based technology?
You might start by exploring one of Ubuntu's official variants.
According to Distrowatch, Ubuntu is the basis for seventy-seven distributions. However, Ubuntu's official variants are in a category of their own.
In some ways, the official variants are sub-communities, with separate websites or pages and doing some of their development work separately from the rest of Ubuntu. They tend, too, to have their own separate color themes in their installations.
In the past, they have sometimes been neglected by the Ubuntu mainstream. Even now, the variants tend to market themselves independently, perhaps because Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm, is wary of diluting its brand.
However, all the official variants share both Ubuntu's repositories and release schedules -- that is, new versions of each variant are generally released within a week or so of the official Ubuntu release.
Currently, Ubuntu recognizes six official variants. Three -- Edubuntu, Mythbuntu, and Ubuntu Studio -- are defined by their purposes. Specifically, Edubuntu is focused on education, Ubuntu Studio on multimedia, and Mythbuntu on MythTV.
Three other official variants are distinguished primarily by their choice of desktop: Lubuntu uses LXDE, Kubuntu KDE, and Xubuntu Xfce. It's within the three desktop-defined variants that general users can look for alternatives to the main Ubuntu interface of Unity on top of GNOME.
Although Lubuntu has existed for several years, it has only become an official variant with the Ubuntu 11.10 release. Built upon LXDE, Lubuntu might suit you if you are working on an older machine with less memory, or if you value speed and efficiency above other considerations.
Unlike Kubuntu (see below), Lubuntu includes only a handful of utilities especially designed for it. These include GPicView, a basic image viewer, and PCManFM, a file manager that is comparable to GNOME's Nautilus or KDE's Dolphin, but faster than either.
Lubuntu borrows a few applications, such as Evince, from GNOME. The rest of its default software is drawn from fast or minimalist applications, such as the Leafpad text editor, the Audacious music player, and the Gnumeric spreadsheet and AbiWord word processor. Lubuntu also uses Chromium rather than Firefox for its default web-browser, a move that Ubuntu itself has so far resisted.
If this software selection doesn't meet your needs, you can turn to GNOME or KDE. Fortunately, LXDE runs other desktops' applications smoothly enough that this dependency shouldn't be a problem. In fact, once started, GNOME or KDE apps often actually run faster in LXDE than in their native environments.
Lubuntu is even simpler than Unity, and resembles a stripped-down version of the GNOME 2 series' desktop. This resemblance makes Lubuntu easy to learn, although more advanced users may find its minimalism too limited.
Kubuntu is named for its use of KDE. Active since 2005, the project has sometimes been criticized for the delay in its releases, as well as the slowness of its desktop compared to other implementations of KDE, such as Debian's.
However, in the last couple of years, both the timeliness and quality of Kubuntu has improved, thanks mainly to Project Timelord, which was created to address these problems.
The most obvious difference between Kubuntu and Ubuntu is the differences in software. For instance, although both install with LibreOffice, Kubuntu uses Kontact for email, addresses, and other personal information instead of Thunderbird, and Amarok instead of Banshee for a music player. You can run your favorite GNOME apps in Kubuntu, but they are will be slower and less well-integrated than their KDE equivalents.
These differences may put off some potential Kubuntu users, although the difficulty of learning software will be diminished if you think in terms of functionality. In other words, if a feature is available in a piece of software found in Ubuntu, then it is almost certain to be found in the equivalent Kubuntu software -- although possibly under a different name and generally in a different position in the menus.
However, an even greater difference exists in design philosophy. Where GNOME tends to develop minimalist applications that work for basic operations, KDE favors applications that have every imaginable feature. The difference can be startling, although you can usually ignore advanced features until you need them.
Even more importantly, while Unity is designed for beginning users, Kubuntu includes features for all levels of users, including advanced ones. In particular, it emphasizes virtual workspaces -- or Activities, as KDE calls them -- and the quick swapping of different sets of icons.
These advanced features might be confusing at first. However, as with KDE applications, you can ignore those you prefer not to use them. And, if you do try them, you will find that Kubuntu can be made to look far more like the GNOME 2 series than Unity ever could.
For many years, Xubuntu's desktop Xfce has billed itself as a lightweight alternative to GNOME and KDE. However, with the addition of Lubuntu to the official variants, Xubuntu is perhaps best considered as a compromise between Kubuntu's complete desktop environment and Lubuntu's speed.
Recently, with many people discontented with GNOME 3 and Unity, Xfce in general has found a new popularity, especially with Linux founder Linus Torvalds endorsing it as preferable to the GNOME 3 series.
Xubuntu is one of the most prominent distributions featuring Xfce, so it is well-positioned to take advantage of this new found popularity. Its software list is similar to Lubuntu's, often favoring light applications, or ones with basic features, although it uses Firefox rather than Chromium for a default web browser.
In the past, Xubuntu has not been the fastest implementation of Xfce, perhaps because of its Ubuntu dependencies. However, in the last couple of releases, its relative speed has improved, makng Xubuntu a likely alternative for anyone still pining for the GNOME 2 desktop. If a lightweight desktop is your goal, then weigh Xubuntu against Lubuntu.
Experimenting with the variants
The main advantage of using an official variant is that each is available from your Ubuntu software center. The only possible confusion is that each package is named for the variant, rather than the desktop it uses, so you have to search for lubuntu-desktop rather than lxde-desktop, or xubuntu-desktop rather than xfce-desktop.
However, once you have installed a variant, it is added to the list of available interfaces when you log in. Although the logo displayed during bootup will be that of the last variant installed, you can easily make comparisons, logging out and switching interfaces in a matter of moments.
Nor are the variants the only choice. Ubuntu 11.10 also includes gnome-shell (GNOME 3.x) and gnome-session-fallback (GNOME 2) for those who want to remain within GNOME. A long list of other interfaces, from IceWM to Ratpoison, are also available within the repository.
The only trouble is, such alternatives tend to have smaller groups of developers than the variants. At times, they may be less polished, and few of them have a separate mailing list - as the variants do – where any requests for help are likely to get a quick reply.
In general, if you're searching for alternatives within Ubuntu, then the variants are the place to start. More than any other alternatives, they give you the option of remaining within Ubuntu while finding the exact options -- and sub-community -- that you prefer.