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Should You Use Ubuntu LTS or Upgrade to the Latest Release?

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the recently-released Ubuntu 13.04 is that it isn’t remarkable at all. Ubuntu 13.04 contains the latest versions of software and additional polish, but there are no must-have features that will make you rush to upgrade.

At some point, individual releases of Ubuntu became more of an option for enthusiasts. Ubuntu’s download site pushes Ubuntu 12.04 LTS as the most prominent option, software like Valve’s Steam is designed to support Ubuntu 12.04 LTS first and foremost, and the LTS version is continually updated with support for the latest hardware.

What is Ubuntu LTS?

LTS stands for “long-term support.” LTS releases were originally intended for business users, giving them a stable platform they could install that would be supported with security updates for years.

However, Ubuntu also produces new releases every six months. Traditionally, average users stuck with the every-six-month releases. These were the standard way of getting Ubuntu before LTS releases were released. Even after the first LTS releases, every new release of Ubuntu offered compelling features, important new versions of software, and polish that made them compelling to average users.

Support and Security Patches

LTS releases are designed to be stable platforms that you can stick with for a long time. Ubuntu guarantees LTS releases will receive security updates and other bug fixes as well as hardware support improvements (in other words, new kernel and X server versions) for five years. The current LTS release, Ubuntu 12.04, will be supported until April 2017.

In comparison, a regular release will only be supported for nine months. Considering new versions of Ubuntu are released every six months, you’ll have three months after a new version is released to upgrade to it or you won’t receive security patches anymore. You’ll probably want to upgrade to every LTS version — new LTS versions are released every two years. If you stick with the LTS version, you’ll still get a new Ubuntu release every two years.

LTS versions are designed to be more polished, while the standard releases bring you the latest features that may not be completely finished yet. For example, Ubuntu 13.04 removes the Gwibber social networking client because it’s not stable, but it will likely be back in the next version. When you use the latest release, you’ll end up upgrading every six to nine months. When you use the LTS version, you can upgrade every two years or even hold on for five years.

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LTS: Not Just for Businesses Anymore

In its original release, Valve’s Steam for Linux only officially supported the 12.04 LTS version of Ubuntu. Even if you want to play the latest Linux games, the LTS version is good enough — in fact, it is preferred. Ubuntu rolled out updates to the LTS version so that Steam would work better on it. The LTS version is far from stagnant — your software will work just fine on it.

Mark Shuttleworth is even talking about backporting the latest version of the Unity desktop to the LTS release of Ubuntu, demonstrating Ubuntu’s commitment to the LTS release by saying “I really think we should back port unity 7 to 12.04!” In response, a developer noted “We already backported almost all the “safe” speed improvements.”

Developers of the Mythbuntu PVR system based on Ubuntu have standardized on the LTS release and are only releasing versions of Mythbuntu based on Ubuntu LTS. There’s no compelling reason to release a new version of Mythbuntu every six months when the LTS version will receive improvements that allow it to support the latest hardware.

Upgrading to later releases will give you the latest versions of software, but this isn’t as critical as it once was — even if you’re using your Linux PC for gaming or multimedia. If you need the latest version of a critical application, you can always use a third-party PPA to install just that one program without having to upgrade your entire Ubuntu platform.

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Why You Might Want to Use the Latest Release

So who is the latest version for? Well, if you want to be on the bleeding edge, have the latest versions of all your software, and use the latest features before they make it to the LTS version of Ubuntu, upgrade to the every-six-month releases. If you’re a developer who needs the latest versions of certain packages, you might want to upgrade if getting them on the LTS version of Ubuntu is too much trouble. If you use Linux because you like tinkering and experimenting with the latest software — and don’t want things getting too boring and predictable — upgrade to the latest release.

However, you’re not missing out much by using the LTS release. You don’t have to upgrade every six months anymore — Ubuntu’s LTS release is well-supported and will run all the software you depend on. It’s regularly updated with new hardware support and performance improvements, so you shouldn’t have to upgrade to make your Wi-Fi work properly or dramatically speed up your desktop.


Ubuntu 13.04 may be boring and not a hugely compelling upgrade, but that’s really a triumph for Ubuntu and desktop Linux. We don’t have to upgrade every six months anymore because the software we’re already using is so good.

If you use Ubuntu, have you stuck with the LTS release or are you upgrading to every individual release?

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 05/9/13

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