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What is Linux Kernel, and should you upgrade to the latest Kernel?

by Kiran Kumar
Published: Updated:

Don’t worry, I’m not going to write another wiki article on Linux Kernel (I know there is Wikipedia for that!), but rather I’m going to explain Linux Kernel for an end-user in simple layman’s terms.

What is Linux Kernel?

Linux Kernel is an important piece of program that forms the first layer of interaction between your computer’s hardware and your Operating System (OS). Its job is to act as a mediator between your Linux OS like Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora etc. and the hardware of your computer like the graphics card, RAM, CPU, so on and so forth.

Every Operating System has their own kernels. Windows and Mac OS X have their own, and Linux has the Linux Kernel founded by Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student who first wrote Linux during his part-time activity, hence the name Linux.

New Linux Kernel Versions

Like any other software, Linux Kernel also needs an update periodically. Linus Torvalds releases the new updates to the Linux Kernels. Every update typically includes fixes to security loopholes, bug fixes to problems, better hardware compatibility, improved stability, more speed, and occasionally major updates also bring some new functions and features. Hence you will see several Linux Kernels all over the internet. This is a completely independent release and no Linux distribution control it.

Why don’t a Linux distribution ship with latest Linux Kernel?

Answering this is simple and I believe you already know the answer. OS developers pick up the best kernel they have at that time and develop their Linux distribution over it – fully tested.

Every major build of a Linux distro takes around a year and within this development cycle, you will see several Linux Kernels updates which are independent releases. OS developers can’t catch up to the new kernels and can’t risk including a new Linux Kernel in mid of their development cycle, without testing it. It can slow them down as they have to check compatibility every time, and may also bud out new bugs. So it’s up to the end users to try the new Linux Kernels.

Should you upgrade to new Linux Kernel?

Unfortunately, this is a not a simple yes or no answer. It depends on what kind of computer you have, and what is the primary use of your PC. If you have some 10 years old PC and all hardware interfaces are working good, and the PC use is limited to intermittent usage like some couple of hours per day online browsing, you can stick to your current Linux Kernel included with your Linux distribution.

On the other hand, if you have a modern PC and you are on the internet most of the time, and security fixes are utmost important to you, then you should probably upgrade to the latest kernel. It may make your PC faster, safer, and have better compatibility with your Linux OS.

Having said that, there is no harm for anybody in trying out new Linux Kernel. All you need to check is if your PC is stable or not after the upgrade. Therefore, always preserve the older and existing kernels so that you can revert anytime just in case if something goes wrong.

Wait…So Linux Kernel upgrades are reversible?

The process is completely reversible and the greatness of Linux is it keeps your current kernel intact even after you upgrade to the new kernel so that you can easily revert if something went wrong.

Typically, a new Linux Kernel installation adds a new line in the GRUB boot-loader and pushes the older kernels into ‘Advanced Options’ of the GRUB. Since this article is a generic know-how, explaining how to revert a Linux Kernel is out-of-scope of this article.

No worries, I will cover a step-by-step article on how exactly do reverse Linux Kernels in the major Linux distributions covered in this website including Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and Fedora very soon. Stay tuned.

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Manuel March 27, 2020 - 6:56 AM

Thanks a lot Kiran. As newie in Linux I appreciate very much any advice. Very well explained and indeed very usefull for a begginer in Linux.

Joval December 15, 2020 - 10:31 AM

Thanks…good write up…answered all my questions! Keep up the good work, really helpful for a NOOB like me.

joaquin December 26, 2020 - 11:04 AM

excellent man, regards from argentina!


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