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I'm also interested in its variants, like kubuntu-desktop. It appears to include GNOME (or KDE) and a bunch of other things. But it's quite large - is there a breakdown of what is included in ubuntu-desktop and exactly what those items are/do?

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The ubuntu-desktop (and similar) packages are metapackages. That is, they contain no data (besides a small documentation file in the case of the *-desktop packages). But they depend on dozens of other packages that make up each of the Ubuntu flavors.

You can see a complete listing of each package's dependencies on packages.ubuntu.com. A quick search lists these metapackages.

A more detailed explanation of metapackages and a list of some more useful metapackages can be found here.

3

Too much to list here!

You can click through each package for a detailed description. Note these dependant packages have their own dependencies and some of those have even more.

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