Finding the right R version

Installing R and RStudio with the Ubuntu default packages will leave you with strongly outdated versions. In practice, this often leads to version conflicts when installing additional R packages.

To avoid such conflicts, it does make sense to work with an up-to-date but not brandnew R version. As of now (summer 2020) I would recommend using v3.6, since most actively developed packages are working with it whereas support for v4 is often not yet provided.

Installing the right version of R requires that you know the Ubuntu code of your system. A lot of information on your system is stored in /etc/os-release:

$ cat /etc/os-release

Returns something like:

NAME="Linux Mint"
VERSION="19.3 (Tricia)"
PRETTY_NAME="Linux Mint 19.3"

Relevant for the following is only the last line which could be assessed directly using e.g.

$ grep UBUNTU_CODENAME /etc/os-release

More information on Ubuntu releases:

Installing R

In order to make sure that the R base will receive regular updates, it does make sense to install the package from a regularly updated repository. Knowing your Ubuntu code you can easily find and fitting deb link at RStudio’s Ubuntu ReadMe page at

For example, for the ‘bionic’ example system shown above and R v3.6 the adequate entry is deb bionic-cran35/ (cran35 is used for reasons of compatibility). This line must be added to /etc/apt/sources.list to make sure its visited in system updates. You could use a text editor like nano, emacs or vi to do so (sudo may be required) or simply append it through the command line:

$ echo "deb bionic-cran35/" >> /etc/sources.list

To make sure the installation works, the correct SSL key has to be added to your system:

$ sudo apt-key adv --keyserver --recv-keys E298A3A825C0D65DFD57CBB651716619E084DAB9

Now you can update the package library and upgrade existing files:

$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get upgrade

In case no previous R version was installed, you can do it now:

$ sudo apt-get install r-base-dev

Install some Ubuntu packages frequently used by R packages

$ sudo apt-get install libcurl4-openssl-dev libssl-dev libxml2-dev libudunits2-dev libgdal-dev cargo libfontconfig1-dev libcairo2-dev

Install RStudio

RStudio provides its releases as DEB files. To install these, a tool like gdebi must be installed on Ubuntu systems. In case you don’t have it, yet, it can be installed using:

$ sudo apt-get install gdebi 

Find the right version for your system on the RStudio download page at and install it:

$ sudo gdebi /path/to/the/file/.deb

How to handle version conflicts

From time to time R packages will not work with the version of R you have installed. In case your R version is lower than required by the package, such issues can often be resolved by installing a previous release of the package. This can be achieved with ‘devtools’. To install ‘devtools’, go to the R console and do


Before getting started you need to find out which version of R you running and which version of the package will work with this. R has a builtin variable version for this:


Finding out which version of the package should be used is a bit tougher. Navigate to the RDocumentation website at and find the relevant package there. Next to the name of the package, you will see the current version number and a button ‘Other versions’ next to it. At the bottom of the page, there is a section ‘Details’ with an entry ‘Depends’: this where you can see which R version the package requires. You may find out the latest version by selecting older versions from the dropdown on top of the page until you find a package version that supports your version of R.

Let’s, for example, say you are working on a machine with R version 3.1 and you want to install a compatible version of ggplot2. In this case, you will find that ggplot2 v.3.1.1 is the last version that supported R 3.1.

Using devtools you can now install this version of ggplot2:

install_version("ggplot2", version = "3.1.1")

For more information and a guide on how to install packages from source, please refer to this post on “Installing older versions of packages” on the R Studio Support website at

Copyright © 2020 Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Department of Geography.