Note: Our weird and wonderful niche Linux distros roundup has been fully updated. This feature was first published in December 2011.
Fed up with the bog-standard Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora and so on? Looking for a distro that reflects your individuality? In this roundup we've discovered no less than 13 of the best, oddest and most useful distributions that Linux has to offer.
They include one distro which is the official, sanctioned OS of North Korea, no less, along with a Satanic Edition of Ubuntu (yes, you read that correctly), and also a distro which is so light it will run on a PC from the mid-80s. That ancient 386 in the attic could still be useful, then…
Read on to find out more about each of these interesting distros – and why on earth you'd want to use them.
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1. Red Star OS
Never let it be said that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is not a technologically forward-thinking nation. Ah, who are we kidding: the world's most isolationist country isn't exactly known for its computing advancements. But it is known for its technological oppression, which is why Kim Jong-il sanctioned the development of the official operating system of North Korea, Linux-based Red Star OS, which reports back on its users’ actions and heavily restricts files and software.
Development continues under Kim Jong-un, we hear, although the latest release – version 3.0 – hit back in 2014 and gives the desktop (and installer) an OS X-like makeover. It works surprisingly well, although you'll need to learn Korean to have any chance of understanding what's going on.
Familiar apps have been renamed too – there's a notebook app called My Comrade, and Firefox is called My Country (perhaps fittingly, as North Korea has its own internet). We searched for 'Democracy' in the default search engine, but nothing came up. If you're desperate to try it for yourself, download the 2.5GB ISO from this website and try it in a VM. Don't install it on actual hardware, whatever you do.
The classically educated might be able to guess that MuLinux is a small distro – the Greek letter 'mu' being the SI designation for one millionth – possibly in the same vein as Puppy or Damn Small Linux. You'd have difficulty, however, comprehending just how small it is. Originally developed to run from floppy disks, MuLinux requires 20MB hard disk space and 4MB RAM, and will run on an Intel 80386 processor or later.
That's the same Intel 80386 processor that was released in 1985, meaning Mu will breathe life into even ancient hardware. Mu is no match for a modern system in terms of productivity, having been finished in 1998-99, but if you have a 25-year-old machine that you want to rescue from the scrapheap, it's the distro for you.
3. Ubuntu Satanic Edition
Ubuntu spin-offs are ten-a-penny, but we have to recognise that the makers of Ubuntu SE have gone beyond the ordinary in their quest to please The Dark One. The dark theme and collection of background images is the most obvious modification, and the sound effects and startup jingle have also been customised.
Ubuntu's fondness for alliteration is still there (the last three releases of the OS were Lucifer's Legion, Microsoft Massacre and Necrophiliac Necromancer), but the version numbers have been modified to 666.8, 666.9 and 666.10 respectively. Sadly, development appears to have ceased, but if you're a fan of the dark arts, free metal music (there's plenty included) and Gnome 2-based desktops, then Ubuntu SE may still appeal.
Oh, and it doesn't have live CDs; they're ‘undead’. Endearingly bonkers.
This is one that will appeal to the techies out there – the thing that marks GoboLinux out from the rest is its filesystem layout. Most Linux distributions use an archaic non-arrangement wherein an application's files are scattered around your hard drive in several different folders.
GoboLinux adopts an OS X-like approach (which Apple took from RISC OS), and stores all files associated with an application in a single folder in /Programs.
The most current version of GoboLinux is 016, released at the end of 2016, which includes further filesystem virtualisation tools in the form of Runner, and (if you can find it) a copy of NCSA Mosaic for a bit of old-school web browsing.
If you like software freedom, you'll love GNewSense. It's based on Ubuntu, but has had all non-free software removed, including those tricky non-free driver files that are loaded into the Linux kernel (known as binary blobs). Unfortunately, many of these blobs are drivers for wireless networking cards, so GNewSense may not be the best distro for laptops.
On the plus side, it has removed or renamed software that doesn't fit the Free Software Foundation's definition of freedom (Firefox, for example, is renamed as Burning Dog), and it doesn't provide any links to non-free repositories, making it even more free than Debian.
Until we get the Hurd to replace the Linux kernel and create Gnu/Hurd, GNewSense – along with another Ubuntu-based distro by the name of Trisquel – is the closest we'll get to completely free.
6. Linux from Scratch
Do you love Linux? Do you really love it? Because you're going to need to if you want to follow the Linux from Scratch program. Not (technically) a formal distro, LFS is more a set of tutorials and packages designed to help you set up your own completely bespoke Linux system. From scratch.
That means first creating a temporary system with which to compile the real thing, building your own partitions and file system, and installing every element of a functioning Linux system painstakingly by hand. Oh, and figuring out exactly why it isn't working.
The documentation comes in freely downloadable volumes, charmingly entitled 'Stable' for the latest release and 'Development' if you want to check out the version that creator Gerard Beekmans and his team are working on at this very moment. There's also a systemd version, which uses the latest in system initialisation techniques.
7. Yellow Dog
Yellow Dog was released in the late 90s for Apple computers using the PowerPC chip architecture, and found its niche among people who wanted an even more different way to think differently. All was good, but then Apple abandoned PowerPC in favour of Intel chips, which it's still using today.
This left Yellow Dog out in the cold, but after a change of ownership it reinvented itself as an OS for high-performance multicore computing – most notably as the OS used on PlayStations hooked up to form cheap supercomputing grids.
8. Bedrock Linux
Linux is Linux is Linux, right? Well, no. There are loads of distributions built on a Linux core, but they all do things in a slightly different way. Ubuntu deals with PPAs, Gentoo builds its own packages with Portage, Arch keeps up to date with the latest packages in a timely manner, and so on.
Bedrock is designed to be an amalgamation of your choice of the best components from whichever distro you desire. By splitting up the virtual filesystem, you're able to install packages from disparate distros and run them simultaneously without conflict. If something is currently broken in your favourite distro but working fine in another, run the one that works! Yes, this might take a bit of getting your head around, but Bedrock Linux could be the most solid distro going.
Are you a keyboard warrior? You're going to need to be if you're sadistic enough to try Suicide-Linux, a distro which cunningly encourages perfect command inputs at all times. "Just a gimmicky idea that is of no practical use. An incredible waste of time that doesn't encourage or teach anything," says SourceForge commenter evi1 – perfect for our list, then.
Basically, Suicide-Linux modifies the terminal portion of any Debian shell in such a way that a single misspelled or incorrect command typed into its shell immediately deletes every file and folder on your drive with a 'rm -rf /' command. A fleeting distro, good for a chuckle or a practical joke, but not much more.
10. Scientific Linux
There still exists among our Windows-using cousins the risible idea that Linux isn't good enough to take over on the desktop – that the continued dominance of Microsoft on the desktop is inevitable, because Linux is not up to the job technically.
This can easily be refuted: the cleverest people on the planet – the scientists searching for clues about the beginning of the universe – use Scientific Linux at the CERN laboratories.
It's based on Red Hat, and anyone can download and install it on their machine. You don't even need a PhD in theoretical physics.
11. Parted Magic
We're sure that nobody runs this as their full-time operating system (if you do, get in touch and tell us why), because although it's technically a distro, it's best thought of as a specialist tool.
Parted Magic is a live distro that comes with all the tools you need to fix broken partitions. If something won't boot, this is what you use to fix it, and that goes for both Linux and Windows machines.
It also allows for secure disk erasing (making sure that data is really nuked), benchmarking, and disk cloning among other features. As a troubleshooting aid, it's indispensable, but it will cost you $9 (around £7.20, AU$11.80) to download direct from the author's site.
It's drastically out-of-date and about as niche as they come, but HML – or Hannah Montana Linux – is the perfect desktop for fans of Miley Cyrus' heady Nickelodeon days. Enjoy a pink Hannah Montana-themed KDE desktop, featuring Tux with the double-life teenage singer's logo emblazoned on his belly. Thrill to the custom Hannah Montana boot screen. Get the youngsters involved in Linux!
There's no reason to use HML unless you're a diehard Hannah fan, but since it's based on Kubuntu you're not going to be short of packages to install, and you could (theoretically) upgrade it to the latest version with a simple apt-get dist-upgrade. Or just download the theme pack and slap it on top of your existing KDE install, if you're really desperate.
13. Zeroshell Linux
If you've spent a long time with Linux, you may have transcended, godlike, from the GUI and mastered the shell. Zeroshell laughs at your divine powers, because it doesn't have one, exactly as its name suggests. It doesn't actually have a GUI, either, at least in a traditional sense – you administer it entirely from a web interface, from afar.
Designed to run headless and look after your LAN, Zeroshell is actually a perfect solution in a lot of cases. If you're looking to do away with your router's pathetic powers and install something more powerful to deal with assigning IP addresses and DHCP provision, give it a go; it'll also function as a proxy, a firewall, or just about any other network appliance.