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 (plus there's a Christian version to balance things out), and also a distro which is so light it will run on a PC from the mid-80s.
Read on to find out more about each of these interesting distros. Before we begin, however, do note that not all of these operating systems are suitable for everyday use without extensive modification – so consider running them from a Live CD/USB or within a virtual machine, rather than installing them on a computer.
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1. Red Star OS
The ‘hermit kingdom’ that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is one of the most isolated countries in the world. The internet is strictly censored (indeed, most North Koreans have never even heard of it) and access to computers is patchy.
Unwilling to rely solely on operating systems developed by the imperialist US, supreme leader Kim Jong-Il sanctioned the development of an official OS of North Korea named Red Star, which is based on Linux and uses North Korean terminology and spelling.
Red Star fully lives up to the Orwellian reputation of the DPRK. It is closed source and has a feature which watermarks any media files copied to external drives with the hard drive’s serial number. This is most likely because North Korean dissidents often swap banned films using a 'sneakernet' of USB sticks. Red Star also has a supposed 'virus scanner' which can automatically delete censored files. The root user is disabled by default, meaning you don't have full control over your system.
For this reason, you should only run Red Star inside a virtual machine. See our guide on how to do this here.
Development of Red Star has continued under the auspices of supreme commander Kim Jong Un. Version 3.0 was released back in 2014 and uses the KDE desktop environment, bearing a strong resemblance to macOS. It works quite well but is preconfigured to only use North Korea's intranet by default, so can't access the web at large. As the OS is based on Linux, skilled users can tinker with the language and DNS settings to use it in English with internet access.
The default web browser Naenara (meaning ‘My Country’) is a modified version of Firefox 3.5. We searched for 'democracy' in the default search engine, but nothing came up.
As a final reminder: if you want to give this a whirl, don’t install the OS on actual hardware, but rather inside a virtual machine.
The classically educated reader might be able to guess that MuLinux is a small distro – the Greek letter 'mu' is the SI designation for one millionth.
Mu was designed to be a minimal distro along the lines of Puppy or Damn Small Linux, but it's considerably more miniscule. The OS was developed to run from floppy disks, so only requires 20MB of hard disk space and 4MB of RAM. It will run on any machine with an Intel 80386 processor or later. This particular processor was released in 1985 so it’s safe to say that MuLinux can breathe life into ancient hardware.
Development of MuLinux was frozen in 2004. As mentioned, it was originally designed in such a way to allow the user to install and run a basic Unix-like shell from a single floppy disk, then install additional packages such as server tools from separate disks.
3. Ubuntu Satanic Edition
This self-described 'Linux for the Damned' enjoys the notoriety of being banned from the popular Linux OS database Distrowatch. Version 666.9 (we promise we're not making this up) is based on the rather dated Ubuntu 10.10. Like regular Ubuntu, the Satanic Edition is fond of alliterative names for new versions including Lucifer's Legions and Jesus' Jugular.
The dark themes, fiery wallpaper, and Gnome 2 desktop along with various custom sound effects and death metal music combine to make for an OS which Dante himself would be proud of. The website promises to ‘keep your PC looking evil, even when you're not using it’.
Although development on this Linux tribute to the Dark One seems to have halted, you can still boot Ubuntu SE from a Live medium – or as the developers prefer to call it an ‘undead’ CD.
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 in turn took from RISC OS), and stores all files associated with an application in a single folder in '/Programs'. For instance, if you have a program named 'foo' all files pertaining to it would be stored in '/Programs/foo'. You can still install multiple versions of the same application if you wish, for example, for separate users on the system.
The most current version of GoboLinux is 016.01, 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. The OS has had all non-free software removed, including binary 'blob' files in the kernel, so-named as they use proprietary code. Unfortunately, many of these blobs are drivers for wireless networking cards, so GNewSense may not work well with laptops.
On the plus side, it has removed or renamed software that doesn't fit the Free Software Foundation's definition of freedom. The OS uses a modified version of Debian's IceWeasel browser, for instance, to avoid using the Firefox trademark. GNewSense doesn’t provide any links to non-free repositories, making it even more free than Debian.
Unlike many of the distros here GNewSense is still under active development. The latest version codenamed Ucclia was released in May 2016 and is based on Debian 7. It can be booted as a Live CD to help you check whether it supports your hardware.
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 PlayStation 3s hooked up to form cheap supercomputing grids known as 'clusters'. It's based on Red Hat Linux.
Moebuntu is an upgrade for existing Ubuntu installations designed especially for fans of Manga and Anime, and it shows how the OS can be tweaked or fine-tuned to the extreme. There’s an automated setup tool which will apply the colourful desktop and icon themes – prepare yourself for some alarming hues of pink if you do so. There's also a suitably rosy dash icon as well as an array of wallpapers and Manga-style fonts.
As gaudy as this may appear, the advantage of Moebuntu is that it has kept pace with the times. The latest release supports Ubuntu 16.10 so unlike some of the other distros we've highlighted, you can enjoy a taste of the weird and wonderful while having an up-to-date OS.
9. Ubuntu Christian Edition
Having given the devil his due with Ubuntu Satanic Edition earlier in this article, it’s only fair that we let Christians rejoice about the version of Linux crafted just for them.
Ubuntu CE offers a non-denominational version of Linux for Christians, based on the standard Ubuntu builds. The latest version is built on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS (long term support).
The stated aim of the project is to try to encourage more people within the Christian community to realise the power of Linux and switch to Ubuntu.
The latest release incorporates Xiphos, a bible study tool, as well as worship presentation software OpenLP and Quelea, which can be used to project bible verses, hymns and so on.
Ubuntu CE also includes the powerful 'dansguardian' content filter providing advanced parental controls. The wallpaper has been thoughtfully chosen with Biblical quotes.
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 – 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
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 is most often used as a tool, although technically it is a Linux distribution in its own right.
Parted Magic 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, AU$12) to download direct from the author's site. For an additional fee you can order it preinstalled on USB or DVD.
This distro is 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.
It also includes a custom Hannah Montana boot screen, theme, icon set and wallpapers. The website helpfully adds that it is not vulnerable to Windows viruses.
There's no reason to use HML unless you're a diehard Hannah fan, but since it's based on Kubuntu using KDE 4.2, there are plenty of packages to install. You could even upgrade it to the latest version of Kubuntu by running the command 'sudo apt-get dist-upgrade' from the Linux Terminal. Alternatively, diehard Montana-fans can download the icons and/or theme pack and install it on top of their existing KDE install.
13. Zeroshell Linux
Zeroshell comes from Italy, and it’s a small Linux distro designed to run as a Live CD for servers or embedded devices such as routers. You can even install it onto a Raspberry Pi.
It has no GUI but you can access and configure it from your web browser. Zeroshell is a lot more powerful than the average router's web interface allowing you to perform activities such as assigning IP addresses, DHCP provision and changing DNS settings. It can function as a proxy, VPN access point or a firewall, and can interface with any network appliance.
Zeroshell is in active development: the latest version (3.7.1) was released in January 2017.