Choice and flexibility are the hallmarks of the Linux ecosystem. In Windows and OS X, if you don't like some aspects of the operating system, there's not much you can do about it.
Not so in the Linux world, where thanks to the numerous distributions you are in fact spoilt for choice. Each distro has the Linux kernel at its core, but builds on top of that with their own selection of other components, depending on the target audience for the distro.
Different distros offer different customisation options, so you can fiddle around with the distro and customise it as per your taste and preferences until you get the kind of thing you're looking for. So no matter what sort of user you are, there's a distro for you.
In this feature we're focusing primarily on the desktop. Some desktop distros aim to keep things as simple as possible, while others give you more control. They have different installation routines, different desktop environments, different package management schemes and different administration tools.
We'll look at regular distros that you can use for every day computing tasks, as well as those designed to appeal to users coming from other operating systems, such as Windows and Mac OS X. We'll also look at distros that can turn an old clunker into a streamlined computing machine and ones that give advanced users complete control over their working environment.
Over the next few pages, we take more than four dozen of the best distros for a spin, test their unique features and weigh up their strengths and weakness to help find a perfect distro for you!
Every day distros
Distros designed to replace your existing operating system
It isn't the first distro designed for inexperienced Linux desktop users, but it's inarguably the most well-known. The distro has several innovative features, including the Unity desktop - which everyone loves to hate.
Then there's the cross-platform and cross-device Ubuntu One cloud-sharing and file sync service, which offers 5GB of free storage space. For adding software, there's the Ubuntu Software Center.
The distro has one of the easiest installation mechanisms. It doesn't include proprietary codecs by default, but you can include them during installation, simply by clicking a checkbox. The distro is released twice a year with regular Long Term Support (LTS) releases that are supported for five years.
Verdict: As Unity becomes more usable, Ubuntu will continue to take the fight to proprietary desktops.
Another old timer, and one of the leading users of (and contributors to) the KDE desktop - although officially they don't prefer one over the other. Indeed, the distro looks consistent across the two desktops and is visually pleasing.
Its all-in-one management tool Yast (Yet Another Setup Tool) can handle software installation as well as system configuration and administration. While it's convenient to have all these settings in one place, it's a bit overwhelming and intimidating, especially for new Linux users.
Also, the distro's installer isn't as straightforward as Ubuntu's. And, in a break from tradition, the distro pushes out new releases every eight months.
Verdict: Although designed for desktop users, it isn't as friendly as Ubuntu or Mint, but makes for an attractive enterprise desktop.
Traditionally pitched as an alternative to Ubuntu, recent releases of the Red Hat-supported community distro have been prioritising server-based features over desktop enhancements. This is why the distro makes more sense as an advanced user's playground. After all, it's a test bed for features that'll find their way into Red Hat's Enterprise offerings.
Also, the distro's ease of use has diminished since the introduction of the (slowly improving) Gnome 3 desktop. New users would be jolted by the barren desktop, that requires them to learn new skills to navigate successfully.