Feel the power of the penguin
Long-time Windows and Mac users might rejoice at the thought that Linux is no longer exclusive to developers who wince at the sight of software that isn't open-source. Nowadays, Linux is for everyone. Yes, you can put down your pitchforks, Windows and Mac users, as developers aren't the only ones who can wince at the sight of software that isn't open-source.
In fact, with hundreds of Linux distributions (distros) to choose from, it doesn't matter whether you're working with a hardy desktop rig or – as of recently – even a Surface tablet. There's bound to be something out there that appeals to you.
See, Linux is just the heart, the kernel, of any Linux-based system. It's the distribution that determines the rest – the user interface design, the installation process and application support are all up to the distro's creator. Android and Chrome OS, for instance, are both based on the Linux kernel.
The only problem is, with such a wide array of customizable Linux variations out on the market, the decision itself might be enough to send you in Microsoft's direction. Thankfully, we've put together this quintessential guide to all of the best Linux flavors that both enthusiasts and newbies alike can enjoy.
As always, if you have a suggestion of your own, let us know in the comments below.
Shashank Sharma, Nick Peers and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this article
Even people who wouldn't know where to start with a command line interface have probably heard of Ubuntu, and it's not hard to see why. Here we're greeted by the friendly, familiar face of Debian (a larger distro that predates Ubuntu by a decade), with new releases every six months rather than every six and a half seconds, leaving it much more stable and, in most cases, actually usable.
It's probably the best place to start if you're new to Linux, designed specifically for the person who doesn't know Gnome from Bash. Many of its essential apps comes pre-installed, negating the need to deploy package installers over a command line, and the easy-to-handle install repositories library makes it very easy to get ahold of more.
Lots of Linux users wind up using Ubuntu as a starting point, even if they may end up looking down their noses at it a year or two down the line. In reality, though, they'll owe it thanks for offering a helping hand in the world's most customizable operating system.
There are, however, a few legitimately controversial things about Ubuntu. Over the last few years, its parent company Canonical has tried to develop Ubuntu into its own "brand", most notably by introducing its own desktop environment known as Unity. This interface bridges Ubuntu for phones and tablets with classic desktop Ubuntu.
Unity is less like Windows than most other desktop environments, and not everyone likes it. However, it recently became a lot more flexible and smoother in the latest release. It's not all that hard to switch to another desktop UI, either.
You can get started with Ubuntu here
Though every Linux distro is based on the Linux kernel, most are also based on existing distros as well, with Debian and Ubuntu comprising the vast majority. Solus, however, differs by introducing an entirely new computing experience.
Built with ease of use in mind, Solus boasts an appearance that's as modern as – or dare we say more modern than – Chrome OS.
The newness of the OS also helps. While a quick bit of research might lead you to discover its initial release took place in 2012, Solus is actually even fresher than that. That's because, beginning in 2014, Solus was recreated from the ground up and re-released as Solus 1.0 as recent as December 2015.
Its desktop UI is called Budgie, which is largely responsible for Solus' distinct focus on aesthetics and "elegance", as its developer puts it, than most other Linux interfaces.
The issue in siding with Solus is that, while promising, it has much less of an active community at the moment than the more renowned names. This could be offputting for those who don't already know Linux inside and out.
As a youngling, Solus is also remarkably less stable than something like Ubuntu – at least for the foreseeable future. It's worth trying out Solus nonetheless, though, especially considering how distinct it is from the rest of the pack.
You can get started with Solus here
Linux Mint Cinnamon
If you want a Microsoft-less Windows 10, this one's for you hotshot! Linux Mint Cinnamon has a much more familiar interface than Ubuntu. It even has a Start menu of sorts, making it dead easy to transition from Windows if you've just had enough of Redmond's corporate hogwash.
There are no major sacrifices either. Mint Cinnamon uses very similar repositories to Ubuntu, being based on it and everything.
Cinnamon has a relatively glitzy interface, so if you're planning on running Linux on a dodgy old machine that can no longer keep up with the latest Windows installment, you are best off trying Cinnamon's brother. It's called Mate, and it has a more spartan UI that's a bit less demanding.
(To dig a level deeper, Cinnamon's look is based on Gnome 3, Mate's on Gnome 2. Gnome, of course, being a graphical desktop environment designed to work with Linux distros primarily.)
We picked Cinnamon for a reason, though.
Like Ubuntu, Mint Cinnamon is also a good beginner Linux distro. It features an office suite, media player apps, a browser and more right from the start. And, like Ubuntu, it's not updated all the time. It's updated even more sparingly than Ubuntu, actually, with major revisions happening roughly once a year.
That said, Linux Mint Cinnamon is one of the first distros you should try if you're new to Linux.
You can get started with Mint Cinnamon here
Out of the hundreds of Linux distros you'll find, loads of them are based on Ubuntu. One of the most interesting Linux-inspired distros is Ubuntu Studio.
Tailored to creative types: musicians, artists, sound engineers and designers, Ubuntu Studio is a great place to head if, for example, you want to try making your own podcast or homebrew album but don't want to dish out thousands on fancy software. Ubuntu Studio has been around since 2007, and now features a small mountain of built-in apps that push it close to the 3GB mark.
Among the most interesting is Ardour, a digital, multi-track recorder-slash-sequencer app. Better-known Windows alternatives, like Sonar, Reason and Cubase demand hundreds of dollars for comparable functions.
Ardour can communicate with the preinstalled synthesizer and guitar effects apps using JACK, another piece of software that lets you route audio between apps. It won't lure Kanye West away from Pro Tools any time soon, but it's also an awful lot cheaper.
Ubuntu Studio is a little less strong on the graphics/video side, but does offer a couple of video editing programs and Blender, a 3D modeling app. While not many full-time graphics and audio professionals are going to use Studio as their main piece of software, it's a fine way to dabble in creative software somewhat like the tear-inducingly expensive Windows packages, without paying a cent.
You can get started with Ubuntu Studio here
Here's one for the pros. While most of our picks are suitable for those who barely know anything about Linux, Arch Linux expects you to know what you're doing – at least a little bit.
There's no super-easy install wizard, and even when you have the system up and running, Arch Linux doesn't come with a whole giant package of applications already put into place. That's not the idea.
To use Arch Linux's own motto, the concept behind this distro is KISS, the "keep it simple, stupid" philosophy. It offers a minimalist Linux framework, letting you turn a system into whatever you need without making you prune away the bits you don't want.
For the gamers out there, it's a bit like the Wretched class of the Dark Souls games: looks awful to some eyes, but is the only choice for others.
Consistent with its enthusiast leanings, Arch Linux has a rolling release pattern, with new versions available every month rather than just every six months or every year. There's also a lot of good documentation floating about for Arch. So, while it may not be friendly, those with enough knowledge and patience should get by just fine.
You can get started with Arch Linux here
While not typically perceived as a rendition of the Linux kernel, the cloud-based operating system Chrome OS, or Chromium OS, consistently exceeds expectations for just how large an install base a Linux kernel can achieve.
Without being much more than a desktop browser repurposed as an entire user environment, accessibility is Chrome OS' main draw – not to mention there's no high-end processor or storage requirement required for it to run.
If you don't need much more than the expansive catalog of Google Apps, Chrome OS is undoubtedly the way to go. And, let's be honest, most of us are strictly browser bound anyway. Even historically x86 applications like Photoshop are hitting the worldwide web. Plus, with a wide range of Android apps available by way of the Google Play Store, the open-source Chrome OS is about to become even more enticing.
Aside from Android itself, Chrome OS is perhaps the most widely used Linux distro to date. In fact, in terms of sheer market share it's rapidly catching up to its closed-source competition with Chromebooks recently outpacing the Mac, at least commercially.
On the downside, Chrome OS is pretty limited in comparison to other Linux-based operating systems. Since all tasks are expected to be completed online and stored in the cloud, there isn't much wiggle room for offline usage. So unless you're always connected to a network, taking your work on the go won't be as practical as it would with, say, Ubuntu or Solus.
Another desirable factor, however, is that many of the PCs Chrome OS comes installed on are extremely affordable, with even some of the better ones keeping under the $250 mark. And, though Chrome OS is designed for Google's Chromebook line of laptops, it can easily be installed on virtually any PC in just a few simple steps.
You can get started with Chrome OS here
Not all Linux distros are about being different; elementary OS in particular is more about thinking different. As one of the best-looking distributions around, elementary OS bears a striking resemblance to Apple's macOS. In fact, its developer calls elementary OS a "fast and open replacement for Windows and OS X."
Unlike Windows in particular, elementary OS isn't funded by ad revenue nor does the developer have access to any personal information – or so it claims. Instead, it's funded by an optional donation of five, ten or even 25 dollars per download (although you can opt to donate a custom amount if you're so inclined, even the nominal contribution of $0 is rendered acceptable).
Elementary OS even comes with a handful of pre-installed apps such as Photos, Music, Videos and a custom web browser called Midori that's supposed to be easier on the battery than, say, the infamous Google Chrome power drainer. Whether it's more conservative than Microsoft Edge, though, remains to be seen.
While it's not as jam-packed with features as macOS or Windows, elementary OS serves its purpose well. It's a minimalistic alternative to the spyware and adware that often come pre-installed and unable to be removed with the bigger name desktop operating systems.
For those seeking the painless experience of navigating an Apple interface without compromising your personal data, elementary OS might very well be your perfect match.
You can get started with elementary OS here