Feel the power of the penguin
Update: For our developer and sysadmin readers, we've added the enthusiast-favorite openSUSE to our list. Read on to number 8 to find out more!
If you can’t stand the lackluster security of a Windows computer, but macOS is much too shallow, allow us to introduce you to Linux. Basically the Doom of open-source software, Linux started out exclusive to x86 PCs and has since made its way to everything from Android phones to servers and even to Chromebooks.
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Based on a family of operating systems called Unix, which rose to modest fame in the late 1970s, Linux has been adopted by various software developers who have all made it their own in different forms known as distributions, or distros. All of the top Linux distros take the Linux kernel, the heart and soul of the operating system and shape it to fit their own desktop environments.
The best Linux distros are each tailored to specific types of users. So while Ubuntu is popular for its accessibility to newcomers, Arch Linux has the opposite appeal. It’s intended for users to take advantage of the Linux terminal and type their own commands to achieve otherwise simple tasks like installing apps. Technical details aside, these are the best Linux distros.
Shashank Sharma, Nick Peers, Nate Drake and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this article
If you’re after a distro that gets you as far away as possible from the image of a nerdy hacker type bashing away at a terminal interface, Elementary OS is what you need. It’s probably the most attractive distro around, with a style similar to that of macOS. This operating system’s superb desktop environment is known as Pantheon, and is based on Gnome.
The latest version of Elementary OS is called Loki, which as well as being that bit prettier and neater than its predecessor Freya, has its own application installer UI called AppCenter. It’s a delightfully simple way to install apps outside the terminal, which is handy as there aren't very many preinstalled.
Elementary OS does, however, come bundled with the Epiphany browser, the Geary email client and a few basic ‘tool’ apps. You may need to add more programs but this is more than made up for by Elementary OS’ Elegance.
You can get started with Elementary OS here
Linux Mint is a great ‘default’ distro for new Linux users, as it comes with a lot of the software you’ll need when switching from Mac or Windows, such as LibreOffice, the favoured productivity suite of Linux users. It also has better support for proprietary media formats, allowing you to play videos, DVDs and music out of the box.
You can download four main starter flavours of Mint 18, each of which uses a different desktop environment, the top-most layer of the interface allowing you to change elements such as the appearance of windows and menus. Cinnamon is currently the most popular, but you can also choose the more basic MATE, Xfce or even KDE.
All these desktop environments offer a good deal of customisation options, so feel free to download a few and boot as Live CD prior to installing to see which works best.
You can get started with Mint here
If you’re willing to try a slightly less user-friendly distro, Arch Linux is one of the most popular choices around. Arch allows you to customise your build using the terminal to download and install packages, and it’s particularly handy for developers and those with older machines who may not want unnecessary packages taking up space.
Of course, this used to be the way all Linux distros were set up, but there are now much more user-friendly methods available. There’s even such a version of Arch Linux – it’s called Antergos. This comes with more drivers, more applications and a bunch of desktop environments to let you change the look of the system. Its aim is to hold your hand and get you up and running with all the basics right from the initial install, but it’s still Arch Linux underneath.
The hardcore crowd may turn their noses up at packages like Antergos, but when it saves those newer to Linux hours of potentially frustrating fiddling about, we’re all for it.
Antergos’ graphical installer can guide you through the setup process and boot you to the Gnome 3 desktop environment. It can also use the Cinammon, MATE, KDE and Xfce environments if you prefer. Antergos doesn't come with an office suite but you can install this and other programs via the delightfully named Arch package manager ‘pacman’.
Ubuntu is one of the most popular flavours of Linux and along with Mint is strongly recommended for Linux newbies, as it's extremely accessible.
At the time of writing we’re up to Ubuntu 17.04, just note that this is not an LTS (long term support) release. These guarantee five years of security and general maintenance updates, so you can carry on using your machine without the hassle of running a full upgrade every few months.
The current version of Ubuntu uses the Unity interface, which may be less familiar to Windows and macOS users. There are variations of Ubuntu which employ different environments such as Lubuntu, which uses the minimal LXDE desktop environment and a selection of fast, lightweight applications. This places far less strain on system resources than the graphic-intensive Unity.
Tails is a privacy-oriented Linux distro which has the aim of concealing your location and identity as much as possible. Even Edward Snowden used it.
The OS routes all its internet traffic through the anonymising Tor network, which is designed to prevent data from being intercepted and analysed. Underneath all the security measures, it’s based on Debian Linux and uses the Gnome desktop so the interface is still clear and user-friendly.
Tails isn’t for everyone, but this niche OS does give you some peace of mind if you’ve been fretting about all the worrying privacy-trampling legislation being passed these days.
You can get started with Tails here
CentOS 7 is a community offshoot of the Enterprise version of Red Hat Linux, and its focus is on stability rather than constant updates. Like Red Hat, security and maintenance updates for CentOS are pushed out up to 10 years from the initial release of each version.
The idea is to make CentOS super-reliable. For that reason, it’s a great choice for a server, if not quite so hot for someone looking for a new OS for daily use on their desktop PC or laptop.
On the plus side, you can enjoy the pleasure of having something for nothing – packages compiled for the commercial version of Red Hat Linux are fully compatible with CentOS, so you can use them free of charge.
You can get started with CentOS here
If you want a home music recording studio or a video production workstation without spending the thousands of pounds involved with industry standard software, consider installing Ubuntu Studio.
This officially recognised flavour of Ubuntu Linux has been designed for audio and video production, as an alternative to paid software such as Pro Tools. Support for audio plug-ins and MIDI input is built in and a virtual patch bay comes preinstalled.
Ubuntu Studio’s repositories have access to the packages in the main Ubuntu OS as well as a few digital audio sequencers. Its main strength is in audio recording through tools like the JACK Audio Connection Kit.
You can get started with Ubuntu Studio here
Previously known as SUSE Linux and subsequently SuSE Linux Professional, openSUSE is aimed at developers and system administrators. For that reason, it’s extremely stringent on security protocols.
It’s so exact, for instance, that to carry out virtually any task in openSUSE, you’ll need to enter a root password. At the same time, however, openSUSE brings with it a KDE and a GNOME desktop, covering everyone’s login needs.
One of the more polished Linux distros around, openSUSE is consistently ranked in the top five distros on DistroWatch.com. What’s more the openSUSE Project’s website offers the ability for users to choose which packages, a la carte, are included in their openSUSE install.