Feel the power of the penguin
Think MacBooks are a rip-off and Windows 10 is flat-out rubbish? Maybe it’s time to consider the best Linux distro for you. If you’ve never touched Linux before, and cower at the sound of the word “distro”, there’s no reason for hesitation.
A Linux distro, or distribution, is computer jargon for the way the operating system is being packaged. Each distro varies based on default interface, otherwise known as the desktop environment, preinstalled apps and repositories, the library of apps–yes, including VPNs–that’s officially supported.
If you prefer the classic Linux experience of using terminal commands to install apps, the sort of thing that’ll have Instagram-addicted millennials scared silly, that, too is still an option. But, there also exist hyper-accessible distros that make Linux feel more like macOS Sierra, geeky software knowledge be damned.
Here we’ve gathered seven of the finest Linux distros that cover all of your common needs, from those looking to make sure no-one knows what they’re searching for online to others that look and feel quite a lot like Windows 10 or macOS. The best bit? They’re all free.
Shashank Sharma, Nick Peers and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this article
Elementary OS Loki
If you’re after a distro that gets you as far away from the image of a nerdy hacker type bashing away at a terminal interface as possible, Elementary OS is what you need. It’s probably the most attractive distro around, with a style similar to that of Mac OS X. Elementary OS’s desktop environment is known as Pantheon, providing the tasty Apple sauce.
The latest version is called Loki, and as well as being that bit prettier and neater than Freya, the “2015” edition, it has its own application installer UI called App Center. It’s a delightfully simple way to install apps outside the terminal, which is handy as not much comes installed as standard.
The look is the main draw here, but Elementary OS also features the Epiphany browser, the Geary email client and a few basic ‘tool’ apps. This is a distro you’ll have to fill out a bit, but it isn’t half elegant.
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 OS X or Windows. We’re talking about packages like LibreOffice, the office suite that many, or most, Linux fans use.
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. Cinnamon is the most popular at the moment, but our purely personal pick of the bunch at the moment is KDE. Pour scorn in the comments if you must. For those new to Linux, these
The other desktop environments you can download as part of the installer include MATE and Xfce. All offer a good deal of customisation so the best policy is to have a try of a few and see which fits best. For those newer to Linux, these desktop environment change the look and layout of the basic Linux interface and its Start menu. You don’t get that with Windows.
You can get started with Mint here
If you’re willing to try a slightly less friendly distro, Arch Linux is one of the most popular choices around. It’s a fairly light package, leaving you to customise your build using the terminal and typed-out installer commands.
This used to be standard procedure for Linux, but you can now side-step this lvl 1 techie part if you like, with a more hand-holding distro.
There’s even such a version of Arch Linux, 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 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. Another accessible take on Arch worth checking out is Manjaro. It’s similar to Antergos but uses its own software repositories.
An elder statesman of the Linux distort world, Ubuntu is one of the lead flavours of Linux, and a good starting point for Linux novices. As with most obscenely popular pieces of software, it’s not just made for the Linux obsessives.
At the time of writing we’re up to Ubuntu 16.04.01, an LTS (long term support) release that guarantees five years of security and general maintenance updates so you can be sure you’re not left with a rotting corpse at the centre of your system.
As standard it uses the Unity interface, which is perhaps one of the less familiar looks for Linux if you’re used to Windows or OS X. However, there are loads of easy-to-understand alternative packages available right from the Ubuntu website.
These include versions with the LXDE, MATE, XFCE and GNOME desktop environment skins as well as Ubuntu Studio for creative types and Mythbuntu, designed for home theatre PCs. Sadly Mythbuntu’s creators announced in November 2016 that it will no longer be able to support the distro. Don’t get angry: devs are normal people too, remember.
You can get started with Ubuntu here
Most of our favourite Linux distros are suitable for use as alternatives to Windows or OS X. Tails is quite different, though.
It’s a distro whose aim is solely to keep the identity of the user completely opaque. Even Edward Snowden used it.
It routes its traffic through Tor, designed to avoid your outward-bound data from being intercepted and analysed. Underneath all the security measures, it’s based on Debian so doesn’t feel like you’re using a system made of tin foil and paranoia too.
Tails isn’t for everyone, but does give you some peace of mind if all the worrying privacy bills being passed at the moment weigh heavily on your mind.
You can get started with Tails here
Here’s another Linux distro that is a little different from most. CentOS 7 a community offshoot of the Enterprise version of Red Hat Linux, and its focus is on stability rather than constant updates. The support of releases is massive too, spanning 10 years from initial release.
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 the desktop or laptop they’ll use day-to-day. This is a ‘slow and steady’ take on Linux.
Want something to run on a home or small business server? CentOS is great. But most of you will want to consider one of the other picks in this feature.
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, download KX Studio.
This is a distro designed for audio and video production, a sort-of freebie alternative to Pro Tools. Support for audio plug-ins and MIDI input is inbuilt and a virtual patch bay comes pre-installed.
Its repositories also include a few digital audio sequencers, and its main strength is in audio recording. It’s more intimidating than the similarly creative-driven Ubuntu Studio because of the sheer technical nature of its components, but if you’re willing to put some work into getting your head around it, this is a very useful distro.
You can get started with KX Studio here