There are two key reasons for Mint's stellar rise in the popular distro charts. One is that it's based on Ubuntu, and the other is that despite being based on Ubuntu, its default desktop is much more traditional than Ubuntu's controversial Unity interface.
Linux Mint offers users a choice of two Gnome-based environments, which are dubbed Mate and Cinnamon. Mate is designed to be a faithful continuation of the outdated Gnome 2 desktop. Cinnamon on the other hand appears more modern with a neat menu that provides quick access to all the system's settings and applications in one place.
Like Ubuntu, this distro is also preloaded with a full complement of daily use applications for work and pleasure. But in a marked departure from several mainstream distros like Ubuntu and Fedora, Mint ships with audio and video codecs catering to your multimedia needs out of the box.
The latest release, Mint 17, is a long-term release that will be supported until 2019. As with the current release, the distro's next few releases will also be based on Ubuntu 14.04, itself an LTS release. This means that this OS will not introduce any stellar new features until Mint 18, scheduled for release in 2016. As a result, users running Mint 17 can choose not to upgrade to the upcoming Mint 17.x releases.
Verdict: A simple to install and polished desktop that works out of the box. It's ideal if you're looking for a stable system that won't introduce any major changes any time soon.
While this distro is still considered to be the best offering for rolling out servers, Debian has also made inroads into the desktop. It now ships with all the popular desktop environments such as Gnome, KDE, Mate, XFCE, etc. The recent releases have also introduced a simpler installer.
Debian is flexible and can be configured as a desktop, or as a web/mail/file server. One of the biggest contributions Debian made to the free software world was the dpkg manager, which is the underlying system on several popular distros like Ubuntu and Mint.
It ships with no proprietary drivers or codecs, but being one of the oldest and most popular Linux distros has its advantages. Almost every software vendor provides pre-packaged binaries for Debian, so installing stuff is a breeze.
The project subscribes to the "release when ready" philosophy but aims to release a new distro every two years. Debian produces three distros: Stable, Testing and Unstable. The latter two are aimed at experienced users and developers.
Unlike most other distros, Debian ships with older, but thoroughly tested stable packages. This means that the distro doesn't feature cutting-edge software or technologies. Experienced users hoping to work with the latest offerings can switch to Debian Testing or Unstable.
All new packages are first introduced in Unstable and moved into Testing eventually. At this stage, the packages are still not ready for mainstream use but have undergone some testing and received bug fixes.
Verdict: Debian delivers a perfectly stable system suitable for servers. However, with its focus on older software, it is not the best distro for beginners.
This distro was initially based on Gentoo but now uses Fedora as its base. It ships separate editions for Gnome, Cinnamon, Mate, KDE and XFCE, and offers each for 32-bit and 64-bit architectures.
As the project is based on Fedora, a new Korora release is shipped roughly two to four weeks after the latest Fedora release. The distro ships a live DVD which includes a wide array of applications, making it suitable for a large number of users. This package selection is driven by the distro's need to be usable straight out of the box.
Apart from the included software, you can always install even more packages from the software repositories. Several third-party repositories, such as RPMFusion, Google Chrome and VirtualBox are configured by default. The newer releases of the distro also include the Steam client.
The default browser, Firefox, ships with several useful extensions such as Adblock Plus, DownThemAll, Flashbock, and so forth.
For software management, Korora offers the choice of Apper and YUM-extender, two of the most popular graphical package management tools for YUM-based systems.
The distro comes with several custom tools. The Pharlap Package Manager is a utility designed to help users easily install third-party drivers, pertaining to wireless devices and Nvidia graphics cards, for example. The useful undistract-me utility pops a notification when a terminal command has completed.
Verdict: The most desktop-friendly Fedora distro is ideal for beginners and gurus alike.
Mageia is the result of the community-driven fork of the Mandriva Linux distribution. Back in 1998, Mandrake Linux, based on Red Hat Linux 5.1, was the first distro designed for the everyday user. The distro underwent several name changes and acquisitions. After persisting with many incarnations, the community members decided to fork Mandriva.
The first Mageia release was in 2011 and the project has produced four major releases since then. The latest, Mageia 4, was unleashed early this year.
Mageia is an RPM-based distro backed by a solid community infrastructure. Along with an installable Live image, the project also ships an install-only DVD. The distro offer both KDE and Gnome desktops. Software packages are split into three repositories named Core, Nonfree and Tainted. Between the three, the distro provides just about all the packages you may need. Proprietary packages are relegated to the Nonfree repository while Tainted is home to all packages that may infringe on copyright and patent laws in some countries.
Its installer is easy to navigate and several screens have the Advanced button which brings up more options for experienced users. The distro uses the Urpmi tool, native to Mageia/Mandriva and derivatives, for software management.
The most distinctive feature of the distro is the Mageia Control Centre, from where you can tweak almost all aspects of the system.
Verdict: This community-driven distro builds on a solid foundation and is an able distro for everyday use.