10 best Linux distros: which one is right for you?

Our favourites for productivity, ease, security, hacking and speed

Elementary OS

Despite being a derivative of Ubuntu, Elementary has little in common with its source. Apart from using Ubuntu's backend, almost every other component of the distro is home-grown. Elementary OS features a custom application launcher, file manager, desktop environment, icons, themes and more.

The distro also places a great emphasis on design and as a result offers a curious choice of default software packages. It draws inspiration from Apple products and features several custom apps. Its Apple fixation is evident from tools like Snap, a webcam application similar to Apple's Photo Booth. Other custom tools include Geary Mail, Scratch text editor, Audience video player, Gala window manager, and there are many more. Some of these tools, like Audience and Snap, will debut with the next release, Freya.

Elementary OS
Elementary is a slick performer, and a looker too

The distro is lightweight and blazingly fast. It doesn't offer many apps out of the box and doesn't include codecs for proprietary media formats. This means that you can't play MP3 files, videos, or even YouTube videos out of the box, but you can leverage its Ubuntu lineage and access thousands of additional packages and multimedia codecs using the software centre.

Elementary OS doesn't ship any non-GTK+ apps which is why it doesn't feature mainstream apps like LibreOffice, Firefox, etc.

While the distro is free to download, users can make donations to the project.

Verdict: A perfect distro for users disillusioned with their proprietary OS and looking for an eye-pleasing alternative.

Rating: 9/10

Sparky Linux

Based on the Testing branch of Debian, Sparky Linux releases regular installable images despite being a rolling release distro. Designed to work with older hardware, it's also at home with newer machines.

The distro also borrows Debian's installer and is available in several editions, each favouring a separate lightweight desktop environment. Apart from the installer, the different flavours also share several custom Sparky apps.

The SparkyAPTus app provides a basic front-end to the command line apt-get and dpkg tools and serves as a capable software management tool. The new SparkyAPTus Extra utility can be used to install popular apps such as Dropbox, Skype, Steam, Tor Browser and more with a single click.

Sparky Linux
Sparky is based on the Testing branch of Debian

The distro also includes custom apps to back up and restore app settings. The settings are saved in a compressed archive and you can then point the complementary restore app to this archive to restore the settings. There's also an app to securely and permanently delete files, a wine wrapper to install Windows .exe files, and more…

All the variants ship with popular apps such as LibreOffice, PlayonLinux, GIMP, Hotot Twitter client, gFTP, Pidgin, Gnome MPlayer, VLC Player, recordMyDesktop screencaster, and so forth.

Sparky Linux is best suited for reasonably experienced users and isn't recommended for beginners.

Verdict: Loaded with apps, Sparky Linux offers the perfect blend of speed and functionality in its Mate-powered variant.

Rating: 8/10

Gentoo

It wouldn't be wrong to claim that the current crop of Linux distros expend far too much effort to appear more pleasing to new users. From installation to package management, everything is aimed at being more user friendly. What's more, most of these distros aim to take much of the control away from users.

With Gentoo, users can exert their influence in building the system from the ground up. It's one of the most configurable distros, and expects you to compile the kernel after tweaking it according to your needs during the installation.

Gentoo
Gentoo is not for the faint of heart

The distro packs an awesome package management system in Portage which you must use to fetch every package you wish to install. The Gentoo DVD, although not an installation medium, can be used to come to terms with the Portage system.

You will encounter a steep learning curve as you're introduced to critical Linux internals and several new technologies native to Gentoo, such as the USE flags system. Thankfully, the Gentoo Handbook is a detailed guide that is a must read before you begin your Gentoo journey.

Unlike most other distros, a Gentoo installation can take several hours and even days, depending on your needs and system resources. The rolling release nature of the distro means that updates are provided from time to time.

Verdict: Highly customisable distro which gives complete control to the users. Recommended only for experienced and patient users eager to learn Linux internals.

Rating: 9/10

Conclusion

With hundreds of possible distros to choose from, it's never easy to select a few and make recommendations. We've tried to pick distros that will suit the different skillsets of users.

For those looking to move away from proprietary offerings, Elementary OS, with its focus on beauty and functionality, may seem like the obvious choice.

Linux Mint, Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, and Mageia are flexible enough to appeal to new and experienced users alike. While it can be used as a desktop, Debian is still best suited for running servers.

Fedora used to be a wonderful desktop distro, but being the test bed for Red Hat Enterprise Linux makes it unsuitable for most new users. Thankfully, Korora has stepped up to replace Fedora as the perfect RPM-based desktop distro.

Gentoo is the only oddity in our list, and certainly not for the novice. Most experienced users also shy away from it because of the complexities involved in setting it up. Still, along with Arch, it's one of the most beloved distros for advanced users because of the extensive control it offers, allowing the user to mould the distro to their liking.