Linux is built for tinkering and experimentation, which means it’s always morphing and changing. New distros are popping up all the time, because all it takes is a little bit of determination, time and effort to create a custom operating system.
Not all of them hit the mark – there are stacks of Linux distros that have seen little to no action, and we’re almost certain that some have been released and never installed by anyone other than their creator.
Other alternative distros, though, fare rather better. Look at the success of Linux Mint, which spun off from Ubuntu to become (at times) arguably more popular than its own parent. Indeed, Ubuntu itself grew from Debian, and its niche offshoots (distros like Ubuntu Studio) have seen good movement. If there’s a market out there for your distro, there’s traction to be had.
So let’s look at our pick of the five distros moving up swiftly through the ranks as of early 2017. Some of these might become the best Linux distros out there, some might turn out to be awful – but it won’t cost you a penny to try them out.
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Built on top of Arch and similarly catering to bleeding-edge users with package updates the moment they’re deemed stable, Antergos is a rising star thanks to its default configuration options – which its developers describe as ‘sane’, perhaps throwing shade at a few of the more esoteric distros out there.
It does indeed provide a fully configured, ready-to-go Arch system, and the process is made even easier thanks to the custom installer, Cnchi, which allows you to select your desired Linux desktop as you go. It also downloads and installs essentials for media playing and the like – very handy.
The project has come a long way since its early days, when it was a single-desktop distro known as Cinnarch, named for its amalgamation of the Arch environment and the easy-to-use Cinnamon desktop. With its stringent multi-language support (it’s popular in Spain, so covers the likes of Galician and Catalan as well as other European languages), Antergos is sure to enjoy success going forward.
Mashing together elements of Ubuntu, macOS and Windows 10, deepin (the lower-case ‘d’ is apparently important, since it officially changed from an upper case letter at some point during 2015) is a Chinese-developed Linux OS concentrating on simplicity, elegance and ease of use.
It certainly sports one of the sharper desktops around, a home-grown affair powered by Qt with Mutter looking after window management, and its installer is absolute child’s play to get through.
Deepin – we’ll have to capitalise it at the start of a sentence, we’re afraid, devs – does have a bit of an identity crisis on its hands, though. It’s been through at least four name changes in its lifetime, and we’re not entirely sure why. And depending on where exactly you look, you may even find this release labelled as ‘DepthOS’, muddying the waters even further.
Hopefully, if the company can make up its mind, settle on a brand and keep working at its sharp feature set and clean appearance, deepin might gain even more love in the future.
3. MX Linux
A collaboration between the communities behind the AntiX and Mepis projects has resulted in a Debian-based distro which shares its ancestor’s primary properties. This means it’s a middleweight distro which offers up easy configuration, reasonable resource consumption and a gorgeous, easily configured desktop.
Inherited from AntiX is its happiness to run entirely from a USB stick, making MX Linux a good choice if you’re just trialling Linux, or if you want a removable, pocket-able desktop that doesn’t care about the hardware it’s run on.
You’ll also find probably the most distinguished implementation of Xcfe we’ve seen, with more flexibility and good looks than you’d expect from a desktop environment usually slanted towards the lightweight end of the market.
Oddly, despite Mepis development seemingly stalling in 2014, MX Linux hasn’t meant the end of super-low-end distro AntiX, which is still seeing regular releases. That’s a good secondary option if you’re really short of RAM or CPU power, but keep an eye on MX Linux if you’re slightly better off.
Privacy distros are not a new idea, and there are plenty of established examples floating around the web. So why try a relatively new one? A distro in its infancy doesn’t necessarily inspire trust. But hear us out – there’s a reason Subgraph is rising with such speed.
First of all, it’s equipped with a kernel hardened by Grsecurity, which is regarded as one of the best strengthened Linux cores around, and which guards specifically against memory corruption, one of the key methods of malware incursion.
Applications like the browser or email are automatically sandboxed for an extra layer of protection. The Tor network is used to obfuscate internet traffic, with a different network route used for each whitelisted application. It is simply not possible to run Subgraph without an encrypted filesystem.
So it’s pretty tough stuff, but Subgraph’s key feature is that it appears to the end-user to be pretty much a simple, standard Gnome 3.22 environment. Not to everyone’s tastes, perhaps, but easy enough for a new user to get to grips with – if you have a family member or user who’s constantly getting in security scrapes, Subgraph could be the ideal solution.
We can hear you shouting from here. “But TechRadar,” you bellow, “Debian is massive! How can you call it ‘rising’?” Here’s how: it is definitely a rising distro. While Ubuntu did a great job bringing Linux to the masses, many users brought on board by its orange-and-brown glitz and glamour have moved away thanks to a few controversial changes. The natural post-Ubuntu route, given the huge amount of shared DNA, is its parent OS, Debian.
There may not be a better time to make the leap than now, with the latest of Debian’s ‘when it’s ready’ releases about to drop. Version 9, subtitled ‘Stretch’, is frozen and ready for release once its list of bugs is ironed out. Given Debian’s huge range of application options, its massive list of possible desktops, and the stability and almost universal compatibility of its package manager, plain old Debian is one of the strongest Linux choices going.