Choice and flexibility are the hallmarks of the Linux ecosystem. In Windows and OS X, if you don't like some aspects of the operating system, there's not much you can do about it.
Not so in the Linux world, where thanks to the numerous distributions you are in fact spoilt for choice. Each distro has the Linux kernel at its core, but builds on top of that with their own selection of other components, depending on the target audience for the distro.
Different distros offer different customisation options, so you can fiddle around with the distro and customise it as per your taste and preferences until you get the kind of thing you're looking for. So no matter what sort of user you are, there's a distro for you.
In this feature we're focusing primarily on the desktop. Some desktop distros aim to keep things as simple as possible, while others give you more control. They have different installation routines, different desktop environments, different package management schemes and different administration tools.
We'll look at regular distros that you can use for every day computing tasks, as well as those designed to appeal to users coming from other operating systems, such as Windows and Mac OS X. We'll also look at distros that can turn an old clunker into a streamlined computing machine and ones that give advanced users complete control over their working environment.
Over the next few pages, we take more than four dozen of the best distros for a spin, test their unique features and weigh up their strengths and weakness to help find a perfect distro for you!
Every day distros
Distros designed to replace your existing operating system
It isn't the first distro designed for inexperienced Linux desktop users, but it's inarguably the most well-known. The distro has several innovative features, including the Unity desktop - which everyone loves to hate.
Then there's the cross-platform and cross-device Ubuntu One cloud-sharing and file sync service, which offers 5GB of free storage space. For adding software, there's the Ubuntu Software Center.
The distro has one of the easiest installation mechanisms. It doesn't include proprietary codecs by default, but you can include them during installation, simply by clicking a checkbox. The distro is released twice a year with regular Long Term Support (LTS) releases that are supported for five years.
Verdict: As Unity becomes more usable, Ubuntu will continue to take the fight to proprietary desktops.
Another old timer, and one of the leading users of (and contributors to) the KDE desktop - although officially they don't prefer one over the other. Indeed, the distro looks consistent across the two desktops and is visually pleasing.
Its all-in-one management tool Yast (Yet Another Setup Tool) can handle software installation as well as system configuration and administration. While it's convenient to have all these settings in one place, it's a bit overwhelming and intimidating, especially for new Linux users.
Also, the distro's installer isn't as straightforward as Ubuntu's. And, in a break from tradition, the distro pushes out new releases every eight months.
Verdict: Although designed for desktop users, it isn't as friendly as Ubuntu or Mint, but makes for an attractive enterprise desktop.
Traditionally pitched as an alternative to Ubuntu, recent releases of the Red Hat-supported community distro have been prioritising server-based features over desktop enhancements. This is why the distro makes more sense as an advanced user's playground. After all, it's a test bed for features that'll find their way into Red Hat's Enterprise offerings.
Also, the distro's ease of use has diminished since the introduction of the (slowly improving) Gnome 3 desktop. New users would be jolted by the barren desktop, that requires them to learn new skills to navigate successfully.
The lack of a functional package manager, multimedia codecs, and a redesigned unintuitive installer don't help either.
Verdict: A very capable distro for an experienced Linux user who's going through a mid-life crisis.
The distro takes bleeding-edge software from Slackware's Current branch and offers them in a desktop friendly package by borrowing a few of the more choice tools from the Salix OS distro.
The KDE-based Slackel images are offered in live-installable and install-only mediums. Some of the tools that it uses from Salix OS are the codec installer, the Gslapt package manager, as well as the live CD installer.
Verdict: A rolling release that delivers the latest from Slackware, while using tools from Salix OS.
The distro is available in two flavours, each based around either the Gnome or lightweight Openbox desktop. PureOS is based on Debian's Testing branch and supports multilingual locales. PureOS is only available as images for making Live USB disks.
The goal of the distro is to serve as a functional distro that you can then personalise by adding modules via the included scripts. This distro also includes the smxi script for tweaking the system and installing proprietary drivers.
Verdict: A sleek ready-to-use distro best suited for tinkerers.
Mandrake Linux was the first Linux distro designed for the every day user. It's been through many incarnations, and its last avatar forced long-time community members to fork the distro.
The RPM-based distro is now called Mageia, and is backed by solid community infrastructure. It offers both KDE and Gnome desktops, and between the project's three repos you'll get all the software you need. Its installer is easy to navigate and several screens have the Advanced button, which brings up more options for experienced users.
The most distinct feature of the distro is the Mageia Control Center, from where you can tweak almost all aspects of the system.
Verdict: The community fork builds on the solid foundation, and is an able distro for every day use.
This distro started as a repository to improve a stock Mandriva release, and later forked into a distro of its own. PCLinuxOS is officially a KDE distro, but also has community spins around the LXDE, and Xfce desktops.
The distro can play all sorts of multimedia. It uses apt-rpm and the Synaptic Package Manager to install RPM packages. Its configuration tool and installer clearly give away its Mandriva lineage. The distro includes an illustrated installation guide, and also produces a monthly magazine for its users.
Verdict: Think of it as being something like Mageia with multimedia codecs.
The Sabayon project aims to give regular desktop users a taste of the Gentoo distro. It's a feature rich and complete desktop distro built on a stable and mature foundation.
The distro has everything a regular desktop user needs, including all sorts of codecs and plugins. Besides the usual slew of apps, it also has the XBMC media player and Wine for running Windows apps.
For managing packages, there's the custom Rigo app browser. It's a graphical front-end to Sabayon's Entropy package management system and mimic's the appearance of the Google search engine. The app is simple to use and very verbose. Instead of displaying cryptic messages, it converses with users in plain English.
The distro has different spins around all the major desktops, including Gnome, KDE, Xfce and Mate. Also, the distro doesn't ship a stock Gnome release. It's made some tweaks - for example, to show minimise buttons - to maintain consistency between the editions. You'll find other desktops, such as Cinnamon and Razor-Qt, in its official repos.
Additionally, there are also several special flavours that serve specific purposes, such as the minimal CoreCDX, and the HardenedServer based on a Gentoo Hardened kernel, for instance.
Although Sabayon is a rolling distribution, the developers have tweaked it to make the experience easily digestible for new users. Installation is handled by the re-branded Anaconda installer created by the Fedora distro. Also, the 64-bit images of newer versions are bootable on SecureBoot-enabled systems.
On the distro's website, you'll find lots of documentation relevant to a first-time user, including a step-by-step installation guide, and a detailed FAQ.
Verdict: The distro delivers all the power and slickness of Gentoo in a well-rounded and pleasingly user-friendly desktop package.
Since it's 2006 debut, Linux Mint has slowly been crawling up everyone's list of favourite desktop distros. One of the major reasons for the distro's success 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 it has dubbed Mate and Cinnamon. Mate is designed to be a faithful continuation of the out-dated Gnome 2 desktop. Cinnamon is a more modern affair, with a neat menu that gives access to all the system's settings and applications in one place.
The distro is also pre-loaded with a full complement of audio and video codecs, and has an impressive Software Manager.
Verdict: A simple to install and polished desktop that works out of the box. Ideal if the divisive Unity rubs you the wrong way.
The distro is developed by the Moscow-based Rosa Labs that had worked on Mandriva's last release. Rosa then forked Mandriva into a distro of its own.
Their main focus is the KDE desktop, but the distro also puts out Gnome-based spins a few months after the KDE release. What sets Rosa apart from other Mandriva-based distros are the custom tools that make their KDE desktop unlike any other. They have a custom launcher and their own kickoff menu, which looks similar to Unity's Dash and Gnome 3's Activities menu.
In addition to the redesigned desktop, the distro also has a bunch of functionality improvements. The TimeFrame tool uses KDE's Nepomuk to visualise all your files, video, and music in a unique and appealing manner. The newer versions of the tool also support social networks, such as Facebook.
Verdict: Try it for the customised KDE desktop.
It's arguably the best-looking KDE desktop distro, and it will work for most users straight out of the box. The distro was originally based on Arch Linux. It's a half-rolling release that, by its own admission, is meant for users who don't shy away from the CLI.
At the moment, its package manager is still under development, but it has an impressive fallback in the form of a bundles manager. The bundles are self-contained packages of popular apps that can be installed with a single click.
Installation is handled by its custom installer, that uses the KDE Partition Manager for partitioning the disk. It also has an impressive first-boot personaliser app.
Verdict: A very pleasing KDE desktop that helps you customise your working environment.
Long-time Linux users fondly remember Knoppix as the first Linux live CD. The distro includes all kinds of open source software from Debian stable, testing and unstable repos. The distro is available in two versions - the Live CD image provides over 2GB of software and the DVD image manages to squeeze in well over 8GB of software.
In fact, it's the only live distro that contains three desktop environments - LXDE (default) as well as Gnome and KDE. On top of that there's also an officially supported variation intended for visually impaired users, that can also be used by computer newbies.
Verdict: No one does a better job of showing off the best of open source software.
The developers of Salix OS think of the distro as a bonsai: small, light and a product of infinite care - and we can't help but agree.
The distro's artwork is pleasing to the eye, with custom wallpaper, icons, and theme. The Slackware-based distro is available in six different editions, based around the KDE, Xfce, Mate, LXDE, Fluxbox and Ratpoison desktops.
Salix is very fast and easy to use. It includes a 78-page guide, and there's lots of additional task-based documentation on the distro's website. Although it doesn't include any codecs, it does have a one-click codec installer.
In fact, the distro is chock-full of custom tools developed in-house. Some of the interesting ones, besides the codec installer, are a graphical utility to clone a live system, a wizard to create a persistent storage, and a graphical tool for doing simple system administration tasks like adding users. There's also a graphical Salix installer, that's a refreshing change from the run-of-the-mill installers.
For managing packages, the distro uses the graphical Gslapt package manager, which is a front-end to slap-get. Since the distro is fully compatible with Slackware, it also has a graphical tool for building packages from the SlackBuilds repository.
Verdict: For users who need the stability of Slackware with the convenience of a package manager.
Subscribes to a security concept known as security through isolation, which makes it more secure than an average desktop distro. Each app in Qubes runs inside its own security domain.
A new installation automatically creates some domains such as Work, Personal and Untrusted and divides apps between them. So you'll find LibreOffice in the Work domain, Firefox in the Untrusted domain, and so on.
For the most part, Qubes OS works just like any other desktop distro. Instead of app categories, its KDE menu lists different domains.
Verdict: It's unique, secure and has a shallow learning curve.
This Fedora-based distro uses a slightly tweaked KDE desktop so as to make more easy sense to a traditional Windows user. In addition to the usual desktop apps, the distro also includes a considerable range of plugins and codecs.
On the desktop you'll find a button to install the proprietary Dropbox client. For managing other open source software Open Xange uses Apper, a PackageKit front-end for KDE.
Since it's based on Fedora, it uses the Anaconda installer. The distro doesn't support 32-bit architectures.
Verdict: A Fedora-based desktop that doesn't do enough to outscore Korora.
The distro aims to bring Ubuntu goodness to low-powered machines by using lightweight apps such as the LXDE desktop. It ships with the Chromium browser that includes the Flash plugin, and the distro also has the VLC media player to handle a wealth of media files.
WattOS's bootup and shutdown times are considerably faster than a typical Ubuntu installation. It uses the Synaptic package manager, and is pre-configured with its own PPA, but can also install packages from Ubuntu's repositories.
Verdict: The lightest LXDE-based distro around.
This rolling release distro is based on Arch, and is designed for desktop users. It's got the plugins, codecs and apps to handle all sorts of files. The distro also maintains its own software repos of thoroughly tested stable, as well as bleeding-edge unstable, software.
Software installation is handled by its custom Pamac tool which is a graphical front-end to Arch's pacman package manager. You can also install software in Manjaro from Arch's community supported user repository using pacman.
Manjaro officially supports the Xfce, Cinnamon, and Openbox desktops. The distro has two text-based installers with the newer one including support for Secure Boot and RAID devices.
Verdict: Manjaro is to Arch what Salix is to Slackware.
Initially based on Gentoo, it now uses Fedora as its base OS. It ships separate Gnome and KDE editions. The developers have taken time to clean the KDE menus and bundle the Gnome extensions tool in the Gnome-based spin.
The distro has full multimedia support, and enables third-party repos such as RPMFusion, Google Chrome, and VirtualBox. The newer releases of the distro ship with the Steam client.
Korora also has a few custom tools such as the useful undistract-me utility that pops a notification when a terminal command has completed.
Verdict: The most desktop friendly Fedora distro.
Based on KDE and Debian's latest stable release, it uses the Synaptic package manager and ships with multimedia codecs and plugins. Besides the regular slew of stable (albeit old) software, Kanotix also bundles Wine for running Windows apps.
At the time of writing this feature, the developer had just released a special edition for the CeBIT expo. This edition differs from the regular release by updating certain apps to newer versions and bundling some new apps. So there's the newer 3.8.2 kernel, newer drivers for Nvidia, ATI, and Intel graphics cards, GRUB bootloader with support for Secure Boot, and more.
The pre-installed Steam client also works even if you install the distro on a USB disk, so you can carry your games with you. The distro uses the acritox installer which hands off partitioning to one of the three partitioning tools (Gparted, fdisk or cfdisk).
Verdict: A stable KDE and Debian-based distro intended for daily use that offers conveniences like multimedia codecs and drivers.
It's a major surprise that this distro lies so low in DistroWatch's popularity table. If you haven't heard of it, think of Netrunner as Ubuntu without Unity.
Netrunner is based on Kubuntu, but that doesn't mean it's just another Ubuntu-based distro that has slapped KDE instead of Unity. The distro offers its own cloud service called Runners-ID (built on top of the open source ownCloud server). The service is integrated into the distro and offers 5GB of free space, which you can use to store data, pictures, contacts, calendars and stream music via its Android app. Sounds familiar?
There's more. The distro also integrates web apps, such as Cut The Rope, Google Docs, Facebook, and more, on the desktop. When you sign into your online accounts your data is accessible to local apps such as Kontact and Dolphin.
One interesting web app bundled in the distro is JacknJoe. It's a web-based application store that houses all the popular open source apps and games that you can install with a single click. The distro also bundles proprietary apps such as Skype, Wine for running Windows software, and all sorts of other handy audio and video codecs and plugins.
Help on the distro is dispensed via online forum boards on its website. Here, you'll also find some video introductions to the distro's unique apps and screencasts on common tasks. The developers behind the distro also publish an online magazine called Netrunner-Mag.
The distro is supported by Germany's Blue Systems, which has several KDE developers on its payroll.
Verdict: Ubuntu-like features on a Kubuntu-based distro.
The ZevenOS project puts out two distros, both of which try and mimic the look and feel of BeOS. The main distro, called ZevenOS is based on Xubuntu and uses Xfce. It ships with all multimedia codecs and plugins, and is meant for systems that lack the resources to power the latest Linux desktop distros.
Then there's the ZevenOS Neptune distro, which is primarily based on Debian's Testing branch, but uses a newer kernel and includes some extra drivers. It ships with the KDE 4 desktop, again modified to resemble BeOS user interface. The distro is intended for installation on removable media like USB sticks. Their website has a bunch of videos that introduce both distros.
Verdict: Ubuntu for fans of BeOS.
Slim packages that are ideal for powering old hardware
The Slackware-based mini-distro is available in many flavours. The standard edition has Xfce, but others offer Gnome and Openbox desktops too. It aims to deliver modern apps on older machines.
Although compatible with Slackware's binary packages, it uses its own Netpkg package manager, which adds dependency resolution capabilities to TGZ packages. Surprisingly, it has fully-fledged apps like Firefox and LibreOffice. Advanced users will appreciate Zenwalk's capability to easily convert a stock distro into a finely tuned LAMP or file sharing server.
Verdict: Fast distro with some modern apps and an old school appeal.
Uses a mixture of the LXDE and OpenBox window manager, and is designed to perform on hardware with only 256 MB of RAM. It also has a bunch of custom tools like the SlitazPanel. It's a useful all-in-one control panel which lets you administer all aspects of the distro.
The distro weighs less than 30MB and takes just 80MB of hard disk space. It lacks an office suite and codecs, but these can be installed from its repos. The distro includes some user documentation that you'll need to refer to it before using the system.
Verdict: Requires learning some new skills, but a good lightweight distro for experienced users.
Originally designed to churn desktop friendly versions of a stock Fedora release, Fuduntu earns its name by its ambition to fit somewhere in-between Fedora and Ubuntu. It includes features of modern distros while maintaining the look and feel of a traditional desktop. This explains why it's one of the few distros that still ship with the Gnome 2 desktop.
True to its name the distro includes Ubuntu's Jockey hardware detection tool that will also download proprietary drivers to maximise performance. Fuduntu isn't shy of proprietary software and bundles both the Steam client and the Netflix client, which it runs via Wine.
The distro features easy to use custom package management and configuration tools, while installation is handled by Fedora's older Anaconda installer, which is a good thing.
Verdict: A strange mix of the traditional and the new, which works well on underpowered machines.
The popular distro has recently woken from its four-year slumber. It is based on Slackware and offers the KDE desktop. This distro takes a modular approach to software.
To add software you need to fetch modules from the Slax Software Center, which offers only a few modules such as AbiWord, Gnumeric, and Google Chrome. Despite its size, it offers all the codecs, plugins and apps you'd need daily, sans an office suite.
The distro has no installer because it's meant for running from a removable medium like USB or CD. If it detects a writeable device, it will automatically save changes there.
Verdict: Similar in design to Porteus, but currently lacks apps.
If you wish to run the same distro on a new machine as well as an older one, then SparkyLinux is for you. The distro is designed for both old and new computers and ships with two customised desktops (Enlightenment and LXDE) in the main edition and Openbox in the Ultra edition.
It uses a custom installer that calls on a number of other tools to setup different aspects of the installation, such as Debian's debconf utility to configure the keyboard and Gparted to partition the disk. It includes both feature-rich software like VLC and lightweight ones such as AbiWord.
Verdict: Lightweight distro that'll perform well even on semiretired computers.
This Slackware-based distro out of Ireland is designed for installation on removable mediums like USB disks and CDs, but can also be installed on to a hard disk. It's unique feature is that it exists in a compressed state and creates its file system on the fly.
Besides the pre-installed apps, additional software for the distro come in the form of modules. Simply double-click to activate or deactivate a module. The distro includes a package manager for fetching modules, which you can also save on a local hard disk so that they survive reboots.
The distro is small because of its modular nature, and incredibly fast since it runs from the RAM. It also hosts lots of usage documentation on its website.
Verdict: Ideal for installation on removable media, although using it effectively involves a learning curve.
There's no beating Puppy for out-of-the-box functionality. Bundling a plethora of custom apps, there are apps to block website ads and do internet telephony, a podcast grabber, a secure downloader, an audio player and more. The distro doesn't include the flash plugin, but offers to fetch and install it when you visit a flash powered website like YouTube. You can also install the plugin from the distro's package manager.
Puppy ships with several multimedia players, including mplayer, to play all sorts of media formats. First-time users might be intimidated by Puppy's installer. It has no automatic partitioner and fires up Gparted for you to format the disk. But each step in the installer is well documented within the installer itself.
Bootup and application launches are blazingly fast, even for bulkier apps such as Mplayer and VLC, which can be installed from the Puppy Package Manager. Packages are called pets, and have a .pet extension. You can install packages for Puppy using its custom Puppy Package Manager tool, and you can configure it to download packages from other Puppy repositories.
It has two independent and very active forums, and loads of documentation on getting started. It also bundles help documentation on several topics, such as working with Microsoft Office files, how to add codecs, software and more.
There are several variants of Puppy Linux. WaryPuppy is the one best-suited to older hardware and it's a mere 130MB. It offers two X servers - Xorg and Xvesa - to cover a broad range of graphics hardware. Then there's the RacyPuppy variant meant for newer hardware and SlackoPuppy based on Slackware, plus PrecisePuppy based on the last Ubuntu LTS release.
Verdict: Easily the best distro for hardware past its prime.
An elegant looking desktop with the pleasing and lightweight Enlightenment window manager. Bodhi is probably the best integrated Enlightenment distro. It has a number of profiles, from Bare, Laptop to Compositing and Fancy, each of which are optimised for different types of hardware.
Bodhi ships with a small number of apps. You can add more apps using the innovative web-based software installation tool called AppCenter. Using this tool you can also download packages on any distro and then bring them over to Bodhi for installation.
Since it's based on Ubuntu, it uses Ubuntu's easy-to-use installer, and also offers lots of end user documentation on its website.
Verdict: A minimal simple-to-use distro that's easy on the eyes.
One way for designing distros for ageing computers is to use older software that don't gnaw at the limited resources. aLinux uses KDE 3.5 along with the older Koffice suite.
However it can play all sorts of media, bundles all games and has Wine for running Windows apps. It even includes proprietary software like Skype and Google Earth. Installation is easy thanks to its custom installer which is easy to navigate.
Verdict: An odd mix of old and new software that wouldn't work on every old machine.
This Debian-based distribution ships with the lightweight Openbox window manager. It's got Gnome Mplayer, Gimp, VLC and its web browser is equipped with flash plugin. The distro has AbiWord and Gnumeric, and scripts to install LibreOffice and Dropbox in its menus. It uses the Synaptic package manager and a modified Debian installer.
Verdict: Snappy Debian-based distro that works well on older machines, and can be easily fleshed out for relatively newer ones.
If you thought Puppy was esoteric, wait till you try DSL. This is another popular distro that's recently woken from slumber. It uses the JWM window manager, and upon booting launches a Getting Started guide to orient users.
Although the 50MB distro has most daily-use apps, some like Firefox are so old that sites like YouTube will refuse to load. You can add more apps using the distro's MyDSL system.
While it's meant to be a nomadic distro, it does have an installation wizard based on knxhdinstall that'll copy the contents on to a 300MB partition.
Verdict: Because of its steep learning curve it's only recommended for people who need to fuse life into old hardware.
The goal of this lightweight distro is to provide a fully functional user friendly desktop. It's based on Debian's Testing repo, and has a relatively newer kernel compared to other distros with a similar purpose.
The distro comes with the Fluxbox window manager and can play all sorts of media. Major desktop functions are managed by custom tools like the antiX Control Center. It also has a custom package manager and a custom installer which is fairly straightforward and well-documented. There's also a tool to create a live installable snapshot of the system.
Verdict: Good zippy distro for old machines and users who find Puppy Linux too esoteric.
Tiny Core Linux
Weighing in at just 12MB, this ships with only a terminal, a text editor and an app launcher on top of the lightweight FLWM window manager. It has a control panel to manage bootup services and configure the launcher, but everything else needs to be pulled in from its package manager, including the installer if you want to install Tiny Core on your hard disk.
The distro also has a CorePlus variant, which includes additional drivers for wireless cards, a remastering tool and internationalisation support. Finally, there's the 8MB Core edition, which is pretty much just the base system with a command-line interface to enable more experienced users to build their own system from the ground up.
Verdict: Will perform on the oldest of hardware, but setting it up requires time.
Designed to reduce the cultural shock of moving to another OS
Another Ubuntu and Xfce-based distro aimed at inexperienced Linux desktop users. The one thing that sets OS4 apart from others with a similar purpose is its unique desktop layout. The OS4 developers also claim to support devices that aren't yet supported by the Ubuntu distro itself, such as WebOS-based devices and Nook-based devices… and even the Kindle Fire.
The distro includes support for popular browser plugins, lots of apps for playing and producing multimedia, and even tools for software development. The distro's website has no forum boards and negligible documentation, but you can buy support from the online Store, which also retails desktops and laptops pre-installed with OS4.
Verdict: An out-of-the-box distro with an unique interface, but little documentation.
The distro is based on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS edition and features a nicely dressed up Xfce desktop. LinuxLite has the regular apps such as LibreOffice, Firefox, GIMP, and VLC, but being based on the LTS release, most of the apps are outdated. Desktop users will appreciate the inclusion of Flash plugin and codecs, and that the latest release also bundles the Steam client.
Verdict: Another dressed up Ubuntu-based distro that offers little else.
Developed by the same developer who worked on the Debian edition of Linux Mint, SolusOS is built on Debian Stable, but with some newer software. It features a polished and tweaked Gnome desktop with window decorations, a bottom panel and a Windows 7 style app launcher. It also includes desktop productivity apps, plus Wine, PlayOnLinux and Minitube to watch Youtube videos.
The Gnome System Settings are neatly organised in the SolusOS Control Center. After you've installed the distro you are greeted with a five-step first-run wizard that scans the hardware and installs proprietary drivers, and sets up the firewall.
Using the Synaptic Package Manager you can install apps from the SolusOS or Debian backports repos.
Verdict: Stable desktop distro that looks and performs great.
This distro doesn't take its name lightly. It uses a customised KDE desktop with custom icons and pointers. But it takes this a bit too far - the theme of using white text on a black background extends to LibreOffice and doesn't make for a pleasant writing experience.
Also the distro has lots of apps for the same purpose, which is again a mixed blessing. While it's fairly harmless to have a range of media players, it's rather disorienting to have multiple application installers such as the Ubuntu Software Center, Lubuntu Software Center and Muon Package Manager.
While the developers have spent so much time customising the different aspects of the desktop, they haven't even slightly modified the Kubuntu 12.04 installer, which even displays the Kubuntu name.
Verdict: A comprehensive distro like Knoppix that can confuse users with myriad of choices.
This Ubuntu-based distro from France comes with a custom user interface that'll appeal to Mac users. It sports the Gnome Shell customised to resemble OS X, and even has a Mac OS X-style dockbar. The distro has hot-corners to display a customised overview, and for switching virtual desktops.
Pear Linux borrows several tools such as the panel and the launcher from the Elementary OS project. It has out-of-the-box support for popular multimedia codecs, and there's also a Launch Me First icon on the desktop that does some post-installation tasks, such as updating the repository and set up the Pear Appstore, which is similar to the Ubuntu Software Center.
Verdict: Wonderfully cloaked distro to ease OS X users into Linux.
One of the nice things about this distro is its attractive artwork and desktop themes. Parsix is based on Debian Testing, and offers the latest stable Gnome release. Major versions are released every six months. The beginner-friendly distro includes codecs and plugins, as well as the VLC player to handle all sorts of multimedia.
The distro has a simple installer that gets the job done. It uses PackageKit for Gnome for managing packages. Parsix follows the Debian Security Advisories, and quickly provides security updated packages. You can also install proprietary apps from its official repos, which also provide packages from Debian's Testing repo.
Verdict: A fixed release cycle Debian-based distro that's just brimming with apps.
With its Gnome desktop tweaked to resemble the Windows 7 desktop, this will appeal to Windows users. It's available in several editions.
The Core edition is free, while others like Multimedia, Gaming, Business, and Ultimate editions cost between 7 and 18 Euros. Zorin includes a look-changer app which lets you select which proprietary OS you'd like to mimic.
It's based on Ubuntu and uses the distro's installer. The distro also comes with Wine to run Windows software.
Verdict: Ubuntu made to look like Windows 7, if that's your cup of tea.
Distros for advanced users
For Linux connoisseurs who want complete control over their components
Still considered to be the best distro for rolling out servers, Debian has also made inroads into the desktop. It's flexible and can be configured as a desktop, or as a web/mail/file server.
With its reliance on older but thoroughly tested stable packages, it's extremely secure and can run on many different architectures. 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 prepackaged binaries for Debian, so installing stuff is a breeze.
Verdict: Delivers a perfectly stable system suitable for servers.
This RHEL derivative is a favourite for admins who prefer the RPM package management system, and provides all you'd expect in an enterprise class distro. While ideal for setting up servers because it bundles Apache, MySQL, PHP, Perl and various server centric software, there's little in this distro for everyday or hobbyist and advanced Linux users.
In comparison, its biggest competitor, Debian, is a general purpose distro that's equally at ease on the home desktop or serving web pages.
Verdict: Nearly superseded by alternatives like Scientific Linux.
Offering packages that are nearly identical to their upstream releases, Slackware strives to provide the most Unix-like Linux distro possible. The distro allows the user great control during installation, letting you decide what packages and libraries to install.
One of the oldest Linux distros, Slackware is extremely stable and most suited for servers. It doesn't have any graphical system administration tools and package management is done via the command-line, although there are ncurses based tools with limited functionality for some tasks.
Skill with the command-line can make working with it an absolute joy.
Verdict: Stable, secure and classic. Perfect for servers and skilled users.
With Gentoo, users get a pervasive control in building the system from the grounds up. Along with Arch, Gentoo is one of the most configurable distros, and expects you to compile the kernel after tweaking it according to your needs during the installation.
The distro packs an awesome package management system in Portage. Unlike most other distros, Gentoo installs can take between several hours to many days, depending on the number of packages you wish to install, since they are fetched from the Internet.
If you've never used it before, there's a steep learning curve, and you're introduced to Linux internals and several new technologies native to Gentoo, such as the USE flags system. Derivatives like Funtoo can be a good starting point for those unfamiliar with or unwilling to commit themselves to the hardship of Gentoo.
Verdict: Gentoo loses out to Arch because of its lengthy install time and unfamiliar concepts like USE flags.
The runner-up in last issue's roundup of distros for power users, Arch is one of the most loved Linux distros for advanced users. It's highly configurable, with a rolling release cycle that doesn't provide any default packages. The installation can take a long time depending on the number of packages you wish to install - which are all downloaded off the internet.
The biggest ratings booster for Arch is its package management tool Pacman. The installation itself will introduce you to a range of configuration files that must be set by hand. Everything from partitioning to installing the bootloader must be done manually.
Arch has inspired several distros, each with its own distinct features. Try Cinnarch if you want all the power of Arch combined with Cinnamon.
Verdict: Faster to setup than Gentoo, and more geek fun than any other distro.
Available only for the x86-64 architecture, this source based distro uses the ports system for package management and builds on the KISS formula, favouring simplicity over automation. It sports a user-driven non-graphical installer and expects you to compile the kernel as part of the installation like Gentoo.
Verdict: A wonderful distro for power users that only supports the 64-bit architecture.
Originally based on Slackware, Frugalware has since shed any remnants of its past. Aimed at intermediate or advanced users familiar with the command-line, it offers the choice of a command-line or graphical installation. The DVD is brimming with packages and you can easily configure it as a server.
Verdict: Good distro if you want all the features of Arch.
The only thing here to interest advanced users is its Conary package management system. Unlike other similar tools, Conary only updates specific files that need to be updated, saving time and bandwidth. With Conary you can also rollback or undo any update with a single command.
Verdict: Doesn't offer much to the advanced user except Conary.
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