Feel the power of the penguin
Update: Looking for something that looks like a Mac operating system without the need for Apple software? Our latest addition might be exactly what you're looking for.
There are hundreds of Linux distros – a.k.a. distributions, or collections of software that come together to make an operating system (OS) – out there. The OS is no longer just for withered developers who wince at the sight of software that isn't open source. But the sheer choice of distros available is enough to put you right off.
We've put together a list of the five Linux distros enthusiasts and newbies should all consider.
Wondering what a distro actually is? Linux is just the heart, the kernel, of any Linux-based system. It's the distro that determines the rest, from how it's installed to what apps feature and how the default interface looks.
All of these can be customized, but the easiest route to Linux bliss is to find a distro that already suits how you're going to use Linux day-to-day. There are plenty of flavors to choose from. So, are you more Arch, or Ubuntu, or something else entirely?
Shashank Sharma, Nick Peers and Gabe Carey have also contributed to this article
Even people who shake at the sound of "Linux" and wouldn't know where to start with a command line interface have heard of Ubuntu. This is the friendly face of Debian (a larger distro that predates Ubuntu by a decade), with new releases every six months rather than every six and a half seconds, so that its edges aren't full of frayed bits.
It's a good place to start if you're new to Linux, and is designed specifically for the person who doesn't know a directory of Linux commands better than the alphabet. It comes with lots of preinstalled apps, and the easy-to-handle install repositories library makes it very easy to get hold of more.
Lots of Linux users end up using Ubuntu as a starting point. They may end up looking down their noses at it a year or two down the line, but they'll owe it thanks, really.
There are a few legitimately controversial things about Ubuntu, though. Over the last few years, it has tried to become more its own "brand", most notably by introducing its own desktop environment, known as Unity. This interface bridges Ubuntu for phones and tablets with classic desktop Ubuntu.
We don't see Ubuntu upstaging Android any time soon, but Ubuntu producer Canonical doubtless has big hopes for it.
Unity is less like Windows than most other desktop environments, and not everyone likes it. However, it recently became a lot more flexible and smoother in the latest release. It's not all that hard to switch to another desktop UI, either.
You can get started with Ubuntu here
Most distros are based on an existing setup. Everything uses the Linux kernel, of course, but much of what you'll find is overtly based on Debian or Ubuntu (itself based on Debian). Solus is a bit different.
Solus is built to be as streamlined and, in some respects at least, simple as possible. It's exceptionally clean and modern-looking. That it is also so much younger than a lot of the competition gives it an edge many of the older distros lack.
While an earlier attempt at Solus arrived in 2012 before being abandoned, this current incarnation only appeared in late 2015.
Its desktop UI is called Budgie, and it has a clearer focus on aesthetics and "elegance", as team Solus puts it, than most other Linux interfaces.
The issue in siding with Solus is that, while promising, it has much less of an active community at the moment than the big names. This may become a problem for those who don't already know Linux inside and out.
As a sapling, it's also going to be less stable than something like Ubuntu for the foreseeable future. It's worth sampling for something with a different flavor, though.
You can get started with Solus here
Linux Mint Cinnamon
If you want a Linux distro that looks and feels a bit like a Linux alternative to Windows 10, you've found it. Linux Mint Cinnamon has a much more familiar interface than Ubuntu. It even has a Start menu of sorts, making it dead easy to transition from Windows if you've just had enough of all that Microsoft nonsense.
There are no major sacrifices either. Mint Cinnamon uses very similar repositories to Ubuntu, being based on it.
Cinnamon has a relatively glitzy interface, so if you're planning on running Linux on a dodgy old machine that can no longer keep up with Windows, you are best off trying Cinnamon's brother. It's called Mate, and has a more spartan UI that's a bit less demanding.
(To dig a level deeper, Cinnamon's look is based on Gnome 3, Mate's on Gnome 2. Gnome, of course, being a graphical desktop environment designed to work with Linux distros primarily.)
We picked Cinnamon for a reason, though.
Like Ubuntu, this is a good beginner Linux distro. It features an office suite, media player apps, a browser and more right from the start. And, like Ubuntu, it's not updated all the time. It's updated even more sparingly than Ubuntu, actually, with a major update roughly once a year. Linux Mint Cinnamon is one of the first distros you should try if you're new to Linux.
You can get started with Mint Cinnamon here
Loads of the Linux distros you'll find, and there are hundreds of them, are based on Ubuntu. One of the most interesting Linux-derived distros is Ubuntu Studio. This is designed for creative types: musicians, artists, sound engineers and designers.
It's a great place to head if, for example, you want to try making your own podcast or homebrew album but can't afford any fancy software for the back-end. Ubuntu Studio has been around since 2007, and now features a small mountain of apps that push it close to the 3GB mark.
One of the most interesting is Ardour. This is a digital, multi-track recorder-slash-sequencer app. Better-known Windows alternatives, like Sonar, Reason and Cubase demand hundreds of dollars for comparable functions.
Ardour can communicate with the preinstalled synthesizer and guitar effects apps using JACK, another piece of software that lets you route audio between apps. It won't lure Kanye West away from Pro Tools any time soon, but it's also an awful lot cheaper.
Ubuntu Studio is a little less strong on the graphics/video side, but does offer a couple of video editing programs and Blender, the 3D modeling app. While not many full-time graphics and audio professionals are going to use Studio as their main piece of software, it's a fine way to dabble in creative software somewhat like the tear-inducingly expensive Windows packages without paying a cent.
You can get started with Ubuntu Studio here
Here's one for the pros. While most of our picks are suitable for those who barely know anything about Linux, Arch Linux expects you to know what you're doing – at least a little bit.
There's no super-easy install wizard. And, even when you have the system up and running, Arch Linux doesn't come with a whole giant package of applications installed. That's not the idea.
To use Arch Linux's own motto, the concept behind this distro is KISS, the "keep it simple, stupid" philosophy. It offers a basic Linux framework, letting you turn a system into whatever you need without making you prune away the bits you don't want.
For the gamers out there, it's a bit like the Wretched class of the Dark Souls games: looks awful to some eyes, but is the only choice for others.
Consistent with its enthusiast leanings, Arch Linux has a rolling release pattern, with new versions available every month rather than just every six months or every year. There's also a lot of good documentation floating about for Arch. So, while it may not be friendly, those with enough knowledge and patience should get by just fine.
You can get started with Arch Linux here
While not typically perceived as a rendition of the Linux kernel, the cloud-based operating system Chrome OS, or Chromium OS, consistently exceeds expectations for just how large an install base Linux can achieve.
Without being much more than a desktop browser repurposed as an entire user environment, the accessibility of Chrome OS is its main draw – not to mention there's no high-end processor or storage requirement required for it to run.
If you don't need much more than the extensive functionality offered by Google Drive, Chrome OS is undoubtedly the way to go. And, let's be honest, most of us are strictly browser bound anyway. Even historically x86 applications like Photoshop are hitting the worldwide web. Plus, with a wide range of Android apps set to come by way of the Google Play Store, the open-source Chrome OS is about to become even more enticing.
Aside from Android itself, Chrome OS is perhaps the most widely used Linux distro to date. In fact, in terms of market share it's rapidly catching up to its closed-source competition with Chromebooks recently outpacing the Mac in terms of sales.
On the downside, Chrome OS is pretty limited in comparison to other Linux-based operating systems. Since all tasks are expected to be completed online and saved to the cloud, there isn't much wiggle room for offline usage. So unless you're always connected to a network, taking your work on the go won't be as practical as it would with, say, Ubuntu or Solus.
Another desirable factor, however, is that many of the PCs Chrome OS comes installed on are extremely affordable, with even some of the better ones keeping under the $250 mark. And, though Chrome OS is designed for Google's Chromebook line of laptops, it can easily be installed on virtually any PC in a few simple steps.
You can get started with Chrome OS here
Not all Linux distros are about being different; elementary OS in particular is more about thinking different. That's because, as one of the best-looking distributions around, elementary OS bears a striking resemblance to Apple's macOS. In fact, its developer calls elementary OS a "fast and open replacement for Windows and OS X."
Unlike Windows in particular, elementary OS isn't funded by ad revenue nor does the developer have access to any personal information – or so it claims. Instead, it's funded by an optional donation of five, ten or even 25 dollars per download (although you can opt to donate a custom amount if you're so inclined, even $0 is acceptable).
Elementary OS even comes will a handful of pre-installed apps such as Photos, Music, Videos and a custom web browser called Midori that's supposed to be easier on the battery than, say, the infamous Google Chrome power drainer. It also has a search function that's quite literally just macOS's Spotlight.
While it's not as jam-packed with features as macOS or Windows, elementary OS serves its purpose well. It's a minimalistic alternative to the spyware and adware that often come pre-installed and unable to be removed with the bigger name desktop operating systems.
For those seeking the painless experience of navigating an Apple interface without compromising your personal data, elementary OS might very well be your perfect match.
You can get started with elementary OS here