Note: Our 10 best Linux distros round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in May 2012.
Choice and flexibility are the hallmarks of a Linux distribution, and by extension the Linux ecosystem. With the proprietary Windows and OS X, you're stuck with the system as designed and can't make changes no matter how unpleasant you may find the experience. Linux distributions are free of such limitations.
Each distro has the Linux kernel at its core, but builds on top of that with its own selection of other components, depending on the target audience of the distro. Most Linux users switch between distros until they finally find the one that best suits their needs. However, for new and inexperienced users, the choice of hundreds of distros, with seemingly little to distinguish them, can seem challenging to say the least.
Largely speaking, Linux distros can be grouped into seemingly endless categories such as the default graphical environment, the underlying package management system, single developer distros or distros backed by large billion dollar enterprises, and so on.
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. These distros have different installation routines, along with different desktop environments, package management schemes, and administration tools.
For users well-versed with the Linux way of working, and hoping to better understand the internals of Linux, we'll also look at distros for skilled users and one distro that has been labelled as advanced by the Linux community.
While it's not the first distro designed for inexperienced Linux desktop users, Ubuntu has established itself as one of the best known.
The distro features the home-grown Unity desktop, one of the most polarising desktop environments in the Linux ecosystem. But that's about the extent of the project's missteps. For the most part, the distro remains incredibly polished and sophisticated for all manner of users, but especially new converts.
Ubuntu 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. This distro is released twice a year with regular Long Term Support (LTS) releases that are supported for five years.
Unlike previous autumn releases, Ubuntu 15.10 (nicknamed Wily Werewolf) is a relatively conservative release, presumably because the next build – 16.04 – will be an LTS release, and the last to be based on the Unity 7 desktop.
What changes there are won't disrupt anyone, and are largely welcome – subtle tweaks like replacing the handle-like scrollbar on windows with a more traditional bar. The kernel has been updated to version 4.2, which adds support for newer AMD GPUs and additional encryption options for disks.
Tools for browsing the web, accessing emails, playing multimedia files and working with office documents are available out of the box. The distro also boasts one of the largest software repositories that you can easily mine for additional apps, and Ubuntu Software Centre remains one of the best software management tools that has inspired various clones.
Verdict: This is a sterling distro which is very polished and sophisticated, and remains a great choice for those new to the world of Linux.
One of the most popular RPM-based distros, OpenSUSE, has shunned its KDE preference by offering GNOME as an alternative desktop, and now looks consistent across desktops. However, it remains one of the leading users of (and contributors to) the KDE desktop. The latest version – OpenSUSE LEAF 42.1 – takes its version number from Douglas Adams' answer to "life, the universe and everything".
Its all-in-one management tool YaST (Yet another Setup Tool) can handle software installation as well as system configuration and administration. It can be used to configure just about every aspect of the system, from appearance to hardware. While it's convenient to have all these settings in one place, it can seem a bit overwhelming and intimidating, especially to new Linux users.
Taking a cue from distros that feature a straightforward installer, OpenSUSE has revamped its own to provide a simple to follow wizard. Almost all the advanced options, such as setting up a printer and configuring LDAP, are no longer a part of the installer, making the process quick and more appealing to new users.
One of OpenSUSE's most popular features is the ability to revert between two snapshots. A snapshot is created every time you make changes to the system with the YaST configuration tool. With the Snapper tool, you can then compare the changes and also revert to the previous snapshot of the system.
Another innovative feature aimed at new users is the one-click install system which makes installation of packages a breeze.
OpenSUSE LEAF is a new version that aims to strike a balance between rock-solid stability – it utilises the SUSE Enterprise Linux core – with innovation and flexibility. It achieves the latter through the use of OpenSUSE to manage applications and provide a more user-friendly experience.
Verdict: OpenSUSE has taken major steps to be more appealing to new users. Everything from installation to software management is easier with the latest release.
One of the oldest Linux distros, Fedora can trace its origins back to the 1990s and Red Hat Linux. Fedora came into being when Red Hat decided to split its Red Hat Linux distribution into Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora Project in 2003.
The distro aims to provide a completely free software system and has traditionally been pitched as an alternative to Ubuntu. Due to its focus on providing bleeding edge software and server-centric features, this RPM-based distro has often been described as suitable for advanced users.
Fedora's ease of use has diminished since the introduction of the GNOME 3 desktop, a phenomenal departure from the traditional desktop metaphor. The GNOME project, however, has worked tirelessly to provide a better user experience to new users and this is evident in the latest releases.
Fedora has traditionally lacked a decent software management tool despite several attempts at providing a suitable alternative to the popular Synaptic Package Manager. Things have got better with the GNOME Software tool, the continuously improving Ubuntu Software Centre lookalike.
The project aims for a new release roughly every six months. With the latest release, Fedora began offering three variants: Cloud, Server and Workstation. Each of these is built upon the same base, with other components added on to suit the target user base. For most users, Workstation is the option to go for.
Verdict: A very capable distro for an experienced Linux user, and one that's trying to reinvent itself.
4. Linux Mint
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 17.3, is a long-term release that will be supported until 2019. These recent releases have been grounded on the LTS version of Ubuntu (14.04), and have contained little of note, but Mint 18.0 is almost here, and will be based on the forthcoming Ubuntu 16.04 LTS release.
Expect more radical changes – it'll launch with Cinnamon 3.0, a major revision of the desktop – but remember you can always stick with the 17.x release line if the changes don't make you happy.
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, and will be supported until 2019 if the forthcoming Mint 18 doesn't appeal.
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. The current release – Debian 8 – is called 'Jessie', but the previous release ('Wheezy') is still maintained and updated. 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, evidenced by the same installer (we had issues with this when the all-important 'Done' button vanished; use [Alt] + [D] instead). 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 latest version 22 (Selina) launched in August 2015. 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. Shame about the installer glitch.
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 major updates roughly once every year. The latest, Mageia 5, was unleashed in May 2015, and improves support on newer UEFI-based computers. There's also a new theme – Adwaita – while the btrfs file system is now supported for the boot partition.
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.
8. 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, have only just been made available with the current release, Freya.
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.
9. 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.
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.
It's a fair thing to say that the current crop of Linux distros bend over backwards 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.
The distro boasts 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.
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 it's now primarily the test bed for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which makes it unsuitable for the vast majority of 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 it's 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 precise liking.
- You might also want to read: Windows vs Linux: Which OS is best for your business?