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Best Linux distros for power users in 2021

Best distros for power users
(Image credit: Pixabay)
PRICE
VERDICT
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID
VERDICT
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID

The Linux power user is a celebrated breed, and one that does not simply burst fully-formed from the earth. All newbies must toil long and hard with their Linux installations before they can describe themselves as one.

At the very least, the power user will have a great degree of skill concerning all things Linux, whether it's the kernel, Bash or package management systems – and they won’t be afraid to get their hands dirty in the name of configuring the system.

It seems, in many ways, that power users are a dying breed. Almost all modern Linux distributions require little effort to get up and running, or to install new software or configure basic functionality. By definition, no power user will want to run any of these distros. This is why, despite their popularity, the likes of Ubuntu and Mint are not featured here.

On the other hand, control and flexibility are the hallmark of any distro meant for power users. The ones in this feature are user-driven, not guided. This gives them much greater adaptability, as well as allowing them to perform a diverse range of tasks. 

The development methodology and underlying package management system are still relevant concerns, but if you're driven by the desire to squeeze every ounce of power out of your Linux distro, you have the makings of a power user.

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The best Linux distros for power users at a glance:

  1. Arch Linux
  2. Gentoo Linux
  3. NixOS
  4. Slackware
  5. Void Linux

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(Image credit: Arch Linux)

1. Arch Linux

Best distro for customizers

Reasons to buy
+Pacman package manager+Extremely well documented
Reasons to avoid
-Time consuming to install

Arch Linux is one of the most loved Linux distros for advanced users who want to setup their own customized installation. In fact, Judd Vinet, the creator of Arch Linux, famously said that Arch Linux is what you make of it. 

While most distros provide a pre-packed set of apps and configuration, Arch lets you design your installation from the ground-up. 

Installing Arch can take a long time depending on the number of packages you wish to install - which are all downloaded off the internet. 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.

The most impressive feature of the distro is its package management tool Pacman. Arch is a rolling release that can be bought up to date with a single command. There are in fact several Arch-based distros that exist to extend the benefits of Pacman to the average desktop user.

The good thing about the distro is that it is very well documented. All aspects, from the installation to day-to-day administration, are thoroughly documented.

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(Image credit: Gentoo Linux)

2. Gentoo Linux

Best source-based distro

Reasons to buy
+Blazingly fast+Extremely configurable
Reasons to avoid
-Cumbersome to install and manage

Along with Arch, Gentoo is one of the most configurable distros. With the distro users get pervasive control in building the system from scratch. So for instance, while most desktop distros make certain choices on behalf of their users, for instance the use of Grub2 boot loader, Gentoo gives you complete control of how every part of the system is configured.

Gentoo is a rolling release as well that unlike Arch or any other distro, insists you inspect the kernel during installation and streamline it by removing features you don’t need. 

The distro packs an awesome package management system in Portage. Unlike with most distros that use pre-compiled binaries, in Gentoo you have to compile all packages from source. The process introduces you to Linux internals and several new technologies native to Gentoo, such as the USE flags system, using which you can define the features you want a package to support.

There are of course advantages and disadvantages of compiling packages from source. While on one hand you get a blazingly fast installation, compiling from source takes considerably longer than using pre-compiled binaries, with the result that system updates are usually quite cumbersome and time consuming.

If you've never used it before, there's a steep learning curve to using Gentoo. Derivatives like Calculate Linux and Sabayon can be a good starting point if you’re unwilling to commit to the hardships of Gentoo.

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(Image credit: NixOS)

3. NixOS

Best option for running multiple instances of your installation

Reasons to buy
+Consumes little resources+Atomic updates
Reasons to avoid
-Steep learning curve

NixOS is the result of a research paper and is a meta distro pretty much like Arch and Gentoo that you build from ground zero as per your requirements.

You might mistake it for a normal distro since it is available as a Live image. But the illusions dissipate when the Live environment drops you to a shell from where you have to create a configuration file to setup your installation.

NixOS uses what is known as the declarative system configuration model where you define all parameters for the installation in a configuration file, such as the location of the boot loader as well as any apps you wish to use. 

This file is then read by the distro’s Nix package management system, which then proceeds to setup your installation based on the contents of the configuration file. One of the best features of the distro are atomic updates, which also allows you to boot into different versions of the distro depending on the config you wish to run.  

Sure, the process of getting up and running with NixOS is neither straightforward nor intuitive. But on the other hand it gives you a system that’s quick off the blocks, and performs admirably well even on machines with few resources.

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(Image credit: Slackware)

4. Slackware

Best Unix-like Linux distro

Reasons to buy
+Unix-like distro+Stability
Reasons to avoid
-No graphical configuration tools

Slackware has the honour of being the oldest distro that is still actively maintained. It was created by Patrick Volkerding and had its first beta release in 1993. 

Slackware was originally derived from Softlanding Linux System (SLS), which was the first distribution to provide TCP/IP and X Windows System in addition to Linux kernel and basic utilities. SLS however was very buggy and the growing frustration of users with SLS prompted Volkerding to release a SLS-like distro in July 1993.

The USP of the distro is that it makes very few changes to upstream packages. Also unlike the average desktop distro, Slackware offers its users far greater control on their installation.

The distro also doesn't provide an advanced graphical package management tool. Slackware packages are just plain compressed tar archives. As of Slackware 12.2, slackpkg has been added as the official tool for installing or upgrading packages automatically through a network or over the Internet, complementing the traditional package tools suite that only operates locally. Slackpkg too does not resolve dependencies between packages. 

If you want to experience the distro without spending too much time and effort, you can take it for a spin thanks to the Slackware Live CD.

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(Image credit: Void Linux)

5. Void Linux

Most approachable power distro

Reasons to buy
+Live graphical desktops+xbps package manager
Reasons to avoid
-Limited number of packages

Void Linux is the brainchild of a BSD developer that delivers features that’ll resonate with power users. While most distros use the systemd init system, Void uses the runit init system that is speedier and easier to manage. 

The other unique aspect about the distro is its use of LibreSSL, which was forked from OpenSSL by the OpenBSD project.

The most visible component Void is its home-grown package manager called X Binary Package System or xbps. It’s a full-fledged CLI package manager that does everything you’d expect from its more popular peers like apt and dnf. One of its most interesting aspects is its ability to recognize incompatible shared libraries as you use it to install, update or remove packages.

Void is comparatively easier to get started with as it provides a Live installable environment with different desktop environments. However, the distro doesn’t offer the same number of packages in its repositories as you’d get from other distros like Arch.