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Best Linux distros of 2021 for beginners, mainstream and advanced users

Best Linux distros
(Image credit: Pixabay)
PRICE
VERDICT
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID
VERDICT
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID

Linux distros come in all shapes and sizes. Literally. From miniscule ones that weigh in at just over 100 MB and can be lugged around in USB disks to 4GB behemoths that work best when installed on portable SSDs.

Best Linux distros

In addition to the top distros that are designed to appeal to a wide number of users and can be tailored as per individual requirements, there are a whole lot of specialized distros that are built for a particular purpose. 

Migrating from Windows? There's a distro that'll ease the transition. A Windows update messed up your boot loader? There's a distro that'll help you fix it in a jiffy. Want to resurrect an old computer? Need to tie disks into a NAS? Want to run a firewall that'll shield your entire network? Are you setting up a small home office? 

No matter what your requirement, the diverse open source community has a distro for you.

In this guide we’ll look at some of the best ones that have been put together for specific tasks.

Screenshot of Nitrux

(Image credit: Nitrux)

1. Nitrux

Best distro for beginners

Reasons to buy
+Customizations+Use of AppImages
Reasons to avoid
-Documentation via blogs

If you are just taking your first steps in Linux, you should begin your journey with Nitrux. The distro leverages on some of the most stable and well-respected open source projects such as Ubuntu and the KDE Plasma desktop and builds on them to create a distro that suits the sensibilities of new Linux users.

For instance, instead of building a custom desktop environment from scratch, Nitrux relies on KDE Plasma’s famed malleability along with some redesigned components to simplify the workflow for new users. It offers a couple of layouts for the desktop to allow users to make best use of the available screen real estate.

Nitrux has even customized some administration apps to make tasks such as firewall and backup approachable for inexperienced users. It ships with a healthy dose of apps for all kinds of desktop tasks. 

The distro also supports and encourages the use of AppImages, which makes it straightforward to install additional apps. In fact, Nitrux plans to switch all its graphical apps to AppImages eventually. All the AppImages are launched in a firejail sandbox, which makes Nitrux more secure out of the box than your typical desktop Linux. 

The distro has an active community that you can interact with on all the popular social networks. However, the lack of a dedicated documentation section is a downer. Nitrux is available for 64-bit computers only, but can also boot on older machines with the Legacy BIOS in addition to the newer EFI machines.

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screenshot of Zorin OS

(Image credit: Zorin OS)

2. Zorin OS

Best distro for Windows users

Reasons to buy
+Layout switcher+Usable out-of-the-box+Tailored documentation

The Zorin OS project began in 2008 with the sole intention of making Linux user-friendly. Its developers wanted to make Linux accessible to regular users and they did this by introducing familiarity in the user interface.

The distro pitches itself to first-time Linux users that are used to the ways of popular proprietary operating systems, namely Windows and macOS. It does so thanks to its custom Zorin Appearance app that tweaks Zorin’s Gnome desktop environment to make it resemble Windows in both form and function.

Zorin is available in multiple different editions. Three of these, namely Core, Lite, and Education, are offered as free downloads. Zorin is based on Ubuntu and the Core edition is the standard version that includes all the apps you’ll need in a regular desktop. 

If you have an older computer, you can use the Lite edition that is designed for underpowered machines. The Education edition is, as its name suggests, designed for learning and ships with all the popular open source educational apps and utilities. 

Besides these three there is a fourth version called the Ultimate edition, which is currently available for $39. It includes support as well as a few extra features, such as the option of using interfaces that mimic macOS and is chock-full of all kinds of apps and games.

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screenshot of Pop!_OS homepage

(Image credit: Pop!_OS/System76)

3. Pop!_OS

Best distro for gaming

Reasons to buy
+Hybrid graphics+Special image for Nvidia users+Keyboard navigation

Pop!_OS is developed and maintained by hardware vendor System76, and besides being shipped on its own hardware is also available as a free download. The distro has several interesting features, which make it an interesting option, especially for gamers.

The distro is based on the Ubuntu LTS release and sports its own user interface over Gnome, called Pop Shell. 

While there are several other gaming distros for Linux, what makes Pop!_OS unique is that it ships with all the necessary plumbing for gamers. For instance, its developers ensure that hybrid graphics work flawlessly on the platform. 

If you have a hybrid graphics card, the distro will give you the option to launch games on the GPU in the context menu. You’ll also be able to easily toggle between battery-saving and high-powered graphics.

There are a couple of editions of Pop!_OS. Besides the standard edition, there is one that is designed specifically for users with Nvidia hardware and ships with the proprietary driver for the hardware.

Pop!_OS also encrypts your installation by default and while it ships with minimal apps, you can flesh your installation using its custom intuitive app store called Pop!_Shop, which in addition to the regular desktop apps also includes the likes of Steam, Lutris, and GameHub.

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screenshot of Linux Kodachi desktop

(Image credit: Linux Kodachi)

4. Kodachi

Best for privacy and security

Reasons to buy
+Can be used a daily driver+Connects through VPN+Panic room selection of tool

Kodachi is designed for anyone who cares about their privacy and needs a secure, anti-forensic, and anonymous distro. The latest edition of the distro is based on Xubuntu 18.04.5 and uses a customized Xfce desktop. 

Kodachi equips with all kinds of security-centric and privacy-enhancing apps along with a whole lot of regular apps to enable you to use the distro as your daily driver. Its custom desktop is designed so as to not overwhelm first time users and gives you access to all the apps while still being intuitive. 

To ensure privacy, the distro routes all the connections to the Internet through a VPN before passing them to the Tor network. If you have the know-how you can easily tweak its settings to connect through your own VPN service.

Similarly, to enhance your security, Kodachi uses AppArmor to isolate apps. It also includes several privacy-protection tools such as VeraCrypt, zuluCrypt, KeePassXC, as well as the Metadata Anonymization Toolkit (MAT) for removing metadata information from files.

Its anti-forensics capabilities are materialized with various tools including one that’ll wipe the RAM. The distro also includes an option to create a password that when entered will securely erase all contents of your encrypted Kodachi installation.

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screenshot of the Rescatux distro

(Image credit: Rescatux)

5. Rescatux

Best distro for repair and rescue

Reasons to buy
+Custom rescapp utility+Designed for inexperienced users+Lots of documentation

Whether you are running a Linux or a Windows machine, if you run into an error, chances are you can use Rescatux to get yourself out of the sticky situation. 

With Rescatux you get all the important and useful tools to fix several issues with non-booting Linux and Windows installations. The distro uses the lightweight LXDE desktop which makes it usable even on underpowered machines. 

When it boots up, the distro automatically fires up its custom helper application called Rescapp. The app is intuitive to operate and makes the process of fixing errors accessible even to inexperienced users. 

Rescapp hosts several buttons that are divided into various categories, such as Boot, Grub, Filesystem and Password. You can use these to fix common repair tasks such as restoring bootloaders, repairing filesystems, fixing partition tables and resetting passwords on both Linux and Windows installs.

The buttons inside each of the categories have descriptive labels that will identify their function. When clicked they’ll bring up the relevant documentation to explain the exact steps the distro will take to rectify the issue.

If you are an advanced user, you can bypass Rescapp and launch the rescue tools directly from the command-line interface to save time. The Rescatux project also hosts lots of guides and instructional videos to help inexperienced users.

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screenshot of Parrot Security

(Image credit: Parrot Security)

6. Parrot Security

Best distro for forensics/pen testing

Reasons to buy
+Chock full of tools+Categorized menus+Encrypted persistence

Parrot Security is a wonderful penetration testing and vulnerability assessment distro that can do a lot more than some of its more popular peers like Kali Linux.

If you boot Parrot from a USB disk, you can choose to create a persistent partition to save your changes. Very thoughtfully the developers also allow you to encrypt this persistent partition for maximum security.

The distro has a large selection of tools that are neatly filed inside a categorized menu. These house the tools according to their use, such as Information Gathering, Vulnerability Analysis, Password Attacks, Digital Forensics and several more. 

Interestingly, Parrot also aspires to be useful for average computer users that need a secure and privacy-focused distro like hacktivists, and journalists.

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Screenshot of OMV website

(Image credit: OpenMediaVault)

7. OpenMediaVault

Best distro for NAS

Reasons to buy
+Intuitive to administer+Useful set of plugins+Lots of documentation

Open Media Vault (OMV) is a Debian-based distro that’s designed to convert an old unused computer (or even a Raspberry Pi) into a network-attached storage (NAS) solution.

The distro is easy to install and can be easily managed through its intuitive browser-based administration interface. You can use OMV to tie multiple disks into various levels of software RAID or just use them as simple storage silos that you can access over the network via all the popular network protocols such as SSH, SMB/CIFS, FTP, Rsync, etc.

Best of all, you can extend the usefulness of your OMV NAS server by installing and enabling various plugins.

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screenshot of Porteus' desktop

(Image credit: Porteus)

8. Porteus

Best for USB

Reasons to buy
+Fast bootup+Multiple desktops+Persistent sessions
Reasons to avoid
-Irregular releases

While you can carry and use virtually all Linux distros from a USB drive, Porteus is one of the few that’s been designed specifically for this use case. 

The distro is available in several different editions, each with a different desktop environment, and most weigh around 300 MB. All of these are designed for use from removable, rewritable media such as USB drives and SD cards. The distro boots up fast and enables persistent storage by default. 

The only downside is that the project isn’t regularly updated. While its last stable release was in 2018, it is still perfectly usable, and the developers are currently working on the next major release.

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screenshot of Manjaro Linux

(Image credit: Manjaro Linux)

9. Manjaro

Best Arch-based distro

Reasons to buy
+Several editions+Customized installer+Ready to use

Arch Linux is one of the most versatile distros that follows a rolling release model. It also has one of the most cumbersome and involved installation processes. Manjaro offers all the goodness of Arch in distro that’s easy to install and can be used straight out of the box.

The distro is available in several different official and community-supported flavours, each with different desktop environments. All versions are replete with all the regular desktop apps and also ship with several custom apps to ease various administrative tasks. 

The distro is complimented by ample documentation and a very active and helpful community of users.

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screenshot of Puppy Linux

(Image credit: Puppy Linux)

10. Puppy Linux

Best lightweight distro

Reasons to buy
+Multiple installation mechanisms+Wide collection of apps+Binary compatibility

Puppy Linux is one of our favorite distros for resurrecting old machines and putting them back into active duty. The project is in fact a family of distros, each based on a different underlying distro. For instance, there’s one based on Ubuntu and another based on Slackware. 

Despite its miniscule size, there’s no beating Puppy for out-of-the-box functionality and there’s an app for virtually every task that you can perform on a desktop. 

It isn’t a surprise though that Puppy skips over mainstream apps in favor of lightweight options. The most iconic are its use of Joe’s window manager and the fox-filer file manager that give it its distinctive appearance.

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Arch Linux

(Image credit: Arch Linux)

11. Arch Linux

Best distros for power users

Reasons to buy
+Rolling release+Wide selection of apps+Thorough documentation

Arch Linux is one of the most sought after distros that’s designed for experienced Linux users who want to build their own customized installations. 

While the average Linux distro provides a predefined set of apps, Arch lets users assemble their installation from scratch. The downside of this dexterity however is that Arch’s installation is an involved process. Though the process is well documented it is still cumbersome for the average desktop Linux user.

But it is Arch’s wide package repository, package management tools, and the rolling release model that have given rise to a number of projects, like Manjaro, that offer to wrap its advantages in easy to digest distros.

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Solus website

(Image credit: Solus)

12. Solus

Best distro for developers

Reasons to buy
+Designed for development+Multiple editions+Rolling release

Solus is a general purpose rolling release distro that can be used for all sorts of regular desktop tasks. In fact, it pitches itself as an ideal platform for developers. 

On its website the distro advertises the fact that it supports several advanced editors and integrated development environments (IDEs) such as Atom, Idea and Gnome Builder. Furthermore, you can also manage code in multiple version control systems such as Git, Bazaar, and others through graphical tools like GitKraken and git-cola. 

The distro’s website also claims that the OS supports a number of programming languages such as Go, Rust, PHP, Node.js and Ruby, and you can download a host of other developmental tools and libraries from its repositories.

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Screenshot of NethServer's website

(Image credit: NethServer)

13. NethServer

Best distro for small business

Reasons to buy
+Graphical management interface+Useful features+Free

If you don’t have the time to configure and deploy a server manually, you can use the NethServer distro to roll out lots of common network service with a single click. 

For instance, using NethServer you can set up a web filter, a mail server, file server, web server, firewall, VPN, a Slack-like team chat, and several other services. The best part is that you can deploy and configure just about every aspect of your server through a an intuitive browser-based interface.

The CentOS-based distro offers all these features for free, which makes it an ideal choice for small businesses. However, the project also offers several tiers of professional support for larger organizations, starting at €250/year.

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screenshot of OPNsense website

(Image credit: OPNsense)

14. OPNsense

Best firewall distro

Reasons to buy
+Based on HardenedBSD+Graphical interface+Lots of features

Thanks to its inline intrusion prevention system, OPNsense is one of the best firewall distros around. Furthermore, it doesn’t just provide a stateful firewall, but several other network services as well.

With OPNsense you can display a captive portal, shape traffic, detect and prevent intrusions, as well as setup a Virtual Private Network (VPN), and lots more. You can manage all these services from an intuitive, modern, web-based multilingual and well documented user interface, which is a pleasure to use.

Technically however, OPNsense isn’t a Linux distro and is in fact powered by HardenedBSD, which is a security oriented fork of FreeBSD. 

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screenshot of the raspberry pi os website

(Image credit: Raspberry Pi OS)

15. Raspberry Pi OS

Best distro for the Raspberry Pi

Reasons to buy
+Officially supported+Configurator tool+Debian-based

There are several distros for the Raspberry Pi, however the best starting point has to be the Raspberry Pi OS, which is the official distro of the Raspberry Pi and for good reason.

Earlier known as Raspbian, the Debian-based distro, uses a lightweight customized LXDE-based desktop environment that uses the Openbox window manager. The custom desktop doesn’t just save resources for other crucial tasks, but also looks elegant and inviting.

The latest iteration of the Raspberry Pi can now be used as a very capable computer and the distro developers have ensured that it performs flawlessly with popular video conferencing software such as Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom.

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Screenshot of Ubuntu Server website

(Image credit: Ubuntu Server/Canonical)

16. Ubuntu Server

Best distro for servers

Reasons to buy
+Long Term Support+Optional paid support+Well documented

In some aspects, the Ubuntu Server edition is just as popular as the desktop version. Ubuntu produces both LTS and non-LTS releases of the server just as with the desktop.

Ubuntu Server runs on all major architectures, including x86-64, ARM64, POWER9, IBM s390x, RISC-V, and more. 

The distro is also popular for building cloud computing platforms, and the project also offers cloud images for AWS and Azure. In fact, Canonical claims that over 55% of OpenStack clouds already run on Ubuntu, and for a fee, it will set up a managed OpenStack cloud for your company.

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Screenshot of Debian EDU's website

(Image credit: DebianEDU/Skoleinux)

17. DebianEdu/Skolelinux

Best distro for education

Reasons to buy
+Lots of apps+Terminal server+Based on Debian

Some of the best educational software in use today are open source and DebianEdu/Skolelinux bundles the best of the lot.

The distro is the result of the collaboration between the two projects that lend it its name. Besides the educational tools, the distro also has the full gamut of desktop apps, which allows you to use the distro as your daily driver.

One of the highlights of the distro however is that it includes a pre-configured terminal server keeping in mind the requirements of a typical educational institution. In addition to installing the distro on your computer, you can easily deploy it over multiple computers in a lab.

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screnshot of EasyOS' website

(Image credit: EasyOS)

18. EasyOS

Best niche distro

Reasons to buy
+Usable out-of-the-box+Lots of apps+Lightweight

EasyOS is an experimental project by the original developer of Puppy Linux. While it looks like any other Puppy variant, the distro is in fact designed from scratch to explore the use of containers on the desktop.

EasyOS uses containers to create a secure, yet easy to use and manage distro. Interestingly, it doesn’t use any of the existing container technologies like LXC and Docker, and instead uses its own home-brewed solution. This helps it isolate individual apps and can even run complete distros with minimal overhead.

The best thing about the distro is that you don’t need to be familiar with its containerized approach to be able to use it.

Also see:

These are the best Linux VPN providers

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Mayank Sharma

With almost two decades of writing and reporting on Linux, Mayank Sharma would like everyone to think he’s TechRadar Pro’s expert on the topic. Of course, he’s just as interested in other computing topics, particularly cybersecurity, cloud, containers, and coding.