Linux is built for tinkering and experimentation, which means it’s always morphing and changing. New distros are popping up all the time, because all it takes is a little bit of determination, time and effort to create a custom operating system.
Not all of them hit the mark – there are stacks of Linux distros that have seen little to no action, and we’re almost certain that some have been released and never installed by anyone other than their creator.
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Other alternative distros, though, fare rather better. Look at the success of Linux Mint, which spun off from Ubuntu to become (at times) arguably more popular than its own parent. Indeed, Ubuntu itself grew from Debian, and its niche offshoots (distros like Ubuntu Studio) have seen good levels of interest. If there’s a market out there for your distro, there’s traction to be had.
So let’s look at our pick of the five distros moving up swiftly through the ranks in 2018. Some of these might eventually become the best Linux distros out there, whereas some might fade away – but it won’t cost you a penny to try them out.
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Live on the bleeding edge with this majestic Arch-based offering
Antergos is built on top of Arch and like its parent caters to bleeding-edge users. Package updates are made available the moment they’re deemed stable.
Antergos is a rising star thanks to its default configuration options and easy setup process compared to Arch. The custom installer, Cnchi, installs the Gnome 3 desktop by default, but also allows you to select from five other desktop environments if you prefer something else.
It also downloads and installs the essentials for playing media and other useful applications. Antergos has no default office suite but can make use of the LibreOffice Installer for Arch Linux. The OS is very popular in Spain and throughout Europe as it boasts multi-language support.
The project has come a long way since its early days, when it was a single-desktop distro known as Cinnarch – an amalgamation of the Arch environment and the easy-to-use Cinnamon desktop.
Antergos follows a rolling release model, so once you've installed the latest version (currently 18.6), you won't need to perform any large upgrades again.
A good-looking OS boasting a range of custom apps
Deepin (formerly known as Linux Deepin and HiWeed Linux) describes itself as ‘outstanding from inside out’.
It's a Chinese-developed distro focusing on simplicity and elegance. Until 2015 Deepin was based on Ubuntu, but it’s now a Debian-based distro.
The OS uses a desktop environment called DDE (Deepin Desktop Environment) based on the Qt 5 toolkit combined with the Mutter Window Manager – the overall crisp look and feel is very reminiscent of macOS. The desktop supports hot corners and incorporates a number of widgets to display information such as the weather and app notifications.
The latest release of Deepin (15.5) incorporates HiDPI meaning it supports all HD displays. It also comes with a brand new design for the Control Center and desktop. Deepin is only available for 64-bit systems as a 3.2GB ISO. You can boot this in Live mode and the installer is extremely easy-to-use.
Fast, user-friendly and reliable
MX Linux is described as a ‘midweight’ distribution which means it's both easy on the eye and not too hungry when it comes to chomping system resources.
The current version of MX Linux is 17.1. It was released in March 2018 and is based on Debian 9.4 (Stretch). It includes some very respectable default applications such as Mozilla’s Firefox web browser and Thunderbird email client. MX also includes both the VLC and Clementine media players making it capable of playing a large variety of media out of the box. The LibreOffice office suite is also included.
You can install extra programs with a click of your mouse using the MX Package installer which contains a mixture of applications from the Debian Stable/Testing repositories, as well as a few others which have been chosen by the developers.
Although the desktop environment uses the simplistic Xfce, you may find this hard to believe at first due to its elegance. This doesn't take away from its speed as menus and windows open almost instantly.
MX Linux can run from a Live DVD or USB if you want to test it before installing. If you use a USB stick, you can also use Persistence to create a custom OS that you can carry around with you.
MX is available for both 32-bit and 64-bit systems. Your machine will need at least 2GB of RAM to run the OS smoothly.
Locks down your system via sandboxing and anonymizing
Subgraph is a bit different in that it’s a rising star of a Linux distro which is designed specifically for privacy. The developers stress that it's still in development but the OS holds great promise for privacy lovers.
Subgraph's kernel has been hardened using Grsecurity, which is widely regarded as one of the most secure Linux cores in the world today. This hugely reduces the chances of becoming a victim of DMA (Direct Memory Access) attacks, which is one of the most common methods hackers use to attempt to gain control of a computer.
Applications such as the Tor browser or IceDove email client are sandboxed using a system named ‘Oz’, giving you an extra layer of protection if an app should be compromised. You can also use specialised whitelists and blacklists to determine which applications are allowed to run.
All internet traffic is routed through the anonymising Tor network, which makes it extremely difficult to trace your location, but will slow down your connection speed to some extent.
Unlike some other distros of its type, Subgraph is quite easy on the eyes, using the Gnome desktop environment and Xpra to provide a simple but attractive interface.
Despite all its privacy enhancing features which supposedly function out of the box, Subgraph is still alpha software and should not be relied upon to secure any truly important information.
In April 2017, Joanna Rutkowska, the creator of Qubes, together with security researcher Micah Lee, were able to circumvent Subgraph's security by running a malicious app in the Nautilus file manager, which isn't sandboxed. This attack would also work on other privacy-oriented distros such as Tails.
The Subgraph team has yet to develop a patch for this exploit, but has pointed out that the OS is still a work in progress. Subgraph nevertheless remains easy-to-use and works seamlessly, with all the heavy lifting done in the background security-wise.
For those who put a premium on stability
We can hear you shouting from here. “But TechRadar,” you bellow, “Debian is massive! How can you call it ‘rising’?” Here’s how: it is definitely a rising distro. While Ubuntu did a great job bringing Linux to the masses, many users brought on board by its orange-and-brown glitz and glamour have moved away thanks to a few controversial changes. The natural post-Ubuntu route, given the huge amount of shared DNA, is its parent OS, Debian.
Debian packages are selected for their stability. Any 'testing' version of Debian must first go through a 'freezing' process where no new packages are added before it is granted the honour of becoming a fully-fledged 'stable' version. This is the case with Debian 9 Stretch (named after the purple octopus from Toy Story), which became the current ‘stable’ distribution of Debian in July 2017.
The new Gnome desktop environment and huge selection of software from the Debian repos mean that Debian 9 is definitely suitable for day-to-day use, although some of the packages are quite dated. If you prefer to remain on the bleeding edge, consider trying out the ‘testing’ distro of Debian which is codenamed Buster.
Debian only incorporates 'free' software which means that if you use proprietary firmware – for example, for your Wi-Fi card – you may need to use the 'non-free' repositories or manually download drivers yourself. (This could be very tricky if the device with missing drivers is the machine you use to connect to the internet, for obvious reasons). If you don't feel comfortable tinkering with drivers, choose a distro with better support for non-free hardware such as Antergos.
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