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Best Linux distros of 2020 for beginners, mainstream and advanced users

Best Linux distros
(Image credit: Pixabay)
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The best Linux distros offer the easiest and simplest way to use Linux, though a lot depends on whether you're a beginner or advanced user. Each distro offers main path to using Linux, with each distro coming in many flavors that aim to appeal to different user bases.

Best Linux distros

Linux is traditionally associated as being an operating system for coders and programmers, but over the years there have been real attempts to make Linux more attractive to general consumers. This is not least due to general consumer dissatisfaction with Windows security issues or even Apple's walled garden.

However, Linux comes in many different forms, known as 'flavors' or 'distros'. This is simply because Linux is so incredibly configurable that different forms tend to be developed for different userbase needs or interests.

For example, as mentioned, some have moved toward trying to entice disgruntled Windows users into something more familiar. However, others remain focused on specific environments that may favor programming or scientific applications, or other concerns such as security, resource use, and similar.

Different Linux distros can all work with Linux software and applications, and of course, any cloud-based apps that run through a browser. However, Linux distros come with a variety of different ranges of bundled software. Some might come with a lot of basic applications already pre-installed, while others will have the barest minimum.

And, as mentioned, Linux is very customizable, far beyond what normal Windows or Mac users may be used to. Users can commonly configure everything from their desktop to security and privacy settings.

Altogether, this is why it helps to have a good idea of what different Linux distros can offer. Do you need a GUI more familiar to Windows? Are you more concerned about privacy? How comfortable are you with typing commands rather than clicking icons? 

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The very best Linux distros are tailored to specific types of users. Ubuntu for instance is very easy to use, as it’s designed for newcomers. Arch Linux on the other hand appeals to experienced users who can take advantage of using the Terminal to type commands to perform tasks such as installing apps. This guide focuses on picking out the very best distros overall.

Other Linux devices and services to consider

1. Dell XPS 13 7390 | Starting at $899

The Dell XPS 13 7390 is one of the best Linux laptops currently available. The laptop also has a number of customizations you can opt for including additional RAM, larger storage capacity and even a 4K InfinityEdge touchscreen. The Ubuntu edition is a beautiful machine as it comes with a platinum silver finish with a black carbon fiber palm rest.View Deal

2. Udemy | $12.99 for new users
Udemy is an online learning platform for those looking to develop their professional skills. If you're new to Linux, Jason Cannon's Linux for Beginners course is an excellent way to familarize yourself with the operating system and command line.View Deal

3. InMotion Hosting | Starting at $7.49 per month 

InMotion Hosting is a professional Linux web host that delivers high levels of power and control across its range of plans. The company offers plans for shared hosting, VPS hosting, WordPress hosting, dedicated servers and more. Also TechRadar readers can get up to 60 percent off its shared hosting plans when you sign up here.View Deal

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(Image credit: Ubuntu)

1. Ubuntu

One of the most popular distros for good reasons

Very accessible for novices
Security and stability of LTS version
Lubuntu spin is great for underpowered PCs

Ubuntu is one of the most popular flavors of Linux and is strongly recommended for Linux newbies, as it's extremely accessible. 

New versions of Ubuntu are released every six months, and every other year the developer Canonical releases an LTS (long term support) version of Ubuntu. These guarantee five years of security and general maintenance updates, so you can carry on using your machine without the hassle of running a full upgrade every few months. Standard releases are supported for one year only. 

The current LTS version of Ubuntu uses the Gnome desktop environment, which may be less unfamiliar to Windows and macOS users.

Ubuntu has also become increasingly integral with cloud computing services, making it not just a good distro for easing beginners into Linux, but also one for those looking to develop their long-term business IT skills.

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(Image credit: Elementary OS)

2. Elementary OS

Probably the best looking distro in the world

Smart designed and looks great
Excellent desktop environment
Not many preinstalled apps

If you’re after a distro that gets you as far away as possible from the image of a nerdy hacker type bashing away at a terminal interface, Elementary OS is what you need. It’s probably the most attractive distro around, with a style that gives tribute to macOS. This operating system’s superb desktop environment is known as Pantheon, and is based on Gnome.

The latest version of Elementary OS is called Hera, which features a new onboarding experience, new ways to install apps, applies a major update to settings as well as improving core apps, as well as redesigning the login and lockscreen along with other desktop tweaks.

Elementary OS comes bundled with a limited range of essential apps, including the Epiphany browser, an email client and a few basic ‘tool’ apps. You may need to add more programs, but this is easy to do using the integrated AppCenter, which contains paid programs designed specifically for the OS. These include Quilter for budding writers or Spice-Up for composing presentations. The inconvenience of buying and downloading additional apps is balanced by the elegance of Elementary OS.

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(Image credit: Linux Mint)

3. Linux Mint

A strong option for those new to Linux

Good for beginners
Good media support
Impressive customization options

Linux Mint is a great ‘default’ distro for new Linux users, as it comes with a lot of the software you’ll need when switching from Mac or Windows, such as LibreOffice, the favored productivity suite of Linux users. It also has better support for proprietary media formats, allowing you to play videos, DVDs and MP3 music files out of the box.

You can download three main starter flavors of Mint, each of which uses a different desktop environment, the top-most layer of the interface allowing you to change elements such as the appearance of windows and menus. Cinnamon is currently the most popular, but you can also choose the more basic MATE, or Xfce.

While Timeshift was introduced in version 18.3 and to all Linux Mint releases, it is now one of the main features of Linux Mint. Timeshift enables users to restore their computer from the last functional snapshot, just like Windows Restore in Windows 7.

All these desktop environments offer a good deal of customization options, so feel free to download a few and boot as Live CD prior to installing to see which works best.

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(Image credit: openSUSE)

4. openSUSE

Primarily targeted at devs and sysadmins

Very polished distro
Nicely secure
Can create your own version of the OS

Previously known as SUSE Linux and subsequently SuSE Linux Professional, openSUSE is aimed at developers and system administrators. For that reason, it’s extremely stringent on security protocols. 

The operating system is divided into two main distributions: openSUSE Leap and openSUSE Tumbleweed. Leap uses the source code from SUSE Linux Enterprise, which makes it much more stable. New versions are released roughly once a year and are supported for three years, making Leap perfect for business applications.

Tumbleweed is based on Factory, openSUSE's main development codebase. It follows a rolling release model – in other words, packages are made available for download as soon as they've been tested in Factory. This means Tumbleweed contains the latest stable applications and is good for day-to-day use. 

What’s more, the SUSE Studio Express website allows you to create your own version of openSUSE, complete with tailored preinstalled software packages, desktop and system settings.

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(Image credit: CentOS)

5. CentOS

Offshoot of Enterprise version of Red Hat Linux

Built for stability
Ideal for a server
Not so great for daily desktop usage

CentOS is a community offshoot of the Enterprise version of Red Hat Linux, and its focus is on stability rather than constant updates. Like Red Hat, security and maintenance updates for CentOS are pushed out up to 10 years from the initial release of each version. 

CentOS is designed to be super-reliable, which is why it’s a great choice for a server. It's not quite such a good bet for someone looking for a new OS for daily use on their desktop PC or laptop.

On the plus side, you can enjoy the pleasure of having something for nothing – packages compiled for the commercial version of Red Hat Linux are fully compatible with CentOS, so you can use them free of charge. 

Additionally, if you are looking for experience as a server sysadmin, CentOS could be a good distro to set up and install to advance your skills.

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(Image credit: Arch Linux)

6. Arch Linux

Arch Linux or Antergos are sterling Linux options

Massive potential for customization
For advanced users
User-friendly flavors

If you’re willing to try a slightly less user-friendly distro, Arch Linux is one of the most popular choices around. Arch allows you to customize your build using the terminal to download and install packages, and it’s particularly handy for developers and those with older machines who may not want unnecessary packages taking up space.

The main aim of Arch Linux is to keep things simple, not so much for users as much as ensure code is clean and correct, with a minimalist approach to everything. There's not so much bundled with it as other distros, so users will be expected to download any additional software they need, as well as customize Arch Linux according to their needs.

While it may make the distro a little complicated, the lack of bloat can make it especially attractive to users who want a clean Linux experience with little or no clutter. The result is a Linux experience that definitely favors more experienced users rather than beginners, so keep that in mind.

However, there are more user-friendly flavors based on Arch Linux, such as Manjaro, which is an especially popular distro at the moment.

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