I’ve been an advocate for Linux since I started with Slackware in the mid-90s. One of the most basic questions those interested in switching to Linux ask is "which distribution (aka distro) do I use?" With more people becoming unhappy with how Microsoft has hijacked their computers with Windows 10 (automatic updates installing/uninstalling software for example), even amateur users are starting to consider alternatives.
Some Linux enthusiasts become enamored with just one or two distros and recommend them over everything else, but I’m not a fan of the "one size fits all" mentality. Different distros are suited for different tasks and types of users. From a desktop OS to a server OS to a media center. From the amateur to the enthusiast to the expert.
If you are intimidated by the prospect of installing Linux yourself, note that almost all of these are as simple as downloading, burning a DVD (or flash drive), and sticking it in. Most can also be run live right off the DVD. I have made notes wherever installation issues may arise. You can also simply mount the image you download into a virtual machine created in Virtual Box (or whatever you prefer). This way, you can test the operating system without the slow speed of running it live or making changes to your hard drive.
Are you worried your Windows applications won’t run under Linux? First, know that there are many Linux alternatives (most of them free) for everything from office suites to financial software to multimedia players. You will wonder why you ever paid hundreds of dollars for these programs when you had Windows. In those cases where you must run a Windows program, there are solutions like WINE. And PlayOnLinux will even allow you to run many of your favorite Windows games!
All the distributions listed here are freely available, so it doesn’t cost you anything but a little time to try them out.
- For Servers and Workstations
- For Newbies and Average Desktop Users
- For Power Users and Home Theaters
- For Gamers
- For Laptops
- For Older Hardware
- For the Paranoid
- For the Computer Expert
- Also Recommended
- Honorable Mentions
- Other Categories
Don’t worry. I’m not going to make you learn a bunch of Linux lingo. But there are a few terms in this article you should understand.
- Distribution/Distro: a collection of software based on the Linux kernel. Often misnamed an operating system, this is not technically accurate. What differentiates the various distros are things like the package managers, desktops, and other included packages.
- LTS: long-term support. Generally speaking, an LTS release of a distro will be maintained and receive updates for years to come, making it more stable than intermediate releases. Sometimes you may not get the most bleeding-edge features with an LTS release.
- Package: basically a fancy name for a piece of software. A package can be a driver for a piece of hardware, an application like a web browser, or something more behind the scenes like a set of libraries needed for other software to function.
- Package Manager: a tool for installing/removing/updating packages. Most desktop distros have a graphical front-end for their package manager, so you don’t need to know how to use the command line version. Typical package managers use RPM or DEB packages, though some use TXZ. Some package managers are better at resolving conflicts than others. But we won’t get that technical here.
- Release: in Linux terms, this is the same as saying a new version. Like Windows 10 is a newer release of Windows than Windows 8.
- Rolling Release/Distribution: an update system where packages are continuously updated without the need to reinstall. When a new release comes out, the system can automatically update. But there is a risk it can break packages. A rolling distribution would be like Windows 7 upgrading to Windows 8 without an installation. If you are a Windows/Mac user, sticking to a non-rolling release is like what you are used to.
For Servers and Workstations
For a server or general workstation, security and reliability are the most important. As such, a typical fully-loaded desktop distro should not be your first choice. You want to start with something proven and 100% stable with only the minimum software to start, then install what you need.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is considered the de facto standard for servers and workstations, but it isn’t cheap. If you want something for free, you want CentOS. This is my go-to OS for servers, whether for email, web hosting, file storage, directory services, etc. Based on the same source as RHEL, you won’t find many distros more reliable. Its focus on stability and reliability means you won’t get the latest features found in other distributions, so those looking for a good desktop OS may want to consider something else.
Installation is very simple, even if using the text installer. For servers, you will probably want the Minimal version which doesn’t contain a desktop (though one can be installed later), helping to make it even more rock-solid.
For Newbies and Average Desktop Users
Those new to Linux will want something they can easily install that comes configured with all the software the average user needs as well as a desktop interface that is familiar. The following fits this bill perfectly.
Based on Ubuntu, this is one of the best desktop distros out there. The Cinnamon desktop is beautiful, with an application menu that anyone who has used a computer before can start using right away. There are other desktops to choose from according to your preference. This is what Ubuntu should have been with a number of added features, including more multimedia codecs. Currently, Linux Mint is only posting LTS releases on their website and each version comes out within weeks of a new Ubuntu LTS release. Overall this is possibly the best desktop distro out there.
Another nice thing about Linux Mint is that it can run on most common hardware. A full default installation of the Cinnamon edition takes up 5GB of hard drive space and uses only around 300MB of RAM on startup.
Updates are not automatic, but you will get a handy tray notification, making installation simple. Linux Mint is not a rolling distribution, which means it will not upgrade to new releases of Linux Mint. This is intentional, to help reduce the risk of breaking software. Instead, the LTS releases on their website receive a full five years of support. So there is no need to upgrade for a while unless you want the features in a newer release.
For Power Users and Home Theaters
The above is a great desktop distro, but there are others with even more features. These may be intimidating to some less experienced users. If you consider yourself a Windows/Mac power user, you may consider the following instead. Also a great option for average and high-end home theater PCs.
Originally derived from Mandrake, which was well-regarded in its day. I highly recommend the FullMonty edition which has a beautiful workspace-oriented desktop that is unique and easy to get used to (you may wonder why you ever put up with the Windows Start Menu). You also have the option of booting straight to Kodi, making it great for home theater systems.
In some ways, the default installation has almost too many programs included, such as offering the user Chrome, Firefox, and Opera for web browsers. This makes for a bloated installation that takes up a whopping 12GB of hard drive space (a lot for Linux). And the FullMonty desktop will use over 1GB of RAM on startup (again, not much compared to Windows, but a lot for Linux). Still, some users may appreciate the range of software choices without having to install anything themselves.
My biggest concern with PCLinuxOS is that it doesn’t have an official release cycle (though major stable releases have come out every year). The update system is also not quite as user-friendly as Linux Mint. This is why I didn’t list this as recommended for newbies, but if you are even a little technically proficient, it is easy enough to learn. Although PCLOS (short name for this distro) is considered a rolling distribution, the updates are fully tested and less likely to break anything than in other rolling distributions. This means you don’t have to worry about reinstalling when a new version comes out (in theory, though in my experience this isn’t always true).
This is the toughest category for me to make a recommendation when it comes to Linux distros. Although there are tools like PlayOnLinux to make playing Windows games on Linux much easier, most video games are not designed to run natively under Linux. This means that it can be kind of hit-and-miss as to whether modern games will run well on various Linux distros. This is why most gamers will run a dual-boot system where they use Windows for gaming and Linux for everything else. But there are some simple options to try that have come out recently.
While you can install WINE and PlayOnLinux on any Linux distro, SteamOS is currently the only distro dedicated 100% to gaming. Maintained by Valve, the company behind the popular Steam client for PCs, the idea behind this freely available distro is very enticing. However, Valve was counting on sales of SteamOS-powered devices and such sales have so far been disappointing. This makes me skeptical that they will continue to support the distro in the long term. As such, it may be better to consider another distro with PlayOnLinux pre-configured or just learn how to install and configure it on your favorite distro instead.
Alternatives: Zorin OS
For a laptop, you want a distro that will run on a wide range of hardware and uses as little battery life as possible.
Normally I don’t recommend distros that have been around less than five years. This is a rare exception. Ubuntu Mate began as an alternative to Ubuntu when they went to the Unity desktop, which isn’t really suited for desktops or laptops. CPU and RAM utilization are significantly less than Ubuntu, making it a great choice for laptops. The clean desktop environment and simple application menu suited for desktops and laptops alike, make this my first choice currently for most laptops.
As for hardware support, this should run on anything Ubuntu will run on, which means just about any standard hardware.
As with Ubuntu, I recommend installing the LTS version rather than the latest interim version for most users. It will be more stable and have better hardware support in general. It is not clear to me if Ubuntu Mate supports the new release upgrade method in Ubuntu, but I’m guessing it will. If it works as promised, this will provide the best of both worlds — easy upgrades to new releases without the risk involved with rolling distributions.
For Older Hardware
So you dug up that PC collecting dust in your basement that you had to clean a dead rat out of? And you’re wondering if it is still salvageable? Linux to the rescue! There are several distros made specifically for low-end hardware. Here is what I recommend.
A well-maintained lightweight distro based on Ubuntu. It doesn’t come with a lot of software, so you will need to install what you want. For those who really need to resurrect some old computer that won’t run anything else, this is probably your best choice. While there are many other lightweight distros, most require a higher level of expertise to use. This is one even novice users can get into.
For the Paranoid
Do you go to Walmart wearing a tinfoil hat? Are you convinced aliens from Reticula are extracting human livers for consumption? Or do you just want to keep the NSA from looking at what you do online? Yes, there is a Linux distro for you.
If you are interested in Internet privacy, you are probably familiar with Tor. While the Tor network is easily usable by those with almost any operating system, a certain Linux distro has become popular that is specially designed for privacy. This distro is known as Tails. It is so dangerous to our overlords in the federal government that the NSA even labeled its users as "extremists". I don’t know about you, but this just made me more interested and now I use it rather than my Windows-based Tor browser when I want anonymous web browsing.
"But I have nothing to hide" you say. I could list a thousand quotes and historical (not to mention recent) examples of how naive such a mindset is. One revelation in the news is that the NSA has almost limitless power (and this after the Obama administration’s restrictions on them a couple years ago) to monitor anyone suspected of terrorist links as well as those twice removed. Think about that. Twice removed. That means if one person on your Facebook friends list (whom you possibly don’t know at all) has someone on their friends list (whom they possibly don’t know at all) that is in the slightest way suspected of terrorist ties, the NSA may be monitoring all your online activity. You flirted with someone you met in a chat room, thinking it completely innocent. Unbeknownst to you, she is 15. Now you are the next Anthony Weiner. Congratulations.
For the Computer Expert
Do you (like me) remember PC-DOS? Maybe you’ve avoided the Linux world up until now but you have the experience and skill and drive to learn it. You don’t want some bloated all-in-one distro. You want a distro that will challenge you and force you to learn all the ins and outs of the Linux world. Here you go.
Those who love Arch Linux really love it. Their KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) philosophy has its pros and cons. You can install as few or as many packages as you desire from the start, which makes it great for low-end hardware. However, it is not intended for the amateur, so don’t even consider it if you aren’t ready to really learn Linux. It is a rolling distribution, so for the inexperienced (or sometimes experienced) user, there is a risk of breaking packages when updating. I don’t recommend it for just anyone for this reason. There are more stable choices for both servers and desktops.
The first issue someone new to this distro is going to notice is that it doesn’t come with a simple installer like most others I’ve listed here. Although their online documentation includes an article on installation, you may prefer the following step-by-step guide: http://www.muktware.io/arch-linux-guide-the-always-up-to-date-arch-linux-tutorial/
Alternatives: Manjaro Linux
The following distros are ones I am intimately familiar with and which have a good long track record. They are great alternatives to the ones listed above.
One of the oldest distros still being actively developed (along with Slackware). You have a wide range of desktops to choose from straight from the installation media. It supports more CPU architectures than any other distro. Many of the most popular desktop Linux distros (such as Ubuntu) are based on Debian, making this is an excellent choice for newbies and experts alike. Those other Debian variants may include newer features however, since Debian stable versions can be years between releases. Installation is very simple, especially if you use the graphical installer. The default installation also includes many useful applications that aren’t always installed by default with other distros.
This is an alternative to CentOS. Like CentOS, it is based on the same source as Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Unlike CentOS, Fedora is more controlled by Red Hat than the community. Many view it as a free OS that acts as a sort of preview for the next version of RHEL. Server and workstation versions available. The server version is like the CentOS minimal installation while the workstation version is closer to the full CentOS install with a desktop. Most users will notice little difference between this and CentOS, but CentOS is arguably more stable. Still, for those wanting newer features, Fedora may be a better choice in some cases.
Mageia quickly gained popularity and it is one of the newest distros I am listing here. However, it has been longer and longer between releases and the end-of-life for the current version is only a month away, while the next version is still in beta with no published release date. It is a great desktop OS, but I (and others) fear that the volunteers working on the project are falling behind, so don’t be surprised if it loses popularity in the near future. Still, it is worth a look.
This is the open source derivative of SuSE, which was acquired by Novell (now owned by Micro Focus) in 2003, but its origins go back further. SuSE was one of the first Linux distros with a desktop that I ever used, having been an advocate of Novell software going back to NetWare 3/4 in the early 90s. I gave up on openSUSE shortly after Novell’s controversial deal with Microsoft in 2006, thinking the distro would suffer a slow death as a result. However, it is still going strong today and has a loyal following. Not the most feature-rich distro out there, but if you want something with a proven track record, it is worth a look. Be sure to stick to the LEAP version for stability (similar in concept to the LTS releases of other distros).
Easily the oldest distro still in development, this was my first foray into the Linux world when I was but a wee lad. Very stable and very well supported. Although you can install a more modern desktop like KDE, some Slackware users don’t bother as there are more fancy distros out there. Slackware is what they should be using in schools to teach kids about Linux since it forces you to learn how to use command line tools and text files for configuring services. Installation takes place in a DOS-like environment and the defaults will install the KDE desktop, which you will either need to configure to start automatically or start it manually via the command line (this has been the default behavior for Slackware for as long as I remember).
I can’t stand Unity (the desktop used by current versions of Ubuntu) and I’m not the only one. It seems designed for tablets and other mobile devices, much like Windows 8 Metro. But Ubuntu has been the leader in desktop Linux distros with good reason. Its LTS releases are supported by virtually all hardware manufacturers, so you can almost be sure it will work with whatever hardware you have. And with its high popularity, it is widely supported by most software developers as well. If you prefer KDE, consider something like Kubuntu. Or just stick with Linux Mint, which is based on the latest Ubuntu LTS release. Speaking of which, be careful if you do go with Ubuntu and choose the latest release rather than the LTS version, since driver support isn’t nearly as good for these interim versions.
I’ve tested several of the distributions which have been gaining in popularity in the last couple years. You may want to check these out if you are interested in some of the more promising up-and-coming distros.
This Debian-based distribution from China (you can change the language on their website to English) is kind of unique and gaining popularity. They have created their own style of desktop as well as a number of other unique applications that are worth a look. Some people may like this design; others may not. Still too new to know if it will last.
I first tested this when version 0.1 came out, but early development seemed slow. It has picked up in the last couple years. This now looks like a great choice for desktop users new to Linux. It is still only at version 0.4, but seems to be pretty stable in my testing. One thing that sets it apart is how easy they make it to install on a system already running an operating system like Windows, macOS, or Ubuntu. This distro is based on Ubuntu and contains several very nice custom applications. The graphical package manager is one of the simplest I’ve ever seen.
Right now, the website isn’t clear on how to download the ISO for free. It will ask you to make a donation before downloading. You can just enter $0. Despite what the website says, you don’t have to use a flash drive. You can boot directly to the ISO in a virtual machine. Or you can burn the ISO to DVD.
Another fairly new distro that shows promise. It is simple with a very clean desktop. Most importantly, it comes loaded with software, so the newbie can just take off and start using Linux, complete with just about everything they will ever need. There have only been three versions so far, so it is too early to say it will be around forever or if development may slow in the future. Like many of the more popular desktop distros, it is based on the latest Ubuntu LTS release.
I first gave this a try last winter after reading a review on ZDNet. Although fairly new, this Arch Linux-based distro shows a lot of promise. It combines the functionality and customization of Arch Linux with a wide range of graphical tools. This is the best of both worlds, making it great for those who want control over the OS but don’t want to use the console. Though the version number is currently 16.10, it was version 0.8.x up until just last year. Let’s hope development continues for a long time.
When this was first announced I was excited. A Linux distribution with WINE (which lets you run many Windows programs under Linux) preinstalled. Not a first choice for experienced Linux users, but useful for easily migrating those stuck in a Windows world. However, I have some concerns. The distro is based on Ubuntu, but they are very slow to release new versions. For example, version 11 is based on Ubuntu 15.10, but was released over three months later. Version 12 is based on Ubuntu 16.04 and is still in beta despite 16.04 already being seven months old. Even worse, their official website is only offering version 9, which is very dated. What does this mean for the future of Zorin OS? I’m not sure. Still, if you are looking for a simple way to test how well your Windows programs will run under Linux + Wine, this is worth a look.
There are great guides out there to help you install and configure WINE for the other distributions I’ve listed here. So there’s nothing stopping you from running many of your favorite Windows programs under Linux if you choose another distro.
For the latest versions of Zorin OS (assuming their website continues not to display them), go here: https://sourceforge.net/projects/zorin-os/
Why didn’t I mention tablets? There are plenty of distros that run great on a variety of tablets, but if you are looking to get away from Android/iOS, then you probably have a good idea why and what you’re looking for, and my recommendation will mean little.
Why didn’t I mention CAD or other special needs? If you’re an engineer, you probably want a basic workstation distro like CentOS, Fedora, or openSUSE — all of which are covered here. There are many specialized Linux distros for all types of needs. For example, CAD/CAE users may like CAELinux, but development on this distro has been very slow in my opinion, so I’m not going to recommend it. You can install the same software they include on another distro and more than likely have more recent versions of it.