We sometimes talk about Linux as if it were one, single operating system, but of course, it really comes in hundreds of different flavors. In fact, one of the strengths of open source software is that developers can (and do) customize the code to meet a variety of unique needs.
In this article, we’ll take a look at 50 of the most well-known distributions of the Linux OS. If you’ve been using Linux for a while, you’re probably familiar with the major distributions, but you might find some others you haven’t encountered that are worth checking out.
The list is organized into several different categories. The “major” distributions come first, followed by distros based on Ubuntu, Debian, Red/Hat Fedora, Mandriva, Slackware, Arch and Gentoo. Next come some distros that are optimized for cloud computing, some very lightweight distributions, some that are designed to look as much like Windows as possible and finally, some notable distros that didn’t seem to fit into any other category. Of course, some distributions could fit into more than one category, but we tried to place them where they seemed to fit most naturally.
Also, in limiting ourselves to the fifty, we undoubtedly left off some noteworthy Linux distributions. If you’d like to nominate one (or more) that you think should have been included, please free to use the comments section below.
Major Linux Distros
Canonical’s Ubuntu is probably the most popular Linux distribution in the world for desktop computers. Recently released version 11.04 offers a new Unity interface. It’s available in desktop, server and cloud editions, as well as in several variations that are included lower on this list.
The Red Hat company calls itself “the world’s open source leader,” and its server version of Linux is a particular favorite with enterprises. It’s available only with a paid subscription, but does have a community version–Fedora.
This community-owned project provides the code base for a lot of other Linux distros, including Ubuntu, DSL, MEPIS and many others. It can be used for desktops or servers and all versions are completely free.
Novell’s version of Linux for enterprises is available only with a paid subscription (although you can download the very similar openSUSE for free). It claims to be “the most interoperable platform for mission-critical computing–across physical, virtual and cloud environments.”
5. Linux Mint
Linux Mint boasts that it is the fourth most popular operating system for home users, behind Windows, OS X, and Ubuntu. It has a reputation for being very easy to use and it includes about 30,000 packages.
First released in 1993, Slackware is one of the oldest Linux distributions. Popular with the geekiest of geeks, it relies heavily on command-line tools and is very similar to UNIX.
First released in 2002, Gentoo boasts “extreme configurability, performance and a top-notch user and developer community.” It uses the Portage package management system, which currently includes more than 10,000 different applications.
8. Arch Linux
Arch is definitely not for Linux newbies, but its simple design makes it a favorite among long-time Linux users who are comfortable with the command line. By default, it installs a minimal base system but provides plenty of options for customization.
Fedora is the free, community version of RedHat’s popular Linux distribution, and it’s been called “the best place to track what’s on the leading edge of Linux and open source software.” In addition to the standard desktop download, it’s available in a number of specialized versions, which it calls “spins.”
The free, community version of Novell’s SUSE distro, openSUSE calls itself “Linux for open minds.” It can be used on a desktop, laptop or server and can be installed or run live from a CD or USB drive.
Linux Distros Based on Ubuntu
As the name suggests, Kubuntu is a Ubuntu fork that uses the KDE desktop instead of the Unity desktop. It’s an excellent choice for new Linux users.
Lubuntu is lighter, faster, and uses less energy than its namesake, making it a good choice for mobile devices, including netbooks. It uses the LXDE desktop instead of the Unity desktop.
And this is the version of Ubuntu that uses the Xfce desktop environment. It’s available in both desktop and server versions.
This version of Ubuntu has been tailored for the needs of schools. Like Ubuntu, Kubuntu and Xubuntu, it’s sponsored by Canonical.
15. Easy Peasy
Designed for use on netbooks, EasyPeasy boasts millions of users in more than 166 countries. It was built to support social networking and cloud computing, and it offers very low power consumption for longer battery life on mobile devices.
Zentyal is a Ubuntu-based small business server that can act as a gateway, infrastructure manager, unified threat manager, office server and/or unified communication server. It’s available as a free download or in paid, supported versions.
Supported by the Free Software Foundation, gNewSense is based on Ubuntu with a few changes, like the removal of non-free firmware. The name started as a pun on “Gnu” and “nuisance” and is pronounced guh-NEW-sense.
18. Pinguy OS
Built for new Linux users who need something that’s even easier to use than Ubuntu, Pinguy OS makes it easy to find and use the programs average users need most often. It’s also available in a DVD version for $5.99.
19. Bodhi Linux
Bodhi puts the focus on user choice and minimalism. It uses the Enlightenment desktop environment and a “software store” that makes it easy to find and install the open source applications you want to use.
Developed in Cambodia (English is supported), MoonOS is based on Ubuntu, but has a different file hierarchy system and appshell framework. It’s designed for speed, great looks and low memory use.
Linux Distros Based on Debian
Debian-based MEPIS (also known as simplyMEPIS) is particularly popular with those new to Linux. It’s available in free downloadable versions, or you can purchase a CD which makes trying or installing the software easy.
Sometimes written #!, CrunchBang is a lightweight distribution based on Debian. It’s a popular option for netbooks like the Asus Eee.
Suitable for beginners, Knoppix is an easy-to-use distribution based on Debian. It runs from a live CD, and if you don’t want to go to the trouble to burn your own (or you don’t know how), you can buy one for less than two bucks.
This distro can be installed on your desktop or run easily from a USB drive. DreamLinux installs the Xfce desktop environment by default, but it also supports Gnome.
Linux Distros Based on Red Hat/Fedora
Owned by a publicly traded French company, Mandriva claims more than 3 million users worldwide. It’s available in several editions, desktop and server, paid and unpaid, including a unique Instant On version that boots up with minimal functionality in less than 10 seconds.
Short for “Community ENTerprise Operating System,” CentOS is based primarily on Red Hat code. It’s the most popular version of Linux for Web servers, accounting for about 30 percent of Linux-based Web servers.
27. Scientific Linux
Created by the folks at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), as well as various scientists and universities, Scientific Linux (SL) aims to prevent scientists at each of these different institutions from having to recreate a Linux distribution that meets their needs. It’s basically the same as Red Hat Enterprise Linux with a few slight modifications.
Fusion describes itself as a “pimp my ride” version of Fedora. It offers good multimedia support and an interesting look and feel. It’s best for more advanced Linux users who are looking for cutting edge, experimental applications.
Linux Distros Based on Mandriva
Instead of being built for end users, Unity is built to give developers or advanced Linux users some modular pieces they can use to create a customized distribution. Despite its name, it has nothing to do with the Unity desktop used by Ubuntu; instead, the Unity OS uses the OpenBox graphical environment.
In 2010, a group of Mandriva developers began this community-driven fork following some ownership changes at the company that owns the Mandriva project. It’s currently in beta, but the first official release is due in a few weeks.
Distros Based on Slackware
Originally based on Slackware and called “Minislack,” ZenWalk has evolved to become a modern, fast, lightweight distribution that’s easy to use. It’s available in five versions: standard, core, live, Gnome and Openbox.
32. Vector Linux
VectorLinux’s credo is “keep it simple, keep it small and let the end user decide what their operating system is going to be.” In addition to the free download, it’s also available in a supported “deluxe” edition.
Like Slackware, Frugalware is best for users who aren’t afraid of the command line, although it does have some graphical tools. It’s designed with simplicity in mind.
34. Salix OS
Salix compares itself to a bonsai tree in that it is “small, light and the product of infinite care.” It comes in four different versions for the Xfce, LXDE, Fluxbox and KDE desktop environments.
Linux Distros Based on Arch Linux
Based on ArchLinux, Chakra uses the KDE desktop. It uses a unique “bundles” system to let users access Gtk apps without actually installing them on the system.
This Arch variant uses the Openbox Window Manager. It’s fast and lightweight, and offers many of the same customization capabilities as Arch.
Linux Distros Based on Gentoo
Named after an Italian dessert, Sabayon aims to be the “cutest” Linux distribution — “as easy as an abacus, as fast as a Segway.” It’s based on Gentoo, and it supports the KDE, Gnome, LXDE and Xfce desktop environments.
Cloud Computing Distros
38. Joli OS
Joli installs in just ten minutes and is optimized for cloud computing applicatons. Use it to breathe new life into an old PC, or you can run it alongside Windows.
A good choice for netbooks or older PCs, Peppermint is designed to work with cloud and Web apps. The name might make you think it’s based on Mint, but it’s not. It’s actually based on Lubuntu, which of course, is based on Ubuntu.
Formerly known as Peanut Linux, aLinux is designed to be both fast and multimedia-friendly. Its graphic interface provides an easy transition for former Windows users.
At just 50MB, this distro lives up to its name – Damn Small Linux (DSL). As you might expect, it’s very fast and runs on older PCs, as well as fitting onto small USB drives and business card CDs.
42. Tiny Core Linux
One of the smallest Linux distros available, Tiny Core weighs in at just 10MB in its GUI version. The command line version, Micro Core, is even smaller – just 6MB.
43. Puppy Linux
Small and fast, Puppy is designed to be installed on a USB thumb drive that users can take with them and boot from any PC. It takes up about 100 MB, boots in less than a minute, and runs from RAM for maximum speed.
44. Zorin OS
Unlike most Linux distributions, Zorin was designed to look and feel as much like Windows as possible – only faster and without as many bugs. It’s available in both free and paid verions.
45. Ylmf OS
Like Zorin, Ylmf’s interface looks a lot like Windows, in this case the Windows XP classic look. Created by Chinese developers, it’s available in either Chinese or English, and it’s based on Ubuntu.
GoboLinux’s claim to fame is that is doesn’t use the Unix Filesystem Hierarchy Standard, but instead stores each program in its own sub-directory in the Program directory. That means that it’s a little bit easier to use for Linux newbies or experienced Linux users who like to install applications from the original source code.
Designed to be easy to use, PCLinuxOS can be run on a Live CD or installed on a desktop or laptop. It supports seven different desktops, including KDE, Gnome, Enlightenment, XFCE, LXDE, and others.
Based on Intel’s Moblin and Nokia’s Maemo, MeeGo is known as a smartphone OS, but it can also be used on netbooks and other mobile devices. With Nokia moving to Windows Phone 7 for future headsets, MeeGo’s future is uncertain.
Google’s operating system goes by two names, which can make things confusing. Officially, “Chromium OS” is the open source version used primarily by developers, and “Chrome OS” is the name for the version of the operating system Google plans to include on netbooks for end users. And just to make things even more confusing, both projects share a name with Google’s Web browser. For now, Chromium OS (the only version available for download) is really only suitable for advanced users and developers.
50. Musix GNU+Linux
As its name implies, Musix is geared for multi-media enthusiasts, particularly those involved in audio editing. It can boot from a live disk or be installed on a system.