Best Linux Desktop: Top 10 Candidates

The best Linux desktops for both newbie and advanced users, focusing on desktop ease of use and Linux tool set.
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Also see: Top 10 Linux Desktop Candidates (slideshow)

When it comes to selecting the best Linux desktop experience, there are a number of different factors to consider. In this article, I'll explore 10 Linux distributions that I personally believe are the best all around desktop options.

I'll segment each off for newbies or advanced users, customization vs. pre-configured, along with how each performs on standard PC hardware commonly used in most homes.

Best Linux Desktop: For Newcomers

Now more than ever, there are solid Linux distributions for the Linux newbie. These distributions generally offer the following benefits, which make them appealing to someone coming from Windows or OS X.

  • Hardware compatibility:Even though the Linux kernel offers great hardware compatibility out of the box, sometimes a distro's maintainer will make tweaks to ensure common issues with sound or video don't scare away newcomers.
  • Familiar software titles: Many newcomers will find applications such as Firefox, Skype or LibreOffice are being offered by default. Having familiar software titles will help to soften the blow that can come from a sudden switch from Windows or OS X.
  • Easy to use desktop layout: This is a big consideration. While one person might be looking for something with a dock-like experience, the next newcomer may prefer a menu launcher like Windows instead. In the end, it really comes down to the distros that make finding docs, pictures and applications easy enough for the casual user.

So which distributions of Linux are the best for the Linux newcomer? While there isn't a single answer, there are a few solid distributions that I think fit the bill.

Ubuntu – I realize Ubuntu has been promoted as the "all or nothing" option for most Linux newbies. Regardless of its over-publicized nature, Ubuntu is set up to provide solid hardware compatibility out of the box – not all distros can make this claim.

Also Ubuntu offers a strong community to assist in any new user challenges that might arise. The final consideration with Ubuntu is that it's not a one-man show. Despite it's support from Canonical, Ubuntu has a large group of volunteers that help keep the distro running smoothly from release to release. Software can be kept fresh by using Ubuntu's PPAs or personal package archives. The PPAs are great for grabbing the latest release of a specific software title without waiting on a new release of Ubuntu.

The two biggest downsides to Ubuntu? Unity, which to a newcomer might not feel as natural as their previous desktop experience. And in my opinion, the biggest challenge – the encouragement to use an update tool for upgrading to new Ubuntu releases.

Even though the update tool usually works well, there have been ample instances where it fails and fails miserably. And because many users don't have a dedicated home directory, they are sometimes left in a bad situation with a half-updated system.

Linux Mint– Based on Ubuntu, Mint differs itself by holding back on its release cycle more than Ubuntu proper does. This means when a new release of Ubuntu comes out, Mint is in no hurry to play "catch up," instead opting for using an older code base instead. The idea is that this leaves Mint users with a more stable desktop experience.

Tie this in with Mint's own MintTools, and Mint users find themselves using a Linux distribution that embraces their users with open arms and a newbie friendly environment. I've also come to appreciate their approach to software updates (using a risk numbering system) and the main desktop environment, Cinnamon.

There are some things to be aware of when using Linux Mint, however. First, using Ubuntu PPAs with Mint can lead to issues. Despite Ubuntu and Mint being closely related, they do have some deep core differences that can lead to issues when using some PPAs for software. So be aware of any issues in advance and do a quick search on the Web before using a specific application's Ubuntu PPAs first.

The last thing to be aware of: updating Mint means a fresh installation each time. At this time, there isn't an upgrade tool for installing the latest distro version like with its cousin, Ubuntu.

Zorin OS – If you're looking for an Ubuntu-based distribution that can feel almost exactly like a Windows environment, then Zorin OS is the best Linux distro for you. Easy to install, Zorin works with Ubuntu's level of hardware compatibility and best of all, you can mimic popular operating systems such as Windows or OS X using Zorin's theme changer.

Personally, I'm not interested in making my desktop look more like Windows, but for some converts, this may be helpful in making them feel more at home. I also love its Web browser manager, which helps newbies easily select the browser without needing to know what the options are. Just select the one you want from the app, and you're all set.

The only real issue to speak of that I've experienced with Zorin are bugs passed down from Ubuntu specifically. If you can get past that, it's a great option for those needing familiarity.

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Tags: Linux, Linux desktop, Linux desktop distro, Best linux desktop

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