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.
SolydX – When it comes to a fun-to-use Debian experience, I’ve found it hard to beat SolydX. This distribution is available both as SolydXK (KDE edition) or as SolydX using the XFCE desktop. SolydX provides you with all the control you could want without having to configure much of the system out of the box.
What really sets this apart from other Debian distributions for me is that I can choose to go with a release based on either Debian Stable or Debian Testing, depending on what I’m in the mood for. For me, the Home Edition based on Debian Testing was where my heart is. What drew me to SolydX was its update pack philosophy: A rolling release distro with controlled, monthly update packs so I don’t need to update my computer every day.
Bundle this with the fact that I’ll never need to re-install it due to its rolling release nature, and SolydX has proven to be a very good distribution for someone who wants stability without losing out on available software packages.
One issue I ran into that is worth noting: the network manager wasn’t managing my wired connection out of the box. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but it’s worth noting that if you wish to use the network manager, you may need to add those connections manually.
PCLinuxOS – I’ll admit that in the early days of PCLinuxOS, I was a bit of a fanboy. It was the first distro using RPM packages that didn’t make me want to throw my computer across the room. PCLinuxOS was interesting in that it was among one of the first newbie friendly distributions to really get hardware detection right. 3G cards are no problem with PCLinuxOS. Perhaps you wanted proprietary drivers for your video card? Again, PCLinuxOS nailed it with regard to providing great proprietary drive support.
PCLinuxOS boasts good things from the Mandriva project, such as a very solid control panel. And their community, though smaller than Ubuntu’s, is phenomenal. In addition to providing a great distro, and a newbie friendly community environment, PCLinuxOS also offers a great Linux “Webzine” dedicated to its users. I love it – its task-based content shows PCLinuxOS users how to actually use the distro to get things done.
Lubuntu/Xubuntu – Old computers (newbie) – My final recommendation for newer Linux users is actually two derivatives of Ubuntu. Lubuntu (LXDE desktop) and Xubuntu(XFCE desktop). Each of these shares the same goal, to allow you to run an Ubuntu base with a lightweight desktop environment.
If you’re married to the idea of Ubuntu, but don’t want the system overhead that can come from a more robust desktop, these two distros should be on your short list. Both distributions share a menu driven system, complete with network manager, basic desktop controls and access to any basic tweaks one might wish to make to their system.
The downside is that neither of these two distributions offer much in the way of “flash.” That said, both of these distros can be installed on older hardware which can extend the life of an older PC by years.
Best Linux Desktop: Experienced Enthusiasts
Not everyone is a newbie. Some folks using Linux today aren’t looking for the “easiest” distribution out there. Instead, these individuals might be looking for the following instead.
- Speed: Not just a speedy boot time, but an overall lack of system bloat.
- Control: Experienced users often want the option to dive head first into a conf file, then customize the changes they want for their individual systems. Serious examples of this might include Arch Linux, Gentoo or Slackware.
- Ready to use: I like distributions that are ready to use out of the box, yet allow me to enjoy a rolling release.
Antergos – If you would like to run Arch Linux, but would rather run a pre-configured system, Antergos won’t let you down. Unlike other distros “based on” Arch, Antergos is Arch at its core. What I like most about running Antergos is the access to the Arch User Repository (AUR). This gives me access to any package I could want, plus I’m ensured to be running the latest and greatest at all times.
Currently I enjoy Antergos on my main PC, since it’s a machine I can update on a daily basis. Available in both GNOME 3 and Cinnamon desktop flavors, Antergos’ most recent claim to fame is the fantastic icon set provided by the Numix Project.
Now before you rush off to enjoy the rolling release goodness of this ready to go Arch distribution, understand that you’re running bleeding edge software. This means treating this like you would any Arch installation and keeping up with the Arch mailing list for any potential bugs. I also recommend updating at least once a week to avoid any major update issues due to unforeseen circumstances.
Sabayon Linux – I’ve told anyone who would listen that if anything was to happen to Antergos or Arch Linux, I’d be running Sabayon Linux on my daily use box. The latest packages, great out of the box support and the install once and forget about experience is just what I need in my life. If you’ve ever used Gentoo Linux, then you’ll feel right at home with a Sabayon installation. Like Arch Linux, Sabayon has great documentation and a strong community of experienced users to help you out.
Like any other intermediate distributions, Sabayon isn’t without its challenges. One of the most common complaints is that, out of the box, the package manager is too slow. Despite being easily fixed, it’s still a frustration for those not in the know. Others may complain about MP3s not playing out of the box. If you’re someone that needs these things working out of the box, Sabayon may not be for you.
WattOS Microwatt Edition – I own an older netbook that, quite honestly, is more of a burden than a help. It’s dated and has lousy resolution, but unfortunately it’s the only notebook I own at this time. Luckily WattOS has managed to take some of the sting out of running this horrid little machine.
Not only does it provide me with a fantastic Debian base, I also get a nice Openbox window manager with various XFCE elements sprinkled throughout my installation. WattOS will run on older hardware like a champ, and as a bonus has been configured to minimize battery consumption while also using as little power as possible overall.
As much as I’d like to recommend WattOS to anyone who might listen, it does take a bit of getting used to since it is more focused on power conservation than performance. Another issue is in delaying the touch pad while typing. This feature must be handled via a script as the GUI options are useless in this regard. Plus the Openbox window manager isn’t for everyone, so you might be happier exploring one of the other WattOS editions instead.
VectorLinux – I love VectorLinux. It’s the perfect marriage of low system requirements and Slackware Linux power. Like other distributions previously mentioned, it comes in multiple editions ranging from a full featured KDE desktop down to Light Edition, which requires only 64MB of RAM.
Personally, my preferred VectorLinux desktop is the Standard Edition. This provides its users with the XFCE desktop environment, and will run butter-smooth on systems as old as Pentium 3 computers. As a Slackware based distribution, users are presented with two options for installing software – Slapt-get and Gslapt. Both of these methods of package installation can take some getting used to. However once you get the hang out it, you’ll find installation of software is as easy as it would be on any distro.
The biggest consideration when looking at using VectorLinux is that the docs are aimed at going about things in the geekiest way possible. Many things that might be explained by pointing to GUI solutions will be handled via command line solutions. If you’re an intermediate to advanced user, this is actually a good thing. For anyone else, this might be a bit of a turn off.
Which Linux Desktop Is Right For You?
Above I listed a number of solid, tested and true Linux distributions that I personally believe in. To make things easier for you, I grouped them into newbie friendly and intermediate/advanced lists in order to save you a lot of wasted time trying a distribution that might not be right for you.
That said, once you’ve settled on which section of this article your Linux skills fall under, I recommend trying all the options listed in that section. You might be surprised to find that a lesser known distro is the ones that really meet your needs. Go ahead, download an ISO or two right now. And report back with your personal favorites in the Comments section.