Also see: Best Linux Distros for Security
What is the best Linux distro? Datamation asked two leading Linux experts, and they both explained their top choices.
Matt Hartley’s Picks
Choosing the best Linux distro is highly subjective. Getting this great truth out of the way, there are some Linux distros that are considered the best available. In this article, I’ll share my top distro picks.
With the “official” adoption of Ubuntu MATE into the Ubuntu family, the introduction of Snap packages and the official desktop environment brought home to Gnome, there’s never been a better time to be an Ubuntu user. Legacy Ubuntu benefits include continued PPA access and Long Term Releases for those of us who simply loathe upgrading.
I acknowledge that the landscape has changed and Ubuntu may not be the king it once was. Despite this, Ubuntu remains a great distro with it’s choice of desktop options (XFCE, LXDE, MATE and Gnome).
Ubuntu has held on to its position as the “top” Linux distro even as many other distros have developed.
These days, I am seeing significant evidence that Linux Mint has become king of the newbie distros. Built from Ubuntu’s LTS release(s), Linux Mint has become a preferred Linux distro among many users. I have friends of mine that use Linux Mint exclusively and they swear it has the best hardware support out there. Personally, I think it’s really a matter of personal experiences and choice of desktop.
If you like the provided Mint tools (which are fantastic), want the best Cinnamon desktop environment available, then Linux Mint is for you. From a stability point of view, I do think that Mint using Ubuntu LTS as their core is a wise move. For Linux newbies and those who are already fans, it’s easy to see why users enjoy using this Linux distro.
With each passing year, my fondness for PCLinuxOS remains. It’s like an old friend you know will always be dependable and that continues to have your back. It may not have quite the package selection of Ubuntu/Debian or Arch, however PCLinuxOS is a rolling operating system that is rock solid stable.
This rolling release is my recommended goto distro for anyone who wants a non-bleeding edge distro that just works. I’ve installed it for folks in the past and have never come to regret it. With its Mandriva base, PCLinuxOS allows its users to enjoy a robust operating system without needing to reinstall it every six months.
The Elementary team has been pulling out all of the stops recently with a great fund raising campaign for their new app store, and a set of dedicated applications. This distro is designed to make migrating from OS X and Windows a familiar experience. Even though the software may be different, the overall attention to user work flow is simply outstanding.
With multiple Elementary exclusive applications, three completely different ways to explore what Elementary has to offer in terms of software, it’s no wonder why the adoption of this distro is skyrocketing.
Perhaps the most interesting distro in recent years, this built from scratch Linux distro is designed to run fast, be stable and address all the shortcomings that other distros might have overlooked. Packages are available pre-installed and available from their own app store environment.
There is also support for Flatpak software installations as well. Solus is a dedicated desktop operating system for home users, small businesses, gamers, developers and audio/video creators. In many ways, I see Solus as the distro to watch over the next few years. They’re taking a unique approach to a logical user work flow, package management and how they work with the community. I see them doing great things in the future.
If you want to enjoy the packages available from the Arch AUR, but would rather avoid the “Arch way” approach to how you set up your operating system – perhaps Antergos is a good option for you. Unlike Manjaro, a distro that holds onto Arch packages before releasing them. Antergos “is” Arch with one additional repository added.
There is no question that Antergos is a time saver if you want to run an Arch install without needing to customize your configuration. Mind you, I’m not saying Arch is hard. Just follow the wiki and it’s just a matter of following the steps. But “fine tuning” a distro to look like Antergos does take additional time. My recommendation is this – if you want to learn more about what makes a Linux distro work, try Arch. If you simply want a working desktop out of the box with access to the AUR repositories, try Antergos.
These days, privacy is the new final frontier. Unfortunately finding privacy online is becoming increasingly difficult. Thankfully distros like Tails make finding privacy online much easier. Built on Debian, supported by Mozilla and Tor, Tails has seen support from organizations that take privacy very seriously.
Because Tails is a live distro designed to run without actually being installed onto a PC, when you disconnect from the Internet and turn off the computer, there is no trace of activity on your hard drive. Additional benefits of using Tails is that it encourages flash drive encryption for storing any files and documents, runs HTTPS everywhere for Firefox, while providing a secure file deletion process with Nautilus Wipe.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect to Tails is that it’s designed to run all inbound/outbound data through the Tor network. This includes your browser and other applications installed on the live instance of Tails.
When you first arrive on the Arch Linux website, you might find it odd that they claim that Arch is designed around the KISS principle (Keep it Simple). In reality, the claim is true in that Arch is built to keep your installation free of anything you don’t purposely install yourself, thus, keeping things simple. Any perceived difficulty or lack of simplicity of the install process falls squarely on the shoulders of the end user. Some people find it very easy to install while others may need to spend some time studying the documentation a bit closer.
Arch is a bleeding-edge rolling Linux distro that is best enjoyed by those who want to really control their desktop operating system experience at its purist level. This includes reading the mailing list for any bugs or changes before upgrading, learning to use work-a-rounds if something should break (like that time Xcursor provided a non-functioning mouse years ago) and generally be willing to take greater ownership over your computer’s stability. Is Arch stable? Yes, if you know what you’re doing. If you’re a Linux newbie, then it depends heavily on you. Arch is a great disto if you like running the latest and greatest Linux has to offer.
Most developers I know who aren’t using Arch, use Fedora Workstation. With its built in Docker support and heavy developer focus, it’s no wonder why we see developers and IT professionals alike flocking to this distro.
One of the nice features about Fedora is for those who work with Red Hat (RHEL) or CentOS, using Fedora is very complementary in nature – it just fits in with the existing Red Hat work flow nicely. Don’t misunderstand – Fedora isn’t the same as Red Hat or CentOS. It simply complements the existing work flow for those who use RHEL or CentOS.
If you need more from your Fedora experience in terms of packages, try Fedora Copr. As a concept, it shares similarities with Ubuntu PPAs.
I’ve been using openSUSE off and on for years. It’s a great distro and provides a lot of great tools for enterprise users. The feature set that stands out the most in my opinion is the tool set called YaST. This tool set is a feature configuration tool, a setup tool, among many other things for the openSUSE user.
With this distro, you have two very different choices in terms of desktop distro type. A fixed release (Leap) or a rolling release (Tumbleweed). I prefer using Leap myself as I have access to a modern Linux kernel and tools, but don’t have to worry about installing packages at the frequency that would come with a rolling release.
Bruce Byfield’s Picks
The best Linux distro is always subjective. My own list of the best Linux distros depend on my current interests. One or two are always on my list, but the others are usually ones that have boast something different. Since I am regularly watching for new distros and developing new interests, this year’s list has only some overlaps with last year’s list.
To be honest, I follow Linux desktops more closely than Linux distributions. To me, desktop environments are where the innovation occurs. In fact, I would argue that when a distribution calls attention to itself, something is probably wrong.
All the same, I have my favorite Linux distros. They are not necessarily the most popular – that would be bland – but they are distributions that, one way or the other, are influential or fill a niche extremely well.
This is my current list of best Linux distros, in reverse order:
10. Arch Linux
Arch Linux first caught my attention because of Archwiki, one of the best sources for Linux documentation available. Although obviously concerned primarily with Arch, it is often relevant to other distributions because of Arch’s minimalist philosophy, which means that it often uses existing tools instead of inventing new ones.
Later, I learned to appreciate this philosophy for its own sake. Like most people, I took several tries to install Arch successfully, but in the process I learned far more about Linux than I would have from a graphical installer like Ubuntu’s or Fedora’s.
I also keep track of Arch because I am curious about rolling releases and their growing popularity. So far as I can tell, Arch generally manages a rolling least without sacrificing stability, and I want to know how it manages.
In 2017, much of the uproar over Systemd has died down. Systemd is incorporated in most major distributions, and most people have learned to accept it and even find their way around it. All the same, a nagging doubt remains in my mind about whether it is not overkill, and more than a replacement for init needs.
That’s where distributions like antiX come in. Although the emphasis on the project website is on developing a lightweight distribution – a role that antiX fills well – I have been running this distribution in the hopes that a comparison will help me develop an informed opinion about Systemd. So far, I find that I don’t miss it when running antiX.
8. Solus Budgie
The Solus Project is a bit of a maverick among distributions. Its main features are a rolling release and a simple but efficient desktop aesthetic, as well as a tendency to use GNOME-based applications. Last year, it announced plans to use Flatpak universal packages for application installations.
Solus is available in MATE and GNOME versions, but is best-known for its own Budgie desktop. Budgie includes a sidebar for apples, notifications, and customization settings, the eopkg package manager, and its own software center. All these tools combine simplicity and functionality, proving that innovation need not be radical to be efficient. All in all, Solus and Budgie have a focus on user experience that other desktop environments often ignore — which explains that Ubuntu Budgie is now one of the most popular Ubuntu variants.
The Solus Project is known for a simple yet efficient desktop.
Mageia is a community fork of Mandriva. With this ancestry, it includes features not found elsewhere in Linux, including the urpmi package manager. However, these features are close enough to those in other .rpm based distributions that they can be quickly learned.
Mageia deserves recognition for one of the clearest installers for Linux. Concise yet effective online help is included in the installation windows, and the installer also includes such useful features as a summary with Back buttons and an offer to install updates at the end of installation. When users boot into the desktop for the first time, Mageia offers a thorough list of links for documentation and its community.
However, for me, the most important feature of Mageia is its default KDE installation. Even at first boot, Mageia’s KDE installation is both attractive and quick, which is more than can be said of many alternatives. It’s the distribution I suggest people try when they want to see what KDE can do.
6. Bodhi Linux
Around the turn of the millennium, when I started using Linux, the Enlightenment window manager was a trendy alternative to GNOME and KDE, hovering on the brink of being a complete desktop environment, depending on your definitions. Unfortunately, development lagged, and Enlightenment faded from general memory — until it was revived five or six years ago in Bodhi. Frustrated by Enlightenment’s development politics, in 2015, Bodhi created a fork of Enlightenment called Moksha.
Enlightenment is no longer as revolutionary as it was originally. However, Moksha is an ideal choice for a lightweight system, with Midori for a web browser and small yet efficient tools such as Ephoto. Moksha stands out for its adaptations of standard Linux desktop features. For example, it uses virtual desktops to group different desktops, shelves or mini-menus to group applications efficiently, and hot spots on the edges of the screen. Moksha also includes a full set of gadgets (applets or widgets), including a few not found on other desktops such as brightness. In an era in which innovation is cautious, Moksha stands out as an effort to make the best of often over-looked features. Why it isn’t used in other distributions is a mystery to me.
5. Subgraph OS
Chances are, you have never heard of Subgraph. However, if you are interested in efforts to bring security to average users, you should have.
Subgraph OS is a Debian-based distribution that installs with easy-to use security applications. It uses Tor for anonymous web browsing, and its version of Thunderbird opens ready to set up Engimail to configure encrypted email. New security tools include CoyIM, a new security- hardened instant messenger and the Metadata Anonymisation Toolkit, both of which can be easily understood with a minimal of effort.
Probably Subgraph’s leading feature is Oz, its sandboxing system. Oz covers both Internet tools and document applications such as evince, eog, and LibreOffice without any fuss, except for a list of sandboxed applications in the upper right corner of the desktop that gives users control over each sandbox. This kind of integration of security tools into the desktop is something that Linux needs a lot more of, and Subgraph matters because it is a pioneer in these efforts.
4. Qubes OS
Making security easy for users is one of the major challenges in modern computing. Too often, security-based distributions install a variety of tools and leave users to figure out how to use them — a process that can be so daunting that many wind up not using them at all.
By contrast, Qubes OS brings security to the desktop, with configurable layers of security that can be color-coded. The result is security that everyone should be able to understand while staying with the desktop. The whole experience of installing Qubes OS is a lesson in the realities of security, starting with the project’s website prominently displaying a slogan defining the distribution as “reasonably secure” rather than making extravagant promises.
The only drawback to Qubes OS is its memory overhead. Requiring at least 4MB of RAM (and personally I would recommend 8 or even 16GB), Qubes OS is simply not practical on many computers. However, eventually hardware specs will catch up, and meanwhile, Qubes OS is showing how to make security accessible.
Unlike the rest of the distributions listed here, Knoppix is not a distribution to install. Rather, it is a Live CD or DVD. In either medium, it is useful as a showcase for non-Linux users to demonstrate the diversity of free software productivity tools, and for a rescue disk.
In the last year alone, I must have give out nearly two dozen copies of Knoppix. In addition, I make a point of keeping a recent version within easy reach, for occasions when I need to run fsck on my root partition, or need to do anything else that requires me to access a partition without mounting it.
I have never installed Fedora on my main workstation. However, it is always on my labtop. Fedora is the most influential of .rpm distributions, being the source of both Red Hat Enterprise Linux and CentOS, and running it when I’m away from home allows me to keep track of what is happening outside the Debian world where I am more or less permanently settled.
However, Fedora has plenty to appreciate in its own right. Although the Free Software Foundation gives it no credit, it has always shipped only with free software. Often, too, it is the first to ship with new technologies. Fedora 25 was among the first distros to release with Wayland instead of the X Window System, and currently, it is a place to watch the development of Flatpak, a universal package manager. I have often heard people complain that Fedora is so bleeding edge that these innovations cause problems, but personally I have never had the slightest problem with it.
Debian-derivatives gave me my start in Linux, and I worked for a year with Ian Murdock, Debian’s founder. However, my choice of Debian goes far beyond nostalgia. As I have said many times, Debian is the most influential distribution ever, the source of over two-thirds of the current distributions, including Ubuntu and Linux Mint. I appreciate it for its choice of packages – 55,000, in the Stretch release – as well as its strict policies, which make its security and stability second to none. I also appreciate that it leaves the choice of the balance between stability and current application versions to me, and gives me the tools to recover quickly when my rashness breaks the system.
The one drawback to Debian is that it can take years between releases. But at this stage of maturity, the differences between software versions are often minimal. If I do want to investigate the latest versions – hey, that’s what virtual machines are for.
A Linux Distro for Everyone
Looking over this list, I notice that innovative, security-based, and community-developed distributions. However, I am not consistent in these preferences, since I do not include perfectly good alternatives like openSUSE or Linux Mint.
Still, one thing a list like this makes clear is that the total number of distributions might be declining, but the diversity of Linux variants is as strong as ever. Even if you don’t find any of these choices to your liking, dig around and you should find several distributions that you can live with.
Your Pick for Best Linux distro?
What’s your choice for best Linux distro? Do you have a number of favorites based on your workflow? Feel free to add your thoughts to the Comments section below.