Linux is quickly rising to be one of the most popular operating systems for those who want customizability and speed for their desktop or laptop systems. Experiences on Linux aren’t homogenous, and there exist many distributions of the Linux operating systems, all offering users different feature sets according to their needs.
There are a lot of Linux distros out there. It can be challenging to know how to tell which from which – and it’s very easy to get lost in the Linux community. This list will round-up the best picks for distros, and hopefully, we can help you decide on what to install to start your journey in Linux.
Top Linux Distros
If you’ve ever heard anything about Linux, chances are it was about Ubuntu. Released in 2004, and updated regularly ever since, Ubuntu quickly became the most popular Linux distribution. Its interface is instantly recognizable as “that Linux UI,” and it’s even bundled with some OEM laptops from HP, Dell, and Acer.
Ubuntu is great if you’re looking for a Windows or macOS alternative for a system with already powerful hardware; it’s on your own right. Modern builds of Ubuntu are about as resource intensive as Windows, but a lightweight version of the operating system Lubuntu is available for underpowered PCs.
Ubuntu’s UI is very easy-to-use, and Ubuntu is great for beginners as its really accessible. Most Linux distros make heavy use of the command-line interface to perform tasks, but Ubuntu strays away from that approach. It’s incredibly easy to install Ubuntu, simply use their installer to create a bootable USB drive or even use their Windows Store app to upgrade directly on your system. If you’re looking for a different experience to Windows and macOS, Ubuntu is a solid choice.
Elementary OS is one of the most beautiful and accessible desktop operating systems out right now. Its UI adopts a sleek and minimalist design language that is really refreshing coming from Windows’ clunky interface. Whilst other Linux distros can look dated and nerdy; Elementary OS bills itself as the operating system for everyone. Elementary OS is heavily inspired by the interface of macOS and is ideal for anyone looking for a similar experience switching from Mac.
Elementary OS is great for everyday use – as its latest version Hera introduces a new application on-loading system that makes it incredibly easy to install apps to your device. Its AppCenter is a powerful repository for downloading applications that for me beats the experience using the Windows Store.
The experience of installing Elementary OS is a breeze. Whilst installing Apple and Microsoft’s bloated OS can take hours, even on old hardware, Elementary OS can get you up and running in mere minutes. It comes with a very small number of pre-installed apps, so you’re not going to come across any bloatware – and if you’re missing a program you need you can easily grab it from the AppCenter.
US developer System 76 released Pop! OS in 2017 to bundle with their systems of high-end laptops and desktops and it is based on Ubuntu with a couple of extra features aimed to please the software development and computer science professional market. It supports a ton of different programming languages, comes bundled with useful programming tools – and power users will appreciate its streamlined window and workspace management engine.
Pop!_OS features out-of-the-box compatibility support for Nvidia and AMD GPUs, making it very popular with gamers who want to plug in and get playing their latest titles. If you’re a serious gamer, Pop!_OS is worth a shot.
Reviewers comment on how well designed and attractive the user interface is. Adopting the GNOME desktop interface, users appreciate how much more streamlined it is than Ubuntu – and System 76’s installation wizard makes the look and feel of upgrading to Pop!_OS as simple as any mainstream OS install experience.
Pop!_OS is a Linux distro designed for computer science professionals and programmers, but its quality of life features and streamlined approach to installation makes it also an attractive option for the average user looking for a sleek and functional Linux experience.
openSUSE is aimed primarily at software developers and system administrators that take advantage of their very strict security protocols. openSUSE comes in two variants, both offering a similar experience but differ in updates and stability.
Leap is their rolling release build, with an eight-month release cycle where you don’t have to worry about upgrading and lack of support if anything goes wrong. This version is great for your home computers or work systems, where you want a good, fast OS without having to put your productivity aside to upgrade versions every so often.
Tumbleweed is the bleeding-edge of openSUSE, great for developers and system admins who want the most up to date and high-performance version of their OS. As stated on their site:
“If you require the latest software stacks and Integrated Development Environment or need a stable platform closest to bleeding edge Linux, Tumbleweed is the best choice for you.”
A big plus for openSUSE is its installation tool YaST which allows for tasks to be automated, great for managing systems or servers. Fine-tune your installations, inspect modules, and set up unattended installations.
5. Arch Linux
Arch Linux adheres to five principles: simplicity, modernity, pragmatism, user centrality, and versatility. This ethos makes this distro the go-to for hardware enthusiasts or anyone who’ll accept nothing less than full control of their operating system. If you feel locked down by Windows or macOS, find Ubuntu-based distros painfully closed, Arch Linux is a great choice.
Arch Linux is not an easy distro to install. If you choose Arch Linux, you’ll be forced to learn how to create partitions and make filesystems via the command line. Whilst it can be daunting at first, you’re not alone, and the Arch Wiki is a great resource to get started on using Arch Linux.
Arch Linux is created and owned by its community and follows a rolling release schedule. This means as soon as features are developed, they are rolled out to you instantly, making using Arch bleeding-edge. This update ethos does however make Arch less stable and perhaps may break your system once in a while. But, hey – that’s the Arch way.
Arch is aimed at people with a DIY attitude, and using it means you’ll spend a lot of time reading documentation, trying different command-line fixes, and solving problems yourself. This is not for beginners or those who want an OS that just works. There is however a certain charm and feeling of accomplishment to using (after having successfully installed) Arch. Using Arch Linux makes you a member of a community that defies corporate backing and forced design ethea to create an experience that is truly their own. If that’s your jam, download Arch Linux, buy a tub of ice cream, and run a bath in case anything goes wrong.
6. Linux Mint
Linux Mint has recently surpassed Ubuntu to become the most popular Linux distro available, and for good reason. Mint is a great option for new Linux users as it comes bundled with the software needed when switching from Windows or macOS and therefore is a solid choice for those taking their first steps in the Linux world. It comes with the LibreOffice productivity suite, the Timeshaft restore function and their latest version comes with their new file transfer tool the Warpinator. Mint has out-of-the-box support for NVIDIA Optimus, making it perfect for high-performance laptops with dedicated graphics, and its driver manager makes it easy to make sure all your hardware and peripherals are working correctly.
Whilst Elementary OS is designed to be familiar to MacOS users, Mint is great for those accustomed to Windows. From its familiar Start Menu to its file manager and ‘Preferences’ app, you’ll feel right at home after a few days using Mint.
If you’ve got an underpowered desktop or an old laptop, there are many flavors of Mint using different desktop environments for older or less powerful hardware. The mid-tier is Mint MATE, good for old laptops – requiring 20GB of space and recommending 2GB of RAM. If you need a seriously lightweight OS, Linux Mint Xfce is your choice for a simple and efficient OS.
For our final pick, we have the Edward Snowden approved (well, he used it) privacy-orientated niche OS tails. Tails is a live operating system that you can start from a USB stick or DVD. This means you can use any system without leaving any trace behind. Promising to preserve your privacy and anonymity, Tails helps you “use the Internet anonymously” and “circumvent censorship”. The OS routes all your browsing traffic through the Tor network, preventing your data from being open to snoopers. The OS leaves no trace on the system you’re using, making it great if you’re worried about leaving packets of identifying data on your systems.
Tails uses a GNOME desktop environment, which despite the privacy and security measures, makes Tails surprisingly easy to use. Installing Tails is a long process, but if you’re super serious about privacy, it’s a process you’ll find worth going through. Tails is supported by partners such as DuckDuckGo, Freedom of the Press Foundation, and even Tor itself.
Privacy orientated folks out there, meet your best choice: Tails. If you’re worried about surveillance or cyber-attacks, an OS that lives in RAM and that overwrites it on shutdown to avoid cold boot attacks guarantees your privacy. You know Tails is effective if the NSA deems Tails “a major threat” to their surveillance mission. If you like the idea the NSA is scared of Tails, this might be the Linux distro for you.
There you are, a snapshot of the best Linux distros out there. If you’re looking for an OS that just works, where you don’t have to worry about a complicated installation process or have driver hassles, Ubuntu is still our top choice for you. It’s fast, it’s feature-rich and a great step into GNOME desktop interfaces and “the Linux way”. If you’re a professional developer administrator or gamer, Pop!_OS is a great choice for a fast, new, and customizable OS. Tails is the best choice for ultra-concerned privacy folks. Any of these choices though will deliver an enjoyable experience, and trust me, you’ll never want to switch back to macOS or Windows.