posted by Howard Fosdick on Mon 22nd Oct 2012 04:51 UTC
IconHere's a topic guaranteed to start controversy. Which Linux distribution is best? It all depends on your criteria for judging. Even then the topic is highly subjective. Here are a few nominees for "best distro" in specific categories.

Most Popular

Why does it matter which distros are most popular? They generally offer more resources: larger free software repositories, more tutorials, better doc, more support, and active forums.

You'd think there would be an objective way to identify the most popular distros. But reliable metrics don't exist for free software. Some measurements people use include SourceForge download statistics, stats on purchased OS discs, Distrowatch page hits, website tallies of visitor OS's, and Gartner Group and IDC estimates.

Most agree that the Ubuntu family wins this race. (This includes official derivatives like Ubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Kubuntu, Gobuntu, and others.) Canonical Ltd claims 20 million desktop users. They also claim 1.3 million web servers running Ubuntu server, with 22,000 more joining each month.

The Red Hat family may be second. The RH family includes Red Hat Enterprise Linux, CentOS, Fedora, Oracle Linux, and others. I've seen estimates that Red Hat has over 12 million users and Fedora over 1 million. Red Hat is the first billion dollar Linux company, with fiscal 2012 revenues of 1.13 billion $US. Its market cap is about 10 billion $US.

Vendors seem to agree with these assessments. They frequently preload Ubuntu and Red Hat family distros on new machines.

Most User Friendly

Here we enter completely subjective terrority. For most user-friendly among the better-known distros, I nominate Mint.

Mint is based on Ubuntu, so it starts with Ubuntu's advantages: huge software repositories, a familiar system, a big user community, etc. Mint enhances the user experience by addressing Ubuntu's shortcomings. It includes all the proprietary software and codecs required for typical tasks so you get a ready-to-use system right out of the box.

The Mint team foresaw the controversy Canonical would uncork with its switch to the Unity interface. Mint protected their users by offering Mate and Cinnamon. The former is a continuation fork of the GNOME 2 interface. The latter takes GNOME 3 and enhances it with traditional features like a bottom panel. While Canonical veers off on their Unity tangent -- telling the user community what they should want -- Mint quietly satisfies them by continuing with desktop-friendly UI's.

Many other distros could be cited as most user-friendly. Mint's philosophy of capitalizing on Ubuntu while addressing its shortcomings is a winner.

Best Live Distro

What do you need in a live distro? A small OS that boots on any computer. A good set of tools for computer maintenance. A full range of apps for general-purpose computing. Many distros meet these criteria since Knoppix started the live distro bandwagon a decade ago. One of the best is Puppy Linux.

As related in my review of Puppy, this distro boots from any bootable device, and runs on any computer -- including those that lack devices, have a broken device, or present severe resource constraints. Puppy "just works" on any computer about as well as any distro one can name.

With a download size of only 130 M, Puppy runs entirely from memory on any computer with at least 256 M. The distro bundles a full range of desktop apps and comes complete with tools for emergency situations.

Puppy may not be the best solution for every situation in which you need a Live CD, but it covers more of them than most alternatives.

Best for Linux Connoisseurs

Linux sophisticates want a system they can tailor, configure, and play with to their heart's content. Many distros fit the bill, but one that has achieved special popularity is Arch.

Arch is perfect for a custom install. It doesn't come with a pre-installed GUI: you select one. Arch gives you a minimal, highly-configurable system. Yet you don't have to immediately jump into source or kernel compiling.

Arch operates on a rolling release basis, so it is continually updated. It comes with pacman, its own package manager, to provide software updates with solid dependency tracking. The Arch Build System allows you to easily build new packages, modify existing packages, and share them through the Arch user repository.

Arch provides a high degree of control while avoiding the complexity of source-based distros. It's no wonder it has become so popular in the past few years.

Best for Learning Linux In Depth

You can learn Linux with nearly any distro. Just spend time tinkering with your system, read online articles, and ask questions in forums.

For those who really want to delve into the details, Gentoo offers a good learning opportunity. You build your system from scratch, the way you want it, and learn in the process. You edit config files and compile source. Gentoo's excellent doc leads you through the process. The Gentoo community is enthusiastic and can answer nearly any Linux question you have.

If you have the time and the desire, Gentoo is a good choice to get under the hood of Linux and learn it in detail.

Best for Older Computers

If you have an older PC, like a Pentium IV or III, (or even a II!) you need a distro that will run on minimal hardware. It should also be tested on older machines. Puppy Linux fits the bill. It can make your old Windows XP or 98 computer useful again.

Many distros theoretically run on older hardware but they don't have a large user community running mature systems. Join the Puppy forum and you'll see that you're in the right place.

Best Office Desktop

Office desktops require a full office suite, an email client, calendaring, and contacts manager. They also need strong interoperability, a large user community, and good support. Many distros fulfill this role, but one you'll see on everyone's list is OpenSUSE.

Not only does OpenSUSE come with all the bundled apps you need in the office, it also supplies consistent, user-friendly interfaces. No jumping off the deep end with OpenSUSE: you're not forced into the Windows 8 UI or Unity. So you can just get your work done.

With applications like LibreOffice and Wine, you can co-exist with organizations still using Windows and Office. LibreOffice allows you to interchange office files while Wine runs over 20,000 Windows apps under Linux. (LibreOffice and Wine run on nearly all Linux distros.)

Most Stable Across Releases

As an IT support tech, I supported two small organizations that standardized on Ubuntu years ago. They chose Ubuntu due to its wide popularity and user-friendly reputation. Now both groups are unhappy. Canonical has not protected their user community from the disruptive changes they introduce. The radically different Unity interface was the last straw. These organizations want a distro that introduces well-tested improvements -- smoothly and incrementally.

Several distros meet this need. Two that I've used are OpenSUSE and VectorLinux. Perhaps the best choices are Red Hat and CentOS. As a commercial server, Red Hat Enterprise Linux is intended for production IT. Stability and measured change are its watchwords. CentOS is a free distro based on RHEL. It is 100% compatible rebuild for people who want operating system stability without the cost of a support contract.

Best Support

If you're looking for paid professional support, Red Hat is a great choice. Oracle Linux works well for those with database servers. According to its web site, "Oracle starts with Red Hat Linux, removes Red Hat trademarks, and then adds Linux bug fixes." Oracle Corp. contracts provide support.

And what about free support? Any popular distro with wide popularity and active forums may well do. I like all the distros mentioned in this article.

Your Vote?

What are your favorite distros and why?  Here are some other opinions:

The 10 Best Linux Distros
Which is the Best Linux Distro for Your Desktop?
Comparison of Linux Distributions

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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems.

Read his distro reviews at OS News:

Puppy Linux: Top Dog of the Lightweight Distros The Sins of Ubuntu
Four Lightweight Distros Compared Puppy Has A Litter
Lubuntu: Finally, a Lightweight Ubuntu! How to Undo Unity
VectorLinux 7: Fast, Flexible, and Supported
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