Here’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.
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,
on purchased OS discs, Distrowatch page hits, website tallies of
visitor OS’s, and Gartner Group and
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
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
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.
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 —
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
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
tracking. The Arch Build System allows you to easily build new
packages, modify existing packages, and share them through the Arch
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
What are your favorite distros and why? Here are some other
10 Best Linux Distros
is the Best Linux Distro for Your Desktop?
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
Linux: Top Dog of the Lightweight Distros
Lightweight Distros Compared
Finally, a Lightweight Ubuntu!
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7: Fast, Flexible, and Supported
My favorite Linux distro is Android. Wait, does that count?