Best Linux Distro: Linux Experts Rate Distros

Tuesday Mar 15th 2016 by Matt Hartley
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Selecting the best Linux distro is a matter of personal choice, based on your daily work flow. Two Linux experts list their personal picks for best distro and discuss each distros merits and challenges.

Also see: Best Linux Distros for Security

And: Best Linux Distros for Business

What is the best Linux distro? Datamation asked two leading Linux experts, and they both explained their top choices. This first page is Matt Hartley’s picks. The next page you’ll see Bruce Byfield’s list of best Linux distros. Agree, disagree? List your top Linux Distros in the Comments section below.

Go to next page: Bruce Byfield's "Best Linux Distros"

Best Linux Disto: Matt Hartley’s picks

It's been said that the single biggest challenge Linux presents to the newcomer isn't the new operating system, rather it's the flood of random choices to be made. There's desktop environments, the distro base, package management, you get the general idea.

This article will serve as a guide for those looking to come to their own conclusion, by trying some of my best Linux distro recommendations. Keep in mind, the best Linux distro for one person might not be a match for you. So keep an open mind as we go through each option below.

1. Ubuntu

Obviously, Ubuntu was going to be at the top of the list. But why did I put it at the top of the list? First, look at the distro's history. Ubuntu has done more to put desktop Linux into the hands of the common man than any other distribution out there. Yes, there are some distros that come close and may even overtake it one day. But in the long haul, going back years, Ubuntu wins in terms of recognition and long-term support.

Now, not everything is a bed of roses for Ubuntu. It's had its share of controversy. Some notable footnotes include the decision to create their own desktop environment, Unity. Other debates include the decision to include Amazon-based affiliate results within the Unity search results, along with the decision to create their own display server and init system. Today, some these things have changed. But the fact that many people use Linux thanks to Ubuntu's efforts remains a constant.

One of the great things about Ubuntu is that there are "flavors" based on alternative desktop environments. My favorite for example, is Ubuntu MATE. Others enjoy using Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Ubuntu GNOME and Lubuntu.

2. Linux Mint

If you're looking into a fixed released based on Ubuntu, but with a few tweaks under the hood...then Linux Mint might be a good match for you. Born at a time when folks wanted to run Ubuntu with proprietary goodies like codecs and drivers pre-installed, today Linux Mint has evolved into its very own operating system. With its own flagship desktop environment, called Cinnamon, Mint offers a suite of distro specific tools and features that make it completely unique. Some people have suggested that it's these Mint tools and a focus on a slower release cycle that is winning over new converts.

Sadly, Mint's growing popularity has also translated into Linux Mint becoming something of a target for those who would try to exploit Mint users. Thankfully these days the distro's team has learned some tough lessons and security has been substantially improved.

Like the Ubuntu project, Linux Mint also has multiple alternative desktop environment flavors available. These include KDE, MATE, and Xfce.

3. PCLinuxOS

– In addition to being a cousin to the once famed Mandriva (Mandrake) Linux distro, PCLinuxOSis without any question in my mind the ultimate KDE based rolling release distro for those who would normally prefer a fixed release.

PCLinuxOS is an operating system I feel good about installing on PCs I might not otherwise be able to provide a lot of support for. It provides a strong balance between the latest security updates and patches, while not immediately jumping onto every package that appears within the repos of other distributions. In short, I've never had to install PCLinuxOS twice on any PC. It's the perfect “set it and forget it” Linux installation.

My only two warnings about using it are as follows: First, you will be installing a lot of updates upon its first installation. No biggie, unless you're really bandwidth conscious. Second, while browsers and other common software are kept very up to date, some of the lesser common apps might be a couple of versions behind. If neither of these two things are a problem for you then I highly recommend taking a look at this distro. PCLinuxOS also comes in alternative desktop environments such as MATE, LXDE, Xfce and LXQT.

4. elementary OS

In the past, I've had folks who use OS X full time try elementary OS. Their impressions were usually about the same. For web browsing and document writing, they all felt very comfortable using elementary OS if OS X wasn't available.

Even though it's not going to have the same applications like Photoshop or iMovie, these individuals who tried it felt good about how things were laid out for them. One of the biggest things they liked was that it didn't need to be tweaked to meet their expectations. Everything from the Pantheon desktop to the custom applications felt very tightly integrated.

Like so many other distributions these days, elementary OS is built around the Ubuntu LTS releases. This means you'll always have support for the latest security patches, however you will not have the latest software or kernel.

Back in 2015, the development of the project took a bit of a shift. Instead of being taken to a standard ISO download page, site visitors were brought to a page where they were asked to make a small financial contribution to the project. Visitors had to enter a 0 if they wanted to download the distro without paying. Many folks within the Linux community didn't care for this.

5. Puppy Linux

When it comes to turning ancient PCs into something usable again, there is nothing better than a fresh installation of Puppy Linux. I've personally had Puppy Linux running on a Pentium II before. On something with a bit more in terms of resources (for the browser), Puppy Linux is screaming fast. If you have a computer with 1 GB of RAM, you'll never look back.

Puppy Linux is based on Slackware, but you can also install a version that relies on an Ubuntu base if you prefer. Both versions come with the JVM window manager, though OpenBox also runs great on Puppy if you prefer.

At a cool 200 MB or less, you can run Puppy on just about anything. Puppy Linux also runs very well from a USB flash drive or a CD. This means a full installation is left completely up to the end user. If however, you want to run with a CD/USB copy but need to store permanent configuration files, Puppy will allow you to pick a storage destination just for that purpose. Speaking for myself, I always opted to simply install Puppy Linux since I found that once it's installed, I had no need to take it with me anywhere else.

Like many modern distributions today, Puppy Linux allows its users to install software one of two ways. Either from its repositories or via "pet" packages. It's worth noting that Puppy also supports txz and sfs packages as well.

Now for the downside. While Puppy Linux does come with a great firewall application, it also lacks a root password. On top of that, it lacks an automated means of applying security updates. To be clear, they do release security updates for the distro – I've applied updates via their tools in the past. The problem is there isn't an automatic tool for doing so without thinking about it.

On the flip side, according to my research, there is still "some" security through obscurity provided. First, Puppy Linux uses a unionfs/aufs stacking file system. As a result, they've setup Puppy to keep all but the most recent files in a read only state. Again, not perfect...but not as bad as it could be, either. At the end of the day, Puppy Linux to my knowledge has never-ever been hacked by anyone in a malicious manner. That said, it's high time we see their website upgrade to a proper SSL certification since they are asking people to download an operating system from their website.

6. SolydXK

If you have ever wanted to run a Debian installation while enjoying an incredibly newbie friendly experience, then SolydXK is the distro for you. Born as an unofficial version of Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE), SolydXK's goal was to expand on LMDE's original mission – to make a super user friendly Linux distribution.

Three features I really like about SolydXK is the proprietary video card driver installer, plus the inclusion of Steam and PlayOnLinux by default. Another nice feature is that you also have a choice in desktop environments – XFCE or KDE.

One thing I never could get my head around was the need to welcome the community editions. Instead of merely offering different desktop environments, SolydXK community editions are built from both Debian stable and testing. The latter, running on Debian testing are apparently for those who want the latest and greatest. Personally, I recommend sticking with the official editions instead.

7. openSUSE

Seems like only yesterday openSUSE's predecessor, S.u.S.E Linux, was available as a boxed set at select computer stores. Not too many years after this, S.u.S.E Linux became SuSE, LLC and later, found themselves being acquired by Novell. A number of years later, Novell launched what became known as the openSUSE project. Its goal was to make distribution more open to the masses. Unlike the SUSE Linux Enterprise Distribution (SLED), openSUSE sees frequent releases and is considered a testing ground for SLED. It's also important to understand that openSUSE doesn't have a workstation and server release. Instead, it has packages that allow you to turn openSUSE into the type of installation you're looking for.

One of the cool things about openSUSE is YaST control center. Instead of a bunch of random applications scattered around various menu entries, everything you need to dial in your openSUSE install is right there in front of you in a tightly integrated control center.

Two things that I feel really set openSUSE apart from other distributions are the Open Build Service (OBS) and the ability to search the for specific packages. Not just for openSUSE, but for other popular distributions as well.

Last but not least, is the ability to select a rolling release option with openSUSE. Aptly named Tumbleweed, this openSUSE release option allows its users to have access to the very latest software available and allows folks to install their openSUSE release only once. Set it and forget it, so to speak.

8. Fedora

Fedora to is to Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) what openSUSE is to SLED. Fedora comes in the following release types: workstation, server and cloud. For the sake of this article however, we'll be focused on Fedora workstation. Popular among those who work in Linux IT, Fedora workstation is said to be the distribution to become comfortable with if you plan on working within a Red Hat environment.

Fedora is also a little more focused on work than play, as best reflected by their strong security (a good default firewall and SELinux settings) practices and bleeding edge software availability. As a side note, anything not found in the main repositories can usually be located at RPM Fusion.

My advice basically comes down to this: If you want a distro that really dials in a solid GNOME desktop experience, makes security a top priority and offers a predictable release cycle, then Fedora is the distro for you.

9. Arch

It's been said that if you want to really learn how to use Linux, spend a weekend installing and configuring Arch. I completely agree with this sentiment. What really sets Arch apart from any other distros is that it forces you to think and pay attention.

Miss a few steps during setup, you're forced to correct your oversight. Blindly update a ton of packages without reading the latest news feed first, you may need to do some backtracking to figure out if some tweaking is needed. To a newbie, all of this sounds awful. However, if you're genuinely interested in learning Linux for the sake of learning Linux, Arch is a wonderful experience.

Three things to remember about using Arch. First, it's as full featured or as bland as you configure it. There are no default desktops or apps. It's all up to you as you're essentially building your own distribution. Second, it's a rolling distribution with software that's as bleeding edge as it comes. Third, the Arch User Repository is considered to be the holy grail of software repositories. If you need a software app and it runs on Linux, it's in there.

Now for some important points to remember. Don't even dream of asking questions in the Arch forums until you've exhausted the Arch wiki, its search box and the search box on the Arch user forums. Also, do not install an Arch derivative distribution and then seek help on the Arch forums – they will not help you. And finally, when asking for help on the forums...be prepared for little more than links to a wiki page. This is a hardcore DIY distribution. Getting it installed is easy. Learning to interact with the culture will require a change in your thinking.

10. Debian

If my default Ubuntu MATE distribution disappeared tomorrow, odds are I'd be running MATE on Debian testing. In my humble opinion, Debian is the single most important distribution responsible for getting newcomers to Linux. Some of the newbie friendly distros inspired by Debian include: Knoppix, Simply Mepis, Linspire, Xandros, Ubuntu, the list goes on and on.

My favorite part of using Debian is the dpkg package management system. Many of you are familiar with its front-end programs such as Synaptic or a distro's specific software center. Next to Arch's pacman method for package handling, I strongly believe that dpkg is the best there is in terms of reliability and ease of error correction should something break.

Even though Debian's founder, Ian Murdock, is no longer with us….it's gratifying to know that a part of him will always be running on each release of any distribution based on the Debian operating system.

Go to next page: Bruce Byfield's "Best Linux Distros"

Your favorite Linux distribution?

So what say you? Obviously there will be those among you who feel that I missed your best Linux distro. Hit the comments and share your choice of Linux distribution with the readers here. Be sure to include why you love it and why others should consider adding it to their short list of the best Linux distros available.

Bruce Byfield: Best Linux Distros

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.

In reverse order of preference, they are:

10. KDE Neon

KDE Neon is my most recent discovery among distributions. It's useful because, for the last couple of years, KDE Software Compilations and the Plasma Desktop have had separate releases, which may useful for developers but confusing for users.

In this situation, KDE Neon promises to help me keep track of KDE development through its Live CD. I say "promises," because KDE Neon is only a few weeks old. However, its first download is enough to let me know I'll be returning to it frequently. While I may never install it on my main machine -- which is perfectly possible -- the Live CD seems certain to become one of my basic tools. Almost certainly, I'm not alone.

9.Trisquel GNU/Linux

The Free Software Foundation's list of free distributions has only eight projects. All those on the list are free from the kernel on up, but most are small, and slow to release.

One of the more active distributions on the list is Trisquel. Based on Ubuntu, Trisquel's point -- at least for me -- is that there is no particular point to it. For the most part, the average user will never notice that Trisquel is completely free. When they learn that Trisquel's nature, they have to admit that a free distribution is practical, and less of a dream than many users might assume.

8. Fedora Project

For years, Fedora has been has been the leading .RPM distribution, rivaling Ubuntu for usability. I usually have it installed on a laptop, to keep me from being too Debian-centric.

I respect Fedora for its determination to include only free software. Those who want proprietary software have plenty of places to get it, but Fedora has resisted the temptation to court popularity by making proprietary alternatives accessible from the desktop -- a stance that I will always admire.

7. Bodhi Linux

Given my preoccupation with desktop environments, Bodhi is a natural choice for me. Bodhi was the leading distribution to use Enlightenment, and now develops an Enlightenment fork called Moksha.

Under either name, Bodhi provides a welcome alternative to the leading desktops, not just because it's fast and efficient, but also simply because it's different. I often worry that diversity is slowly draining from free software, but Bodhi provides a welcome exception.

6. Mageia

The first distribution I ever managed to install was Mandrake. That was years ago, but I still keep a fondness for Mandrake's descendant, including Mageia. Compared to apt-get or dnf, Urpimi is a minority package tool, but I remain fascinated by it as an alternative.

Even more importantly, Mageia does more than any other distribution to show how KDE can be customized into a desktop of beauty. It's the distribution I recommend to anyone who wants to try KDE.

5. Tails

Tails is a privacy-conscious distribution that can be run off a flash drive. Used with Tor, it provides a quick method of anonymity, although less security than Qubes OS (see below). Project members take privacy seriously, with many using a pseudonym for their contributions.

Despite all the talk about privacy and security these days, both are poorly understand by average users. One reason why I appreciate Tails is that the project has gone to some effort to assemble and write documentation. Even if you decide not to run Tails, its documentation is well worth reading as a primer in security.

4. Qubes OS

Although I try not to be paranoid about security, I do have a healthy awareness of it. Often, I worry that security options are too difficult for the average users.

What I admire about Qubes OS is that it brings security to the desktop, with tools that anyone can use. Using Xen hypervisors, Qubes allows you to create security domains, each with a different level of protection, and each color coded so you can see at a glance how safe it is. To further protect users, routines like copying files are carefully controlled, operating in temporary secure domains, and specifying the source and target domains.

The price for this level of security is a memory overhead much greater than that of a normal distribution. No one will ever recommend Qubes as a means for prolonging the usefulness of an older computer, but it just might be the forerunner of the future.

3. Knoppix

I have never installed Knoppix to a hard drive, and I probably never will. All the same, I always burn a copy of the latest version of Knoppix, and keep it within arm's reach of my keyboard.

You see, Knoppix pioneered the Live CD. It now offers both a CD and DVD, both with hundreds of packages.

No distribution is handier when a machine needs triage, such as running fsck on an unmounted drive. As a bonus, you can do the necessary surgery in a familiar desktop environment, which is an unnecessary luxury, but a comforting one when you are panicking over an emergency.

First released in 2000, Knoppix remains what it has always been -- as no nonsense as its web site, and as dependable as its Debian ancestor.

2. Linux Mint

Descended from Debian and Ubuntu, Linux Mint listens to users more than any other distribution. Its MATE desktop may be a fork of GNOME 2, but it's a desktop that users know and want. By contrast, its Cinnamon desktop is an original, but never too radical, and never too limiting in its work flow.

In both desktops, Linux Mint has hit the sweet spot. Never too radical, yet innovating in minor ways in every release of both MATE and Cinnamon, Linux Mint is the comfort distro. No wonder it managed to come out of nowhere and manage the difficult feat of becoming one of the leading distributions in the last decade

1. Debian

Debian is the most influential distribution of all times. Many of the major distributions are based on it, including Knoppix, Ubuntu and Linux Mint, and almost two-thirds of all distributions, period.

The reason for this influence is that Debian is all about choice. Like many distributions, it offers your choice of desktops. You can opt for stability or newness. You can make it run a free desktop, or a proprietary one. A few items in its repositories even conflict with each other. Although favoring a free desktop, Debian gives users the raw tools, then gets out of the way.

If you've heard rumors that Debian is complicated or difficult, ignore them. Debian is as difficult as you want it to be. I can't think of any other distribution that offers such choice, or such freedom.

Desktop and Linux Distro

You may notice that any form of Ubuntu is missing from this list. The reason is that I do not care for Unity, Ubuntu's default desktop.

If I were to include an Ubuntu variant, it would probably be Kubuntu, Xubuntu, or Ubuntu MATE. However, KDE, Xfce, and MATE are better represented by other distributions, just as Ubuntu is more a convenient source for a user-friendly distribution like Linux Mint or Trisquel. As Canonical Software become more oriented towards OpenStack and hardware, I am starting to suspect that, like Debian, the Ubuntu distribution is moving towards being more of an upstream supplier than a distribution to choose from.

No doubt many would disagree, but that is where Linux distributions currently are: more desktop-oriented than distribution oriented, which makes any list of leading desktops as idiosyncratic as this one unless it's based on popularity.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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