Ah, Linux. The third of the holy triumvirate of PC operating systems, along with Windows and Mac OS. Each have their own pros and cons, and each has their own identity. Linux could probably be best described as the most rebellious of the three; it’s malleable and customizable (as long as you have a strong understanding of computers and Linux), with dozens of different distros created by unique communities for different uses. Plus, the Linux kernel and most distros are completely free, which is a major selling point for the OS when compared to Mac OS and Windows.
There are Linux distros for many different use cases. Whether you are after an OS that is tailored for desktops, laptops, workstations, servers, A/V editing, or gaming, there is a distro out there for everyone. We are going to give you a rundown of the best current Linux distros out there, paying particular attention to those tailored for desktop use.
Ubuntu has been one of the most popular Linux distros since it was first introduced in late 2004. Since then, it has become the most widely used Linux distro available. Ubuntu has several “flavors” available — nine to be exact — that come with their own programs, desktop environments, and features.
The most recent is Ubuntu MATE (as in Yerba Mate tea), which offers several important applications such as Firefox, Thunderbird email client, LibreOffice, Rythmbox, Shotwell, VLC Media Player, and of course, Steam. The most striking addition, however, is the use of the MATE desktop environment. Couple this with Ubuntu’s famous ease of use and installation, and you have a great OS for newcomers and Linux enthusiasts alike.
openSUSE is another popular distro, mainly because of its interface flexibility and simple file installation. openSUSE uses a program called YaST, which is essentially a portal through which you can manage your computer and tweak settings to your liking. YaST makes it easy to install a large number of popular desktop interfaces — everything from KDE and LXDE, to Gnome, Mate, and several others. These interfaces can even be installed simultaneously via YaST, and switched to and from each other on the fly.
YaST also makes adding third-party applications a cinch with quick, one-click installations. Finally, openSUSE includes a feature called Tumbleweed, which updates your system and applications automatically so your system is always up to date. openSUSE is free to download, but there is a paid physical addition that includes 90-day installation support.
According to the the OS’s website, Mint is now the leading Linux distro, surpassing Ubuntu and all other distros to become the main competition against Windows and Mac OS. When you look at Mint’s features, that claim becomes easy to believe. This free, open-source distro installs quickly and easily from a USB or blank DVD, and offers full multimedia support from the get go.
Mint makes an effort to straddle the line between stability and power. It’s not too resource intensive, and it is conservative about updates, meaning there is little chance of installing a broken or unstable update that will require tedious system regressions. Mint further mitigates headaches for users by using an update manager, and by supporting many popular desktop environments like Cinnamon (by far the most popular version of Mint), Mate, LMDE, and KDE, as well as native support for a long list of applications.
Don’t let the silly name of this distro fool you; it’s a flexible OS with three separate options depending on your needs. A workstation, server, and cloud-centric version are all available, and the workstation version has further forks for specific needs such as gaming, design, and even robotics, among several others. Fedora primarily uses the GNOME interface, but versions using different desktop environments are available.
Fedora is known for having frequent version updates, sometimes weeks or months apart, integrating the latest programs and features available for Linux systems. This makes the distro less reliable for those testing new products due to the short cycle between versions, and increases the risk of unstable builds. However, it’s great for those who want to be on the leading edge of Linux development.
Debian is one of the longest standing Linux distros, which first released back in 1996. Since then, it has served as the framework for many other distros — namely Ubuntu and Mint — which have subsequently gone on to inspire and inform numerous other distros, making Debian something of a “grandparent” of today’s distro development. The modern version of Debian offers versions with different desktop environments integrated into it, though GNOME is the primarily supported interface.
Debian is a great choice for both workstations and server systems. The workstation version comes with pre-installed programs like the Photoshop alternative, GIMP; Iceweasel internet browser; LibreOffice word processor; and VLC media player. Debian has three branches available, “stable,” “testing,” and “unstable,” depending on how much maintenance and/or testing you wish to put into your OS.
ElementaryOS is generally regarded as one of the most visually attractive Linux distros available. It is different from many of the other distros on this list because the design philosophy of the development team has lead to a different user experience than what most other distros offer. While most other Linux OSs include application packages with open source programs and third party desktop environments, the ElementaryOS has built much of that from the ground up to work within its own interface.
ElementaryOS comes with proprietary software, such as the Midori web browser and its own multimedia programs, that integrate visually with the rest of the OS, and negates the need for managing separate programs. Unfortunately, this limits the use of things like third party plug-ins that can add other features and expand compatibility.
In many ways, ElementaryOS has more in common with Mac OS than Linux or even Windows. It’s a bit more of a walled garden, especially when compared to your average Linux distro, but what it lacks in customization options it makes up for with its small footprint and elegant user interface.
Steam OS is technically in beta, but it’s worth including on this list. Developed by Valve, the kings of PC game distribution and developers of beloved games such as the Half Life and Portal series, Steam OS aims to be the gamer’s choice of operating system. Valve’s general business philosophy meshes well with the spirit of Linux distribution, and Linux has been routinely praised and recommended by Valve’s founder and managing director, Gabe Newell.
That said, Steam OS has a couple obstacles to overcome before it is in a position to be the de facto OS for PC gamers. The biggest obstacle is compatibility. Game support on Linux machines, while growing, is still very small. Steam boasts over 1000 Linux-compatible games from indie and AAA developers, but that number is minuscule compared to the number of games on steam that aren’t Linux-compatible. Valve, of course, is optimistic of Linux’s gaming future, and is working with developers and publishers to get their games running on Steam OS.
The next obstacle is that Steam OS still is not officially released, and therefore isn’t a fully-featured OS yet. Hopefully, once Steam OS (and Steam Machines) have officially been released, we’ll see a greater number of games with native Linux support. Until then, while Windows is currently the best choice for gaming overall, Steam OS offers a simple, efficient OS with a small footprint, which means more resources for your games to take advantage of.