Ah, Linux. The third of the holy triumvirate of PC operating systems, along with Windows and MacOS. 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 “core” (kernel) and most distros are completely free, which is a major selling point for the OS when compared to Windows and MacOS.
There are many Linux distros for 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. Here, we are going to give you a rundown of the best Linux distros available, each of which is tailored for desktop use. You can install these distros on a Chromebook, PC, or Mac as a replacement for your current operating system, use both in a dual-boot scenario, or use them in conjunction with one of the best virtual machines out there… whatever floats your boat.
Ubuntu remains one of the most popular Linux distros in existence, even though it was first introduced more than a decade ago. It’s also the most widely used distro to date, and even comes pre-installed on desktops and laptops manufactured by HP, Dell, and Acer as an alternative to Windows. You can even grab “vanilla” Ubuntu through Microsoft’s built-in store for Windows 10, which also supports BASH.
That said, Ubuntu has several “flavors” available — nine to be exact — that come with their own programs, desktop environments, and features. For example, Ubuntu MATE (as in Yerba Mate tea) offers several important applications, including Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice, Rythmbox, Shotwell, VLC, and of course, Steam. It’s based on the MATE desktop environment, which provides its own set of tools on top of an intuitive and attractive presentation. 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, Linux 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 Linux 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.
Linux 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. Linux 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 Linux 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.
Manjaro is actually based on another Linux distro called Arch. Both aim to provide “bleeding edge” software without bogging down your PC, but the parent Arch platform is fine-tuned for advanced, tech-savvy users who can get around the backend of Linux better than Mickey Mouse at Disney World. Instead, the software focuses on ease of use and friendliness for newcomers and advanced users alike, without stripping all the good stuff that makes Arch great.
Moreover, Manjaro’s features the ability to automatically detect your system’s hardware, and install the appropriate software just like a Windows-based machine. It’s also backed by a large software repository developed specifically for this distro, and a community that will gladly help both newcomers and advanced users. Manjaro even offers three “official” flavors: The XFCE Edition that’s fast and lightweight, the heavier KDE Edition that’s more media-focused and visually appealing, and the GNOME Edition with a highly-customizable user interface.
The motto with this distro is that it’s always fresh, and never frozen. That means it’s on a “rolling release” development cycle so you’re not forced to download and install new builds when they’re available. This also includes all the applications that come packaged with Antergos, so you’re not working with outdated software. Antergos is another fork of Arch Linux, one that aims to be powerful yet friendly and elegant.
Out of the box, Antergos provides a ready-to-use system, so you can quickly listen to music, scour the web, troll Facebook, and more. And like Manjaro, it provides different “flavors” to choose from, though, you have six in this case, each designed for a different visual preference (GNOME, Cinnamon, KDE, XFCE, MATE, and Openbox). Antergos is known to be one of the more “prettier” Linux-based distros, and is another good place to start if you’re a newcomer to Linux.
Launched at the end of 2015, Solus is a Linux distro designed for everyone. It was built from scratch with the general device user in mind, and has gone on to become one of the more highly-used distros over the course of the past couple years. You can choose between three desktop interfaces (Budgie, GNOME, MATE), and take advantage of Firefox, Thunderbird, and other software you already use on your Windows-based machine. It’s even a great gaming solution, given it supports a slew of gamepads and controllers directly out of the box.
Speaking of gaming, here’s a Linux distro developed specifically for that purpose. Based on Debian, it’s provided by Valve Software, the developers behind the Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, and Portal, as well as the widely-popular PC gaming platform Steam. It’s the brainchild of CEO Gabe Newell, who didn’t like how Microsoft was controlling the PC gaming market and wanted to provide an open-source operating system. Games released on Linux are supposedly faster than their Windows-based counterparts because Linux distros aren’t bogged down by services running in the background.
Here’s another Linux distro created to replace Windows and MacOS. In fact, even though it’s based on Ubuntu, Zorin provides visual interfaces that mimic those specific operating systems, so you don’t feel like you’re venturing into unknown territory. The software is designed to ease your transition from Windows and MacOS, which, frankly, is its biggest selling point. Fortunately, the distro also provides all the benefits of Linux, including a secured environment and a high-performance computing experience.
One of our readers actually recommended Puppy Linux. Originally designed for the PC owner more than a decade ago, it’s oft-considered a grandpa-friendly solution, namely due to its lightweight and straightforward design. It weighs a mere 200MB or less, and can be installed directly onto a USB drive. Moreover, all files and software installed via Puppy Linux will remain on the USB drive, so you could essentially plug-and-play with any available PC. The two official versions for modern PCs are based on Ubuntu and Slackware, though, there are other “puppies” that support older hardware.
This is the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s operating system for the PC and Mac. It’s based on Debian, but includes the PIXEL visual interface and the Chromium browser. Short for “Pi Improved Xwindows Environment, Lightweight,” PIXEL was originally designed for Rasbian, a fork of Debian that was specifically designed for Raspberry Pi boards. The founder of Raspberry Pi wanted to bring the experience to PC and Mac as well, however, thus resulting in a modern desktop interface backed by general, productivity, and developer applications.
Update: Added Manjaro, Antergos, Solus, Zorin, Puppy Linux, and Raspberry Pi Desktop.