While it may not be as popular as Windows or MacOS, Linux is often the operating system of choice for those in the know. A combination of power and versatility has made Linux a firm favourite among developers and self-professed tech geeks over the years.
Contrary to popular belief, however, you don’t need to be a programmer or a lifelong tech head to start using Linux. Most of the more popular distros are exceedingly easy to use, with heaps of documentation and guides available online. Best of all, Linux is classed as ‘open source’ software, meaning that it’s completely free!
One brief disclaimer before we dive in; due to the nature of open source development, most of these distros are available in multiple different flavours – each of which will have various strengths and weaknesses. They’ll all be broadly similar, but it’s worth having a quick look at the specifics to decide which particular variant is best for you.
Best desktop distros
Desktop PCs are where Linux first got started, and it’s here that it maintains the largest and most vibrant fanbase. If you’re looking to make a change from the two main desktop software providers, these are the best all-purpose distros.
Ubuntu is by far the best known Linux distro, and with good reason. Canonical, its creator, has put a lot of work into making Ubuntu feel as slick and polished as Windows or MacOS, and it’s one of the best-looking distros out there.
Ubuntu is compatible with a huge range of hardware and software, and Canonical makes sure it’s kept regularly updated. It’s the closest thing Linux has to a ‘mainstream’ distro, suitable for both personal and business use.
While Linux Mint is actually based on Ubuntu, there are some differences. For starters, Mint’s desktop environment is reminiscent of older Windows versions like Windows 7 and Windows XP, while Ubuntu is more Apple-esque.
There’s also the issue that while Ubuntu is backed by Canonical, Mint is entirely operated and maintained by the community, through individual volunteers, partner companies and corporate sponsors. This means that support for Mint may be slightly less reliable than with other distros.
If you want to be at the absolute bleeding edge of Linux, then Fedora is the distro for you. New technologies are integrated into the software as soon as possible, resulting in some of the most innovative features of any distro. It even boasts Linus Torvalds – creator of the Linux kernel – as a user.
The downside of this is that support cycles are short – Fedora versions are only supported for one month after the launch of the next-but-one version, with around six months between version launches. The upgrading process is generally painless however, and doesn’t require full re-installation.
Best enterprise server distros
Desktop PCs might be where Linux is most popular, but its use in business servers is one of the main reasons that open source software still makes money. These are the best distros to put at the heart of your datacenter.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux
Red Hat Enterprise Linux – or RHEL, for short – is the company’s server-based operating system. While it’s offered for free, Red Hat makes its money selling support services to companies that implement the software in their datacenters.
As Red Hat’s primary product, it’s kept regularly updated with new features and security patches. With recent releases in particular, the company has been ramping up support for cloud services, containers and automation.
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server
Much like RHEL, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) is an open-source Linux distro that’s specifically targeting business and datacenter use-cases. As such, integration, compliance and interoperability are high on the list of priorities.
SUSE is also investing in software-defined networking and storage, as well as cloud tools like OpenStack. As with Red Hat, the software itself is free, while associated support contracts are charged.
Rather than corporate-run Linux distributions like RHEL and SLES, Debian is primarily operated by the Linux community. This makes it somewhat more flexible than its business-focused counterparts.
While it’s also available as a desktop OS, Debian can be used in servers and the fact that it’s supported by the community can often make the support structure more valuable, especially for small businesses or those without large IT needs.
Best lightweight distros
One of the best things about Linux is that it can run on even the oldest and most underpowered of systems. These distros are so light on resources that you could probably get them running on a toaster if you tried hard enough.
Tiny Core is one of the smallest distros ever, with the recommended package clocking in at just 16MB. It’s pretty much what you’d expect – a barebones distro that includes the absolute minimum needed to get up and running. The recommended version includes a graphical interface, a window manager, and not much else.
By default, Tiny Core operates like a thin client: it boots entirely into the system’s RAM (rather than installing to the hard drive) and while you can install applications, they only last for one session. If you want to enable persistent storage, however, that’s an option.
Designed for speed and ease-of-use, one of the main advantages of Puppy Linux is that it can make older computers feel like brand new machines. Its system requirements are incredibly low, meaning that it will run smoothly and quickly even on ancient hardware.
Be warned, though – the nature of Puppy Linux’s development means that there are even more different variants and offshoots than other distros, which can get confusing. Thankfully, it’s so lightweight that you can just jump to another version if you don’t like it.
Like Tiny Core and Puppy Linux, Lubuntu is built to run quickly and easy on less powerful PCs. As the name suggests, it’s based on Ubuntu, which means that the user experience is a lot slicker than its rivals – although the tradeoff is that it’s not quite as efficient.
Another benefit is that it’s compatible with Ubuntu’s software packages, giving users access to a huge repository of applications that can be installed at will. These cover everything from basic office and productivity tools, all the way up to games.
Best security distros
The privacy and security community is one of the few groups within tech that are as rabidly passionate as the open source community. It makes sense, then, that the two areas would go hand in hand. Here are the best distros for hackers, pen-testers and the terminally paranoid.
Kali Linux has gained a reputation within the cyber security community for being the hacker’s OS of choice. Kali comes loaded with more than 300 tools for probing, scanning exploiting and attacking your targets, including password crackers, key-loggers and WiFi scanners.
Decidedly not beginner-friendly, the team behind Kali Linux runs online coaching on how to operate it effectively. It’s used by ethical hackers, penetration testers and black hats, and was even referenced in TV’s Mr. Robot, a show beloved within the security community for its realism and attention to detail.
Tails, AKA The Amnesiac Incognito Live System, is basically private browsing, but for your entire PC. Like Tiny Core, the OS loads into the RAM and doesn’t leave any evidence that it’s ever been there.
The rest of the OS is equally privacy-conscious – all internet traffic goes through the Tor network and all the applications have been carefully chosen to make sure they meet the highest standards of online anonymity.
Rather than hackers or privacy buffs, the TENS (or, ‘Trusted End Node Security’) distro was actually built by the US Air Force. Like Tails, it boots in ‘live’ mode and leaves no trace of its activities. It’s also got the stamp of approval from the NSA.
It’s featherweight, designed to run only as a live image from read-only media, and with no removable storage. This means that any malware or other infections are scrubbed between sessions, for extra security.