Choosing a Linux Distro: Which Distro?

So, you have decided to install Linux on your computer and need to choose a distribution or “distro”. Or maybe you’re already a Linux user and are just looking to try out something new. Either way there are so many different Linux distros that the choice can be a daunting one, especially since each distribution has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Following are some tips on selecting a distribution and some of my top picks.

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Table of Contents

Considerations

There are a few considerations you should think about when choosing a Linux distribution:

The look and feel of the distro

Do you like how the distro looks and the workflow it presents to you? This factor depends a lot on the DE (desktop environment) the distribution uses. You might want to take a look at “Choosing a Linux Distro: Which Desktop Environment?” to help with this.

The philosophy of the distribution and who is backing it

Do you prefer a more grassroots distro developed by the community or a distro with the financial and development backing of a corporation? Either one of these has its advantages. Often a community-based distribution will make choices based on what the user base wants whereas a corporate based distro will make choices on what is best for their business model. On the other hand, a corporate based distro can have more development resources behind it ensuring active development will continue. Check out my article, “Choosing a Linux Distro: Community-Based or Corporate-Backed?” to learn more about this.

Release cycle and update philosophy

Do you like a distro that stays the same and is reliable day in and day out like Debian or one that is constantly changing and providing all of the newest software and features like Arch Linux? Read “Choosing a Linux Distro: Rolling or Fixed?” to learn more about fixed vs rolling release distros.


My Top Ten Picks

With hundreds of Linux distributions available to install, I have compiled ten recommendations to help you with your choice. Whether you are just getting into Linux for the first time or are an experienced vet looking for something new there should be an option for you on this list.

Debian

Debian

Origin: global
Date started: 1993
Based on: independent
DEs: most/all
Backed by: community
Release cycle: fixed release; two years
Support: 5 years
Homepage: https://www.debian.org

Debian is one of the oldest still developed Linux distros and is both widely used and widely trusted. You’ll find Debian on everything from servers around the world to computers on the International Space Station. The reason for Debian’s success and wide adoption in these applications is due to its stability. Debian is extremely reliable because of the philosophy of the Debian developers; packages are patched for security and critical bugs but not upgraded for features until the next version comes out. What this means is that for the two or more years that you are using one version of Debian, it will be very unlikely for your operating system to break or change. This also means, however, that your software will stay on older versions and you won’t get the latest and greatest features; you’ll have to wait for the next major version for feature upgrades. As well, Debian is not the easiest distro to install and set up for someone completely new to Linux. Even with these downsides, Debian is one of the very best Linux distributions available.

Debian

Pros

  • Huge software repository
  • Unmatched reliability and stability
  • Adaptable: can be installed on virtually any type of hardware and with any DE

Cons

  • Older software versions
  • May be a more difficult option for someone completely new to Linux

Ubuntu

Ubuntu

Origin: Isle of Man
Date started: 2004
Based on: Debian
DEs: Gnome (flagship), most others through flavours
Backed by: corporation (Canonical)
Release cycle: fixed release; 2 years (LTS version), 6 months (interim releases)
Support: 5 years (LTS versions), 9 months (interim releases)
Homepage: https://ubuntu.com

Canonical, the corporation that develops Ubuntu, deserves a lot of credit for bringing Linux to the masses; many a Linux enthusiast started with Ubuntu including myself back in 2005. Ubuntu has always had a focus on being simple to use but still powerful. The default desktop environment is a modified Gnome DE, it takes the powerful Gnome and makes it a bit easier to use and more intuitive with extensions that add features such as a panel and desktop icons. Ubuntu is also available in many other desktops through its flavours including Kubuntu (KDE), Xubuntu (Xfce), Ubuntu MATE (MATE), and others. Another unique feature of Ubuntu is that you have the choice of upgrading to their new point releases every 6 months to get newer software or you can stay on their LTS (long-term support) versions for more stability. Ubuntu is the most popular Linux distribution for good reason, it is definitely a safe bet to use.

Ubuntu

Pros

  • Compatibility of software and hardware: if it’s available for Linux it’s probably available for Ubuntu
  • Versatile with LTS and point release options
  • Tons of help available online being the most popular Linux distro

Cons

  • Tend to focus on and push technologies that benefit servers and their commercial interests instead of the community
  • History of dropping technologies quickly as seen in products like Ubuntu Phone and Ubuntu One

Vanilla OS

Vanilla OS

Origin: Global
Date started: 2022
Based on: Debian
DEs: Gnome
Backed by: community
Release cycle: fixed release; 2 years
Support: 5 years
Homepage: https://vanillaos.org

Vanilla OS is what’s called an immutable or atomic operating system. This means that the core of the operating system is read-only and cannot be changed live while the home directory or user’s files are able to be changed. What this means is that you can use your computer saving and changing files just like any other operating system but you must reboot to apply system changes or updates. After this reboot, if something goes wrong, you will have the option to boot into your old system and revert your changes. This is a similar system that many phone operating systems such as Android or e/OS/ use and provides a very stable experience. This issue with this approach is that making changes to your system that involve system files can be more involved or complicated. Vanilla OS takes this immutable concept and makes a distro that uses a ‘vanilla’ Gnome desktop the way the Gnome developers intend and add more advanced tools for expert users and developers making this distro a great choice for all skill levels.

Vanilla OS

Pros

  • Very reliable and ‘hard to break’ system
  • Easy to use for beginners but powerful for expert users

Cons

  • Can be more difficult to make system changes than a traditional distro
  • Being a very new distribution, there is less certainty on longevity of the distro

Linux Mint

Linux Mint

Origin: Ireland
Date started: 2006
Based on: Ubuntu LTS, Debian (LMDE version)
DEs: Cinnamon (flagship), MATE, Xfce
Backed by: community
Release cycle: fixed release; 6 months
Support: 5 years
Homepage: https://www.linuxmint.com

Originally made to make an Ubuntu “done right” by including multimedia codecs and support for proprietary software and drivers out-of-the-box. Mint is a community distro that has a reputation for really listening to their users, making changes that the community supports, and even reverting changes that the community doesn’t like. The flagship edition uses the Cinnamon desktop reminiscent to Windows 7 that packs in a ton of features while still being very performant. Linux Mint bundles made-in-house tools as well including Webapp Manager for creating web apps, Hypnotix for IPTV, and Warpinator for transferring files between computers on the same network. Linux Mint really gives the user a complete experience that works well with all of the tools the average user needs right out of the box. It is both easy and stable. If you want a “just works” distro that you’ll pick up on right away, you can’t do a whole lot better than Linux Mint.

Linux Mint

Pros

  • It just works: stable and extremely easy to use
  • If you’re coming from Windows, the default layout will be an easy transition
  • Developers respond to feedback of community and shape distro accordingly

Cons

  • Being based on LTS versions of Ubuntu, software versions are older
  • Default configuration is a bit bloated with a lot of software installed and services running

KDE neon

KDE neon

Origin: United Kingdom
Date started: 2016
Based on: Ubuntu LTS
DEs: KDE Plasma
Backed by: community
Release cycle: semi-rolling
Support: semi-rolling
Homepage: https://neon.kde.org/

KDE neon is a distributoin developed by KDE, the organisation behind the Plasma Desktop, Kdenlive, Krita, and other great software. The approach for neon is an interesting one as it builds off of Ubuntu LTS (released every 2 years) and includes the newest KDE software in a rolling manner so what you get is a stable base with the latest features in your desktop environemnt and other KDE software. This distribution is very easy to use with no need to use a terminal so it’s great for beginners and experts alike that are fans of KDE software. If you want a stable system with the latest Plasma Desktop, neon is great.

KDE neon

Pros

  • Among the first distros to get the latest KDE software
  • Rock-solid Ubuntu LTS base
  • Give you a Plasma Desktop the way the developers intend

Cons

  • Being based on LTS versions of Ubuntu, non-KDE software versions are older

openSUSE Tumbleweed

openSUSE

Origin: Germany
Date started: 2015
Based on: independent
DEs: KDE Plasma (flagship), Gnome, Xfce
Backed by: corporation (SUSE)
Release cycle: rolling
Support: rolling
Homepage: https://www.opensuse.org/

openSUSE Tumbleweed is a rolling release community distro sponsored by the SUSE corporation. openSUSE tries, quite successfully, to make a rolling release distro with the latest and greatest software and features that remains reliable and stable. They achieve this through an automated quality assurance system that checks for problems before updates are rolled out and an excellent snapshot system using Snapper and the BTRFS filesystem to easily roll back a system in case of a breakage or issue. Another key feature of openSUSE is YaST, its tool for adminstering your system using a graphical tool and allowing the user perform pretty complex administration of their system without needing to use the terminal. Tumbleweed is a very performant distro that, while not quite as simple to use and learn as some others, is great for all types of users looking for a distro that gives them a reliable rolling experience.

openSUSE

Pros

  • Reliable rolling release through openQA and Snapper
  • Great performance
  • YaST is a very powerful tool for administering your system

Cons

  • May be a more difficult option for someone completely new to Linux
  • Smaller software repositories than some other distributions

Arch Linux

Arch

Origin: Canada
Date started: 2002
Based on: independent
DEs: most/all
Backed by: community
Release cycle: rolling
Support: rolling
Homepage: https://archlinux.org

Arch Linux differs from the rest of the distros on this list with its “keep it simple” philosophy. This distro is by no means easy to install or maintain for an inexperienced user, but it allows the user to have full control and understanding of what is going on with their system. Right from the install this distro requires terminal commands and understanding of how Linux works (or a willingness to learn and work at it). The approach Arch uses means you get a distro that is exactly what you need and nothing more allowing it to be the most performant distro on this list. Arch also has a huge library of software that is very up to date and access to an Arch User Repository (AUR) for possibly the largest software selection of any distro. Arch also has extensive documentation in the form of the ArchWiki. If you’re willing to put in the work and learn, this distro is a superb choice.

Arch Linux

Pros

  • Software is always up to date giving you the latest and greatest features
  • Only contains software you install making it an extremely lean system
  • With a great wiki and a do-it-yourself style, you learn a tonne about Linux
  • Great software availability

Cons

  • Being a rolling release, your system is more likely to run into issues that you need to fix
  • Installation is not easy without some Linux knowledge and command line experience

Manjaro

Manjaro

Origin: Austria, France, Germany
Date started: 2011
Based on: Arch Linux
DEs: Xfce (flagship), KDE Plasma, Gnome, others through community editions
Backed by: small company (Manjaro)
Release cycle: rolling
Support: rolling
Homepage: https://manjaro.org

Manjaro is to Arch what Ubuntu is to Debian in a lot of ways; it takes a powerful distro that is not the easiest to set up and takes the difficulty away. Manjaro also holds back packages until they are tested making it less likely to break than Arch Linux. Manjaro has increased in popularity due taking the power of Arch Linux and making it easier, more stable, and themed nicely. Where you gain in ease of use, however, you lose out on some of the key principles of Arch in that your OS will be more “bloated” and include services and software you may not use or need. All-in-all, Manjaro strikes a nice balance between leading edge and stability and between configurability and user friendliness. This one is an excellent distribution.

Manjaro

Pros

  • You get very up-to-date software with added stability over Arch Linux
  • Install is easy and the distro works well right away
  • Great software availability

Cons

  • Not as stable as fixed release options
  • More bloated than just using the parent distro, Arch Linux

ArcoLinux

ArcoLinux

Origin: Belgium
Date started: 2018
Based on: Arch Linux
DEs: Xfce (flagship), most/all available
Backed by: community
Release cycle: rolling
Support: rolling
Homepage: https://arcolinux.com/

ArcoLinux is an Arch based distribution with a focus on learning. The idea of this distro is to start you with an easy Arch install and help you learn Arch and general Linux skills by following their “Learning Path ”. The distro uses video tutorials on their website and YouTube channel to guide your journey and has a helpful community that can help you along the way. ArcoLinux give you three branches: ArcoLinuxL, an easy, ready to go desktop with Xfce; ArcoLinuxB, the next step in the learning path, where you pick a desktop environment of your choice and customize the software you want installed; and ArcoLinuxD, the final step on the path where you customize you distro entirely from the ground. If you want a distro that really enables you to learn a lot, ArcoLinux is a great option.

ArcoLinux

Pros

  • The distribution really helps you learn about Linux
  • You get very up-to-date software due to its Arch Linux base
  • Great software availability

Cons

  • Not as stable as fixed release options

Void

Void

Origin: Spain
Date started: 2008
Based on: Independent
DEs: Xfce (flagship), most/all available
Backed by: community
Release cycle: rolling
Support: rolling
Homepage: https://voidlinux.org/

Void is a distro that aims at being minimal and fast. This it accomplishes thorough minimal packanages and a different init system than most distributions (runit instead of systemd), creating a very responsive distribution where everything seems to just run quickly. The installation of Void definitely takes more knowledge than other distros on this list so it is probably not the best option for a beginner but if you have some experience with Linux, Void is a really good choice.

Void

Pros

  • Great performance
  • Very minimal distribution

Cons

  • Not as much documentation as other, more popular distributions
  • More difficult to install, maintain, and use

Top Picks for Specific Users

For quick reference I have included my top picks for different categories of users.

Best choices for beginners

If you are a beginner and want a hassle-free distro that will “just work” out of the box with minimal configuration required, these are my top picks:

  • Ubuntu
  • Linux Mint
  • KDE neon
  • Vanilla OS

Best choices for intermediate users

If you have used Linux before or are tech savvy and want a little bit more from your distro, these are my picks for you:

  • Debian
  • openSUSE Tumbleweed
  • Manjaro
  • ArcoLinux

Best choices for expert users

If you know Linux and are ready for more of a challenge or you have the time to spend on really learning something new, this distro would be a fantastic option:

  • Arch Linux
  • Void

Top choices for stability

If you want a distro that doesn’t change a lot and is just rock-solid stable these are my recommendations:

  • Debian
  • Ubuntu
  • Linux Mint
  • Vanilla OS

Top choices for latest and greatest software

If you want the latest software as quick as possible my top choices would be these:

  • openSUSE Tumbleweed
  • Arch Linux
  • Manjaro
  • ArcoLinux
  • KDE neon
  • Void

Whichever distribution you choose, it’s important to remember that Linux is very powerful and very customizable so you can take any of these distros and adjust them to your needs. Your best bet is to try some of these options out, experiment, learn, and most importantly have fun!






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