The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

Summary: After almost twenty years of working with Linux desktops, here's Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols' pick of the litter.


While I wasn't there from the very start of Linux. I was an early adopter. Even before Linux, though, I was a Unix desktop user ranging from the early character interfaces such as the Bourne shell to graphic Unix desktops such as SCO's Open Desktop—better known back in the day as Open Deathtrap—and Solaris's Looking Glass. In the last twenty years I've used almost every significant Linux desktop out there, and was the editor-in-chief for many years of Desktop Linux. In short, I know what I'm talking about.

Before giving you my list of favorites though, if you don't know my work, you should know where I'm coming from. First, I'm a big believe in What Works. I use Linux on my desktop not because I find its free and open-source software foundations morally superior to the proprietary competition from Apple and Microsoft. I use it because it works better for me. When it comes to technology, I'm a pragmatist, not an idealist.

That said, I do think open-source is ethically better than other methods of creating software, or anything else. But given a choice between an open-source program that doesn't do its job and a proprietary program that does the same job superbly, I'm going to use the latter.

That's why, for example, I use Adobe Flash Player for Flash video rather than Gnash. The Adobe player is, for now, clearly the better player. That's also why I use commercial audio and video codecs. It would be great if everyone used open media codecs such as Ogg Theora, but they don't, and I'm not going to annoy myself or anyone to whom I recommend Linux by telling them they must use only open codecs. Maybe HTML5 will finally get it act together on this point and we won't need to worry with proprietary codecs, but I'm not holding my breath.

I also like operating systems that are both easy to use and give me the option of digging deep into their mechanisms so that I can set them up to work exactly the way I want them to work. That's why, generally speaking, I prefer KDE to GNOME for my Linux desktop.

So, from the bottom to the top, here's my current list of favorite Linux desktop distributions:

5) SystemRescueCD.

OK, so this one isn't a Linux desktop per se. I have to mention it though because regardless of what desktop you use, if you're at all tech. savvy you must have a copy of SystemRescueCD. Just like the name says this is aa system rescue operating system. You can use it as a bootable CD-ROM, USB stick, or even over a network connection. While you can use it as a desktop in own right, its real job is repairing crashed systems. In particular, with its disk and file system repair tools, it's great for bring dead hard drives back to life.

With Linux disk and file tools like parted, partimage, fstools and many others, and support for almost all Linux, Unix and Windows file systems, such as ext2/ext3/ext4, FAT, JFS, NTFS, ReiserFS, Reiser4, and XFS, I have yet to find a hard drive that could still spin that I couldn't at least pull data from with SystemRescueCD. I've managed to get data out of Windows systems with rootkits on their boot sectors and other disasters where the usual suggestion is to blast the hard disk down to its cold, dead magnetic surface. This is no tool for a casual user, but if you're a technician or play one for your family and friends, you must have this distribution.

4) OpenSUSE 11.4

I used to love openSUSE. I wish I could say I love openSUSE 11.4, but I can't. It's just feels a little too... klutzy. That said, I like its KDE 4.6 interface.

While I'm not crazy about openSUSE as a pure desktop, I love it as a server. While I have lots of good things I can say about Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and its clones such as CentOS, for working with a server at its desktop, I like the openSUSE approach. That's why while I use CentOS for my Web and other outward facing servers, I use openSUSE for all my intranet Linux servers. It just makes managing server software so darn easy.

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The Top Three Desktop Linux Distributions

3) MEPIS 11

I've always had a soft spot for MEPIS . It's a Debian-based desktop Linux distribution that uses the KDE desktop. I like it a lot because it simply works. I almost never have any trouble with it—and when you beat up on desktops the way I do I always find the bugs! All Linux distributions tend to be stable. MEPIS is bedrock stable.

The only reason I don't rate MEPIS any higher is that it's a one-man shop. Warren Woodford, and his fans and supporters, are the only “organization” behind this Linux distribution. That means it's fine for experienced Linux users who can handle their own support. But, if you're new to Linux, or just not sure of yourself, I can't recommend MEPIS. If you know what you're doing, though, check it out. MEPIS is a great distro.

2) Ubuntu 11.04

This one may surprise some of you since a lot of people don't like Ubuntu 11.04's new Unity interface. I do like it. Oh, I'm not crazy about it for me. It's way too simple for my tastes. I want a Lot more control over how the Unity application dock.

So why do I like it, because if the Linux desktop is to have any chance of pushing Linux over the 1% mark of total desktop use, it's going to be because of Ubuntu in general and Unity in specific. Unity is meant to tempt Windows and Mac users to Linux. I think it has a shot at doing it.

Unity will never be my favorite interface, but if it can bring more users to Linux than I'm all for it.

1) Mint 11

Yes, it's GNOME-based, but it uses, to my eye, the superior older GNOME 2.32 instead of GNOME 3.0. What I like most about Mint 11, is that its interface is easy to use, but I can get my hands dirty when I need to tune it up.

I also like that it's built on Ubuntu. This means that it gets support for the most popular open-source programs, such as Firefox and LibreOffice, as soon as they're available. As far as I'm concerned, if you're an experienced Linux user, and you're not wedded to KDE, Mint's the best of the current Linux desktop lot.

So, that's my list, for today anyway. As fast as Linux changes I know they'll be another great distro coming around the corner shortly. What's on your list?

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Topics: Software, Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems

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    • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

      Since I cannot build Linux code on my Mac, I installed installed latest Ubuntu on it last week. Good news, it installed OK on the second try. Bad news: Unity needs work. Sadly, making it look like MacOS did not make it function just as well.
      Thankfully, they still support Gnome.
      • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

        @Scrabbler <br>Unity is pretty poor IMHO. And whilst Gnome is very solid, its also rather dull. However, KDE 4.x is actually rather good now - looks nice too. It co-exists with Unity & Gnome so you can try it without worries. Give it a whirl. In a terminal windows, type the following and hit return....<br><br>sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop<br><br>Best wishes, G,
      • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions


        yeah - I agree - unity needs a LOT of work. Moving from gnome is like putting a rock in my shoe. I rue the day they moved up.
      • So? Use the Gnome Classic desktop.

        @Scrabbler <br>Just like I did with Windows XP and Vista: I chose the "classic" desktop. For a long time, people thought I was stll using Windows 2000!<br> In Ubuntu it's easy- at boot time (if you have set a password) just go to bottom of screen, BEFORE entering your password, and choose "Classic" from the dropdown menu. You can always go back to Unity anytime.<br>Alternately log out, go to bottom of screen and choose the desktop you'd like. Then log in again.<br>This also works if you install Kubuntu, as someone mentioned previously. You then have a choice of THREE desktops <b>at login time- <ul><li>Gnome Classic</li><li>Unity</li><li>KDE</li></ul></b>However some of the gnome apps may not work well in the KDE and vice-versa.
      • If Linux could only run Android Apps natively

        Linux would overtake all windows environments.

        The only thing that Linux doesn't have is a good ACAD system. Though Android has one.

        You use all those Android apps (around 405k today's count).. and Linux would become so productive, it would be crazy!
      • Bias or comfort zone

        @Scrabbler and most of the rest of the serious posters here: I know I'm not nearly as "technical" as most of you but as a graduate engineer (long ago, and not CS) I'm incredibly impressed with the obvious knowledge displayed here, and the almost fierce determination to "do it yourself" and control/customize an OS to your needs and wishes. I live in Raleigh, NC and I'm also extremely impressed with the success, and corporate citizenship, of Red Hat, another thriving tech company in our community.
        But (and there's always a but isn't there?) if you just step back and scan any of the serious posts here, expressing all the inherent complexity of what you have to do, or choose to do, with an open source OS--how can you imagine moving any serious market share away from Apple (not me, folks) or the much larger family of Microsoft users?
        Frankly, I think most of you would be totally bummed out if a Linux OS really was as user-friendly as Mac or even Windows. You're rightfully proud of the skills you've developed and I believe you would react badly if someone like me could just step over from MacOS to Linux and quickly be able to do all I want or need to do, seamlessly, without having to even know what terminal means, etc.
        I'm serious--think about it, honestly.
      • Unity

        @Scrabbler - I was a longtime Gnome user and at first thought Unity was a little basic. It needs some work. I've stuck with it because, well, I like the basic idea of it and layout and simplicity, and I no longer want to spend much time at all tweaking the dock and menu bars etc. Stock Gnome was never any good to me and I had to add quite a few mods to get it usable. I really haven't done a single thing to Unity other than resize the icons to fit my big monitor. Take that in contrast to all the futzing around I used to do with Gnome and a custom dock of some kind and the endless options of Compiz that were just way over complicated. Over it.
        The biggest problem with Unity is that it doesn't work as designed with every last app. like VM interfaces and some Wine apps. I think this will get fixed when it's been around for a while, because it's just so obvious. And yet, it's still usable in those case and no big deal. I have a feeling the next version of Unity will be pretty much there and a no brainer for most users.
      • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

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      • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

        @Scrabbler <br>It's easy to use proprietary drivers and codecs in Fedora, all you have to do is add the Fusion Yum repositories. With the Fusion repositories it's no harder to add non-Kosher software then it is in Ubuntu.
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    • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

      @woulddie4apple oh look, the guy who takes a product/company as a religion apparently is the smart guy. u are so smart that you could be one of the "geniuses" at an apple store. god, people like you disgust me. and when i say god, i dont mean your turtleneck god.
      • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

        @gunn13 Agree. What an ugly, blinded post by @woulddie4apple. Really? You think that over 90% (Windows) of desktop users are dumb? Get off your high horse and graze the Apple orchard some more you ignorant cow!
      • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions


        Read the guy's name. Think about the guy's name. Take the fact that his name reads "Woodie for apple"...

        Now reread his post given this obvious evidence. Why bother responding? He's clearly being sarcastic and mocking Apple users.
      • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

        @gunn13 Don't feed the trolls.
      • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

        @gunn13 I think woulddie4apple is just mocking apple users.
    • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions


      It's already below 1%.
      The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

        @Cylon Centurion
        4-5%. Check with boss (Steve Balmer).
      • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

        @Cylon Centurion I drive a Hummer and ride a Harley, I have no problem, and in fact, prefer using an exclusive OS. I am quite happy letting members of the mindless masses, sorry, I meant general public, deal with propitiatory OS artificial limitations and malware.

        I use Fedora, at home, at work, and on the road.
    • RE: The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

      @woulddie4apple <br>He didn't say it had a chance or was likely to break the 1% barrier (pc only, of course, Linux is way more successful as the os for many interesting products), he said if it is to have a chance, it will be for doing risky things such as Unity.<br><br>Maybe. Truth be told, I'm not sure how you can get the general market interested in interface idioms. When I've shown folks the *nix drag to select/middle click to paste, they have wanted it on their os, but as long as Excel doesn't run on Linux, you know? It isn't compelling.<br><br>I haven't tried Unity. I switched to Xfce a few adjectival animals ago for the Linux subsystems I use. Linux does feature cutting edge programming languages and frameworks which support one of my avocations.<br><br>But, I've been listening and it seems as though when someone does take a stand, such as Unity, or moving the close button, which means changing something around or burying something technical deeper, they receive loud complaints and the responsible distro maker is judged guilty of aping Microsoft or Apple. And then the community publish the workarounds to nullify the changes.<br><br>Linux's greatest strength and weakness is the engagement and technical sophistication of its community of users. Unless someone really frosts off those people, and replace them with a dozen newcomers who won't feel the need to change the theme (or other similar customization), Linux remains a high-functioning fringe os. On the pc. Not that there's any thing wrong with that: I like it's capabilities. What do I care if it has 1 or 10 or 70 per cent share?