The 5 most popular Linux distributions

The 5 most popular Linux distributions

Summary: It's hard to say what the most popular Linux distributions are. There are no good surveys. But, these are the ones that have been getting the most buzz in recent months.

The most popular desktop Linux of all is...

These conclusions are not from a formal survey. Why?

IDG and Gartner figures only look at pre-installed server operating systems, and Web browser surveys -- such as StatCounter and NetMarketShare -- don't drill down far enough to say which Linux desktop distributions are the most popular.

With that, I have to turn to DistroWatch, the master Linux desktop tracking site for useful desktop Linux use data. 

Before launching into this though, I should point out that the most popular end-user Linux of all is probably in your pocket and not on your desktop: Android, of course. With just over half of the U.S. smartphone market, and hundreds of millions of smartphones around the world, Android is the most popular Linux distribution ever; despite 99 percent of its users not realizing that they're Linux users.

DistroWatch comes right out and states:

"The DistroWatch Page Hit Ranking statistics are a light-hearted way of measuring the popularity of Linux distributions and other free operating systems among the visitors of this website. They correlate neither to usage nor to quality and should not be used to measure the market share of distributions. They simply show the number of times a distribution page on was accessed each day, nothing more.”

All true, but for better or worse, it's also the best data we have. Other surveys, such as the LinuxQuestions Members Choice Award, are mere popularity contests. Fans vote for their favorites even if they may not use it. As LinuxQuestions founder Jeremy Garcia pointed out in the most recent survey results: "I'm fairly surprised how handily Firefox beat Chrome here. It's significantly more skewed than our actual browser stats are."

Also, for what it's worth, the DistroWatch numbers match up pretty well with the questions and comments I get from my Linux-using readers. 

With all that in mind, let's take a brief look at the DistroWatch top five over the last few months.

From the bottom up we find:

4: Debian: I've never been a big Debian fan -- I much prefer Debian-based distributions such as Ubuntu and Mepis -- but lots of other people are. Debian, which just turned 19, remains important not just because it is the foundation for many other Linux distributions, but because year after year it continues to be loved by its users.

4: Fedora: But while Debian isn't one of my favorites, I confess I really haven't cared for Fedora, Red Hat's community Linux distribution, in recent years. Well, it's not so much Fedora, it's the fact that it uses GNOME 3.x -- the desktop interface I love to hate.

Regardless of how I feel about it though, Fedora clearly has its fans. And, if you work on Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) development, it's a really wise idea to keep a copy of Fedora on hand so you can see RHEL's future.

3: Ubuntu: What's that you say? Ubuntu: the darling of so many Linux fans only in third place? Yep. It's in third. Why? Well even though I like its relatively new Unity interface, a lot of other people really don't. I think that mostly it's because while Unity is great for new users who aren't especially computer savvy, a lot of Linux professionals find it gets in the way -- and, of course, experienced old Linux hands are exactly the kind of people who visit DistroWatch.

That said, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth thinks the operating system will see 20 million new PCs sold with Ubuntu in 2012, and that's not counting people who install it. Those people will also largely be new computer users. If Ubuntu can get most of the new users coming to Linux, I think they'll be happy even if they're no longer as popular with old-guard Linux desktop users.

2: Mageia: And, number two is, "who?" I can hear some of you asking. Mageia is a September 2010 fork of Mandriva Linux, a commercial Linux distribution, which was once quite popular in its own right. In 2006, Mandriva suffered management and financial problems. Since then, while the firm has continued to have problems, Mageia -- freed of Mandrivia's business woes -- has continued on to become a wildly popular Linux distribution.

And why is Mageia so popular? I think it's because it's a straightforward easy-to-use Linux distribution. Unlike Ubuntu's Unity user interface, Mageia uses the Linux pro friendly KDE 4.8 desktop. In short, it's just a darn good KDE distribution -- which, by the way -- according to LinuxQuestions' last survey, is now the single most popular desktop interface of all.

1: Mint Linux: This should come as no surprise. Mint is an excellent distribution and my own personal favorite. Users have enjoyed and loved using it ever since Ubuntu started down the Unity path.

What Mint has going for it is an outstanding desktop interface of its own, Cinnamon, which is very remindful of the classic GNOME 2.x interface. Add to that outstanding software and hardware support, there's little question as to why Mint still appears to be the most desktop popular Linux of all.


Topics: Linux, Android, Laptops, Operating Systems, Smartphones, Ubuntu, PCs

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Like always a Great article tnx

    I think mint really deserves to be #1!
    The team knows where they are, what they are doing and where they should go! Mint group knows what desktop is and how we should use it, they don't concentrate on other places like tablets to bring a half baked experience for you!
    In this era of forcing tablet UIs on users throats i really appreciate their hard work!I have simply become a big fan!
    And of course KDE is another great desktop which one should not pass it easily, it is the most innovative desktop we currently have so kudos to Mageia too!
    • It is a good, solid article.

      One thing you can't fault sjvn is for how well-linked his articles are. But "Great like always"? Haha, le nope. It's my futile (and real) wish to see him write more true gems and less garbage. He's clearly very capable of both.
      • You don't wish him write less garbage or anything!

        You just want him to be quite and write as you like, praising windows 8 and Metro that doesn't happen go to EdBott!
        This is what i like most about SJVN,he is not afraid of claiming his opinion and is not afraid of some trolls which have no clue about Computer Science!
        SJVN FTW
        • Your paranoid accusation would be accurate

          If this article which I did praise *was* about Windows. No, I want him to write less garbage.
        • No, you want him to trash Windows 8 at all costs

          even to his credibility, and yours. When he writes an article on Linux, allowing it to stand on it's own merits, then they usualy come off as quite good.

          When he feels he needs to throw in Windows 8 to give it some merit, then yes it's a garbage post, the "When you can't think of one good thing to say about you product, then trash the other guy's product" scenerio. (much like politics)

          This is a good article for him - he lets it stand, or fall, on it's own merits.
          William Farrel
          • Dear Mr. Farrel

            No, Steven doesn't need to trash Windows 8. Plenty of past Windows fans, developers and OEMs are doing a fine job of that. Early next year the Market will do the final take on that.

            Windows 8, not good enough for desktop, not good for tablets. It's already failing on phones. But, Microsoft will get it right in a couple more releases.
          • Not Enough Time

            Microsoft doesn't have time for "a couple more releases" to get it right. If Windows 8 fails, they'll have to cede the mobile market.
    • Mint #1

      I also like mint and have switched from Ubuntu to it. I really don't care for Unity at all.
      • Tried Unity, but

        ...put Cinnamon on Ubuntu. Buggy, but I'm not a total Mint fan either.
  • I also applaud SJVN for sticking to Linux

    Looking at the actual stats revealed there are 326 distributions of Linux. This partially explains why Linux desktop is still less than 1% usage. I like the fact that Linux exists, but with this amount of fragmentation, it can never be a serious competitor for Windows or even OS/X. The most widespread Linux implementation appears to be Android which beats Mint by a long shot - and that's only as a cutdown OS for tablets and phones.
    • Yet...

      It is probably the diversity which is Linux's biggest strength. You want a desktop system that makes use of your hot GPU? Linux has you covered. You want a lightweight desktop that will go easy on your ageing old system? Linux has you covered. You don't want a GUI at all? Linux has you covered. Want a familiar operating system for your cluster supercomputer? Linux has you covered. Want an operating system for your ultra-cheap ARM computer? - Well you get the idea.

      That's diversity, Linux's best feature.
      • One distribution could cover this

        One distribution could cover most of these feature. The flexibility of Linux with packages if much better than that of Windows.

        On one distribution you could decide it to be no GUI, or KDE or Gnome or whatever else. It could be turned into a super server or a desktop workstation.

        No, 300 distributions are not needed for this. A few distributions should be able to cover it all and if the manpower was concentrated on less distributions, they would be the better for it.
        • Nope

          The distribution is just a pre-defined and pre-configured software system with specific service (packages) targeted for specific user group.

          There is no single (or few) what works best for all. Thats why there are hundreds (even that dozen is most used) because one small group of people (being a corporation, hobbyist, government, school etc) can package software system for their targeted users and distribute it easily for them.

          Without distributions, everyone should first go to and download Linux operating system. Then get somewhere a computer where is already development tools available (typically from GNU project) and compile Linux operating system to used hardware and basic GNU system programs and libraries. Then make a difficult copying to install them to computer and get the base system working. And then start building up the wanted software system by downloading sources of wanted software and their decencies and compiling them as well, starting with GNU development tools (GCC etc).

          After few weeks, most users would have working software system with graphical user interface.

          Or would people simply just go, search if someone has already done nearly perfect software system installation image for them what can be installed in few minutes and then have services (updates, pre-compiled binary packages etc) for them?

          There are already few distributions what does what you want. Arch Linux, Slackware, Gentoo and Debian.
        • Yep, at least when viewed in a competitive framework

          Go back to the proposition and POV Tony first framed: "I like the fact that Linux exists, but with this amount of fragmentation, it can never be a serious competitor for Windows or even OS/X." And then Jeremy's smart response -- followed by lepoete73 and now you.

          This is the same argument I had at the beginning of the year with RHM in a different SJVN presentation. It mostly amounts to a tail chase, since both sides can present valid and compelling viewpoints concurrently. But by any competitive, desktop framing, I don't know how you can argue against the statement quoted above, at least when it comes to winning over the masses.

          Too many legislative hands kill, or dilute to the point of impotency, most smart initiatives. And we all know too many cooks invariably spoil the broth. Likewise, too many Linux distros kill any realistic chance of it nixing Windows (in numbers + $ales) as king of the hill and peasant (er, pooter) enslaver, and winning the crown jewel that is the desktop.
          • Present to me...

            ...any example, anywhere, of anyone ever claiming "I decided not to choose this product because it offered to give me exactly what I wanted." Otherwise, this argument is madness. Please tell Cheesecake Factory they're holding it wrong when it comes to offering 38 flavors of cheesecake. Please tell Bed Bath and Beyond that they need to offer only one brand of pot, pan, sheet, etc. Tell GM, Ford and Chrysler than can only offer one car apiece or else the automobile will never catch on. Tell Nature that it can only have one mammal, one fish, etc. and that the vast ecological diversity is a hindrance rather than the reason life on earth has survived numerous cataclysms and extinction events.

            No one ever decided on Windows over Linux because they didn't want to have it their way. This is Microsoft Trained Brain Syndrome (the mistaken belief that the Microsoft way/product/tool is the only choice possible to get something done) at its worst. It's precisely this sort of single vendor situation you advocate that HAS CAUSED THE VENDOR LOCK-IN THAT PREVENTS ANY OTHER OS FROM GAINING CRITICAL MASS ON THE DESKTOP IN THE FIRST PLACE.

            Oh, and please explain why Android dominates smart phones even though it ships in many versions with many UIs and on many different sizes and models of phones. How can you escape realizing that 1) it's this vast variety that has helped dominate the smart phone landscape (expanding to fill all niches) and 2) it's done so because there was no Microsoft monopoly. There can be absolutely no talk about why any OS isn't dominating the desktop without bringing up "monopoly" or it's not a serious conversation.
          • It's not that...

            ...Linux gives everyone exactly what they need (which it doesn't - no OS is going to give ANYONE 100% of what they need - there's always some tucking and fitting that needs to be done). It's that the number of distros cuts down on the incentive for commercial software developers to create Linux versions of their products. Even if, as I believe, the Linux adoption rate is grossly underestimated, you're still talking about low single digits split among several different distros. Even when you whittle it down to the top five, that's still more than one version commercial developers need to make - a .deb for Ubuntu, an .rpm for Fedora, etc.

            "With open source we don't need commercial software"? Right and wrong. Server software, security-related, office productivity, great. Multimedia production and editing? Linux native programs hardly go beyond being someone's hobby. Trust me as someone who uses audio editing and related tools frequently - I made a downgrade switching to Linux. I finally came up with a combination of native apps and Windows programs in Wine that is ADEQUATE, but a far cry from the functionality and power of Samplitude, Ozone and Wavelab in Windows (I've tried all 3 in Wine - no soap).

            If Ubuntu continues dominating and Canonical reaches out to commercial software developers who want just one or two distros to develop for, it could become the go-to distro for people who not only want Linux that is easy to use but also maximizes their software choices. That's the key to adoption, right there. For the purists who want no taint of anyone getting (gasp!) PAID for their hard work, as you said, there are hundreds of other distros out there so they don't have to get their hands dirty. For the practical, Ubuntu would be distro to simply get stuff done - an OS, not a religion.
            Bill Tetzeli
        • re: One distribution could cover this

          300 distributions? Really? Are the top five not good enough for you to pick from? There's not even one distribution of Windows 7 or of Windows 8. Pbbbt~

          When Windows 7 came out there were Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise and Ultimate. My goodness, how did you choose? That's more different Windows versions than the Linux versions in this article!
          none none
          • Windows versions?

            Actually there are only three versions of Windows 7 available to consumers:
            * Home
            * Professional
            * Ultimate

            Enterprise is available only for, well, enterprise.

            Starter would be installed on low end netbooks, mostly.

            Home Basic was intended for emerging markets.


            Now you forgot about a couple of the other versions, including Windows 7 embedded, and the sort of related Windows 2009.

            Okay, so you say that embedded and 2009 aren't publicly available. Tru dat, but neither is Starter or Home Basic for most of the world.

            For the vast majority of users in the world, there are just three versions!

            Still, it is ridiculous, but it is highly misleading to drop the six versions and we must choose one line, it just aint so.
          • re: Windows versions?

            If you read carefully, the poster to whom I replied claimed that one Linux version is all that is needed. My reply was that even MS can't do only one version. You haven't proved me wrong.

            If for some reason three is magic number that won't unduly burden users, then someone considering Linux would do well to consider the top three Linux distros. This whole thing about "too many distros" is a load of you know what.
            none none
          • You're missing the point

            @none none

            For power users, tinkerers and adventurers of every stripe, more is always merrier. That's a given. "Have it your way" should be a mutually understood rallying cry, irrespective of platform. It's just one of the reasons I see stick-figured Metro as a blockfaced slap down. But I digress.

            The issue in contention here is winning over the masses. And in that regard, less almost always equates to more. Even queerly so. But then again, less choice means less effort, and hey, less pain. Add a device manager exclamation mark if even a modicum of "dirty work" (e.g. RTFM) is involved -- or anything smacks of "applying thyself."

            As things stand, Linux distros present a veritable maze for the uninformed to decipher. They'd rather walk away than claw thru the hairsplitting differentials and all those discombobulated forks. And just like most ten-thumbed Windows or Mac users, they won't. Just refer to history for proof.

            But alas, winning the masses over are where all good computational minds and hearts flutter off to. It never hurts that riding shotgun in the peddler's equation comes all that mass-ively tempting jack. Some might even sell their souls for a taste.