The Five Best Desktop Linux Distributions

After almost twenty years of working with Linux desktops, here's Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols' pick of the litter.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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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