Best Linux distros 2021: The finest open source operating systems around
Whether it's for desktop, server or security, there's bound to be a Linux distro for you
Although the most common operating systems are Windows and macOS, these platforms don’t offer an awful lot of potential for customisation and fine-tuning. Linux, meanwhile, has forged a reputation for being a fully customisable operating system that lets you configure your own software as you wish.
Operating Linux systems isn’t as easy a concept as it might sound, however. This term is an umbrella under which a wide variety of flexible installations fall. These are known as distros, and it can be tricky to know where to get started with them - even for experienced professionals.
Linux is built on the foundation of open source principles, which have grown to become incredibly popular with engineers and software developers. Open source developers can adjust elements of their code, and share ideas, giving the Linux ecosystem a collaborative edge. Within this ecosystem, however, there are several kinds of distros that suit different levels of user, and for different purposes. They all share the same Linux code structure, based on open source, in common though.
Generally speaking, they’re fairly stripped-back and can be used from a USB drive using your PC’s BIOS alongside your pre-installed operating system, without needing to fiddle about with lengthy installation processes.
The only headache we’d imagine you encountering is deciding which distro to go for, with a huge collection to choose from. To ease this process, we’ve rounded up a selection of the best Linux platforms available to download today. Irrespective of the particular installation you use, it’ll still be the same operating system in principle, and beyond that, you’re bound to find one that meets your specific requirements.
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.
Zorin OS is based upon the Ubuntu distribution, meaning it's compatible with everything Ubuntu works with, including all the libraries and repositories used by the Linux distro. Zorin OS it's an increasingly popular way of getting Linux on machines because it features a graphical installation process UI, making it easier for newbies to get up and running with the alternative OS.
Some have even compared it to the closest alternative to the Windows OS, that will come as a welcome relief to those a little nervous about jumping ship. And for those that love a bit of personalisation, Zorin OS also ships with a theme changer that allows you to change some of the colours and styles of icons and the desktop.
Linux has a bit of a reputation for focusing on function over form, and having a basic, unattractive look. While this is undoubtedly true of some distros, some look downright gorgeous. Elementary OS is one such example, combining a macOS-style aesthetic with a chic minimalist approach.
The distro comes with a minimum of pre-installed apps, but also features its own storefront for downloading software. Some of these apps are paid-for, but many are offered for free, or on a pay-what-you-want system.
No list of the best Linux distros would be complete without mentioning Arch, widely considered to be the distro of choice for Linux veterans. One of the reason it's so popular, however, is that it's very complex, requiring a large amount of technical know-how to properly set up and configure.
It also doesn't give you much to work with. The Arch packages provide the bare bones of the operating system - there isn't even a graphical desktop environment included with it. You can install any desktop you like over the top of it (along with all sorts of other groovy software and tools) but Arch itself is pared down to the bone.
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, which has resulted in it becoming one of the best-looking distros available.
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 minimalistic and 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 to developers for free, Red Hat makes its money selling support services and subscriptions to companies that want to implement the software in production environments.
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.
TinyCore 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, TinyCore 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. The distro comes loaded with more than 300 tools for probing, scanning exploiting and attacking your targets, including password crackers, key-loggers and Wi-Fi scanners.
Though it's 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, or The Amnesiac Incognito Live System, to give it its full name, 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.
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