Linux is a far cry from the esoteric bundles of code it once was, and the number of polished distros out there, offering variants on Windows, OS X and Ubuntu, is testament to that.
If you’re new to Linux or are looking for a change, these distributions are easily among the best options in 2020. This list was designed to cover different experience levels and use cases. So whether you’re a system admin, developer, or a desktop user, you’ll find something to interest you.
Customization: Arch Linux
Arch Linux has grown to become one of the leading Linux distros since its launch back in 2002. The distro is very minimal in its default state, but offers an unbridled level of customization for the more experienced user.
There’s no default desktop environment, so you can choose or create one that’s best suited to your personal tastes and the power of your PC. The minimum requirements of Arch Linux are a modest 512MB RAM and an x64 CPU.
It’s not the simplest of Linux distros to get your head around, given how much it leaves in the user’s hands to figure, but the documentation is very good, and the sporadic nature of new releases means your custom-tweaked desktop environment won’t deprecate quickly.
For more in-depth details on this great distro, check out our Arch Linux review.
Simplicity: MX Linux
Describing itself as a “midweight” Linux distro, MX Linux runs like a dream even on lower-end PCs, and its fairly minimal starting setup makes it a favorite among developers. Yes, its default XFCE desktop environment may look a little dated next to more renowned distros like Ubuntu, but there’s something to be said for keeping things simple.
The important stuff is never more than a couple of clicks away in MX Linux. The taskbar brings up a menu of MX Tools, which includes crucial things like PC maintenance and setup options for your system sound and keyboard.
The base installation of MX Linux includes a solid bunch of packages that include Firefox, VLC, LibreOffice and GIMP, and you can of course get more through the Synaptic Package Manager, which will point you to the package repositories for MX Linux.
If you want to know more about what we think of this great distro, check out our MX Linux review.
Ease of Use: Linux Mint
If you’re fresh to this whole Linux business, then it’s natural to feel a little overwhelmed if you’re migrating over from Windows or Mac OS. For that reason, you may want to start simple, and Linux Mint is just what you need.
Mint comes packed with much of the software you need to get straight back into your workflow, such as LibreOffice and some decent onboard media software. You have a choice of four main desktop environments, with Cinnamon being the most Windows-like with its pseudo-Start menu (though MATE remains a popular choice too). It’s pretty light resource-wise, too, loading faster and using less memory than the all-popular Ubuntu.
Mint is always in sync with the latest Ubuntu LTS releases, meaning you don’t need to worry about being left vulnerable during zero-day scares or malware outbreaks (well, no more so than the Ubuntu crew anyway).
Privacy is a strange concept but one that is becoming more important as technology becomes inherently woven into our daily lives. It boils down to what you perceive as your threat model.
If you are trying to be 100% anonymous on the Internet, for example, you will have to try very hard to do this. If you want to prevent companies from building a data profile on you, then things are easier.
A good way to be more anonymous online is to use Tails.
Tails is a Debian-based Linux distro that comes pre-configured to use the Tor Network. Tor is a public decentralised network that allows users to send and receive traffic through several relays. The concept is simple – each relay has its own IP address which hides the original location of the user by creating several “layers.” This is especially useful for privacy-conscious individuals or users within countries that have oppressive Governments.
Tails is designed to be run from portable storage, meaning that it only uses your RAM and leaves no permanent traces of what you’ve been up to on it (though you can save data on your portable media).
It comes with a bunch of privacy-based encrypted tools like an instant messenger, KeePassX password manager, and email encryption tools. Crucially, LibreOffice is there for most of your productivity needs.
Forensics: Kali Linux
Linux is a strong player within the area of Forensics. There are many distros to pick from in this category, but I am choosing Kali Linux.
Kali Linux is a Debian-derived Linux distribution designed for digital forensics and penetration testing. It is maintained and funded by Offensive Security Ltd.
The toolset is very comprehensive, and prior knowledge would be useful. Beginners should take advantage of Offensive Security’s courses to become a Kali Ninja.
Runs from RAM: Puppy Linux
The obvious choice here is Puppy Linux.
Puppy is a super-lightweight distro that will run entirely within RAM on a given machine. This is incredibly useful if you need to perform tasks quickly. The entire system can be run from RAM with current versions generally taking up about 210 MB, allowing the boot medium to be removed after the operating system has started.
It has variations built on Slackware and Ubuntu, but they both have the same tools for the most part.
I use it when I need to repurpose and wipe hard drives using either the
dd command or
hdparm but it is a fully stocked distro for a variety of tasks.
Old Computers and Netbooks: Bodhi Linux
Despite the rise of the tablet, there are still users who have lighter portable netbooks and who make use of Linux. The same can be said for older machines that can be given new life.
A great distro for this is Bodhi Linux.
While it is a derivative of Ubuntu, it is an elegant and lightweight distro featuring Moksha, an Enlightenment-17-based desktop environment. Along with the polished desktop, Bodhi offers a minimal install which leaves the user free to customise easily. Bodhi offers a variety of ISO files, and, in particular, it can be installed on Chromebooks and legacy devices.
Rolling Release: Manjaro
If you are tired of having to constantly upgrade your Linux distro from version to version, Arch Linux is the one for you. Manjaro is based on Arch Linux and comes with all the benefits of a full vanilla Arch install but leaves that complication at the door. Manjaro is Arch with no assembly required.
The Arch Linux Wiki is unparalleled when it comes to distribution documentation. Everything in it applies to Manjaro. You also have the added benefit of Arch’s huge repositories, that are always kept updated, and the AUR (Arch User Repository).
If you’re more comfortable with Linux and looking for a new distribution packed with power and options, Manjaro is definitely worth consideration.
For the Experienced: Gentoo
Gentoo might seem like an odd choice if you’ve paid attention to all the memes and noise around it. Gentoo is no joke, though. It’s easily the most flexible distribution around, and you can configure it to be as stable or bleeding edge as you need. Essentially, Gentoo is whatever you make it.
Gentoo is a source-based distribution, meaning you compile every package that you install from its source code when you install it. While this does take additional time, it also presents an opportunity to customize every package to meet your needs.
Whether you are installing Gentoo on a desktop or server, you can tailor it precisely. For desktops, you can choose your desktop environment or window manager without any unnecessary bloat. Servers provide a similar situation, allowing for lightweight purpose-built installations. As an added bonus Gentoo doesn’t make any decisions for you, not even for something like Systemd. If you don’t want it, you don’t need it.
On the side of security, the Gentoo Hardened project is one of the best, if not the best, projects within a Linux distribution to increase its overall security. Even without the GRSecurity patches that were previously a large part of the project, Gentoo Hardened is an excellent option for server or desktop security.
What are your opinions of the choices? Do you have better alternatives for the criteria selected, and if so, why? Let us know in the comments section below.
This article is updated in January 2020.