8 of the Best Linux Distros in 2018

Best Linux Distros 2017

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 2018. 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.

best-linux-distros-2018-tails

Let’s start off with the Linux distro that addresses one of the biggest concerns for PC users in 2018. That concern is privacy, and it says a lot that Tails is the distro of choice for whistleblower Edward Snowden – who we can assume is pretty discerning with these kinds of things.

So what’s so special about it? First up, all your network connections are routed through Tor – a highly anonymous network that connects you to the internet by bouncing your online communications around a web of dedicated relays to make you virtually untraceable.

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 getting 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.

best-linux-distros-2018-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).

best-linux-distros-2018-ubuntu

For some, Ubuntu, which is by no means ancient, is so synonymous with Linux that the two words are often used interchangeably. (Obviously, any experienced Linux user will quickly rebuke you for doing so.)

It’s the perfect starting point for new Linux users, as it’s the most polished Linux OS out there. Previously, the Unity desktop interface may have taken a little bit of getting used to if you were coming from Mac or Windows, but beyond that it’s a nice, gentle way to familiarize yourself with updating your OS using apt commands, which are essentially a more advanced version of Debian’s dpkg. Being based on Debian, Ubuntu owes much to it, but in terms of simplicity it improves on its ancestor in almost every way.

It’s worth noting that Ubuntu has switched to Gnome 3 as the default Ubuntu desktop environment, which may please some people, and there are plenty of variations on it for lower-end PCs, such as Ubuntu MATE which is great for laptops, or Lubuntu, which is a lightweight Ubuntu fork which uses an LXDE desktop environment.

Ubuntu is pretty much the distro that made Linux palatable for many users who were previously intimidated by it, and after all these years it remains a bedrock of accessibility and efficiency.

best-linux-distros-2018-Elementary OS

Elementary OS is based on Ubuntu and aims to provide a friendly and polished experience out of the box. Elementary OS has been around for a fair amount of time and has established itself as a solid option for beginners and desktop users looking for turn-key distribution.

Because Elementary OS is based on Ubuntu, it enjoys all of the benefits of Ubuntu with an additional level of care and finish. Ubuntu PPAs and external packages and repositories will work with Elementary OS, making it an extremely well-supported distribution.

Elementary OS has its own desktop environment, Pantheon, that provides user experience that should feel familiar to fans of macOS. That means that you can have Mac-like style with the underlying power and control of Linux.

Elementary OS is an amazing option for desktop and workstation users of any experience level.

best-linux-distros-2018-solus

Solus is a relative newcomer to the scene, but it’s already earning some serious attention and rightfully so. Solus is a complete and independent distribution that provides a clean and polished experience.

Despite being completely independent, Solus has robust repositories that include just about any software that you can think of. It’s a rolling release distribution, so you can be confident that that software is always up to date.

Solus created its own desktop environment, Budgie, and its own package manager, eopkg. Budgie is a sleek modern desktop that provides an intuitive and unique interface without feeling too unfamiliar for new users. Eopkg shares a lot of syntax with Debian’s Apt, resulting in an easy-to-manage package system.

Solus is exclusively a desktop distribution right now. It’s clear the developers wanted to focus on making the most complete and well-tuned desktop possible, and it shows.

best-linux-distros-2018-Debian

Debian just celebrated its 24th birthday. Let that sink in for a moment. For a free software project to last for twenty-four years, it must be well-used and loved.

Debian is often considered the grandfather of modern Linux distributions because there are loads of distributions based off of Debian, including Ubuntu. Even now Debian and Ubuntu are very similar, but Debian has a better reputation for stability and a commitment to the free software community, and that’s why Debian is here and Ubuntu isn’t.

Debian is very well supported by third party packagers and repositories, which only serve to complement its existing massive repositories.

Debian has a surprising level of flexibility. It comes in three varieties: stable, testing, and unstable. The stable release is perfect for servers and strikes an excellent balance between ease of use and configuration. The testing and unstable releases both provide options to give desktop and workstation users more up-to-date packages in a rolling release format.

Debian calls itself the “Universal operating system,” and it really is.

best-linux-distros-2018-Antergos

Antergos is an unexpected and often underrated distribution. It’s based on Arch Linux and comes with all the benefits of a full vanilla Arch install but leaves that complication at the door. Antergos is Arch with no assembly required.

Antergos has developed its own graphical installer, Cnchi, which makes the Arch Linux install process an absolute breeze for any Linux user. It allows you to set up your system exactly how you want it and to boot into a perfectly-configured install with no bloat.

The Arch Linux Wiki is unparalleled when it comes to distribution documentation. Everything in it applies to Antergos. 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, Antergos is definitely worth consideration.

best-linux-distros-2018-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 that 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 a security side, 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.

Which one should you choose? Any one of them could be right for you or none of them could be as well. That’s something you need to try for yourself. If you’re new to Linux, give Elementary or Solus a try. You can even take Debian for a test drive, but it has its quirks.

More experienced users need to consider Debian and Antergos. You won’t be disappointed with either, even if you don’t settle on them. Then there’s Gentoo. For those who have been around the Linux world and seen it all, give it a shot. You may just end up falling in love. Be sure to go in to the experience expecting that Gentoo is unlike anything you’ve ever used before.

One of the truly great things about Linux is the amount of choice and diversity you have. There are so many possibilities, it’d be hard not to find yourself at home with one of them.

This article was updated in August 2018.

42 comments

  1. I’m surprised to see Gentoo listed. It is a fine distro, no doubt, but not for the faint of heart. On the other hand, I do applaud it’s inclusion. It’s nice to see something besides Ubuntu and Mint. There’s nothing wrong with either of them now that Unity is gone, but they do tend to monopolize the conversation.

    • “I’m surprised to see Gentoo listed. It is a fine distro, no doubt, but not for the faint of heart. ”
      Why do “best” distros always have to be only those for newbies? “Best” depends on the criteria for choice. The “best” distro(s) for really learning the intricacies of Linux are Linux from Scratch, Gentoo, Arch and/or Slackware. Many people agree that Zorin is the “best” distro for immigrants from Windows. As jymm says, the best distro is the one that works for you.

    • Gentoo is there because I wanted to pick at least one distribution for experienced users looking for something exciting and challenging. That basically narrowed it to Arch, Slackware, and Gentoo. Gentoo is more flexible than the other two, and it has a larger package base than Slackware. Arch is great for desktops, but it doesn’t make for a great server distribution. Gentoo is more work, but it can do it all, with enough patience.

  2. Very strange list.
    For others check distrowatch.com
    and on the right side you would see answer who are top 5 distros.

    • The list you are referring to is based on popularity. It is not an indicator of quality. Even DistroWatch itself disclaims that the number are not to be taken as anything but a count of downloads. Quantity does imply quality. Let me remind you of the VHS versus Betamax competition. While technologically Beta was far superior to VHS. the latter was far more popular, eventually causing Sony to deepsix Batamax.

      As Captain Fantastic says, Ubuntu and Mint monopolize the conversation. Interestingly, in spite of the vast majority of tech writers and pundits talking about Ubuntu as if it was the only Linux distro, it ha been slipping down the DistroWatch list. Only a few years ago it was by far the most popular. The Mint overtook it. Now it is only fifth on the list.

      • Pretty much this. I like both Mint and Ubuntu. They’re great distributions, but being the most popular doesn’t make you the best. It’s also important to keep in mind that Distrowatch tracks search results, not active installs or anything like that.

        Mint and Ubuntu were not included for specific reasons. Ubuntu, as a desktop distribution, is undergoing a series of changes that may cause some instability and confusion among new users. Elementary, on the other hand, has been focused on polishing the same great desktop experience for years. It’s built on top of Ubuntu, so you still get all of the benefits. Yes, the same could be said for Mint, but when it came to it, I thought Pantheon was a more impressive desktop environment than Cinnamon.

  3. The “best” distro I have ever used was SimplyMEPIS. Unfortunately, Woody Woodward decided to move on to other endeavors and nobody took his place.

    “Debian has a better reputation for stability”
    That it does. But because of its commitment to stability, to many in the Linux community, it has the reputation of being behind the times in terms of software versions.

    “this article was written in Gentoo.”
    Is that an endorsement of Gentoo? :-)

    • It’s sort of an informal personal endorsement. I don’t by any means think that Linux newcomers should run out and try to install Gentoo. They’ll have a terrible time. I do think that anyone looking to really get into the underlying workings of Linux should give it a shot. It’s also great for people like me who want absolute control over their system.

    • “…it has the reputation of being behind the times in terms of software versions.” Only if you stick to Debian Stable. You can use the Backports repo to pull in some newer packages. You can also use Debian Unstable/Sid as a rolling distribution, although for many/most it is wise to have some Linux experience before doing so.

  4. At the company I work for, we are required to use a package (Citrix w/ Remedy) that caused my windows 10 laptop to become a brick. After talking with a co-worker about this issue, he mentioned that I should look into Linux as an alternative as Remedy was not required when logging in. So I started the research and at first set up my windows lap top as a dual boot with Linux mint (he mentioned that this was the easiest distro to use for a newbie). I fell in love with it as it worked great. But I noticed that while the interface was nice, it still seemed somewhat slow. After doing research and playing around with various distro and flavors, I discovered that I actually liked the Gnome GUI but found that on my POS lap top Ubuntu was slow. I stumbled onto Antergos and fell in love with it. It is speedy and the Gnome GUI is exactly what I was looking for. I have now completely removed the Windows 10 OS and will not go back. In fact, I am in the process of learning BASH shell scripting so I can have a better understanding and control. As a bonus, I am able to apply most of what I have learned to my mac and apply it.

  5. Leaving out Ubuntu or Mint in this, so called ‘best of’ series, is like making a ‘best cars to buy’ list-and leaving out Toyota or BMW and mentioning only Cadillac; Chevrolet; or Ford. I take it this list will be read by mostly people new to Linux, and none of these Distros are considered ‘newby’ friendly(Gentoo? Really! Come on!) With the possible exception of Elementary. But that distro is for people coming from Apple desktops and not Windows. Don’t get me wrong. These distros are fun; functional; educational; etc., but remember, you learn to drive in an old Toyota Corolla, not in a Lamborghini!

    • Actually I learned to drive on a Pontiac Star Chief. :-) But that does not mean that it should be considered as a car to learn how to drive on.

      Any “best” list is highly debatable. Best for whom? Best to whose criteria?

      I have no problem with Ubuntu and Mint being omitted. They may be popular but they are not the “best” for learning Linux. They let you run Linux applications but they do not teach you much Linux.

      • And Elementary and Solus do?! Not according to any reviews I’ve seen. They are designed for newbies.
        Don’t defend the scattershot list just because you don’t like Ubuntu and/or Mint. Title should be changed from ‘Best’.

        • “And Elementary and Solus do?! ”
          Do what?

          “Don’t defend the scattershot list”
          I didn’t know I was defending anything. If anything, I was criticizing the “best” designation in the title.
          BTW – any “best” list tends to be scattershot. Unless your list consists of Ubuntu, Lubuntu, Xubuntu, Kubuntu and Mint.

          “just because you don’t like Ubuntu and/or Mint”
          EXCUUUSE ME for not acclaiming them as The Greatest Things Since Sliced Bread!

          Anyway, I don’t see you offering any alternate lists.

    • This list was designed to appeal to different groups of people, not just people new to Linux. Elementary, Solus, and, to a lesser extent, Debian are there to fill the places for new and average users. Antergos is there for hobbiests and power users who want some more control and bleeding edge software for their desktop without the hassle of setting up something like Arch. Finally, Gentoo is the no-holds-barred dive into Linux option. They’re there to represent different use cases and types of users.

      For my reasoning with Ubuntu and Mint, see my other comments. It’s not some crazy bias, just an observation on their current state and the role they play within the ecosystem.

      • yall are missing the point. when this whole linux desktop thing started, early mid 90s the point was to offer an alternative to ‘wintel’ monopoly. all of these do that. who cares what teaches you linux. use it, you’ll learn.

    • Like all of these type of lists, the criteria is sort of arbitrary, but I’ll try to break down my logic. I wanted to pick distributions that would be best for different subsets of Linux users and use cases. I wanted a beginner distribution, an beginner to intermediate desktop, a stable server/workstation, a hobby desktop, and an advanced distribution. Those cover the majority of Linux users.

      For the beginner distro, I went with Elementary. Ubuntu is switching form Unity to GNOME and things are getting shaken up. I didn’t think it’d be right to throw new users into that. Elementary makes for an impressive desktop with all of the benefits of Ubuntu. I chose Elementary over Mint for it’s desktop environment.

      The intermediate desktop is Solus. It was competing with Fedora and OpenSUSE, and it won because it’s rolling release, yet very stable. The developers include a wide array of useful software in its repositories, and they’re growing rapidly. It’s also not tied to any corporate interests that can pull it in some odd direction suddenly, leaving users to adapt or switch.

      Debian is Debian. It’s a rock solid server/workstation/desktop with an unbelievable reputation. There’s not much else to say.

      It was between Arch, Antergos, and Manjaro for the hobbiest category, and Antergos won. It is to Arch as Mint is to Ubuntu, and it makes Arch much more accessible and easy to manage. Arch is, itself, and excellent distribution for power users who want to experiment with their computer and get the latest software. Antergos still lets you do that without dealing with the parts some people may find boring.

      The ultimate advanced distribution is Gentoo. It has every option and customization that you could imagine, making it a playground for serious Linux enthusiasts. Aside from that, it can be extremely functional and efficient for professional tasks because you can tailor it to just about anything. It beat out Arch and Slackware in this category.

      I hope that clears things up for you and anyone else who may be questioning this unconventional selection.

  6. HMMM. Very interesting. I clicked on the Reply button for three different post but the forum software lumped all my responses in stream. I wonder why.

    The first response is to William Vasquez.
    The second one is to kortes.
    The third one is to Captain Fantastic.

  7. I love gentoo. It is very flexible and you learned a lot trying to tune it as you want.
    To install it easily I use Calculate-linux.

  8. To all who are complaining about “best” in the title…it does say “5 of the Best,” not the “5 Best.” ;-)

  9. I find the discussion here amusing. It’s obvious we are mostly (if not exclusively) GEEKS here. We’re discussing the relative merits, inclusion or exclusion, of distributions to a list of some of the more interesting and diverse distributions available.

    Since a couple of the ones I personally prefer made the list, I’m not going to argue about whether this or that should be there.

    To me, Debian and Slackware deserve credit for bringing Linux from a very strange software collection to something that anyone who can read is able to learn and use, at least to the extent of the effort expended to use it and adapt to the mannerisms and quirks of each and the use cases of every day tasks.

    In 1995 when I first tried Slackware and in 2001 when I first got active with Debian, neither we’re something that just anyone could pick up and use. It took considerable skills and previous UNIX or Linux experience to install either of them and a lot of collaboration with the experts to get recent hardware drivers working.

    By 2005 things had improved considerably and there were many distributions by that time that were easy to install, manage, and use.

    By 2010-2012 even Debian and Slackware caught up with much easier installation and configuration programs.

    Today what’s best depends only on what you want to do. Most Linux distributions can meet your computing needs but not all are ideal for everything. Gentoo and Arch are for those who want to build a system to their own specific requirements.

    Debian, Mint and many others are for a variety of different needs, though most of them can satisfy common computing workload requirements.

    So the answer to what is best is ultimately a question for each of us to answer for our own specific requirements. What is useful in the article is a nice cross section of various technical solutions, something that we don’t see in most proprietary software.

  10. +1 to Nick Congleton. He compiled his list and clearly stated his thinking. Publish your own list if you want to consider other criteria, but you can’t say Nick’s reasoning wasn’t solid.

    I tried Linux over the years and didn’t feel it was ready to be my primary desktop. I installed Elementary OS a few years ago, and that got me 100% converted to Linux. I’ve moved on to straight Debian and am about to try Solus. (I respect what Ikey is trying to achieve.) I used Linux Mint earlier this year and really don’t understand its popularity, but that’s what is great about Linux — there’s room for different preferences.

      • I have to wait until someone agrees with my thoughts, so I can say “Me Too” without many keystrokes.
        @Nick, I thought it was a decent article and I liked not only the coverage in the article, but your reasons as well.
        so I say Me Too to LinuxFan’s comments.

        PS: in 1991-2, Slackware installed from 31 floppy disks was the “best” I found. Today, that might not be true.

  11. A 20 years ago I used not my first Unix, but my first Linux – Red Hat (6.3?)
    Some time later I changed to SUSE 9.1 with KDE3. Had to leave KDE because of KDE4 – it was slowing down my old single processor desktop – 3GB main memory – nearly to zero. For new versions I had set immediately thousand use-less-goodies options, or I got no control for some days. Used OpenSuSE up to 13.2 with XFCE, LXDE. Resigned when tried to install 13.3, installed Lubuntu. On all systems I had to install my monitor parameters (prepared in 2005. SAX?).
    For my 256MB Laptop I had to leave SUSE more early, I went to Bodhi (2.2 to 3.1, a ).
    On my new PC I’m up to now using OpenSUSE Tumbleweed with KDE4, seeking daily for the newest “stable kernel”, still waiting for a fully working and stable kernel with full integration of HDMI with Audio.
    Therefore I was trying also some other systems. UEFI-Boot is all but helpful when doing that.
    So, what’s the best?
    I can’t say.
    – Red Hat 6.3 was the most stable of all, a cold start necessary after being up for two month
    – Bodhi was the least resource consuming, and Enlighten is a nice, beautifully styled, slim desktop
    – SuSE and OpenSUSE: up to 13.x they had a better support forum than others.
    Actually: Beside having a much more professional support, the main target of support is seemingly to stabilize the ego of the supporters
    – Ubuntu and derivats: sudo instead of login to root is often a good idea. But Ubuntu isn’t having a privileged login, and is defending this crazy restriction with diligence. At least when using hardware which is somewhat too new (or too old) for linux that’s a big problem
    – even with the newest kernel I’ve to expect in the mean a crash daily – not when most or all CPU’s (16 threads) are working fully, but e.g. when I’m only edit a file. But it’s obviously no solution to go back to Red Hat 6.3.

    There are answers for the question “best linux distro” – but of course none with universal validity.
    And indeed: Nick hadn’t said to have found an egg laying wool milk sow.

  12. My opinion is thus:

    1. I like the inclusiveness of this list for both beginners and more experienced Linux users.

    2. Linux is truly what you make of it and can me styled and customized to suit your needs and preferences. If something works the best for you than it is the best for you but that doesn’t mean that it is the best for everyone. Use what works for you and let others use what works for them.

    P.S. I am using KDE Neon and loving it!

  13. Did this list get edited after being posted? The comments discuss the lack of “plain” Ubuntu, yet it’s first on the list.

  14. Thanks for the article, Nick. Any competent–or incompetent–Linux user can make up a “best of” list but a lot of reviews don’t have any logical reasoning behind the author’s choices. Yours does. I may or may not agree with your choices, but I can’t fault your reasoning.

    Thank you.

      • When you have time, you start a terminal and do everything you want. But when you have to get your job done fast and without problems, that’s where Linux Mint makes the difference.

  15. This may not be exactly in keeping with the list’s premise, but I find Termina to be very interesting ( its part of the crostini project). probably not an amazing distro on its own though…

  16. Not a *nix beardie guru here. Just a guy who’s getting really really bored with this Windows status quo. So right now my spelunking main distro is Solus 3 Budgie and IF I have to switch I’d go for the “light” Manjaros either Openbox, Awesome and i3 variants, in that order. Solus’ Budgie is just the right bleand of elegant “heft”, package management is easy and it installs and run on a cruddy old Thinkpad T60 just like that **snaps finger

    Ideally at this point in time, what with all the nerd rage going with systemd or whatnot, one can dream of say maybe if the Linux Mint Debian Edition’s team gain some more willing enough devs to turn that to MintBSD w/ vera desktop (google that) instead. I mean it’s still kinda odd philosophically; if you’re gonna do a fallback in case if Ubuntu craps out permanently (when that itself are totally tied to Debian?) then logically speaking why not go complete 180 instead?

    Probably because most BSD beardies still have this thing against user friendliness and “other than bare metal and Thinkpads” hardware support?

  17. I have been usink various Linux distros since 2004 both for work and fun and last 4 years I settled with Manjaro. It gives me the best of both worlds, easy to install like some other user-friendly distros and the great power, performance and control of Arch. Importantly it is more stable than Arch due to the additional testing of Arch packages. This is a major advantage w.r.t Antegros. I haven’t needed to reinstall it for 4 years, but still having the latest software thanks to its rolling nature. From my experience and my use cases it is the best distro.

  18. Currently using PeachOSI BareBones. It has a nice professional look and is by far the prettiest of all the distros I’m aware of. It has been stable for me and uses the Xfce desktop which I can customize perfectly for me.

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