Linux is a far cry from the esoteric bundles of code it once was, and the number of polished distros offering variants for 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 2022. This list was designed to cover different experience levels and use cases. Whether you're a system admin, developer, or desktop user, you'll find something to interest you.
- Customization: Arch Linux
- Simplicity: MX Linux
- Ease of Use: Linux Mint
- Privacy: Tails
- Forensics: Kali Linux
- Runs from RAM: Puppy Linux
- Old Computers and Netbooks: Bodhi Linux
- Rolling Release: Manjaro
- For the Experienced: Gentoo
- Reproducible: GNU Guix
- Gaming and Multimedia: Pop!_OS
- Stability: Slackware Linux
- Frequently Asked Questions
Also read: What is Void Linux and How to Install It
Customization: Arch Linux
Arch Linux has grown to become one of the leading Linux distros since its launch 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 and install 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 out, but the documentation is very good (one of the best), 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 some of the best Arch Linux distros that are easy to use.
Also read: How to Fix Broken Packages in Linux
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 features 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.
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 macOS. 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.
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 percent anonymous on the Internet, for example, you will have to try very hard. 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 for use with the Tor Network. Tor is a public decentralized network that allows users to send and receive traffic through several relays. The concept is simple – each relay has its own IP address that 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, as 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 we've chosen 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
Puppy Linux is a super-lightweight distro that will run entirely within RAM on your 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.
We generally tend to use it when we 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 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 a derivative of Ubuntu, it is an elegant and lightweight distro featuring Moksha, an Enlightenment-based desktop environment. Along with the polished desktop, Bodhi offers a minimal install, which leaves the user free to customize easily. Bodhi offers a variety of ISO files and 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 benefit of Arch's huge repositories that are always up to date and the various AUR helpers.
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 is installed 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.
Also read: What Is Gentoo Linux and How to Install It
Reproducible: GNU Guix
GNU Guix is a brilliant Linux distribution that allows you to build systems that you can recreate on any computer. This can be especially useful if you are a systems administrator and want a quick way to deploy Linux.
The way GNU Guix does this is only using a single programming language to manage the entire system. Unlike other distributions, you only need to remember a single format for all of your program's configurations.
Further, GNU Guix also creates a transactional sandbox history of every package that you install. Similar to NixOS, this allows you to roll back and seamlessly jump through different versions of your software. It is useful if you want to either experiment with new software or want a reliable package system.
Gaming and Multimedia: Pop!_OS
Pop!_OS is a simple, yet effective distribution that aims to create an easy-to-use environment for multimedia and gaming in Linux. It was originally a fork of Ubuntu and is currently the default operating system in System76 laptops.
Aside from its multimedia support, Pop!_OS also sports a custom version of GNOME that includes a number of extra features. For example, it is possible to convert your desktop into either a stacking or tiling layout. It can be especially useful for power users who want to have a quick way of managing windows.
Further, Pop!_OS also has extensive support for a number of scientific and development software. By default, it includes IDEs, such as Jupyter, MATLAB, and Android Studio. Pop!_OS can be an option if you are looking for a distribution that you can use for both work and play.
Also read: How to Build a Package from Source in Linux
Stability: Slackware Linux
One of best Linux distros you can install is Slackware and is one of the three original Linux distributions. Alongside Debian and Red Hat, it aims to provide you with a simple and flexible UNIX-like experience.
One of its best features is its commitment to stability. It strives to maintain the same tools and processes for its users across different versions. For example, you can follow a guide for an older version of Slackware, and it will still work today.
This approach encourages users to invest time in learning how their system works since they can be confident that it will not change over time. Further, it also means that programs you install on your machine will rarely break. Slackware is a highly attractive distribution for users who want a system they can learn and rely on.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the common pitfalls when choosing a Linux distro?
Almost all Linux distributions today offer similar hardware compatibility because the Linux kernel already includes support for the most common hardware. Unless your machine uses a rare architecture, most Linux distributions should work out of the box.
However, Linux distributions often differ with software availability. This is because most distros today build and provide their own package repositories. You need to be aware which distributions offer the software that you need. For example, Slackware does not provide most third-party packages out of the box.
Is it better to use a rolling release or an LTS distro?
This will largely depend on how you intend to use your machine. A rolling release distribution benefits users who are constantly on their computer and need the latest software updates. For example, if you are writing a program that you want to work with the latest software, you'll have to use a rolling release distribution.
On the other hand, a Long-Term Support (LTR) distribution tends to cater to users who want a stable computing experience. This could either be a family relative who is not familiar with computers or a security-conscious user who wants to create an air-gap machine. This is because most LTS distros are stable and mature enough to not require constant system updates.
Is it possible to migrate my files from an old distro to a new one?
Yes! However, the process of backing up your files will depend on the distribution you are currently using. Unlike other operating systems, Linux does not provide a one-click solution to storing your files outside your machine.
Despite that, backing up your files can be relatively straightforward. For the most part, you only need to save your "/home" directory since it contains all of your personal files. Knowing that, you can use a tool such as rclone to upload your files as an encrypted backup.
Image credit: Unsplash All screenshots by Ramces Red
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