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.
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.
2. 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).
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.
4. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.