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Sick of Windows but can't afford a Mac? Consult our cynic's guide to desktop Linux
For your consideration: A reasonable list of the least bad distros
It is a truth universally acknowledged that all operating systems suck. Some just suck less than others.
It is also a comment under pretty much every Reg article on Linux that there are too many to choose from and that it's impossible to know which one to try. So we thought we'd simplify things for you by listing how and in which ways the different options suck.
This would be an impossibly long list if we looked at all of them since Distrowatch currently lists 270. So we need to thin the herd a bit.
If you're interested in a comparison like this, you probably don't have a favorite already.
0. Tiny obscure distros. All of them.
Avoid all the niche efforts. Here's why. Firstly, they're small. Not many people use them, so you'll have difficulty finding people to ask for help. Secondly, third-party hardware and software probably won't work out of the box, and if you ask the vendor for help, whether it's a game or a graphics card or a printer, they won't have heard of Ultimate SuperL33tOS version Pi. Game over. Just don't. Stick to the mainstream.
The year of Linux on the desktop came and went, and nobody noticed – maybe because it doesn't say "Linux" on it. ChromeOS only runs on ChromeBooks and ChromeBoxes, but they outsold Macs for a while before the pandemic. "Flex" is the version for ordinary PCs, presumably named because it's what puny $1.5 trillion Google is doing. ChromeOS Flex works great, because it only does one thing: browse the web. You can't install apps, not even Android ones: only official kit does that. You can run Debian containers: if you know what that means, go run Debian. If you don't know what that means, trust us, you don't want to.
"Ubuntu is an ancient African word that means I can't configure Debian.*"
Ubuntu started out as an effort to displace Windows from the number one consumer OS spot by making a Linux that was easier to install and run. It worked. So Microsoft threatened to sue because it looked a bit like Windows if you squinted, and the whole thing fell apart. Ubuntu decided that if it was dodgy to look Windows-like, it would look like Mac OS X instead. Then it went back to GNOME again.
Ubuntu used to be the obvious choice, but it took its eye off the "for human beings" ball (great explanation there, folks) to grab at servers – which, to be fair, is where the money is – and it shows. When it gave up on all its in-house stuff, it kept Snap, its universal app-packaging format that no other distro uses. They work, but they gobble disk space and make bootup slower. If you just want to get on with using it rather than fiddling and fighting, try Ubuntu MATE or Xubuntu, but then our warning about niche distros applies.
3. Linux Mint
Mint is an Ubuntu remix with knobs on. It was an also-ran for years, but when Ubuntu went all Mac-like it saw its chance and grabbed it – along with the number one spot in the charts. It dispenses with some of the questionable bits of recent Ubuntu, such as GNOME and Snaps, but replaces them with dodgy bits of its own, such as a confusing choice of not one, not two, but three Windows-like desktops, and overly cautious approaches to updates and upgrades.
Debian is the daddy of free distros, and the one that invented the idea of a packaging tool that automatically installs dependencies. It's easier than it used to be, but mired in politics. It's sort of like Ubuntu, but more out of date, harder to install, and with fewer drivers. If that sounds just your sort of thing, go for it.
Red Hat made billions by switching from a free distro to selling an exceptionally boring corporate-server one. This upset the freeloaders. Fedora is the bone Red Hat threw over the fence to them. It's matured into something comparable to Ubuntu, but without the stable releases. You'll be upgrading twice a year, unless you put it off, cross your fingers, and hope that skipping every other version works. Probably not worth the effort unless your day job is trying to stop RHEL boxes falling over, or trying to build code that runs on RHEL boxes without falling over.
A whole six months older than Red Hat, SUSE is another vendor of expensive enterprise distros which tosses freebies over the wall. Its innovative solution to Fedora's no-stable-releases issue is to have two different distros. One, "Leap", is synchronized with the paid-for SUSE Linux Enterprise – which is to say it has a painfully slow release cycle. The other, "Tumbleweed", has a rolling release model, which means the exciting potential of breaking changes every single day.
To compensate, it uses Btrfs and snapshots to make it easy to roll back updates – but the package manager doesn't know about snapshots, or Btrfs's famed inability to tell you how much free disk space you have, so it occasionally fills up your file system and corrupts it. Frustrated boredom or cringing terror, it's your choice: have a lot of fun!
SUSE and KDE are both German and it's been the best distro for KDE approximately forever. Demonstrating its deep understanding of the Linux world, Novell bought SUSE, then bought GNOME vendor Ximian, then forced them into an arranged marriage. Now SLE doesn't even offer KDE as an option.
7. A RHEL spin-off
Freely mixing classical allusions, this has resulted in a hydra situation: many more heads have sprouted. If Fedora is an alpha release of RHEL, CentOS Stream is a sort of beta.
- Unity and Trinity: New releases for forks of abandoned Linux desktops
- Debian faces firmware furore from FOSS freedom fighters
- Why the Linux desktop is the best desktop
- Zorin OS 16 beta claims largest built-in app library 'of any open source desktop ever'
- Why make games for Linux if they don't sell? Because the nerds are just grateful to get something that works
Or there are Rocky Linux and AlmaLinux, which are RHEL with the serial numbers filed off. Ideal for prototyping stuff you'll later deploy on RHEL, or if you're upskilling for a job in a Red Hat shop, or if you just can't afford the real thing. And there's Oracle if you feel that it looks more trustworthy than the Hat these days.
For your own laptop, these are all perennially a bit behind the times: just what you want if you're a big enterprise, but not if you're running it at home.
Pop!_OS is arguably one of the most interesting Ubuntu remixes. Saying that, bear in mind the famous line about living in interesting times, and that a motto of the open-source world is to move fast and break things. If you must, put it on a brand-new PC and don't try to dual-boot. Also, remember what we said about niche distros, which applies to all the Ubuntu remixes.
9. Arch Linux
Finally we come to the 10th entry in our list, because Unix people are difficult and like to count from zero. As one of the original rolling-release distros, Arch is the embodiment of moving fast and breaking things. Great if you're a hobbyist or a gamer, not so good if you have a job to do. This also applies to its offspring such as EndeavourOS, Manjaro, and Garuda.
There are loads of worthy entries that did not make our snarky and (honestly!) affectionate list. This was a top 10 for a reason: everything on this list is one of the leading Linuxes out there, and every distro here is a good solid contender in its own way.
The world of free software came into existence because people have very strong feelings about the Right Way To Do Things, and as a result, it both has a strong sense of community and deeply, fundamentally opposed factions, such as the Debianistas versus the Hatters. And that's without going into the desktop or editor wars.
There are lots of others with completely valid reasons for existence, too. The Reg FOSS desk mainly runs a distro that's not in this list at all.
It's all good. Really. ®
* Jokes aside, Ubuntu is an Nguni language (Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu) word that is broader concept philosophically in southern Africa, to do with respect, kindness and generosity in a community. The idea is that it is only through pro-social interactions with other people that you are a human being: "umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" – "I am because you are."