Top Linux distros drop fresh beats

PC unsupported in Windows 11? Start 2024 with a new OS

Three of the most highly regarded Linux distros around have put out new releases.

As most Linux distro vendors have no telemetry, and most Linuxes don't "phone home," nobody has any solid numbers on how many copies of any distro are in use. Vendors certainly track downloads and update requests, but seldom publish the results.

One consequence of this is that the page hit counter on the leading comparison site, Distrowatch, is one of the few publicly-available ways to estimate relative popularity. According to that, Linux Mint and MX Linux are the top two, as they were for 2023 as a whole.

Back in December we reported that the latest Linux Mint and Zorin OS were both in beta. Zorin got there first and released version 17 soon afterwards. Mint, this time, hit some issues and took a little longer, but Mint 21.3 shipped earlier this month. Now, it has an even fresher sibling, the latest Edge edition.

Cinnamon 6 on Wayland works well, but apps that need superuser privileges silently fail to launch

Cinnamon 6 on Wayland works well, but apps that need superuser privileges silently fail to launch

As we described when the first Edge release appeared last October, this special edition of Mint is a freshened-up version of the standard 64-bit Cinnamon variant. It includes a newer kernel and drivers, enabling users with very new hardware to install Mint. Edge 21.3 includes kernel 6.5, released last August and whose upstream version is already end of life.

The reason for this version, rather than the latest LTS kernel 6.6, is that 6.5 is the kernel in Ubuntu 23.10 "Mantic Minotaur". As of about a fortnight ago, it's also the current HWE kernel for Ubuntu 22.04. "Jammy Jellyfish" users received kernel 6.5, derived from Mantic, earlier this month. As Ubuntu is the upstream distro upon which Mint is based, it's a little less work for this edition of Mint to inherit Ubuntu's kernel version, for which the integration and testing work has already been done upstream. It is slightly surprising, though, in as much as the new kernel arrives well in advance of 22.04.4, which is not due for about a month yet.

Nvidia woes ahoy

The new kernel version has caused problems for some users with the Nvidia binary drivers – including The Reg FOSS desk. There are several different issues, and some are more easily fixed than others.

The current Nvidia v535 drivers in the Ubuntu repositories work fine, but to install the latest version downloaded from Nvidia itself, users need to install GCC 12. Worse still is that Nvidia "legacy" drivers older than v470 don't work on this kernel, and there's no fix.

That's a particular problem for us as we use two ThinkPad laptops with integrated Nvidia GPUs that need driver v390. It's not merely an Ubuntu issue – Debian 12 "Bookworm" also only includes Nvidia driver v525, and no legacy drivers are supported.

This is also a problem for distros which include new kernel versions in their existing releases, such as Fedora, of course. Unless Nvidia has an unlikely change of heart, kernel 6.5 will be the point at which a lot of still perfectly usable hardware hits the end of the road with the big names in Linux.

MX Linux 23.2

One of the distros we have been investigating as a candidate to replace both Ubuntu and Debian is MX Linux. We were impressed by MX 21.2 and version 23 was just as good, but the project developers are not resting on the laurels furnished by being number one on Distrowatch's charts and have just released MX Linux 23.2.

MX Linux 23.2 is based on Debian 12.4, but it's a significantly different distro in its own right. For one thing, it doesn't use systemd. You won't find it in the list on No Systemd because though it is present, it's not in control. It's banished to the background, just there to satisfy the requirements of some software. An example is the Nvidia drivers. Unlike its parent Debian, legacy versions are included and work perfectly fine.

The new release includes all the updates you might expect, plus the optional Liquorix kernel if you want the latest hotness. Version 1.0 of the new Pipewire audio server is included, and the build-essentials package is included in the ISO, in case you need to compile some drivers to get online. There are tweaked themes, wallpapers, and replacement webcam apps – although which ones depends on the desktop. As before, the default edition uses Xfce, with alternatives using KDE and Fluxbox – all solid and fairly lightweight choices.

The default desktop in MX Linux 23.2 is Xfce. It's a good choice and we suggest even KDE users give it a go.

The default desktop in MX Linux 23.2 is Xfce. It's a good choice and we suggest even KDE users give it a go

MX's default Xfce desktop layout is a little unusual, although mostly in a good way. The taskbar is vertical, which we like. It has the improved Docklike Taskbar plugin, which modernizes Xfce's task switcher buttons in a very agreeable way. What's a little odd is that the Start button is at the bottom of the panel, and the logout/shutdown control is at the top. We find we keep hitting it by mistake: being a logical-minded sort, we're used to the relative position staying constant, so in a vertical panel, we expect the Start button at the top. But putting it in the bottom-left corner is consistent with a panel at the bottom of the screen, its normal absolute position and where many people's muscle memory will expect it to be. Either way, it's trivially easy to move it with a few clicks.

MX Linux deserves its top spot. In our testing, both in VMs and on bare metal, it's exceptionally fast and responsive. Amusingly, given that improved startup times were one of the original selling points of systemd, we find that MX Linux starts up and shuts down faster than Debian or Ubuntu on the same machine. It's easier and has more tools and drivers than Devuan, and it has better hardware support and more customization tools than Debian … plus it's quick. ®

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