Like everybody, we love “five best” lists. Trouble is, how can we come up with a five best list of anything when we haven’t even begun to look at them all? What we can do is list “five favorites,” like we’ve done with this list of five favorite Linux distros.
I’ve never been a distro hopper. Not at all. I started out with Mandrake back around 2002, and stuck with Mandrake/Mandriva until 2010. When it became obvious that the distro was in serious financial dodo and wasn’t likely to be around much longer, I moved to PCLinuxOS. This move was made partly because the distro had started life as a fork of Mandrake/Mandriva, keeping me in familiar territory, but mostly because it was one of two distros I could find that supported the Wi-Fi on an old Dell laptop I was using at the time. In 2012 I moved to Bodhi Linux after falling in love with the simple elegance of the Enlightenment 17 desktop, and the next year switched over to Linux Mint Xfce edition when we finally got around to setting up a full time office for FOSS Force.
In other words, after fourteen years of using GNU/Linux, I’ve only used four distros on anything like a long term basis. You’ll notice they’re all “general purpose” distros. I’m not a tinkerer and I have no need for specialty distros. To me, a computer is something I sit at twelve to fourteen hours daily getting work done, then maybe another couple of hours amusing myself (yup, I need to get a life). For this reason, all the distros I’ve adopted are distros classified as easy-to-use, including light-on-resources Bodhi. I don’t have time to spare getting my system “just like I want it.” I want it to pretty much work out-of-the-box. I want to be able to install the apps I need and take off running.
That being said, I’ve installed and looked at quite a few other distros in my time. That’s one of the things I do — install distros and write reviews about them. However, Distrowatch’s Page Hit Ranking currently lists 277 distros and I seriously doubt that I’ve looked at much more than 10 percent of that number.
This means this list can’t about the five best Linux distros. I haven’t looked at a large enough percentage of the distros available to even pretend to make that list. This is just a list of five distros that I like. Your experience may vary, as Larry Cafiero used to say often on this site.
5. CentOS: Although CentOS can be set up as a desktop distro, I’ve never used it that way. It’s known as a server distro and as a rock solid drop in replacement for RHEL, with Red Hat’s blessing and support. In fact, since 2014, most of the development at CentOS has been done by Red Hat developers working for the company’s independent open source and standards team.
I’ve used CentOS as my server OS of choice since about 2007 when a hosting company I was using switched from RHEL to CentOS. These days, when offered a choice of distros to use while setting up a VPS, I automatically chose CentOS. Why? Because it works, because I have experience using it and because technical support people know and understand it better than any other server distro except Red Hat, which is the same thing. I’m not changing what isn’t broken.
4. PCLinuxOS: As already mentioned, I spent about two years using this as my only desktop distro and developed quite a fondness for it during that time. The distro started life as a fork of Mandrake 9.2 in 2003, and in 2007 took a one time snapshot of the Mandriva source code to develop on its own going forward. This is a rock solid distro with much to commend it.
I’m sometimes reluctant, however, to recommend the distro, especially to new users. Although I haven’t had any interaction with the community’s forums in several years, back when I was using the distro on a regular basis, I found its users to be more than a little on the rude side. Maybe they’ve changed by now, I don’t know.
3. Mageia: This is a distro I really, really like. As with PCLOS, Mageia was born as a Mandriva clone, with many of its developers being old time Mandriva employees. Also like PCLOS, Mageia uses KDE Plasma as its default desktop. Both distros also package apps as RPMs, as parent distro Mandrake began as a fork of Red Hat back when Red Hat was still a shrink wrapped desktop distro. Anyone who ever used Mandrake or Mandriva will be on familiar ground here, as the configuration tools are the old Mandrakesoft tools, only much improved.
The community around this project is also very helpful and super supportive. I never hesitate to recommend this distro to any KDE user looking for a good work distro.
2. Bodhi Linux: I first tried this distro solely because of its name. As a sometimes practicing Buddhist, I couldn’t resist a distro called Bodhi using a minimalist desktop called Enlightenment. These days, the Bodhi developers have left Enlightenment behind for their own desktop, Moksha (which means “enlightenment” in Sanskrit), which is based on Enlightenment 17. The distro’s minimalist approach doesn’t end with its desktop choice. Only a bare minimum apps are installed by default, the philosophy being that the user should decide what apps are needed, not the distro’s developers and maintainers. Don’t think this is a lightweight distro with limited abilities, however. It’s got the full power of Ubuntu under the hood.
The community support forums are also absolutely the most helpful and friendly I have ever found. Although this is admittedly not a distro for everyone, it’s the first I recommend to anyone looking for a full featured but resource sipping distro. The distro even offers a “Legacy” edition for those needing to install on older hardware.
1. Linux Mint Xfce edition: A year ago I would’ve ranked Mint second, just behind Bodhi Linux. However, the longer I’ve used this distro, the more I’ve come to appreciate what Clement Lefebvre and his crew have created. Unlike many other Ubuntu based distros, Mint is such an improvement on it’s upstream source that in my opinion, this is the distro by which other general purpose desktop distros should be measured. In the three years or so I’ve been using it, I’ve yet to find a situation where it didn’t just work out-of-the-box.
I use the Xfce edition because I like the DE, but my recent look at Cinnamon Mint tells me that no matter which desktop edition you choose, you’re still going to get a great user experience. I recommend this distro to everyone from the most experienced Linux user to the totally green newbie.