How To Choose The Best Linux Distro For Your Needs

Custom Debian Desktop
Custom Debian Desktop.

There are hundreds of Linux distributions and according to some people there are too many. I don't subscribe to this theory.

For people new to Linux however it is possibly tricky to know which Linux distro is best for them.

This guide goes through the top Linux distros as listed at Distrowatch.com and gives a short description of each one as well as a table showing how easy they are to install, who they are for, level of expertise required and the desktop environment that they use.

Linux Mint

Linux Mint provides a modern take on what many people have become accustomed to over the years. If you have ever used Windows XP, VIsta or Windows 7 then you will appreciate that there is a panel at the bottom, a menu, a series of quick launch icons and a system tray.

It doesn't matter which desktop environment you end up deciding on (of which Linux Mint provides many) they are all designed to look and feel the same way.

It is easy to install, comes with all the applications you need for general home computing and provides straight forward computing for the masses.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow
Desktop EnvironmentCinnamon, MATE, XFCE, KDE
PurposeGeneral Desktop Operating System
Download Linkhttps://www.linuxmint.com/download.php
Based OnUbuntu, Debian

Debian

Debian is one of the oldest Linux distributions and is the base for many of the other distributions that exist including Ubuntu and Linux Mint.

It is a community distribution and only ships with free software and free drivers. The Debian repositories have thousands of applications and there are versions available for a large number of hardware devices.

It isn't the easiest to install and there are various steps you need to go through post installation to get all of your hardware working.

Level Of Expertise RequiredMedium
Desktop EnvironmentGNOME, KDE, XFCE. LXDE (+ others)
PurposeCommunity distribution which can be used as a server, general desktop operating system, base for other distribution. Truly multipurpose
Download Linkhttps://www.debian.org/distrib/
Based OnN/A

Ubuntu

Ubuntu is a modern desktop operating system designed for the masses and is meant to be every bit as easy to use as Windows or OSX.

With full hardware integration and a complete set of applications, most beginners see this as the first step onto the Linux ladder. 

If you want to try something other than Windows and you are worried about Linux relying too hard on the command line try Ubuntu because you won't need the terminal window at all.

Easy to install and easy to use with great support.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow
Desktop EnvironmentUnity
PurposeGeneral desktop operating system
Download Linkhttp://www.ubuntu.com/download/desktop
Based OnDebian

Manjaro

Manjaro provides an easier method to install and use an Arch based distribution. Arch is a forward thinking rolling distribution which many expert users swear by.

Unfortunately, Arch is somewhat less forgiving on new users and a level of expertise and a willingness to learn and read is required to get up and running.

Manjaro bridges the gap by providing an operating system that intermediate users can use to get a taste of Arch without the hassle.

Fairly lightweight which means it will work well on older hardware and machines with low resources.

Level Of Expertise RequiredMedium
Desktop EnvironmentCinnamon, Enlightenment, XFCE, GNOME (+ others)
PurposeGeneral Desktop Operating System
Download Linkhttp://sourceforge.net/projects/manjarolinux/
Based OnArch

openSUSE

A great alternative to Ubuntu and other Debian based Linux distributions.

openSUSE provides a stable environment for home users with a decent set of applications and a decent level of support.

Installation can be a bit tricky for new or inexperienced computer users but once set up there is a decent set of documentation.

Not quite as straight forward as Mint or Ubuntu.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow / Medium
Desktop EnvironmentGNOME, KDE (+ others)
PurposeGeneral desktop operating system 
Download Linkhttps://software.opensuse.org/distributions/testing?locale=en
Based OnN/A

Fedora

Fedora is a community distribution based on Red Hat.

Designed to be cutting edge, Fedora always comes with up to date software and drivers and was one of the first distributions to introduce both Wayland and SystemD.

Straight forward to install and comes with a good range of software. Can be temperamental due to the fact that it is so cutting edge and not all packages are stable.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow / Medium
Desktop EnvironmentGNOME, KDE (+ others)
PurposeGeneral desktop operating system, experiments with new concepts
Download Linkhttps://getfedora.org/en/workstation/download/
Based OnRed Hat

Zorin OS

Zorin is based on Ubuntu and has been designed to look and feel like other operating systems such as Windows 7 and OSX. (The user chooses the theme to make it look like one thing or another).

It has a complete set of desktop applications such as office suite, graphics application, audio player, video player etc.

Zorin also has a lot of visual effects.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow
Desktop EnvironmentGNOME, LXDE
PurposeGeneral Purpose Desktop Operating system designed to make users of other operating systems feel at home. Includes a lite version for older hardware
Download Linkhttps://zorinos.com/download/
Based On

Ubuntu

Elementary

It is hard to believe that Elementary is so low in the rankings at the moment. Designed to be lightweight yet easy to install and use with the emphasis on a clean and elegant user interface.

It is based on Ubuntu and so provides access to a large repository of applications.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow
Desktop EnvironmentPantheon
PurposeLightweight yet elegant desktop operating system
Download Linkhttps://elementary.io/
Based OnUbuntu

Deepin

Deepin heralds from China and is based on Debian. It has its own desktop environment based on QT5 and includes its own software manager, audio player, and other tools.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow / Medium
Desktop EnvironmentDeepin (based on QT5)
PurposeGeneral desktop operating system
Download Linkhttp://www.deepin.org/en
Based OnDebian

CentOS

CentOS is another community distribution based on Red Hat but unlike Fedora it is more mainstream and built for the same sort of audience as openSUSE.

It uses the same installer as Fedora and so it is straight forward to install and there is a decent selection of applications.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow / Medium
Desktop EnvironmentGNOME, KDE (+ others)
PurposeGeneral desktop operating system
Download Linkhttps://www.centos.org/download/
Based OnRed Hat

Antergos

Antergos like Manjaro aims to provide an operating system that anybody can use whilst also providing access to Arch Linux.

Not quite as polished as Manjaro but it offers the choice of multiple desktop environments and is fairly easy to use.

The way you choose the desktop environment is during the installation stage and through the installer, you can choose all manner of features such as the applications you wish to install such as LibreOffice.

Generally speaking a very good distribution but not so easy to dual boot.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow / Medium
Desktop EnvironmentGNOME, KDE (+ others)
PurposeGeneral desktop operating system
Download Linkhttps://www.mageia.org/en/downloads/
Based OnN/A

Arch

As mentioned previously Arch is a distribution that intermediate and expert Linux users swear by. It provides up to date software and drivers but requires more maintenance than other distributions and it requires decent knowledge and a willingness to read the manual.

Level Of Expertise RequiredMedium High
Desktop EnvironmentCinnamon, GNOME, KDE (+ others)
PurposeMultipurpose desktop operating system
Download Linkhttps://www.archlinux.org/download/
Based OnN/A

PCLinuxOS

It is unbelievable that this distribution is so low in the rankings. As easy to install and use as Ubuntu or Mint and has a great set of repositories and a good community.

This would be my true alternative to using Ubuntu or Mint. What is more is that it is a rolling distribution meaning that once it is installed you never need to upgrade as it is always up to date.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow
Desktop EnvironmentKDE, GNOME, LXDE, MATE
PurposeGeneral purpose desktop operating system
Download Linkhttp://www.pclinuxos.com/get-pclinuxos/
Based OnN/A

Solus

Solus is a fairly new distribution which focuses on providing quality over quantity. Whilst this makes a great distribution on the surface certain key applications aren't available.

As the distribution evolves it could become a major player but for now I would doubt the average person could use it as their only operating system

Level Of Expertise RequiredMedium
Desktop EnvironmentBudgie
PurposeGeneral purpose desktop operating system focusing on quality
Download Linkhttps://solus-project.com/
Based OnN/A

Linux Lite

Linux Lite is another Ubuntu based operating system designed to be lightweight. It is easy to install and comes with a full suite of applications.

It isn't an official Ubuntu spin off but it has been going for a number of years now and it is definitely worth checking out.

As it is based on Ubuntu it is easy to install and use.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow
Desktop EnvironmentXFCE
PurposeLightweight Desktop Operating System
Download Linkhttps://www.linuxliteos.com/download.php
Based On

Ubuntu

Mageia

Mageia rose from the flames of the Mandriva project when it briefly ceased to exist.

A general purpose distribution similar to openSUSE and Fedora with a good range of software and a simple to use installer.

There are a few quirks but nothing insurmountable.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow / Medium
Desktop EnvironmentGNOME, KDE (+ others)
PurposeGeneral desktop operating system, experiments with new concepts
Download Linkhttps://www.mageia.org/en/downloads/
Based OnN/A
 

Ubuntu MATE

Before Ubuntu started using the Unity desktop it utilized the GNOME 2 desktop which was a popular desktop environment which was both lightweight and customizable.

The MATE desktop environment provides a desktop very similar to the old GNOME 2 desktop although it utilizes GNOME 3.

What you end up with is all the goodness of Ubuntu with a good performance and a highly customizable desktop environment.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow
Desktop EnvironmentMATE
PurposeGeneral Desktop Operating System, will work well on low powered computers
Download Linkhttps://ubuntu-mate.org/vivid/
Based On

Ubuntu

LXLE

LXLE is basically Lubuntu on steroids. Lubuntu is a lightweight version of the Ubuntu distribution utilizing the LXDE desktop.

LXLE is a respin of Lubuntu with a more complete set of applications and tools included. The fact that LXLE is more popular than Lubuntu shows that the extras added do provide good value.

Easy to install and great for older computers and netbooks.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow
Desktop EnvironmentLXDE
PurposeGeneral Desktop Operating System for machines with low resources
Download Linkhttp://www.lxle.net/download/
Based OnLubuntu

Lubuntu

Lubuntu is a lightweight version of Ubuntu utilizing the LXDE desktop environment. It comes with a full set of desktop applications but they aren't as fully featured as the ones you will find in the main Ubuntu operating system.

As Lubuntu provides access to the main Ubuntu repositories you can install any application that you really need to use.

Perfect for older computers and netbooks.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow
Desktop EnvironmentLXDE
PurposeLightweight Desktop Operating System for older hardware
Download Linkhttp://lubuntu.net/tags/download
Based On

Ubuntu

Puppy Linux

Puppy Linux is a superb Linux distribution designed to run from a USB drive with a very small download and memory footprint.

Despite its small size Puppy includes a whole host of applications.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow Medium
Desktop EnvironmentJWM
PurposeLightweight operating system designed to be run from a USB drive. 
Download Linkhttp://puppylinux.org/
Based On

N/A

Android x86

It is Android (you know, the one that is on your phone and tablet) but on your laptop or desktop computer.

Easy to install but can be a nuisance to navigate and the applications are a little bit hit and miss.

Run it in a virtual machine or on a spare computer. Not a mainstream desktop operating system.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow
Desktop EnvironmentAndroid
PurposeIt is Android, play games and watch videos
Download Linkhttp://www.android-x86.org/download
Based OnN/A

Slackware

Slackware is one of the oldest Linux distributions available and you will need considerable Linux knowledge in order to use it as it uses an old school approach to package manager and getting things working.

Level Of Expertise RequiredHigh
Desktop EnvironmentGNOME, KDE, XFCE, + many more
PurposeMulti purpose desktop operating system
Download Linkhttp://www.slackware.com
Based On

N/A

KDE Neon

KDE Neon is a Ubuntu based distribution which aims to provide a repository of all the latest software for the KDE desktop environment as it is released.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow
Desktop EnvironmentKDE Plasma
PurposeGeneral desktop operating system focusing on KDE and its applications
Download Linkhttps://neon.kde.org
Based On

Ubuntu

Kali

Kali is a specialist Linux distribution built for security and penetration testing.

It is based on the Debian test branch which means it is fairly straight forward to install but obviously the tools included require a certain amount of knowledge and expertise.

Level Of Expertise RequiredMedium High
Desktop EnvironmentGNOME
PurposeSecurity and penetration testing
Download Linkhttps://www.kali.org/downloads/
Based On

Debian (Test branch)

AntiX

AntiX is a lightweight general purpose distribution based on Debian with the IceWM desktop environment.

It is fairly easy to install and there is a decent set of applications although not all of them are mainstream and well known.

The performance is insanely good but to be that good the eye candy has been removed.

Level Of Expertise RequiredLow Medium
Desktop EnvironmentIceWM
PurposeLightweight desktop operating system for older computers
Download Linkhttp://antix.mepis.org/index.php?title=Main_Page#Downloads
Based On

Debian (testing)