The Top 10 Linux Distributions Of All Time

Introduction

Distrowatch started their much-discussed ranking system in 2002.

Whilst only a guide to the success of a distribution it provides an interesting historical view of how the Linuxsphere has changed in the past 14 years.

Each distribution has a page counter which counts the hits it receives each day and these are counted up and used as hits per day count for the Distrowatch rankings. To prevent abuse only 1-page count is registered from each IP address per day.

Now the merits of the numbers and how accurate they are may be up for debate but hopefully, the following list will be an interesting insight into the history of Linux.

This list looks at the rankings since 2002 and highlights the distributions that have hit the top ten in any given year.

There are some interesting facts to accompany this list. For instance, there is only 1 distribution that has been in the top 10 throughout all 14 years although if you count Red Hat and Fedora as one distribution then you could say 2.

Another interesting fact is that only 3 Linux distributions have ever held the top spot at the end of any given year. You can get one point for each distribution you name.

28 distributions have appeared in the top 10 in the past 14 years proving that whilst it may be easy to rise to success it is just as easy to fall out of favor.

This list is in alphabetical order because it would be hard to do it on rankings as they fluctuate so much per distribution.

1
Arch Linux

Arch Linux
Arch Linux.

Arch Linux is a rolling-release distribution that has been around for all 14 years of the Distrowatch rankings.

A rolling release distribution for the power user, Arch has grown in the presence and boasts one of the largest software repositories.

Stand out features include the AUR and incredible documentation.

Championed by a large community this distribution provides everything the experienced Linux user could ever need.

It took until 2010 for Arch to hit the top 10 and its highest position was in 2011 when it reached 6th position. This can be largely put down to the complexity of the distribution.

2
CentOS

CentOS
CentOS.

CentOS is a community version of Red Hat Linux which provides all of the stability and power of its parent.

It has been around for quite a while but only hit the top 10 distributions in 2011.

It is a good solid distribution without frills and perfect for home and business use.

3
Damn Small Linux

Damn Small Linux
Damn Small Linux.

Damn Small Linux (DSL) has been around since about 2003/2004 and its main selling point is that it has an incredibly small footprint.

The download size of DSL is just 50 megabytes and for a few years it was in the top 10 distributions but it slipped out of the list in 2009 and has been falling ever since. It's the highest position was 6 into 2006.

The main issue with such a small image is that it requires a lot of setting up to get it to do anything. A novel idea but not much real world substance.

4
Debian

Debian
Debian.

Debian is the only distribution to have been in the top 10 since 2002.

Its highest position is 2 and that is its current ranking.

Debian is a founding father of Linux and it provides the base for many of the other distributions available today including Ubuntu and Linux Mint.

Used by professionals and large businesses makes it a key distribution for people thinking of getting into Linux as a career choice.

It is relatively easy to install and is highly customizable and it is easy to use.

5
Dream Linux

Dream Linux
Dream Linux.

Dream Linux was around up until 2012. It is hard to find information about it.

The screenshot was taken from LinuxScreenshots.org.

Dream Linux hit the top 10 rankings in 2008 and it must have been the 3.5 release that was responsible for its rise.

Based on Debian Lenny, Dream Linux came with the XFCE desktop environment with an option to install the GNOME desktop.

The best tribute that can be given to this Brazilian distribution is from Unixmen who described Dream Linux as fast and beautiful.

6
Elementary OS

Elementary OS
Elementary OS.

Elementary is a relative new comer to the block. It first reached the Distrowatch rankings in 2014 and currently sits at number 7 which is its highest position to date.

The key to Elementary is the visually pleasing and highly aesthetic desktop.

The concept is simple, keep it simple.  

7
Fedora

Fedora Linux
Fedora Linux.

Fedora is an offshoot of Red Hat. It is every Linux enthusiasts dream distribution because it is completely cutting edge, bringing all of the new concepts to the table first.

As with Debian, it is a good idea to use either Fedora or CentOS as they provide the perfect platform for anyone wanting to get a career in Linux.

Fedora was one of the first distributions to introduce both Wayland and SystemD.

It is relatively easy to install and the GNOME desktop is easy to use. However, it isn't always the most stable.

Fedora first entered the Distrowatch top 10 in 2004 and hasn't been below 5th ever since peaking at position 2 in 2010.

8
Gentoo

Gentoo Linux
Gentoo Linux.

In 2002 Gentoo was the 3rd most popular Linux distribution. Of course, that was a time before graphical installers.

Gentoo isn't for the faint-hearted and is used by a core community of people who live to compile code themselves.

It dropped out of the top 10 in 2007 and currently sits in position 34. 

Technically speaking based on hits per day it is only slightly less popular than is was back in 2002 but the popularity that Linux has gained means easier to use distributions will always jump ahead.

A niche distribution for the full on Linux geek. 

9
Knoppix

Knoppix
Knoppix.

Knoppix is a Linux distribution designed to be run from a DVD or USB drive.

It has been around a very long time and first hit the top 10 in 2003, peaking at its highest position of 3rd before dropping off the list in 2006.

It is still going and is currently on version 7.6 and it resides in position 55. 

10
Lindows

Lindows
Lindows.

The one thing that has been consistent in the past 14 years is the obsession with making Linux distributions that look like Windows.

One of the very first was called Lindows but the name had to be changed because it was too close to a certain other company's trademark.

Lindows only appearance in the top 10 was in 2002 at position 9 although it went on to become Linspire. 

11
Lycoris

Lycoris
Lycoris.

Lycoris was a desktop Linux distribution based on OpenLinux Workstation and designed to look a lot like Windows. 

Even the background was designed to emulate Windows XP.

Lycoris was at position 8 in the rankings in 2002 and maintained the top 10 position in 2003 before disappearing into obscurity. 

12
Mageia

Mageia
Mageia.

Mageia started out as a fork of Mandriva (one of the most popular distributions in the early noughties).

Still, one of the biggest distributions around Mageia is designed for ease of use with a simple installer and decent repositories.

Mageia first appeared in the top 10 in 2012 where it peaked as the 2nd most popular distribution of the year.

It has remained in the top 10 ever since although for the past 6 months it has dropped to number 11 proving once and for all that it is one thing getting into the top 10 but a completely other thing staying there.

13
Mandrake / Mandriva

Mandriva Linux
Mandriva Linux.

Mandrake Linux was the number 1 distribution between 2002 and 2004 and there is a good reason for that.

Mandrake was the first Linux distribution that I ever successfully installed and it was the first to be compatible with hardware devices such as printers and modems. (for the young-uns out there modems were things we used to connect to the internet for the full 56k experience).

Mandrake changed its name to Mandriva and was a top 10 distribution until 2011 when it sadly came to an end.

Mageia picked up the mantle and instantly became a hit. 

There is still a project called Open Mandriva available.

14
Manjaro

Manjaro
Manjaro.

Manjaro is currently my favorite Linux distribution. 

The beauty of Manjaro is that it takes Arch Linux and makes it simple for the average ordinary everyday dude.

It first hit the top 10 distributions in 2013 and is set this year to finish in its highest position.

15
Mepis

Mepis
Mepis.

Mepis was a top 10 distribution between 2004 and 2007 and peaked at position 4 in 2006.

It is still going today and is based on the Debian Stable branch.

Mepis claims to have the easiest installer around and it comes as a live distribution for trying it out before you dive in completely.

16
Mint

Linux Mint
Linux Mint.

The current number 1 distribution in the Distrowatch rankings.

Linux Mint's success is down to its ease of use and the traditional desktop interface.

Based on Ubuntu, Linux Mint takes it to another level with good innovation and it is very stable.

Linux Mint first hit the top 10 in 2007 and hit the top spot for the first time in 2011 (probably due to the initial Ubuntu Unity disaster) and it has stayed there ever since.

17
OpenSUSE

OpenSUSE
OpenSUSE.

In the early 2000's there was a distribution called SUSE which secured a top 10 space up until 2005.

In 2006 OpenSUSE was born and it quickly took over the mantra.

OpenSUSE is a stable distribution which is suitable for everybody to use, with decent repositories and good all round support.

It peaked at number 2 in 2008 and it remains in the top 4 today. 

There are two versions available, Tumbleweed and Leap. Tumbleweed is a rolling release version whereas Leap follows the traditional release method.

18
PCLinuxOS

PCLinuxOS
PCLinuxOS.

PCLinuxOS first hit the top 10 in 2004 and it remained in the top 10 until 2013.

It is still a really good distribution which follows the mantra of being easy to install and easy to use. The hardware compatibility is also very good.

PCLinuxOS has a great support network and its own monthly magazine.

It is currently sitting just outside the top 10 distributions in 12th position. 

19
Puppy Linux

Puppy Linux
Puppy Linux.

Puppy Linux is one of the most innovative Linux distributions ever created.

Designed to run off a CD or USB drive, Puppy provides a full Linux desktop solution with hundreds of great little tools for just a few hundred megabytes.

Puppy has its own tool for allowing other distributions to be based on it and a whole raft of them sprung up including LXPup, MacPUP and Simplicity.

The main Puppy distribution had two versions, one binary compatible with Slackware called Slacko and the other binary compatible with Ubuntu.

Its creator has concentrated recently on a new distribution called Quirky.

Puppy first hit the top 10 in 2009 and stayed there until 2013. It currently sits in 15th place. 

20
Red Hat Linux

Red Hat Linux
Red Hat Linux.

Red Hat is a commercial distribution used by large businesses all around the world.

In the early 2000s, it was in the top 10 distributions occupying the 2nd place for 2002 and 2003 before dropping out of the top 10.

Red Hat remains popular in the business world but more casual users are more likely to use Fedora or CentOS which are community versions of Red Hat.

If you are planning a career in Linux then at some stage you are likely to end up using this distribution.

21
Sabayon

Sabayon
Sabayon.

Sabayon is a Gentoo-based distribution and it largely does for Gentoo what Manjaro does for Arch.

According to the website Sabayon is designed to do the following:

We aim to deliver the best "out of the box" user experience by providing the latest open source technologies in an elegant format.

Sabayon first hit the Distrowatch top 10 in 2007 where it peaked in 5th place. It dropped out of the top 10 in 2011 and it currently resides in 34th.

22
Slackware

Slackware
Slackware.

Slackware is one of the oldest distributions and remains popular amongst its core users.

It was started in 1993 and according to its website, it has the twin goals of ease of use and stability.

Slackware was in the top 10 Distrowatch rankings between 2002 and 2006 peaking at position 7 in 2002. It currently sits in position 33. 

23
Sorcerer

Sorceror was in the Distrowatch rankings in 2002 peaking at position 5.

Little information can be found about it except for the fact that it used magic words as a way of installing software.

Read the Wikipedia page for more information

24
SUSE

SUSE
SUSE.

As with Red Hat in the early 2000s, SUSE was a top 10 distribution in its own right peaking at number 3 in 2005.

SUSE is a commercial distribution which is why openSUSE was born as a community distribution.

It was started in 1992 and according to its website, it became the leading distribution in 1997.

In 1999 it announced partnerships with IBM, SAP, and Oracle. 

SUSE was acquired in 2003 by Novell and openSUSE was born.

25
Ubuntu

Ubuntu
Ubuntu.

Ubuntu first became prominent in 2004 and quickly rose to the number 1 spot in 2005 where it stayed there for 6 years.

Ubuntu took Linux to a whole new level. In 2004 Mandrake had top spot with 1457 hits per day. When Ubuntu took number 1 spot in 2005 it had 2546.

Still one of the most popular distributions today Ubuntu mixes innovation, a modern desktop, good support, and hardware compatibility.

Ubuntu is currently in 3rd spot behind Mint and Debian.  

26
Xandros

Xandros
Xandros.

Xandros was based on Corel Linux and was in the top 10 distributions in 2002 and 2003 albeit in 10th place.

27
Yoper

Yoper Linux
Yoper Linux.

Yoper was an independent distribution which hit the top 10 distributions in 2003.

It was built for i686 computers or better. According to Wikipedia, its defining feature was a set of custom optimizations aimed at making it the fastest distribution.

Unfortunately, it quickly disappeared into obscurity.

28
Zorin

Zorin OS
Zorin OS.

Zorin is a Linux distribution which provides the user with a custom desktop changer.

The user can choose to emulate many other operating systems such as Windows 7, OSX and Linux with a GNOME 2 desktop.

Zorin came in 2 flavors including the main version and a LITE version for older computers.

It peaked at number 10 in 2014, although its current 6-month ranking is 8th.

The current version available is 9 from the website based on Ubuntu 14.04. There were versions 10 and 11 but they are no longer available for download.

Hopefully, a new version is on its way based on Ubuntu 16.04.