The Top Linux Distributions of All Time

Annual hit counts and rankings from DistroWatch tell the story with data

The consumer operating-system market has largely settled on three platforms: Microsoft Windows, Apple macOS, and various Linux/BSD distributions. With Linux, the underlying kernel may be the same, but the software around it (the apps, skins, window managers, and package managers) combine in different ways by different vendors in packages called distributions. We highlight nine popular distributions.

A computer user trying to decide which Linux distribution to use.
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01
of 09

Breakout Star of 2018-2020: MX Linux

MX Linux desktop sample

Dethroning Linux Mint in 2018 and continuing to top the charts well into 2020, MX Linux—a partnership relying on the antiX system and ideas from the MEPIS project—may seem counterintuitive at first glance. It's based on Debian Stable and deploys the Xfce4 desktop environment. Still, this pairing offers great medium-weight performance using trusted and well-vetted technology.

This combination offers a rock-solid distribution with value-added extras like a UEFI installer, strong default encryption, and the MX Tools configuration utility.

02
of 09

Highest Rank Since 2011: Linux Mint

Linux Mint 18

From 2011 through 2017, Linux Mint has dominated the ranking list, clocking in at number 1 for all seven years. It only slipped in 2018, ceding the top slot to Manjaro.

Mint—a distribution based on Ubuntu—earns praise for stability, the variety of supported desktop managers, and full multimedia capability out-of-the-box. Mint's developers focus on stability, which is why it favors a conservative release cycle. You won't get bleeding-edge updates, but you'll still be current, and you won't be pressed into service as an involuntary beta tester, either.

03
of 09

Most Hits Since 2002: Ubuntu

Live Ubuntu Desktop

Ubuntu rocked the Linux world when it arrived on the scene in 2004. It ranked in the Top 5 every year since 2005. A full 9.5% of all DistroWatch.org site hits for the Top 25 for each year belong to Ubuntu.

In addition, many distributions are based on Ubuntu Linux and contribute further to its popularity, including Ubuntu Kylin, Lubuntu, and Xubuntu.

The distribution, run by Canonical Inc., hails from the Isle of Man and is based on Debian. Ubuntu has earned mindshare in part from Canonical's controversial (and now discontinued) Unity desktop manager and the company's attempts to impose more discipline on an often fractious Linux-development universe.

It's considered easy to use and has a rich application marketplace.

In recent years, Canonical's partnerships with Microsoft led to the Windows Subsystem for Linux and rock-solid performance of Ubuntu under the Microsoft Hyper-V virtual-environment software.

04
of 09

Most Consistent Climber: Debian

Custom Debian Desktop

Year-over-year growth is a virtue in the Linux distribution world, and by that measure, Debian shines. Its hit count increased from 311 in 2012 to 1,903 in 2017. It earned a number 2 rank in 2015, 2016, and 2017, falling to number 6 in 2018.

Debian commits to a slow and steady release schedule. Its philosophy is to wait until the software is stable and relatively bug-free before incorporating it into the distribution. This conservative approach finds favor with people who prefer to run a stable desktop that doesn't require frequent patching or rebooting.

As such, although Debian is a distribution in its own right, it's also the base for many other distributions. As of mid-2018, 135 of 306 recorded distributions at DistroWatch.org are based on Debian. This makes Debian's underlying architecture the most popular Linux distribution on the planet, by a considerable margin.

05
of 09

Fallen Star: Gentoo

Gentoo Linux

In 2002, Gentoo ranked number 3. By 2012, it had steadily fallen to number 22, and after 2013, it didn't make the Top 25 list. In mid-2020, DistroWatch.org ranked Gentoo as number 46.

Gentoo's philosophy aims to provide users with the near-ideal tools they need to get the job done. Gentoo relies on Portage as a package-management system that optimizes new software for the specific combination of hardware and software powering the machine.

06
of 09

Most Consistent Top-Tier Performer: openSUSE

openSUSE 13.2

Between 2006 and 2018, openSUSE didn't take the top slot, but it hovered between number 2 and number 9 every year in that period. Starting in 2019, it fell out of the top ten.

With an emphasis on software development, openSUSE—a German distribution—aims to provide a feature-rich and beautiful desktop experience. Although openSUSE supports a variety of desktop managers, it's identified with the KDE environment and the YaST package manager.

07
of 09

Consistent Mid-Pack Performer: CentOS

CentOS

Sometimes, slow and steady wins the race. Since 2005, CentOS has earned an average annual rank of 11.2, putting it just out of the Top 10, but still holding its own in a rapidly changing environment.

CentOS ranks among those distributions optimized for server environments as well as desktop clients. Because it tends to provide a predictable base layer of applications, it's useful for package development and server testing.

CentOS is robust, feature-rich, and stable. It's not the best looking performer on the market, but it fills a vital niche in the software development world.

08
of 09

Forgotten Favorite: Mandrake/Mandriva

Mandriva Linux

Mandrake Linux topped the rankings in 2002, 2003, and 2004, but by 2011, it had fallen to number 10. The last release of this distribution hit the market in late 2012. The company that sponsored it filed for bankruptcy a few years later.

09
of 09

Under-Appreciated Workhorse: Slackware

Slackware

Slackware's popularity hovers in the teens, and in recent years it's failed to crack the Top 25. But the distribution is much loved by hard-core Linux aficionados who appreciate Slackware's different approach to software management. Given that this distribution is favored by experienced Linux users, it's unlikely that most of them need to visit DistroWatch.org to download it. They know where to get it, so the download stats for this distribution are skewed.

The distribution aims for design simplicity. It avoids changing software from its upstream sources and tries not to limit end-user use cases. To that end, it's highly configurable, although the configuration is often managed through shell scripts and command-line installation procedures that may prove daunting to new users.

Slackware is the oldest Linux distribution that is still actively maintained.

Highest Rated Projects as of Mid-2020

Visitors to DistroWatch leave reviews and scores between 1 and 10 for their favorite distributions. The top five best-reviewed distributions in mid-2020 include:

The Top 5 from the First Half of 2020

For the first six months of 2020, the Top 5 distributions as ranked by average hits per day are:

Our Approach

We pulled relative-rank and year-by-year hit counts, for 2002 to 2020, for various Linux distributions as recorded by DistroWatch.org, a popular clearinghouse for Linux releases. We drew our conclusions based on hits to various distributions' detail pages.

Our analysis is shaped by the following considerations:

  • Both Linux as an operating system, and DistroWatch.org as a website, have grown in popularity over the years, so comparing raw counts by year from 2002 vs. 2020 can be misleading. The top-ranking distribution of 2002 (Mandrake, with 473 hits per day) would have clocked in at number 20 in 2018 with those same numbers—had the distribution not been discontinued in 2012.
  • Distributions come and go, and major variants of distributions (for example, Ubuntu vs. Ubuntu Mate) are sometimes reported separately. We observe the distinctions maintained by DistroWatch.org, which means that Ubuntu's total footprint is likely under-stated.
  • We limited our look to the top 25 distributions by year. Some distributions that either grew or declined in popularity aren't accounted for in those years where they didn't crack the Top 25.
  • Our emphasis, as with DistroWatch.org, is on consumer-desktop distributions. We didn't consider the server market in this analysis.
  • Reliable data doesn't exist for the desktop penetration of various Linux distributions. We rely on DistroWatch.org as a proxy, knowing that some inherently unquantifiable factors (for example, experienced Linux users downloading favorite distributions directly from the source instead of being mediated by DistroWatch.org) influence these results.

As of mid-2020, more than 250 active distributions are tracked by DistroWatch.org. This represents a rich marketplace of design philosophy that's part of the appeal of this robust operating system.