Unix Flavors List

UNIX novelty license plate

KHanger/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0 

Unix is not a single operating system. It offers many modern "flavors"—called variants, types, distributions or implementations—branching from its origin in early 1970s mainframe computing. Although based on a core set of Unix commands, different distributions have their own unique commands and features and are designed to work with different types of hardware.

No one knows exactly how many Unix flavors are there, but it is safe to say that if including all those that are obscure and obsolete, the number of Unix flavors is at least in the hundreds. You can often tell that an operating system is in the Unix family if it has a name that is a combination of the letters U, I, and X.

Main Branches of Unix

Contemporary Unix implementations differ in whether they're open source (i.e., free to download, use or modify) or closed source (i.e., proprietary binary files not subject to user modification). 

  • Minix—a Unix-like open-source project, rarely used by home users
  • Linux—an open-source initiative to bring a Unix-like environment to both the desktop and server space; Linux is popular with home computer enthusiasts
  • Mac OS X—Apple's desktop operating system 
  • The BSDs (FreeBSD, DragonflyBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD)—a branch-off from the earliest Unix specs, following the design principles of the Berkeley Software Distribution
  • AIX—a series of Unix-based operating environments developed by IBM for its servers
  • Solaris—a proprietary server operating system, based on Unix, developed by Sun Microsystems
  • OpenSolaris—an open-source variant of Solaris
  • HP-UX—a series of Unix-based operating environments developed by HP for its servers

Common Consumer Distributions

Over the years, different Linux flavors have enjoyed more or less popularity, but several stand out as being among the most commonly deployed on desktop computers. as reported by DistroWatch, a long-running site that curates Linux distribution news. Some of the most commonly accessed distributions in 2017 include:

  • Mint—a version of Ubuntu with additional software drivers and minor customizations
  • Debian—this project bills itself as a "universal operating system" and enjoys significant market share and a robust base of applications
  • Manjaro—based on the Arch Linux project, Manjaro supports extensive configurabilty
  • Ubuntu—a significant player in the Linux market, Ubuntu's goal is to offer an easy-to-use distribution that's beautifully designed and accessible despite language and disability barriers
  • Antergos—based on the Arch Linux project, this distribution offers its own custom installer program
  • OpenSUSE—a long-running German distribution that's the community version of the SUSE Linux commercial distribution
  • Fedora—a community project based on Red Hat
  • Solus—a built-from-scratch distribution from Ireland with a custom desktop environment called "Budgie" that looks like the old GNOME 2 desktop
  • Zorin—a distribution intended to mimic the look-and-feel of Windows to help new Linux users transition away from Microsoft's operating system
  • Elementary—based on Ubuntu, elementaryOS uses a custom desktop environment called Parthenon that resembles, in some ways, Mac OS

Distribution popularity changes quickly. In 2002, the top 10 distributions, in order of interest, were Mandrake, Red Hat, Gentoo, Debian, Sorcerer, SuSE, Slackware, Lycoris, Lindows and Xandros. Fifteen years later, only Debian remains on the Top 10 list; the next highest, Slackware, had fallen to No. 33. Of the distributions popular in 2017, none except Debian existed in 2002.

Linux Distribution Facts

Confused about which Linux distribution to try? From a desktop-user perspective, the biggest difference between Linux flavors boils down to just a few choices:

  • Desktop environment—unlike Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X, Linux supports many different desktop environments, each with a different signature look-and-feel. Common environments include Gnome (Cinnamon and MATE), KDE, Xfce and Budgie.
  • Package manager—Linux programs are designed for specific package-management tools. The biggest distinction is between Red Hat Package Manager files or Debian files, which are distinguished by their RPM or DEB file extension. Red Hat Linux uses RPMs, Ubuntu uses DEBs; converting between the two is an advanced user skill.
  • FOSS status—some users care deeply about the strictness of a distribution's adherence to Free and Open-Source Software principles. 

You might have a Linux device in the palm of your hand. The Android operating environment for smartphones and tablets is based on Linux and can be considered a type of Linux distribution in its own right.