Best Linux OS: A Comparison of Twenty Popular Linux Distributions

bestlinuxosDoing some research on the best Linux distributor before you install? Great. We’ll cover the basics of Linux, and then touch on the best distributors (distro’s) for beginners, gamers, network security testers, businesses, and an the overall best Linux OS available to you. So whether you’re a rookie in the world of Linux, or you’re a veteran Linux user, hopefully you’ll be able to gain some valuable insight onto the perks and letdowns of twenty different Linux operating systems. If you are a newcomer to Linux, an introduction to Linux and the Linux Desktop can help you get a little more well-versed.

What’s Linux?

Linux is an operating system (OS) that allows the user (you) greater flexibility and control. It’s also a heck of a lot safer, not to mention more fun if you’re a programming geek. Linux is an alternative to your standard Windows or Mac OS X. It’s a system that allows you to run applications and perform desired functions on your computer. If you didn’t have Windows on your computer, how would you do anything? You can’t. You need an operating system.

What makes Linux different than the aforementioned OS’s is its collaborative development and incredible flexibility. One company does not own Linux, or update Linux or receive economic benefits from Linux. Instead, it’s a community of developers. Because of this, the Linux OS is an incredibly efficient and unsung software innovation. As for flexibility, well, you can control virtually every aspect of your computer’s operation. You’ll be able to have a secure, totally-you, speedy and current operating system. When installing Linux, regardless of distribution, you’ll probably be asked if you want to install the text version or graphical user interface (GUI) version. If you’re new at Linux, go GUI. It’ll closely resemble your current desktop and you always have the option of calling your text terminal to run commands. If you are more advanced, or brave, go for text install. I highly recommend the GUI.

Why Linux?

There are a few primary reasons users switch to Linux. First, security. This is big. Security is like the number one reason I hear why people switch to Linux. Viruses are less of a threat. Not many of these buggers are designed to attack the Linux OS, which means less hassle and worry for you. And then there are network security testers, Linux is a great tool to find the loopholes that the maliciously intended could use to hack your system and steal information. Plus, you can do things like encrypt your entire hard drive or make yourself invisible on the net. It’s pretty cool stuff.

Secondly, the cost. It’s free! Yes, you don’t have to pay anything to use this wonderfully customizable system. A lot of distributors will have a donation button on their page. If you’re feeling generous go ahead and throw them a few bones so they can keep up the good work.

Third, geek-central. Ever wondered what would happen if you could communicate directly with your computer, no buffer? You’re not alone. (Surprised?) A lot of Linux users got tired of telling Windows to run a program without being able to see or control the inner workings of this process. Linux will allow you to get your hands dirty in running commands and completely customizing your computer operating experience. The knowledge you’ll gain is amazing and, you can impress you less geeky friends.

And lastly, there are frequent updates. Since this is a community run operating system it’s constantly being updated to be the best version of itself it can be. Developers listen to the feedback, make changes and release new versions of their systems. Again, at no cost to you. Thank these developers kindly.

Alright, time to nerd out. The best of Linux OS, go!

Beginners

Welcome, to the beginning of your Linux quest. You’re in luck that Linux has one of the best support systems you can find on the web. Between forums, articles and how-to’s, Linux developers and long-time users want to make sure you newbies know what’s up. These distro’s are not only some of the most popular all-around but have a really easy user interface to ease you into this new sphere of computer knowledge.

Ubuntu

This is by far the easiest, made-for-newcomers, Linux distro available. It’s so numbingly simple that you probably could do it with your eyes shut. A lot of hardcore Linux users have turned their back on Ubuntu, especially since recently the parent company switched from the GNOME 2.x to a Unity desktop interface. (Unity doesn’t give Linux experts the kind of control over the operating system that they’re looking for.) So, back to being simple, all you’ll have to do is: get a copy, install it. Yeah, that’s it. Once you’ve done that you’ll be looking at a desktop similar to the image above. It resembles your standard desktop and will have a lot of familiar icons. Ubuntu takes some of it cues from more Mac OS X then it does from Windows. One thing to note, if you are trying to load this on a Windows 8 system, you are going to run into trouble. Windows has a “secure boot” feature that prevents other operating systems from running. There is a way to hack this, but you’ll need to do some research. The best parts: every Ubuntu install comes with a wide range of software like, office, browser and some games. You also get Thunderbird (the email app), transmission (a bit torrent client) and you can download more apps from the Ubuntu software center – for free. For those of you that really want Ubuntu, but really can’t stand Unity, there are a wide variety of Ubuntu 13.04 variants with different desktops. These include: Kubuntu, with KDE; Xubuntu, with Xfce; and Lubuntu, with LXDE.  If this is confusing you, learning the Ubuntu Linux Server is a quick and concise way to get your first Ubuntu server running.

Mint

Diggin’ the sound of Ubuntu? Well, Mint is a lot like it with a few different features. It’s equally easy to use, although it will require a system restart to complete the installation. Mint tends to resemble a typical Windows atmosphere. There are a few versions of Mint, just like there are with Ubuntu. The most recent release is Mint 16 Petra, but there is also Mint 15 KDE, 15 Xfce, 15, and others. Linux Mint is also the developer of the desktop environment Cinnamon which is a really popular and intuitive user interface. The above picture is Mint Petra with Cinnamon. Mint includes automatic support for ATI graphics, and various other hardware with its driver manager to make it easier to manage which driver to use with your devices. They also have their own version of “widgets” which they’ve called Desklets. You can also download things like Steam game client or Google chrome that aren’t available through the Mint Software Manager. Mint uses Totem for a media player and Mint definitely has the leg up when it comes to speed. If you’re a little more tech-savvy, but still a beginner, Mint is probably your best choice.

Zorin

The primary goal of Zorin is to offer Windows users an opt-out from using this buggy and bogged down OS, to a more flexible one. It is based on Ubuntu, as many distro’s are. If you’re weary about taking the Linux plunge, Zorin, comes with similar programs to those found in Windows with a similar user interface so you don’t feel like you landed on an alien system (see: backtrack). With Zorin, you also enjoy the comfort of GNOME, instead of the Unity based interface (that Ubuntu switched to recently). If you want to get away from the Windows feel, you can. Zorin has the Zorin look changer that makes this easy. It also comes with the popular WINE package that let’s you install applications you’d normally get on Windows, without having Windows. Additionally, Zorin packs a punch when it comes to speed at four times faster than Windows 7. Whoa. And, it’s available in 55 different languages so you don’t get hung up in translation. Zorin has a free trial, but if you want the gaming and multimedia releases it’ll run you about 10 euros.

Peppermint

Enter: cloud-centric OS. Peppermint is based on Lubuntu, derived from Ubuntu, that uses a LXDE desktop environment. If you’re used to using web-based applications and Cloud, then this is a great choice. Peppermint integrates the cloud and your typical desktop to make a well liked distro. You get automatic updates and a sleek user interface as it runs LXDE desktop environment. Not to mention, Peppermint is very quick and light on system resources. You’ll notice some similarities to Linux Mint as well, which is where part of this name comes from. Peppermint uses Chromium which is the open-source version of Google Chrome. You’ll be using Google Web Office (GWOffice) for documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Think: Google Drive! And but of course, Gmail, for your email client. Some of the native applications include Dropbox, Ice, X-chat, Transmission (torrent client) and Gnome-Mplayer (media player). These options can of course be customized by visiting the software repository.

Pinguy

Yet another OS built on the Ubuntu framework, Pinguy will appeal to the geek in you, but is also great for those without geek. With Pinguy, you get all the familiarity of using Windows or OS X plus features that either of those operating systems have. It’s simple to use and considered an “out of the box” working environment. Pinguy comes with software like, CoverGloobus (a media controller that displays the lyrics to playing songs), GNOME Do (allows you to quickly search for many items present on your desktop or the web), and Docky (an advanced shortcut bar that sits at the edges of your screen). Pinguy comes with a lot, so the ISO download, at 1.3GB is pretty heavy. Within that 1.3GB, you’ll get more familiar software like Skype, Dropbox, Frostwire, and Deluge.

Gaming

If you’re a gamer you’ve might have found yourself scouring the interwebs for tips on what specs and systems are best for your favorite hobby. Linux offers a few distro’s that a lot of gamers swear up and down are the best for the job. Some people argue that the distro is rather irrelevant and your system requirements are really what matter. I, believe that both are to be considered for maximum experience!

Gentoo

Gentoo is a little more advanced than your Ubuntu or Mint OS. While newbies can use this, it’s geared more for developers and network professionals. And because of that, it makes this a great OS for the everyday gamer. Gentoo has an advanced package management system called Portage. Portage is a true ports system, like BSD ports, but it’s Python based. (Not sure what Python is? Here’s Python 101.) It has a number of advanced features like dependencies, fake (openBSD-style) installs, system profiles, config file management, virtual packages and more. It’s incredibly adaptable which is great for someone looking to configure their OS for maximum performance. Portage also allows Gentoo to become an ideal secure server, development workstation, professional desktop, gaming system and pretty much whatever else you want it to be. Gentoo also has a great support community so you don’t get lost in command line world.

Slackware

Slackware is one of the oldest distro’s to be developed on the Linux kernel. Its primary goals are to provide ease of use and stability. Although Slackware is often thought as a complicated distribution by those who don’t use it, many would argue that by design it’s the easiest UNIX-like system available. If you’re going this route, you’re going to need to be a bit on the technical side, or you’re going to have to have a desire to learn. It’s nothing like the turnkey option of Ubuntu. The installation of Slackware will bring you back to the MS DOS days. It uses an ncurses based installer, but it’s not too complicated. You’ll get around 7GB of software with the installation.

If you’re using Steam for game playing, ALSA will be your sound client instead of PulseAudio. However, Steam does come with PA as a dependency, so you’ll need to do some changes in the command line to tell PA to use ALSA as its output.

Ubuntu

Yeah, we already covered this but it’s worth mentioning that the Valve team, creators of Steam for Linux, personally promote Ubuntu as the best compatible platform for Steam. If you’re looking for an easy and quick way to get gaming on Linux, Ubuntu is definitely your best option.

Network Security

Security is a major reason why users choose Linux over other types of operating systems. Network security includes keeping your personal (or business) network safe from things like, viruses, spyware and adware, zero-hour attacks, hacker attacks, data interception and theft and even identity theft. By choosing a Linux system that employs security tools and features can help you prevent such attacks from happening on your system. This is also an environment where system administrators and network security specialists can learn, perform risk assessments and find compromising security holes.

Backtrack 5r3

Want technical? This is it. This distribution is aimed at digital forensics and penetration testing use. A network security tester can run Backtrack and perform assessments in a native environment dedicated to hacking. Backtrack is made for everyone, however, you will have to have some knowledge of programming or be interested in the information security field to really benefit from this. The tools provided with backtrack allow the user to perform tasks that will compromise security in an attempt to address risk factors. Be careful though, unless you are acting as a system administrator or information security specialist, breaking into someone else’s network is illegal. The default user in Backtrack is root and this gives you access to every tool as a super user. You may want to create a new user that will have the same privileges as someone in say, Ubuntu or Mint. Just issue this command: adduser username to do so. If you’re a real advanced user, go ahead and try the KDE version instead of the more user friendly GNOME interface.

Network Security Toolkit (NST)

NST has a toolkit to provide open source network security applications. You can use these tools to transform most x86 systems into a system designed for intrusion detection, system designer analysis, network packet generation and management similar to Fedora, wireless network monitoring and a virtual system service network scanner. Basically, if you’re a security professional or a network administrator, NST offers you a really comprehensive set tools to do your job with maximum efficiency. In the virtual world, NST can be used as a network security analysis validator, and tool monitor on virtual servers hosting virtual machines. NST maintains its own repository of additional packages for your using pleasure. NST will boot in text mode automatically, but it does have a graphical user interface option.  You’ll have to select this mode at the initial boot screen. If you miss this opportunity, run: [root@dhcp136 ~]# init 5 as the root user.

nUBuntu

Remember Ubuntu? (How could you forget it, really.) Well as you may have guessed nUbuntu is a spin on the aforementioned. It includes a collection of network and server security testing tools on top of the existing user friendly Ubuntu distribution. Its main purpose is to be a testing environment but it also has a very functional desktop for the advanced Linux user. If you’re looking for the best of both worlds (technically savvy and sleek user interface) nUbuntu will do the trick. Remember though, that nUbuntu doesn’t use packages like Gnome, openoffice.org or Evolution so you’ll have to find open source options that work for you. While this distribution will take some learning, it’s worth a try if you’re interested in network security but don’t have a need for highly technical systems like Backtrack. nUbuntu can be installed via LiveCD or installed directly to your hard drive.

Some of the programs that come with nUbuntu are: Finger Google, Samba Enum, ExploitTree, Autopsy, Dsniff, Wireshark, Hotspotter, Genkeys, John and Hash Collision. This list is definitely not exhaustive.

Kali

From the developers of the highly-technical Backtrack, Kali Linux is just as much of hackers dream. The biggest difference between Kali and Backtrack is the base has been changed from Ubuntu to Debian. This means, new software libraries. Also, the /pentest directory has been changed so that every tool you want can be called from anywhere on the system now that all the applications are included in the system path. Kali also automatically updates with Debian repositories four times a day so you always stay up-to-date with the latest packages and security fixes available. Unlike Backtrack, Kali supports ARM and long-term packaging of high profile tools (LTS).

I mentioned new software libraries, and I mean, lots of software options here. There are now over 300 penetration testing and security auditing programs which gives IT administrators and security professionals a one-stop-shop for security solutions. The tool suite includes Metasploit, Wireshark, John the Ripper, Nmap and Aircrach-ng. If you want the in’s and out’s of Metasploit, Metasploit Extreme on Kali Linux will get you up to speed.ubuntu

Helix

Helix is another wonderful system for people interested in, or working in the network security field. Helix is tailored for incident response, system analysis, data recovery and security auditing. It’s really geared toward system administrators working in smaller, mixed environments where data loss and security breaches are high.

Helix is unique as it can run from a live CD or run on top of Windows. It will be familiar in the sense that it is an Ubuntu based system that runs with a fully functional Gnome desktop. It’s has great minimalist features in addition to a lot of useful tools. When you install Helix you’ll get things like Wireshark network analyzer, several anti-virus tools, back-up and restore partitions, and you’ll be able to retrieve passwords and examine binary files. Of course, there’s a lot more. Adepto will let you create sector-by-sector images of local devices so you can take them in for further analysis. If you choose to run this on top of windows, it won’t be the same layout as running it as your root operating system. It’ll act as more as a floating application. In the windows version you can browse the content of all the files and folders and calculate hashes so you can look for clandestine or suspicious activities in you data archives.

Enterprise Server and Desktop

Running a business? Need a more high-functioning “big data” Linux operating system? Linux operating systems focusing on Enterprise are few and far between but these two stand out.

Red hat

If “big data” got your attention, Red Hat could be your top contender. Recently, Red Hat has begun focusing on using the hybrid cloud and the concept of big data as a development path as opposed to a mere coincidental development feature. With 2013 seeing trends from the commercial market towards these types of data intensive needs, Red Hat is working on being the trendsetter. Redhat Enterprise Linux 6.5 was released yesterday, making its debut to aid those who build and manage large, complex IT projects and especially need hybrid cloud functionality. On this version you can tune the system to run SAP applications.

Red Hat is continuing to provide ease-of-use and updated security standards into the system. The developers have added a centralized certificate trust store and tools like OpenSCAP 2.1 which implements the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST’s) Security Content Automation Protocol (SCAP) 2.1. That’s a mouthful.

If you’re in the financial service or trade service industry you know that application latency is measured in microseconds. Thankfully, Red Hat now fully supports sub-microsecond clock accuracy. Not for the faint of heart, but Red Hat is a great integrated high-functioning, security enhanced enterprise making machine. Feeling like you already know Red Hat? Take this Red Hat Certified Engineer Exam to see if you’re ready to be the senior system administrator at work.

SUSE

SUSE prides itself on being a “future-proof platform” that over 13,000 businesses user worldwide. Companies like the London Stock Exchange, Office Depot, Sony and Walgreens – to name a few. SUSE has a desktop and server enterprise option. For the desktop, SUSE boasts the most interoperable and efficient desktop environments available. With the install you will get productivity software, Mozilla web browser, Evolution email and collaborative applications, Pidgin instant messaging, F-spot photo management, Banshee multimedia tools, LibreOffice and more. It’s a great solution to all of your desktop needs. SUSE Enterprise Desktop uses GNOME or KDE as a desktop environment. SUSE includes the commercial Citrix Presentation Server ICA client, commercial Fluendo Gstreamer codec for AAC (included for compatibility with files in Banshee), and the Evolution email client supports Exchange 2007 mail and calendaring.

As for the server version, get greater data center efficiency by consolidating your distributed server workloads on mainframes. It supports 10,000 ISV application version and runs on multiple hardware platforms. It has low downtime, so you can run mission-critical workloads reliably. Plus, you can get a 60 day free trial! Learn more about how to run Linux Servers.

Multimedia

Arch

While many say that the Ubuntu Studio is the best for multimedia use, others say that Arch is a viable contender. It’s a simple and flexible Linux system that can be installed via a CD, USB or an FTP server. This system has its own package manager, called pacman, that provides updates to the latest software applications with full dependency tracking. Arch is probably one of the top platforms for building a customized multimedia production workstation. Since audio, video and graphics tend to be CPU-intensive, you probably want processor cycles doing all the work. Arch will do this. Arch also has a user repository with hundreds of user-supported packages.

Arch is also a rather (I use this term loosely) user friendly system with an “unofficial beginner’s guide” on their website and a minimalist approach to the interface – it could be a good starting point if you aren’t frightened by the idea of configuring files or the command line. Don’t think this means installation is going to be a cake walk, it’s not, but with enough patience and dedication you’ll feel successful after Arch is up and running.  It is also quite stable, has a great community and bleeding edge features.

ZevenOS Neptune

ZevenOS is, guess what, Ubuntu based Linux distribution. It has a BeOS-like user interface (BeOS is built for digital media) and works on older computers with lower CPU speeds and memories. This system will also support a lot older hardware. Zevon features a lot of multimedia tools that are set up for media playback and ship with a full set of codecs and a flashplayer.

ZevonOS Neptune, is based on Debian’s “Wheezy” with a KDE style desktop environment. Neptune 3.0 and up are exclusively build for a 64-bit architecture. Neptune relies on Wireshark, Aircrack-ng and kismon for wireless diagnosis, so you shouldn’t have any connection problems. The newest release of Neptune was October 2013 with changes like new kernel 3.10.12, removed eclipse, updated LibreOffice and Chromium, Updated VLC to version 2.1 and Calligra 2.7.2 added to the KDE repository. Lightweight design makes it optimal for a LiveCD boot, but a USB installer is great too.

Overall

Debian

Debian is in the same vein as Ubuntu, Mint and Fedora (which we’ll discuss next). It’s a super popular system because of it’s user friendly desktop environment, stability, software package and flexibility. One of the newer versions of Debian, called Squeeze, has lived up to its debuting claim as a “universal operating system”. It has a large number of supported architectures, is completely free kernel and boots faster than its predecessors. You’ll get thousands and thousands of packages included when you install Debian including, debuggers, database servers and clients, communication programs, admin utilities, mail programs, math software, command shells and even basic tools for scientific work.

There’s so much more that you can explore on the Debian website (www.debian.com). Another recently released version of Debian is “wheezy”, or Debian 7.0. Wheezy has a GNOME 3 based graphical environment, which really, is the expected environment for any GNOME targeted distribution. It’s a really fast system that allows the technical goodness lover have all the fun they want. Overall, Debian is a great choice for any kind of user looking to experience a stable and polished operating system.

Fedora

Fedora is another one of those typically well-liked Linux operating systems. Fedora can be installed via a live CD, or a 4GB DVD which has a lot of options, and will update an existing installation. There is a lot of concern about the confusing partitioning directions during install. So keep your eye out, read the manual and make sure you know what you’re doing. Fedora comes with great configurations tools, some are limited to using the GNOME interface, but others are functional across the Xfce and Mate. For you geekoid developers out there, Fedora 19 comes with a Developers Assistant tool that helps make writing code easier. The tool comes with templates, samples and toolchains for a variety of languages.

And! 3D modeling and printing are supported with OpenSCAD, Skeinforge, SFACT, and more. Included in the installation software is MariaDB that offers a truly open MySQL implementation – this is now the default option for Fedora. Overall, Fedora is stable, has good configure tools and is very secure. The downs? Terrible installation and desktop environments besides GNOME are kind of lacking.

Mandrivia 4

Mandriva, formerly Mandrake Linux, can be used for standard desktop use (your average computer user) through to the advanced developer. Mandriva really wanted to make it easy for you to configure software, so it created the Mandriva Control Center. You’ll have things like MouseDrake to set up the mouse and DiskDrake to help you partition the hard drive. The latest version of Mandriva Linux supports KDE Plasma as a desktop. Other environments are available, but they are not supported. With installation you get a package manager called urpmi, it’s similar to Debian/Ubuntu’s apt-get.  If you want, you can install Mandriva via a live USB. Unfortunately, Mandriva distro’s are no longer free, you can purchase Mandriva Class, CloudPulse or the Business Server online. Or, get new projects forked off of Mandriva, like OpenMandriva, or Mageia which we will discuss below.

Mageia

Like mentioned above, Mageia is the new Mandriva product, and it’s still free. It has three online repositories; the core, which includes packages with free open source software; the nonfree, which includes packages that are free-of-charge (it’s called nonfree because of some closed source packages) like, nVidia and ATI graphic card proprietary drivers, and firmware for various WiFi cards; and the tainted repository which has packages like multimedia codecs for playing audio/video files. As for the looks, the GUI uses the Oxygen theme, and has KDE, GNOME, LXDE, XFCE and Enlightment options for your desktop environments. This system ships with kernel 3.8.13.

Ubuntu

I know, we’ve talked about Ubuntu throughout the entire article and it’s made two of the four categories here already. Well, it’s back, again. Ubuntu is just that good. It’s great for multimedia, it’s great as a beginning Linux system, it’s great when it comes to stability and the software repository. You’ve got social networking integration, the enterprise cloud installer, full open source NVidia driver, and even an iPhone support system should you need it. It does not have the flexibility that a lot of veteran Linux users are looking for, but for everything else it really is an all-in-one distribution.

That’s a wrap

There’s a lot of information covered here, some of it may make sense to you, and some of it may sound like a foreign language. Just know that learning Linux is an adventure worth taking and finding your perfect distribution is a fun but taxing journey. You may find a distributor you enjoy but finding the right desktop environment or version could keep you in flux.

Learning how to operate Linux is a skill worth having. As you dig deeper into the way a computer operates and communicates you’ll become a better developer, tester, system admin, or user. This information is meant as a starting point for your research. Visit the websites of each distributor and do some digging. They are a wealth of information and typically the communities that support each of these distro’s are there to help you when you need it. Use the forums as a tool to ask questions and find out what the experts think. Don’t forget to check the website to find out if your system meets the requirements for installation. Now that you’re on your way to getting a Linux distro, learn how to Master the Linux Command Line so you can spend more time playing with your new system!