What’s the best Linux distro? We’ve brought our famous in-depth testing to the world of Linux to find out. Whether you’re looking for a Windows replacement or just want to goof around with something new, there’s something for everyone here.
This guide was first published in May 2016.
What is Linux?
When it comes to computer operating systems, you really have two choices: Windows or Linux. Sure, there’s MacOS, but that’s a hardware as well as a software buying choice.
We have nothing against Windows. It can be annoying, certainly, and Windows 10 still feels like there’s a bit missing, but over the years we’ve found it to be easy to install and reliable.
However, many of us here have a soft spot for Linux. Windows, while useful, just isn’t interesting. It’s a tool. Linux, on the other hand, comes in a thousand different varieties, all with their own advantages, quirks and frustrations.
Related: Best laptops to buy in 2017
You can run one distribution, or distro, become bored of it and stick on another – all without spending a penny. Most of the time you can even try out a Linux distro without touching your hard disk, since Linux will run “live” from a USB stick.
Linux has the capability to make computing interesting again, which makes it perfect for those who see their operating system as a hobby. Almost every aspect of a Linux operating system can be tweaked and configured, so you can make your OS the perfect fit for your needs.
However, there’s more to Linux than simply messing around with config files. It’s generally faster than Windows, so can make a modern desktop PC or laptop run with great alacrity; it doesn’t suffer from virus infections; and some Linux distros are lightweight enough to give an older system, grinding away under Windows XP or Vista, a new lease of life.
Here are some of our favourite Linux distros for various situations. All these distros have been thoroughly tested to see if they’ll work out of the box with the minimum of fiddling: Linux may be well suited to hobbyists, but we certainly wouldn’t want to spend hours trying to get a networking adapter or graphics card to work.
For an easy way to try out the following distros – without harming what’s currently installed on your PC – grab a 4GB or larger USB stick and use the magic tool at pendrivelinux.com to create a live Linux OS.
1 of 6
Best Linux distro for a modern PC or laptop
- Easy installation
- Looks professional
- Simple to find new programs
The most popular Linux distribution may seem like an obvious choice for a modern PC. In fact, our first choice was the Ubuntu-compatible Linux Mint Cinnamon, since it has a more traditional desktop and would better suit those coming from Windows (it’s also arguably prettier than Ubuntu).
However, for all its charms, Mint just isn’t as polished as Ubuntu. We tried for hours to get it working on an AMD-based desktop PC, but trying to get a 4K monitor set up at its native resolution was beyond us; we needed the proprietary AMD drivers, but these would just stop the PC booting.
Ubuntu, on the other hand, just worked. Both our test desktop PC and laptop booted from a live USB stick without issue, and the desktop PC could display the desktop in all its 3,840 x 1,440 glory. Ubuntu even scales properly to this resolution, with text and icons all in proportion.
Indeed, we found no need to install the proprietary AMD drivers for my graphics card. Ubuntu’s transparency effects and window animations all performed smoothly, and we could enjoy some retro 3D gaming with the OpenArena Quake 3 clone. Even the desktop PC’s wireless adapter worked fine once we’d enabled it in Settings > Software & Updates > Additional Drivers.
So far so good. However, those coming from Windows – or indeed a Linux distro with a more traditional desktop such as KDE – may be taken aback by Ubuntu’s Unity desktop, with its launcher stuck on the left of the screen.
Fear not, however. The launcher is simply a dock that displays applications you’ve chosen to pin to the launcher, running programs and any devices – such as USB drives – that are plugged in.
There’s even a Start button of sorts. This shows any applications you haven’t pinned to the launcher, as well as recently opened files, and has a search box. Ubuntu’s search no longer lists results from Amazon, to the annoyance of a number of people.
By default Ubuntu comes with the Firefox web browser and LibreOffice, both of which fit in with the operating system’s look. You install new software packages via the Ubuntu Software application, which breaks things down neatly into categories and sub-categories, such as Office > Project Management.
As a result, you’re unlikely to be overwhelmed with thousands of open-source programs, and don’t have to know the name of an application in order to install it; both charges one can level at other Linux distributions.
The Settings menu is equally easy to navigate, and we’re fans of Ubuntu’s window management. Dragging a window to the top or side of the desktop will maximise it or snap it to fill half the screen, and a smooth animated transparency effect shows you what the window will look like before you commit.
There are other graphical effects for minimising and maximising windows, and these are attractive without being flashy. In general, this is an operating system that stays out of your way, which is how it should be.
Our chief gripe with this version of Linux is that’s it isn’t particularly customisable. For example, the window minimise, maximise and close buttons are on the left of each window, as in OS X, rather than the right, as they are Windows and most Linux distributions – and there’s no way to change this. Likewise, the only way to move the launcher is to install a program called Unity Tweak Tool, and even then it can only be moved to the bottom of the screen.
However, this is the price you pay for a professional-looking distribution that works out of the box. Out of all the Linux distros we tried, Ubuntu is the one that gave us the least trouble: if you don’t want to spend hours fiddling and just need to use the applications on your PC, Ubuntu is the distro for you.
2 of 6
Best portable Linux distro
- Incredibly fast
Porteus is a Linux distribution intended to be run entirely from a USB stick, with no need to install it to a hard disk. Although many Linux distributions can perform this trick – running in “live” mode – Porteus is specifically designed to run extremely quickly from USB and to make it easy to store all your files, programs and settings directly on the USB stick.
The distribution is highly customisable, as shown from the moment you click the Download button at porteus.org. This takes you to a build wizard, where you can select 32- or 64-bit versions, choose one of four desktops (KDE, LXQt, MATE or XFCE – more on those below), set your administrator passwords and specify which browser, office suite or VoIP client you want, if any.
You can have a fully functional Linux desktop in as little as 134MB, or 200MB with the Firefox browser, and just over 300MB with Firefox and LibreOffice. This means you can turn that 512MB USB flash drive you have lying around into a full PC-on-a-stick (minus the actual hardware).
Once you’ve negotiated a slightly confusing CAPTCHA to prove you’re not a machine, you can go ahead and download your custom Porteus disk image. You can then use the Pendrive Linux installer from pendrivelinux.com to put this on a USB stick, set your BIOS to boot from USB and away you go.
The initial menu gives you three ways to load the OS: you can boot keeping the changes you made from the last time you loaded Porteus; boot “fresh” with everything set to its defaults; or boot fresh but copy the entire OS to RAM first.
If you’re going to work solely in the cloud, using Google Docs for all your word processing and spreadsheets, copying to RAM is the way to go. This makes an already fast operating system absurdly quick; Windows, even on a SSD, feels sluggish by comparison. Even if you don’t copy the OS to RAM, you’ll still be on the desktop in a matter of seconds, and programs start up in a snap. This is by far the fastest USB operating system we’ve used – it’s just so responsive.
If you want to save the changes you’ve made to the OS, which can cover anything from wireless passwords to the desktop background you select, you need to jump through a few hoops. First, you need to use the Porteus save file manager to create a Save file on your boot USB. You then need to edit the CFG file in /boot/syslinux to point to this save file.
Following a reboot, the OS will save any changes you make, and files you save to the Home directory will be available next time you boot Porteus. It’s fiddly, certainly, but it isn’t Linux unless you have to edit a config file to make something work, right?
The strangest part of Porteus, however, has to be the way it handles software installs. Like most Linux distros, it uses a package manager to download and install applications, but you then have the option of compressing all the download files into a Porteus “module”. If you then want this application to be available when you reboot, you need to copy the module into the /porteus/modules directory on your USB stick.
It’s odd, and we’d rather more of the save file creation/application installation process was automated, but it certainly works. Our chief problem with the software management system was finding applications in the first place. The Unified Slackware Package Manager, or USM, just isn’t as slick as the package managers we’ve seen on distributions such as Linux Mint and Ubuntu.
For a start, there isn’t a way to browse applications by category, so you can’t find a list of image editors or web browsers. Typing “browser” into the keywords box simply returns a “too many results” error, which isn’t helpful, and the USM then refuses to return any more results until you restart it. You need to know the name of the program you want to install, such as “GIMP” or “LibreOffice”, and even then you’ll encounter lots of confusing dialog boxes asking you to select from multiple locations for various packages.
Adding new applications is, therefore, a pain, but we weren’t actually too fazed by this. Chrome and LibreOffice were installed anyway in the Porteus build we made, and once we’d installed the GIMP image editor, we didn’t need anything else.
This let us discover what Porteus was like to use for everyday tasks. Generally, it’s great. The OS is fast, plays Full HD video, has no problem with YouTube, and generally looks attractive and professional.
The KDE desktop feels the most finished, but is also the most resource-heavy, taking up 2GB of RAM. MATE and XFCE both look good and are lightweight, taking up around 500MB of RAM with no other applications running. LXQt looks fairly retro but is incredibly fast and takes up only 328MB of RAM, and so is a good bet for older computers.
We were impressed by Porteus. It has its quirks, but is a seriously clever operating system that’s astonishingly fast, even when run from a cheap unbranded USB stick.
If you just want to boot into a simple operating system to use a web browser, and maybe occasionally LibreOffice, it’s fantastic. However, the package manager is a huge faff, so don’t expect to use this OS to explore the wealth of free Linux software available.
3 of 6
Best Linux distro for old PCs and laptops
- Simple interface
There are plenty of lightweight Linux distros available for netbooks. Lubuntu and Xubuntu are popular, as is the XFCE version of Linux Mint. In fact, Mint was our first choice, since it looks good and comes with all the software you need to play MP3s and Flash video as standard; Ubuntu-based distros are more fussy when it comes to using non-free software.
However, Mint XFCE ran surprisingly slowly on our test 2010 netbook, which has 1GB of RAM and a 1.6GHz Atom processor, and we had trouble with the netbook’s graphics under the Ubuntu-based operating systems.
For this reason we went for a rather more left-field choice, in Point Linux. This OS is based on Debian, which is a mature Linux distribution with a large library of available software. It uses the MATE desktop – probably the most no-nonsense Linux desktop of them all.
In fact, “no-nonsense” sums up Point Linux. There’s nothing fancy about it at all – it just works, and works very quickly on modest hardware. Where the supposedly lightweight XFCE Mint chugged on our test laptop, Point Linux flies responded quickly to your every input.
The desktop won’t win any beauty contests, but it’s incredibly clean. It has a simple-to-understand application menu with all the programs most will need already installed, from Firefox to LibreOffice to Thunderbird for email.
If there’s anything else you need, you can install extra applications with the Synaptic package manager. While distros such as Mint and Ubuntu have their own fancy software centres, Synaptic is a back-to-basics, no-frills interface that’s nonetheless easy to navigate. Software packages are organised into categories, and Synaptic simply downloads and installs everything you need to make an application run.
I did have one serious problem with my netbook; although the wired network adapter would work fine, often when I connected to a wireless network the laptop would crash. This was the same across several Linux distros, and it seems to be a problem with the Atheros AR9285 chipset in the Samsung N140 netbook.
I tried Point Linux in other laptops, and the Wi-Fi worked beautifully, so we don’t think it’s the fault of the distro. Even though the Samsung’s Wi-Fi chipset is meant to be supported in the Linux Kernel, so should work across multiple distros, it’s widely considered to cause problems. We tried for many hours to stop the crashes, but all in vain; If you have a netbook with this chipset, beware, since its built-in Wi-Fi is unlikely to work smoothly with any version of Linux.
This aside, the trickiest part of our time with Point Linux was the installation, which requires some knowledge of partitions. There’s no button to just “wipe hard disk and install” as in Ubuntu, so you need to use the partition manager to delete and create partitions, then format in a Linux file system and assign one partition as “/” (root) and one as swap space.
It’s easier than it sounds, and once Point Linux is installed, the unintrusive Update Manager will keep the system up to date. This isn’t a distro to wow Windows or Mac users with its beautiful design, but all is forgiven when your old, underpowered laptop has its mojo back.
4 of 6
Best Linux distro for privacy
- Live system
- Anonymous browsing
It’s pretty obvious that whatever you do online, you’re being tracked. All those adverts that follow you around the web, asking you to buy the jumper or microwave you already bought five minutes ago, are evidence enough.
Things may become even worse if Theresa May gets her Snooper’s Charter through Parliament, since this will effectively allow the government to see exactly which websites you’ve visited and at what time.
You don’t have to be an elite hacker wearing a black hoodie or a paid-up member of the tinfoil-hat brigade to find this worrying, but help is at hand. The Tor service helps anonymise your web surfing by pinging your traffic through relays all over the world, run by volunteers to help maintain the network. The government will have a hard time tracing a website request back to you through all the relays, so your privacy is, if not guaranteed, at least a little better guarded.
To further safeguard your privacy, you can use a live USB system for your surfing, so there’s no chance of any traces being left on your PC. The Tor project website itself recommends the Tails Linux distro, but this hated our test laptop’s graphics to such a degree that it pretty much flat-out told us it wasn’t going to work.
For this reason we switched to the JonDo/Tor-Secure-Live-DVD (JonDo) – a Debian-based distro with Tor installed and ready to run. Making the USB stick was simple enough using the USB creator at pendrivelinux.com – we just selected “Try Unlisted Linux ISO”, and our new JonDo stick booted first time.
Considering it’s dealing with a fairly specialist computing task, JonDo is remarkably friendly. It’s an XFCE desktop, with a taskbar, a simple Applications menu and comprehensible Settings application. It runs quickly, too. There’s a full suite of applications, from GIMP for image editing to LibreOffice to Pidgin instant messaging and Skype. We;re not sure why there are quite so many preinstalled apps, since this is a distro for anonymous web surfing rather than writing a thesis or organising photos, but they’re not doing any harm.
The distro wears its privacy credentials on its sleeve; at first bootup we were confronted with a black screen and thought the distro was broken, but it seems JonDo sets a laptop’s screen brightness to minimum on purpose, possibly so others can’t see that you’re mucking around with Tor. The taskbar is also set to auto-hide, so it’s trickier to see what minimised programs you have running – and there’s a link to a virtual keyboard on the desktop, to help stymie any nefarious keylogging programs.
Getting started couldn’t be easier. You just need to connect to the internet, run the Vidalia Tor GUI application, and you’ll be connected to the Tor network. After that, fire up the Firefox-based Tor browser, and you’re surfing anonymously. We found our IP address was detected as being somewhere in Virginia.
Using the Tor browser, I was also able to access sites blacklisted in the UK (see the Wikipedia entry) such as KickassTorrents, so things seemed to be working properly.
There were a couple of problems with the distro. First, the Tor browser is based on a version of Firefox from December 2015, and the automatic update fails (most likely as the system is running live). This could potentially be a security problem. Second, when you click on an application to load it, there’s no feedback, such as a spinning ball or hourglass. This means you can sometimes try to load the same program several times.
These are minor niggles, however. For a very simple way to get up and running on the Tor network, JonDo is hard to beat.
5 of 6
Polished if outdated Porteus alternative
- Self contained
- Polished desktop
- Clear documentation
Like Porteus, Slax is another operating system designed to run entirely from a USB stick. In fact, Porteus was originally based on Slax, as an effort to keep Slax more up to date.
We can understand why the Porteus developers wanted to hurry things along. Even though its website is recently updated, Slax hasn’t had a new version since 2013 – the developer is currently collecting feedback from users on what they want to see from Slax in the future.
This is a shame, since in its current form Slax is great. For a start, it’s simpler to set up than Porteus, and you can have the OS save any changes without having to mess around with configuration files. Simply download a ZIP file, extract a folder from the ZIP onto a USB drive, and run a batch file to make the USB drive bootable. You can then boot into Slax, and by default it will save any changes you make.
Slax looks friendlier than Porteus, too, thanks to its clean KDE-based desktop and comprehensive PDF manual sitting on the desktop. It isn’t as snappy, however. By default the OS runs from your USB drive, and can feel rather sluggish.
You can speed things up by setting Copy to RAM in the boot options, but this means the OS won’t remember the changes you make between boots, so you’ll need to start from scratch each time. Even if you do copy Slax to RAM, it doesn’t feel anywhere near as fast as Porteus.
We experienced some difficulty getting our test laptop’s wireless card to work. Eventually we realised that by default Slax comes with a stripped-down Linux kernel that doesn’t contain the full set of drivers. Once we’d installed the Linux Firmware package from the Software Centre, everything worked fine.
Slax deals with software you add in a similar way to Porteus. Applications are combined into single modules, which are then activated as the OS loads. You can install these modules by downloading them from the Slax website and putting them manually in slax/modules, or use the Software Centre or command line.
It’s generally much easier than Porteus’ approach, but we still ran into problems. Downloading packages from the Slax menu (such as LibreOffice) and putting them in the modules folder manually meant they didn’t appear in the Applications menu, even though we could run them from the command line. The graphical Slax Software Centre contains only five programs and feels like a work in progress.
In the end, we found that the best way was to use the Linux Terminal. Here you can use the “slax search” command to find software for your needs, then “slax activate” to download and install it. For instance, typing “slax search image editor” brings up a long list of software, and typing “slax activate gimp-legacy” will install a Slax-compatible version of Gimp.
We found this last method worked perfectly. The main problem is how out-of-date some of the software is. For example, the latest version of Firefox available is 45, which is a year old. The latest version of Gimp is 2.6, which came out in 2008. Many of the packages seem to be maintained by a single volunteer, which may explain the delay in creating new versions (since Slax itself is in a development hiatus, he probably doesn’t feel much urgency).
This is a shame, as in many ways Slax is more polished than Porteus, if nowhere near as fast. It’s one to keep an eye on – hopefully development will kick in again soon.
6 of 6
Open source and Windows compatible
- Works with some Windows programs
- Easy setup
- Very fast
ReactOS is a noble attempt to bring users the best of everything: an operating system that looks and feels like Windows and runs all the same programs, but one that’s free and open source too. Wary of how Microsoft might react, the developers are at pains to stress that the OS isn’t a Windows clone; it’s been written from scratch.
The project is very much in alpha, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get it to run on a physical PC. ReactOS is most closely related to Windows Server 2003, so if your PC was designed to run Server 2003 or XP, it may well work. We tried installing it on a netbook and a Centrino-based laptop, and couldn’t get much beyond the first installation screen.
A better idea is to use a virtual machine (VM). This means you can have a Linux distro such as Ubuntu installed, then use a ReactOS VM to run Windows software. We installed ReactOS on VirtualBox running under Ubuntu, using the guide at reactos.org.
Once we’d created the VM, the ReactOS setup process was straightforward. The installer looks just like that of Windows XP, and using a VM means you don’t have to mess around with partitions – just select the entire virtual disk as a target and away you go.
The installation process takes only a couple of minutes, after which you’re presented with a desktop that looks rather like Windows 2000, and the familiar early-2000s Windows experience; namely, a hardware installation wizard for your (virtual) sound card that fails to find any drivers.
To fix this, fire up the ReactOS Applications Manager. This looks a little like a Linux software manager, and contains links to Windows software that’s known to work with ReactOS. There’s no Linux-style automatic installation here, though: you download the installer and run it, just as in Windows.
In the case of the sound driver, we had to download a self-extracting ZIP file, extract it to c:ReactOS, go to Device Manager, right-click on the broken audio device, select Update driver software, then tell the wizard to search the ReactOS folder. Following a reboot, we had sound. So very Windows.
VirtualBox’s Guest Additions installed without a hitch, and this provided access to higher screen resolutions (ReactOS looks good at 1,600 x 1,200) and shared folders. Designating a folder on the host PC as a share means it will show up in ReactOS’ My Network Places, so you can swap files between ReactOS and your main machine.
ReactOS is as simple to use as Windows 2000 or XP, with the Start bar and menu behaving as you’d expect, and the file system organised in classic Windows fashion. It’s fast, too.
We were, of course, itching to see how it would cope with some Windows programs from the Applications Manager. Firefox 45 installed and ran without a hitch, but image-heavy websites were full of rendering errors. PowerPoint Viewer installed and ran, but crashed the whole system when we tried to open a sample presentation.
There was some success, however. Office 2003 installed properly and appeared to work fine; but Word crashed on saving, and Excel had a blinking black blob moving at random around a worksheet. LibreOffice 5 installed, but took forever to load and had broken icons. Only 7-Zip appeared to work perfectly.
In fact, this was our main problem with ReactOS: the programs that currently work with it are either directly available for Linux, such as Firefox and LibreOffice, or, like 7-Zip, have plenty of Linux equivalents.
If you have an urgent need to run a particular Windows package, such as Microsoft Office, you should instead try CrossOver Linux from Codeweavers. This runs Office 2007 almost perfectly, with almost no configuration required. If you’re determined to avoid using Windows as your OS and the program you need works with CrossOver, it’s worth the £38 licence.
As it stands, ReactOS is a fascinating project – but currently, it isn’t ready for everyday use, even in a VM. We’d still recommend giving it a go, though – it’s definitely one of the most ambitious OSes we’ve come across.