Thinking about trying Linux? There are so many Linux operating systems (called “distributions” or “distros”), and each offers different benefits.
With so many options available, it can be difficult to choose. What’s the best lightweight Linux operating system? What about a Linux distro for gaming? What if you just want one that’s pretty like macOS?
This curated list features only Linux distros that have seen significant activity (update or maintenance) throughout 2018 and 2019. We only recommend Linux distros that are safe to use and regularly updated with security patches.
Business Linux Distros
Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a commercial derivative of Fedora, designed with enterprise customers in mind. There are several variants and addons, and certification is available for both administrators and applications.
SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop is designed for business use and is enterprise-ready from installation, making it easy to work with a variety of office programs.
It’s flexible enough to run on many devices and reliable enough for critical systems. SUSE Linux Enterprise Server edition is also available.
Gaming Linux Distros
Various editions of SparkyLinux are available, but this game-focused one is probably the most useful. With an LXDE desktop and a host of preinstalled games, you’ll find Steam, PlayOnLinux, and Wine preinstalled.
That’s a vast library of free and premium games at your fingertips!
Gaming on Linux is becoming increasingly popular, and the OS has its own Steam client. However, you might prefer to simply install SteamOS.
One of the best Linux distros for gaming: SteamOS optimized for gaming performance with proprietary graphics and sound drivers built in, along with the Steam client.
General Purpose Linux Distros
Ubuntu is Debian-based and ships with GNOME as the default desktop environment. One of the most popular Linux operating systems around, Ubuntu improves with every release. The latest releases are designed for desktops, laptops, and hybrids. In short, if you’re switching from Windows or macOS, Ubuntu is probably the first OS you’ll try.
The openSUSE distribution is a general distro for Linux built by the openSUSE Project. It aims to be both a great beginner distro and something that appeals to experienced Linux users. openSUSE comes with YaST, an administration program that controls installations, package management, and more.
Fedora, sponsored by the IBM-owned Red Hat uses the GNOME desktop environment by default. Users can easily switch to KDE, Xfce, LXDE, MATE, and Cinnamon, among others. Custom variations of Fedora, known as Fedora spins, are available for users with specific requirements.
Debian is a long-established Linux distribution that comes with the GNOME desktop environment. However, it’s also available with the FreeBSD kernel, and work is in progress to support other kernels such as the Hurd.
Many other notable Linux distros are based on Debian. These include Ubuntu and Raspbian.
Slackware is a distro built specifically for security and simplicity, aiming to be the most UNIX-like Linux distribution. It’s particularly useful for server management, as it has FTP, email, and web servers available to use immediately.
Have you ever tried UNIX or managed a server? If not, try Slackware as a live disc (or as a virtual machine) to get to grips with it.
The French Mageia began as a community-driven, non-profit fork of Mandriva Linux, and features all the major desktop environments. KDE and GNOME are available as default desktops.
SparkyLinux evolved from the “testing” branch of Debian. The main edition comes with a customized version of the lightweight LXDE desktop, with other customized desktops available.
You can adapt Gentoo Linux to almost any requirement. Its versatility and performance are what make it one of the best Linux operating systems. Gentoo Linux also comes with an advanced package management system called Portage.
While this adaptability can cause problems for newcomers, Gentoo offers complete control of your computer.
CentOS (Community Enterprise Operating System) is a community rebuild of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Do you want to use an enterprise-standard distribution for free?
If you use Red Hat at work, it makes sense to use CentOS at home—from a user perspective, there is very little difference.
Lightweight Linux Distros
Based on Ubuntu LTS releases, Linux Lite is a minimal-footprint distro with a clean and simple Xfce desktop. It adopts a Windows-style Start menu, helping any Windows refugee feel right at home.
Linux Lite’s small resource footprint means that you can install it on a PC with a 700 MHz CPU and just 512MB of RAM. That’s what we call light! This makes it one of the best Linux distros for old computers or users looking to maximize laptop battery life.
Lubuntu is a lightweight distro based on Ubuntu that’s perfect for laptop usage. It uses the minimal desktop LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) and comes with lightweight applications designed for energy-efficiency and speed.
It’s great for most older computers, netbooks and mobile devices as it uses minimal RAM and has low system requirements.
If you’re looking for the best Linux operating system for laptop battery life, Lubuntu is a definite contender.
The Xubuntu derivative uses the Xfce desktop environment, making it an elegant and lightweight version of Ubuntu. It’s great for laptops and netbooks, as well as low-spec desktops.
Because it is light and uses few system resources, Xubuntu is perfect for older computers.
This is a fantastically small distribution that can be run entirely from RAM. This means Puppy Linux is great for older computers, even those without hard drives! It is also easy to use for malware removal.
Manjaro Linux is a fast, easy-to-use, lightweight distribution based on Arch Linux. It aims to give all the benefits of Arch Linux with more user-friendliness and accessibility, making it easier on newcomers. The Xfce desktop is the default, but other options are available.
Arch Linux is a distribution designed with experienced users in mind. This lightweight minimalist distribution aims to keep things simple and uses a rolling release model for updates.
Arch features a custom-made package manager called “Pacman,” which makes it easy to build, modify and share packages.
It might not be the best Linux distro for beginners, so we recommend waiting until you’ve gained some experience before giving it a shot.
Want to customize your Linux system? NuTyX is for you! Shipping barebones and bloatware-free, NuTyX lets you customize using the collection concept, where you’ll find a choice for everything you want to use. For example, you’ll find a selection of desktop environments or window managers to choose from.
The result is a user-determined Linux operating system with endless possibilities. It might be a versatile desktop, or a focused home theater.
This Ubuntu-based distribution comes with the lightweight and beautiful Enlightenment desktop. Bodhi is extremely customizable, with themes and apps readily available to expand on the light beginnings.
Multimedia Linux Distros
Save time installing artistic tools and applications to Fedora by simply installing this spin from the Fedora artistic design team. You’ll find tools like Inkscape and GIMP are among those preinstalled in this art-, illustration-, and DTP-focused distro.
First released in 2007, Ubuntu Studio is probably the default choice for Linux users with creative talents. With the inclusion of the Xfce desktop environment and low kernel latency, everything is geared towards media production.
While many other distros will serve you well, Ubuntu Studio might just be the best Linux distro for designers, music producers, photographers, and other creative users.
All the creative distros listed here offer a good mix of tools, and while KXStudio is no different, it focuses on audio production. Throw in the KDE desktop and you have a digital studio capable of considerable performance.
Linux Distros for Newbies
If you’re new to Linux and want to keep things simple, Endless OS might be the distro you’re looking for.
Intended for family use, Endless OS comes with 100 apps preinstalled, ideal if your system doesn’t have an internet connection. It’s also useful if you don’t know what Linux apps you need.
This prescribed approach might not be ideal for seasoned Linux users. However, if you’re coming to open source operating systems green, this is very useful. See our overview of Endless OS for more information about this simple operating system.
Linux Mint is an elegant, modern distro that is easy to use, yet powerful. Based on Ubuntu, Linux Mint is reliable and comes with one of the best software managers.
Mint has been the top-rated Linux operating system on DistroWatch since 2011, with many Windows and macOS refugees choosing it as their new desktop home.
Mint comes with a wide range of desktop options. You can have the default Cinnamon desktop, or with MATE, KDE, or Xfce (XForms Common Environment). Linux Mint Debian Edition, aimed at experienced Linux users, is also available.
This Ubuntu-based distro, packaged with the stylish Deepin Desktop Environment (DDE), is intended to appeal to newer Linux users. Simple and intuitive and featuring a great system settings panel displays, Deepin is clearly inspired by Apple’s macOS desktop.
Deepin also features an easy-to-use software center that’s far superior to similar tools in other distros. These factors make it one of the best Linux operating systems for migrating Mac users.
Pop!_OS is Linux hardware manufacturer System76 Ubuntu-based default operating system complete with the GNOME desktop. Offering its own desktop theme, the blue, brown and orange interface matches the System76 brand identity.
With its own app installation browser (Pop!_Shop), you’ll find it easy to install your preferred Linux apps on Pop!_OS. Although some apps don’t quite match the theme, this is an exciting Linux operating system. Bonus points go to System76 for producing a separate version for devices with Nvidia graphics.
Zorin OS is another distro designed specifically for Linux newcomers to ease the transition from other platforms. The Ubuntu-based distro features several apps that will be familiar to Windows users and makes it easy for users to run the Windows apps they still need.
The Zorin OS desktop can be configured to resemble Windows, macOS, or even Linux.
Yet another Ubuntu-based distro, Elementary OS has differentiated itself superbly since its emergence in 2013. It features beautiful, simple default apps that follow the OS’s aesthetic appeal, such as Mail for email, and the Epiphany web browser.
Elementary OS also features several useful Linux productivity apps. If you want something that evokes the look and feel of macOS, Elementary OS is a Linux operating system you should try.
One of the big problems of switching to Linux from Windows is the lack of app compatibility.
Several distros deal with this issue, but RoboLinux offers a better solution: an easy to set up Windows virtual machine. Windows XP and later can be set up in RoboLinux, avoiding the need to dual boot. This potentially gives you access to your favorite Windows applications whenever you need them.
Ubuntu has many derivatives. One popular option is Kubuntu, which uses the more traditional KDE desktop environment. Beneath this, it is essentially the same as Ubuntu and is released on the same schedule.
Raspberry Pi Linux Distros
The Raspberry Pi is a popular Linux machine, but the distros seen elsewhere in this list probably won’t work. This is due to the Pi using an ARM processor rather than an Intel or AMD 32-bit or 64-bit CPU.
As such, specialist distros have been developed for the Pi. Some of these are Pi-friendly versions of existing Linux operating systems, like those listed below. For more distros, see our list of operating systems for the Raspberry Pi.
The default operating system for the popular Raspberry Pi is the Debian-based Raspbian Stretch, produced by the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
This ARM distribution features a bunch of programming tools, such as Scratch, aimed at helping newbies get started with coding.
Raspbian includes the LXDE-based PIXEL desktop environment. It’s not the only option, but Raspbian might just be the best Linux operating system for Raspberry Pi.
Similar to Raspbian is Kano OS, with greater focus on coding, this time aimed at children. A more intuitive user interface provides all the tools a child needs to get coding with the minimum of fuss.
Running a project that requires a bare bones operating system? The answer is DietPi, an ultra-lightweight Debian-based OS for all models of the Raspberry Pi. It’s also available for several other single-board computers (or SBCs for short).
While Raspbian Stretch Lite is perhaps the go-to option for Pi users looking for a small footprint from their chosen OS, DietPi has several advantages, as outlined in this table.
Perhaps the key difference for many is the amount of space DietPi takes up on an SD card. To run Raspbian Stretch Lite you’ll need 2GB of storage; for DietPi, just 1GB.
Linux Distros for Security and Recovery
You probably know Linux is more secure than Windows, but the most secure Linux operating system is Qubes. Version 3.2 is currently available, calling itself “A reasonably secure operating system,” boasting testimonial from none other than Edward Snowden.
That name alone should tell you Qubes is one of the best Linux operating systems for security-conscious users.
With an onus on security, freedom, and integrated privacy features, virtualization enforces sandboxed isolation between apps and your hardware.
Formerly known as BackTrack, Kali Linux is a penetration-testing distro, widely used in the online security community. This Debian-based Linux distribution makes it easy to perform digital forensic tasks.
Parted Magic is essentially a disk management tool, with hard disk partitioning and copying as primary tools. It also makes it easy to perform data recovery and secure erasing.
GParted is a single-purpose distribution, intended to make it easy to partition hard drives using a graphical interface. Linux users will be familiar with the standard version that appears in many distributions.
This version is a standalone, dedicated OS, however, ready to run as a live CD. Need to perform some disk management without booting into your computer’s operating system? Use GParted.
A distribution revolving wholly around the concept of privacy and security. It is a live operating system you can use from a DVD, USB stick, or SD card so you can be safe using any computer and leave no trace of your activities.
All internet connections are routed through TOR (the Onion Router) for the best possible anonymity. Meanwhile, cryptographic tools are readily available to protect all your communication methods from prying eyes.
Bruce Schneier is a fan of TAILS, and that’s a big endorsement. It’s the best Linux operating system for users looking for highly portable and highly secure tools.
The Best Linux Operating System for You
With so many Linux operating systems to choose from, you’ll need a distro that does what you need. Fortunately, there are distros for pretty much every purpose. If you want a distro specifically for carrying around on a USB stick, we have rounded up a few of the best portable Linux distros for you.
Do you feel you should pay for open source software? If so, most Linux developers will happily accept a contribution to help maintain the operating system long term.