A remarkable number of Linux operating systems (distributions, or “distros”) are available, each offering different benefits. The proliferation options makes it difficult to choose at times. What’s the best lightweight Linux operating system? What about a Linux distro for gaming? Perhaps a multimedia-focused option?
They’re all available.
We’ve compiled this regularly updated list of the best Linux operating systems available. Use the menu below to find a Linux distribution to suit your specific needs.
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. It’s even one of the best Linux operating systems for the Raspberry Pi!
There are lots of desktop environments available for Ubuntu. Unity (available via Yunit) and MATE are two popular options. Meanwhile, the Ubuntu Touch platform lives on thanks to UBports.com, which maintains the smartphone version of Ubuntu. This includes the Convergence software, which enables you to turn your smartphone into a PC via a wireless HDMI dongle.
Ubuntu has many derivatives. One popular option is Kubuntu, which uses the KDE desktop environment. Beneath this, it is essentially the same as Ubuntu and is released on the same schedule.
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 the vast majority of 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 one of the best system settings panel displays of any distro, 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 Mac users.
Released by Linux hardware manufacturer System76 as their default operating system, Pop!_OS is based on Ubuntu, complete with the GNOME desktop. Offering its own theme, the blue, brown and orange interface matches the System76 brand identity.
With its own app installation browser (Pop!_Shop, based on ElementaryOS’s AppCenter), you’ll find it easy to install the software you want to run on Pop!_OS. Although some apps don’t quite match the theme, this is an exciting operating system that we really took to when we tried it out. Bonus points go to System76 for producing a separate version for devices with NVidia graphics.
PCLinuxOS is designed with regular PC users in mind, and features the KDE Plasma Desktop by default. This distribution makes it easy to install drivers, get Office software, edit photos, get online, and start using multimedia.
As you might have guessed from the name, PCLinuxOS is an attempt to bridge the gap between Windows and Linux operating systems. It even includes a Windowsesque Start menu! If you’re looking to make the switch from Windows to Linux, this is likely the best Linux distro to use.
Based on Ubuntu LTS releases, Linux Lite is a minimal-footprint distro with a clean and simple Xfce desktop. This distro also adopts a Windows-style Start menu, helping a Windows switcher 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 512 MB 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.
Zorin OS is another distro designed specifically for newcomers to Linux and easing the transition from Windows. 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.
Zorin OS 9 looks a lot like Windows 7, simply to win some new Linux converts from those leaving Windows behind.
Yet another Ubuntu-based distro, Elementary OS has differentiated itself superbly since the release of Elementary OS Luna. It features beautiful, simple default apps that follow the OS’s aesthetic appeal, such as Geary for email, Midori web browser, Maya calendar, Totem movie player, and the Noise music player.
Do you feel you should pay for open source software? If so, the Elementary OS developers will happily accept a contribution to help maintain the operating system long term. If you want something that evokes the look and feel of macOS, Elementary OS is a Linux operating system you should 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 uses the GNOME desktop environment by default, but 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 particular needs.
Debian is an older 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. Debian prides itself on coming preloaded with over 37,500 packages and simple utilities that make it easy to get more.
Korora was originally based on Gentoo Linux, and evolved with the aim of making Linux easy for newcomers, but also useful for experts. It comes with a choice of desktop environments, including the Cinnamon, GNOME, KDE, MATE, and Xfce desktops.
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, you should try Slackware first as a live disc (or in a virtual machine) before you install it on your PC’s hard disk drive.
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 is a distribution that has 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.
This adaptability can cause problems for newcomers, however. Our look at installing Gentoo should help.
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.
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. If you’re concerned about Canonical’s treatment of Ubuntu recently, don’t worry. Ubuntu Studio 17.04 Zesty Zapus was released in early 2017.
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 of 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.
If animation, 3D modeling, compositing, digital painting, and image editing are your preferred multimedia techniques, you need Iro. Without a vast library of tools for every eventuality, Iro instead provides a focused group of apps. Add in the stripped-back user interface, and you have a distro that can install and get to work with without the fuss.
Still in alpha, Iro is also portable, and can be run from USB or DVD. It aims to be the best Linux operating system for digital artists, and there’s a good chance it will succeed.
Edubuntu has been created (thanks to an Ubuntu partnership) to be as easy as possible for teachers to set up, and for kids of all ages to use. It comes pre-packaged with all the best free software for education.
Uberstudent is a distribution specifically designed for tertiary and advanced secondary students. It comes pre-packaged with software that makes it easy to do assignments and manage tasks.
The default operating system for the popular Raspberry Pi is Raspbian Stretch, produced in-house at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, and based on Debian. This ARM distribution features a bunch of programming tools, such as Scratch, aimed at helping newbies get started with coding.
Since October 2016, Raspbian has shipped with PIXEL, a new lightweight desktop environment. It’s certainly not the only option, but Raspbian, might just be the best Linux operating system for Raspberry Pi.
Similar to Raspbian is Kano OS, also built on Debian, but with greater focus on coding, this time for children. Here, a more intuitive user interface provides all of the tools a child needs to get coding with the minimum of fuss.
What if you’re running a project that requires the very bare bones of an 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 spare; for DietPi, just 1GB.
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.
Xubuntu is an Ubuntu derivative that uses the Xfce desktop environment, making it elegant and lightweight. It’s great for laptops and netbooks as well as desktops. Because it is light and uses few system resources, Xubuntu is perfect for older computers.
Puppy Linux is a fantastically small distribution that can be run entirely from RAM. This means Puppy Linux is great for older computers, even 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. It 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.
Shipping barebones and bloatware-free, NuTyX is aimed at Linux users who wish to carefully customize their system. It does this via the collection concept, in which 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. NuTyX also embraces the “Linux from Scratch” philosophy, and provides instructions to help you built a customized Linux experience.
The end result is a user-determined Linux operating system that fulfills the role you set out. It might be a versatile desktop, or a focused home theater. With NuTyX, the possibilities are endless! Find out more in our dedicated look at NuTyX.
Tiny Core Linux is an extremely light, modular distribution noted specifically for its small size (currently 15 MB). It is built on the Linux kernel and uses BusyBox and FLTK (Fast, Light Toolkit).
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.
Gaming on Linux is becoming increasingly popular, and while you can easily install the Linux version of the Steam digital download service on Ubuntu, you might prefer to go all-out and install Steam OS. This is one of the best Linux distros for gaming: it’s optimized for gaming performance with proprietary graphics and sound drivers built in, along with the Steam client.
Steam OS is the distro used on the Steam Machines, so if you’re building your own, you’ll want this.
Giving you the ability to play almost 6,000 games, the Ubuntu Game Pack comes with Steam built in, along with PlayOnLinux and Wine for Windows games. This is based on Ubuntu 14.04, and is a great choice if you want to install your new OS and start gaming right away!
Shipping with a vast collection of open source games for Linux built in, this is a gaming-centric spin of Fedora. Covering different genres such as arcade, sports, strategy, adventure, action, and more, the full games list details just what you can expect.
A 3.8 GB distribution, it can be installed on your HDD or run as a live disk.
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!
We all know Linux is more secure than Windows, but if you’re looking for a particularly secure Linux operating system, look no further than Qubes. Version 3.2 is currently available, calling itself “A reasonably secure operating system,” and boasts a testimonial from none other than Edward Snowden.
If it’s endorsed by Edward Snowden, you know it’s one of the best Linux operating systems for security-conscious users.
The onus in Qubes is on security, freedom, and integrated privacy features. Far from being the only Linux distro focused on security, however, Qubes takes a different approach. Virtualization is employed to enforce isolation between apps and your hardware, the ultimate in sandboxing. We looked at Qubes 3.2 in 2017 and were very impressed.
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, designed 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.
TAILS is a distribution that revolves 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, and 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.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a commercial derivative of Fedora, designed with enterprise customers in mind. There are a number of 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, but is reliable enough for extremely critical processes. SUSE Linux Enterprise Server edition is also available.
The Best Linux Operating System Depends on Your Needs
This is just a snapshot of the top Linux distros currently available. Choosing the best flavor for your own use depends on what you need. Are you looking for the best distro for beginners? Or do you need a distro for developers? As with any type of program, the best Linux operating system depends on your needs.
We’re literally just scratching the surface of what’s out there, so why not tell us about your favorite Linux distribution and why you love it?