We’re going to get a lot of flak for writing these words, but we’re not scared – Linux Voice drops ice cubes down the vest of fear. So here we go: you might be using the wrong Linux distribution. Or to put it more diplomatically, you might not be running the distro that’s best suited to you. “What a load of codswallop!”, you respond. “My distro does exactly what I need it to do. I’ve been using it for years and I’m happy with it.”
That’s great, but could it still do a lot more? Have you really tried all of the big-name distros in depth? Could there be another distro out there that’s better than yours in a key area such as security, performance or documentation? Is your distro really the best when you’re trying to convert newbies to Linux? It’s good to settle on a single distro and learn its ins-and-outs, but given the rapid pace of development in Linux, it’s always worth keeping your eyes open for something better.
With all these things in mind, we decided to look at the current state of play in the Linux distro world. We wanted to see which distros excel in certain important areas, to find out who’s leading the charge here in mid-late 2014.
In tests like these, it’s often possible to bundle certain distros together as they’re so closely related. In the Packages section, for instance, we look at Ubuntu and Mint together because they share the same repositories. In any case, we want to give you all the information you need to make an informed choice about the best distro for you. So if the one you’re currently using comes up tops in the categories important to you – congratulations! And if not, fire up VirtualBox and start exploring…
Best For Beginners
The ideal gateway into Linux for new users.
For beginners, two things are important. One is whether you can work out how to do something by yourself. The second is how easy is it to find a solution if you hit a problem.
For a long time, the standard distro for any beginner was Ubuntu. However, since the introduction of the Unity interface, it has become less popular. The non-traditional layout of the desktop could lead to beginners feeling unfamiliar, and the Launcher and scopes can take a little getting used to. People coming from Windows may also get confused by the way the window menu bar blends into the top menu bar.
The others distros we’ve looked at are all based on a traditional desktop, and the layout should be familiar to anyone who’s used a computer at any time in the last 20 years. They have a task bar along the bottom and an applications menu in the lower right-hand corner.
Mint is the most popular of these. Its two main flavours (Mate and Cinnamon) are sufficiently similar that we’ll consider them together. The last of the contenders in this category is Mageia.
Overall, we feel the KDE environment of Mageia is a bit too cluttered to be ideal for beginners, though it does have an important place. Both of the main Mint desktop environments (Cinnamon and Mate), are clean with unnecessary detail tucked away. It also looks really nice, which helps give a good first impression – no one wants their new operating system to look worse than their old one.
The biggest difference between Ubuntu and the others from a beginner’s point of view isn’t the interface, but the huge amount of help online in the form of tutorials, forum posts, and solutions to problems. If you get stuck on Ubuntu, you’re far more likely to find a solution online than if you’re using another flavour of Linux. Of course, an experienced user will know that if they have a problem on Mint or Zorin (another distro aimed specifically at new Linux users, with an interface designed to look and feel like Windows), they could look for a solution for Ubuntu and it would probably work. However, we can’t really expect a new user to know this.
Ultimately, we think that the amount of help available for Ubuntu outweighs the unfamiliar user interface. However, everyone is different, and any of these distros would make a good choice for beginners. We would recommend Mint (either version) for beginners who had trouble getting used to Unity, and Mint Mate edition for people with lower-powered hardware.
The Ubuntu Launcher does far more than a typical desktop menu. This can take a bit of getting used to, and has drawn criticism from privacy groups for its internet searching.
An attractive environment makes everything better.
This category is particularly contentious for two reasons. First, what is beauty, and who gets to define it? Second, since almost any distro can be made to look like almost any other distro, how do we decide which is the best looking? These are both valid questions, but we will crush them both with an authoritarian boot. Firstly, we know beauty when we see it, so we get to define it (if you don’t like that, start your own magazine). Secondly, we’ll look at each distro naked, straight after installing it.
Bodhi Linux is based on Enlightenment, which bills itself as the original eye-candy desktop environment. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Bodhi (and Enlightenment) is how many graphical treats it can supply with very little strain on the hardware. This makes it a good choice if you’re after a slick distro for a low-powered machine. However, some of the graphical niceties feel a bit like they’re there to show off, rather than to make using the desktop a more pleasing experience.
Lots of distros come with KDE, but default KDE is a bit lacklustre. OpenSUSE and Mageia do quite a good job of improving it, but they’re not in the top tier. Our favourite KDE flavour is Rosa Desktop Fresh. As soon as the desktop loads, you can see it’s not standard KDE. At the bottom of the screen, the RocketBar replaces the panel, but looks a lot nicer. Along with the usual icons and widgets, there’s a Downloads stackfolder that enables you to see the contents of ~/Downloads without having to open up the file manager. Simple Welcome takes the place of the KDE menu, and works a little like a souped-up Gnome Dash. All these enhancements mean it’s not the best distro if you prefer to use your own KDE configuration, but for people who want a good-looking distro on first boot, it’s great.
Mint Cinnamon does a good job of getting out of the way, while still being pleasing to the eye. It’s the least ostentatious of the environments we’ve looked at here, and this comes from having a clean desktop and a well-themed set of GTK widgets.
Pantheon – the desktop environment of Elementary OS – also uses GTK to provide a clean and elegant look. Elementary takes this approach further than Cinnamon, and the environment is stripped down to its bare essentials. Every icon feels like it’s been placed for a good reason, and every pixel tweaked to fit in perfectly.
All of these distros look good. However, Elementary OS does the best job of carrying its style through the wide range of apps that comprise it, and so we’re declaring it the best-looking desktop distro.
The clean, simple style of Elementary OS flows through the desktop and all of its included applications to make a beautiful computing environment.
Best for Packages
Which distribution has the most software?
Brace yourself for some controversial statistics. Counting the exact number of packages in a distribution can be tricky, and different distributions package up software in different ways. For instance: imagine you’ve got a program called FooApp that has support for 10 different languages for its interface. One distro might bundle everything together into a single package – whereas another may give each language its own package. Multiply this over thousands of programs with multi-language support, and it drastically changes the package counts between distros, even if they have the same number of applications.
Similarly, many programs support the use of plugins and extensions; again, these may be placed into the main package in some distros, or split out across dozens of extra packages in others. Quite a few distros make use of “virtual” packages, so installing, for example, the package xfce4 actually pulls in 20+ other packages. And some distros that provide long-term support include multiple versions of packages for maximum compatibility (eg older versions of SDL, SDL-mixer, SDL-image etc).
So the end result doesn’t necessarily reflect the range of software in a distro. Although it has twice the number of packages in its repositories, Debian doesn’t simply have twice as many standalone programs as OpenSUSE. But one thing is for sure: if you’re looking for a lesser-known or obscure piece of software, you’re more likely to find it in the distros with the high package counts. A big chunk of the programs in Arch and Debian are old and haven’t been updated in years, but they’re still being rebuilt to work with the latest distro versions.
Now, let’s talk about Arch Linux. We separated its package statistics into two parts here: one for the main distro (community, core, extra etc. repositories), and the other for AUR, the Arch User Repository. The latter is enormous and updated at a breakneck pace, but the packages are not in the “official” distribution (although they often end up there after extensive testing). Officially, Arch only had 6,836 packages at the time of writing – not actually that many, but that’s what you get if you stick to the main distro.
“But hang on”, you say, scratching your head. “I’ve just been to www.archlinux.org/packages, and it says there are 11,459 packages. What gives?” Well, that’s the total for i686 and x86_64 packages – there’s a lot of overlap. It’s unfair to count the packages for all architectures (otherwise Debian’s bar in the chart below would extend beyond the top of the page), so in the case of Arch and other distros, we chose the x86_64 and any/noarch repositories. Basically, the stats below show the number of packages you can install on an x86_64 box.
After all that a caveat: quality does not mean quantity. If you’re looking for a server box, packages of synthesizers, games etc aren’t going to be much use to you.
Best for documentation
When you need help, who you gonna call?
Quality is a lot more important than quantity when it comes to documentation. Over the years we’ve seen many free software projects that have reams of guides, tutorials and FAQs, but if the content is badly written, unorganised or out of date, it’s not much use. The same applies to distros: a short, concise and well-written guide is much more useful than poorly maintained scraps of information scattered around the web.
Debian’s official documentation is generally well crafted, but it suffers from a lack of centralisation. Go to www.debian.org/doc and you’ll see that there are plenty of resources, but it’s not clear where to start if you’re seeking help about a specific problem. Should you look at the FAQ? Or Debian Reference? Maybe the wiki has the answer… It gets a bit messy, but we have to give a mention to the separate Debian Administrator’s Handbook (http://debian-handbook.info). This is exactly what we’re looking for as end users and admins: everything you might need, in one place.
Ubuntu’s docs (https://help.ubuntu.com) are mainly focused on desktop end-users, with well categorised mini-guides to common tasks. The Server Guide has more advanced user material – but it’s not exhaustive. Plenty of other tips are scattered around the wiki at https://help.ubuntu.com/community, and there’s also
www.askbuntu.com, which is a good way for getting quick-fire responses to questions.
Many guides for Debian and Ubuntu apply to Mint, but the latter also has its own PDF installation guides in various languages: www.linuxmint.com/documentation.php. Some of the versions are very out-dated, however, missing the latest Mint releases.
Mageia, meanwhile, doesn’t really impress with its limited range of guides at
www.mageia.org/en/doc; there’s some information on the installer and control panel, presented in an unwelcoming fashion, but not much else on the wiki.
Back in the days of dial-up modem connections, SUSE Linux was our absolute favourite for documentation. You’d order a boxed set over the phone, and a few days later a hefty lump of Linux goodness would arrive at your door, containing three chunky manuals. It was bliss. Today, OpenSUSE still has an excellent set of documentation at http://doc.opensuse.org: the Startup guide (for regular end users), Reference (for administrators) and extra guides for security and virtualisation. There’s some overlap and we’d like to see them combined more effectively, but the information contained therein is clear and well presented.
Then we have Fedora and CentOS. The former, at http://docs.fedoraproject.org, is in a sorry state: you’re told to select a language and then Fedora version, and read the docs from there. Our test case was to find a guide to adding new user accounts – and for Fedora 20, it wasn’t there. Nothing. When we opened up the documentation list for Fedora 18, however, we saw the System Administrator’s Guide, which had the information we needed. So lots is either outdated or badly sorted – it’s hard to navigate and needs to be cleaned up.
CentOS doesn’t fare much better. The manuals at www.centos.org/docs don’t cover the last two major releases, while the wiki has some useful guides, but they’re scattered around and would be better organised into a single reference document. Of course, CentOS users can read the official Red Hat documentation at http://tinyurl.com/rheldocs, which is very thorough, straightforward, and polished. You can see the results of Red Hat paying people to work full-time on documentation.
Finally we come to Arch Linux, and we’ve saved the best until last here. Arch’s documentation is almost entirely provided on the distro’s wiki at https://wiki.archlinux.org, which has some of the most in-depth and detailed guides we’ve seen of any software project. The Beginner’s Guide is especially good, if a bit long-winded (but then, Arch is targeted at experienced Linux users). Then there’s the General Recommendations page, which is a superb one-stop-shop for all things administration: user management, packages, power management and so forth.
But what makes Arch our winner is this: for the large part, its information applies to other distros. In discussions on the web, we’ve seen users of Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora and other distros paste links to the Arch wiki, simply because its guides are so good.
Best for Security
The price of security is eternal vigilance.
There are lots of different aspects to security – enough for eight pages on its own. Your first step is to understand your own requirements. If your first priority is the security of your own data, for example, you would require a distribution that’s happy to encrypt your home folder or root partition and handle the complexity that that involves. You may also want to extend that requirement to easy integration of GnuPG into the default email client, or even making sure Firefox is pre-configured to always use HTTPS. But most importantly, security needs to be easy, because if you don’t understand what you’re doing, a bad configuration is worse than no configuration at all, because it gives you a false sense of security. This is the problem with Arch. It can be the quickest distribution to patch a vulnerability, and it makes an excellent server, but you need to know what you’re doing, because a mistake could be costly.
We have to give credit to Ubuntu here. It took the relatively brave step of moving its full-disk encryption option from behind the advanced settings in its installer to the forefront of the installation processes, giving many more users the opportunity to encrypt their data. For a distribution as user-friendly and as popular as Ubuntu, this was a brave move. Even the EFF was impressed.
Ubuntu also made a lot of noise when its shopping scope searches from the dash sent unencrypted data through its own servers to Amazon. Many of us had strong feelings about this, especially as there was no way of turning it off. But these problems have been mostly addressed, and while it’s still turned on by default, there’s a simple way of turning the shopping scope off. If you wanted to be certain, for course, we’d recommend using an Ubuntu derivative, but Ubuntu is still a good choice for easy, comprehensive encryption.
Booting Tails from a USB stick will keep your connections anonymous through the Tor network.
The other principal concern is online security. This always used to mean the pre-configuration of a firewall blocking external access to services running on your machine. This can still be important – you may only want a web server accessible on your LAN rather than across the internet, for instance. But it’s more important to worry about the services and applications you run. This is where most problems occur, and the recent Heartbleed bug in OpenSSL highlights this issue perfectly. It’s used by so many applications and services that many became vulnerable as soon as this bug was found, and consequently, the best distribution for security became the quickest distribution to patch the vulnerability.
But it’s not just speed of deployment that’s important, it’s the quality of any patches as well as the testing that goes into the original distribution. And for that reason we’d recommend a distribution with a proven track record of defending itself online. CentOS, for example, with its Red Hat provenance is rock solid, although it still requires some know-how.
However, if security and privacy are of the utmost importance, nothing can touch Tails, a distribution designed for anonymity and secure communication, so we’re putting that top of our list, followed by more pragmatic solutions that can be used more as day-to-day installations.
Nowadays it’s the case that in some ways, especially for desktop use, performance has plateaued. Multi-core CPU cycles, storage and memory are cheap, and most of us barely touch their limits. Your choice of distro normally has much more to do with package provision and the default desktop environment than whether it’s making best use of your hardware. And because that hardware is always so different from one user to the next, it’s almost impossible to provide a comparative metric that’s going to have any meaning.
Therefore, if you care about performance it’s because you need to get the best out of limited hardware, and we can, sort of, test for that. In a completely unscientific way, we installed six diffeent distros alongside Windows 8 on the same PC and onto the same (large) hard drive. This is a real working computer (3.3GHz Core i5 with 16GB RAM) with dozens of devices connected, so it was a good real-world test. It also meant that the test was unfair on some distributions, as they made a much better job of parsing the many USB devices than others while taking longer to load for their trouble. This is why Arch does well at boot time – we haven’t installed anything to make it do otherwise.
All of which is a long way of saying benchmarking and tests say very little about the performance you can expect on your own hardware, but there are three lessons we’ve learnt from these tests:
That makes Slacko Puppy our choice of distro if you need something to run on limited hardware. It’s also pretty addictive running it on fast hardware, as you suddenly realise the reason why the window isn’t moving immediately after you click it is because your desktop is drawing shadows and wobbly windows. Everything else suddenly feels sluggish.
But we also have to say that Lubuntu, the LXDE-based derivative, did remarkably well, which makes it our recommendation if you’re looking for modern fittings on a frugal desktop, and one that still looks fantastic. Our third place goes to Arch simply because it’s the easiest way to build your own minimal distribution for your own hardware, only installing exactly what you need.
We were looking for a distro that performs well in every area, and excellently in many, making it a good all-round distro. However this alone isn’t enough. It needs to have something that pushes it ahead of the competition – and the competition is getting better every year. It needs that certain X factor to make it stand out. It should be a distro people want to install; a distro that people get passionate about; a distro that makes you remember why you love Linux.
Arch Linux does all this and more. The two things that make it stand out aren’t fancy bits of software, or slick user interfaces, but its philosophy and its community. Arch is built around the simple principle that the user should control the system. Instead of fancy graphical tools to autoconfigure everything you need, it provides you with just the bare essentials you need to build your own system.
Just as a mountain climber becomes one with the raw mountain in order to climb it without technical assistance, and a surfer needs just a carved plank to harness the power of a wave, so a computer user needs just the basic tools that Arch Linux provides to get the most out of their system.
The community keep the documentation up to date, and build the Arch User Repository – one of the largest collections of software in the world.
All this doesn’t mean that we think everyone should stop here while they go and install Arch on every computer they have. While we think it’s the best Linux distro currently available, it’s not perfect for every situation. For example, Tails is still the best distro for online anonymity, and the cutting-edge nature of Arch means that only the bravest sysadmins will use it on public-facing servers.
There are hundreds of Linux distros for a reason, and that reason is the hundreds of different uses people have for Linux. It’s an endlessly flexible system, so there will never be just one form that is perfect for everyone.
That said, we think that Linux users should try Arch at least once. Even if you don’t fall in love with the distro, you’ll learn a lot about how Linux works, and get a better understanding of why other distros do the things they do. It’s not just for super-geeks – it’s a distro for the masses.