Linux Distros: Which One Should You Choose?

Linux comes in so many different flavors that you quickly don't know where to start. That's a shame, because the power of Linux is precisely that it has a lot to offer for every type of user or PC. Whether you're looking for a secure system that you can safely bank on, breathe new life into an old PC or get the most out of your powerful hardware, there's a distro for every scenario and we'll help you on your way.

When we talk about Linux, most think of an operating system, as is Windows. But Linux is actually the name of the kernel, the "under the hood" part that handles communication with the hardware and manages processes and files.

While in Windows all parts of the operating system are developed by Microsoft, it is different with Linux: one group of developers creates the kernel, others create a graphical shell, still others create all kinds of applications, and so on. And then there are companies or groups that bring all that software together and make it a working whole: an operating system that we then call a Linux distribution.

There are thousands of Linux distributions, each differing in the choices the developers made: the software they included, the default configuration, with only well-tested or very experimental software, and much more. In this decision aid, we present some typical scenarios and discuss some distributions that are very suitable for that situation.

For beginners: Ubuntu

Ubuntu is the Linux distribution for beginners because it is the most well-known distribution and because the company behind it, Canonical, focuses specifically on user-friendliness. The name Ubuntu comes from an African concept that means something like “being human for others”. It is clear: you as a user are central to Ubuntu. You'll notice this in everything from the slick installer to the extensive collection of preinstalled software and the beautiful user interface called GNOME. In addition, many vendors of proprietary software (see box 'Opensource vs. Proprietary') offer their programs for Ubuntu first. Also interesting about Ubuntu is that there is an LTS (Long-term support) version every two years, for which you get security updates for five years. This way you don't have to do a major upgrade for a long time if you keep up with the updates. The latest LTS version is Ubuntu 18.04 LTS 'Bionic Beaver', which will be supported until April 2023.

open source vs. proprietary

Open source is a term invented to get rid of the stigma of "free" in free software ("free software"). Both terms mean roughly the same thing, but with a slightly different approach. The essence of the overarching idea is easiest to explain in terms of the four essential freedoms of free software. A program is free software if the user can (1) run the program for any purpose, (2) study how the program works and change it, (3) distribute copies, and (4) also make copies of its changed version. to spread. For the second and fourth freedom you need access to the source code. Proprietary software is the opposite: the user does not have these freedoms and usually does not have access to the source code. Free software is therefore really different from freeware.

For Beginners: Linux Mint

Linux Mint has consistently been the most popular Linux distribution in the pagehit rankings list of the website for several years now. Linux Mint offers various desktop environments (see box 'Desktop environment'), of which Cinnamon and MATE are the most popular editions. They are both environments that look quite classic, especially MATE. They are therefore easy to understand for beginners. Linux Mint has gained a large following during the period when Ubuntu traded GNOME for its own desktop environment Unity. Last year, Ubuntu reversed that step and the difference between Ubuntu and Linux Mint isn't that big anymore.

Linux Mint has also been criticized after the website was hacked for not being fully secure. It's a small development team and security seems like a neglected child. So far, however, that hasn't caused any major problems in the distro itself, thanks in part to the secure Ubuntu base.

Desktop Environment

The most visible part of a Linux distribution is the desktop environment. It draws the windows of programs on your screen, lets you interact with them via the mouse and keyboard, takes care of the menus, notification icons and so on. While Windows has the desktop environment built in, you can easily exchange it for another in Linux. Everything will then look different, but underlying you will continue to work with the same software and Linux kernel. Most Linux distributions choose a standard desktop environment or offer some editions with a different desktop environment. Two different distributions with the same desktop environment may look very similar at first glance, but be completely different under the hood. On the other hand, two editions of a distribution with a different desktop environment may look completely different, but work identically under that superficial layer. You certainly do not have to make your choice for a distribution based on the standard desktop environment.

Advanced: Fedora

Fedora is perhaps the most innovative general purpose Linux distribution. This one is almost always the first to contain novelties in the Linux world. For example, it was a forerunner with systemd and Wayland. It is therefore the ideal distribution if you want to participate and if you like to experiment with the latest technologies. Red Hat sees Fedora as the testing ground on which to build the more stable Red Hat Enterprise Linux for businesses. By the way, Fedora is the distribution that Linus Torvalds, the maker of the Linux kernel, works with on a daily basis.

On the other hand, Fedora doesn't hold you by the hand. You gain access to powerful possibilities, but you are responsible for what goes wrong. And when you try out the latest technologies that have not yet been extensively tested, every now and then something goes wrong. But generally, Fedora is a safe and stable distribution in everyday use. The default desktop environment is GNOME.

Advanced: openSUSE

OpenSUSE is to SUSE Linux Enterprise what Fedora is to Red Hat Enterprise Linux. OpenSUSE is also fairly progressive. Slightly less than Fedora in general, except for the Btrfs file system. OpenSUSE offers Snapper a powerful snapshot tool for Btrfs, allowing you to take snapshots down to file level and easily restore them.

OpenSUSE is best known for its powerful management tool YaST (Yet another Setup Tool). It exists in both a graphical variant and a command-line version. And it doesn't even get upset if you also manually edit the underlying configuration files with a text editor. With YaST, almost everything on your system can be customized.

For a stable and slightly more conservative version of openSUSE, choose openSUSE Leap. If you want to try the latest, install openSUSE Tumbleweed, where you always get the latest updates. The preferred desktop environment of openSUSE is KDE Plasma, which also offers extensive options for customizing the interface to your needs.

For an old PC: Bodhi Linux

Many Linux distributions are no longer suitable for older PCs, because they take up too much of the processor and RAM. But there's nothing inherently heavy about Linux: those are the choices the distribution makers make to provide an easy-to-use and powerful distribution. Bodhi Linux is a distribution that takes a very different approach. With a processor at 500 MHz, 128 MB of ram and 4 GB of space on your hard drive, you already have enough. If you double those specifications, you can even work very comfortably with the distribution. Bodhi Linux is based on an LTS version of Ubuntu and comes with the minimum required software after installation. You then install your favorite software or lightweight alternatives yourself.

Despite its focus on older PCs, Bodhi Linux looks quite handsome. It works with the desktop environment Moksha, a fork (see box 'Fork') of the well-known Enlightenment E17. It has all kinds of bling bling, without committing a heavy attack on your PC. Ideal for giving an old PC a second life.


The four freedoms of free software (see the "Open Source vs. Proprietary" box) allow you to modify open source software and distribute that modified version yourself. We call such a modified version a fork. This often happens when a group of developers disagrees with the original developers of the software or wants to go in a completely different direction. For example, was forked to LibreOffice to get the office suite out of Oracle's grasp and Frank Karlitschek forked ownCloud (his own project, of course) to Nextcloud because he no longer agreed with the course the company (founded by himself) was taking. began to sail around the cloud storage system. Many Linux distributions are forks of an existing distribution. For example, Linux Mint and Bodhi are Linux forks of Ubuntu, which in turn is a fork of Debian GNU/Linux.

For extra security: Tails

If for some reason anonymity is very important, then you cannot ignore Tails (The Amnesic Incognito Live System). This is a live Linux distribution, so you boot from a USB stick and leave no traces on your computer. After your session, even the ram is wiped before the distribution shuts down your PC. Whistleblower Edward Snowden used Tails to outsmart the NSA.

Tails' trademark is that it redirects all network connections you make through the Tor anonymization network. As a result, websites you visit do not see your IP address, but that of a random Tor server. The Tor Browser, a browser based on Firefox, also takes all kinds of measures to guarantee your privacy: advertisements are removed with uBlock Origin, with NoScript you choose which JavaScript you run, with HTTPS Everywhere you automatically surf to the https version of a website if there is one and so on.

For extra security: Qubes OS

Qubes OS is described on the project website as “a reasonably secure operating system”, we can safely call that an understatement. It's one of the most secure operating systems out there because it isolates different aspects of your computer usage from each other. It does this by creating different 'domains' (for example, private, work, banking) and running software per domain in a different virtual machine. If someone has hacked into your computer via an exploit in your email client, it is trapped in your private domain. This means that they cannot install malware in the domain of your banking. Hardware such as the network card and USB controller are also separated into separate domains.

All of this is also possible in another Linux distribution, or even Windows, by booting different virtual machines. But Qubes OS makes the whole process transparent and easy to use. This way you get a border in a specific color per domain around a window of a program.

For gamers: SteamOS

SteamOS is Valve's operating system that it created for its Steam Machine game console. It is based on Debian GNU/Linux and is designed to run normal PC hardware games. You don't need to buy a Steam Machine: you can also install SteamOS on your own hardware. The minimum requirements are a 64-bit processor from Intel or AMD, 4 GB RAM, 200 GB hard disk space and a graphics card from Intel, Nvidia (Fermi or newer) or AMD (Radeon 8500 or newer).

You buy your games from the Steam store and play them on your PC with SteamOS. You connect that PC to your television screen. The Steam games must of course support Linux, but fortunately that is the case with more and more Steam games. It is also possible to stream games from your Windows, Mac or Linux PC to SteamOS. SteamOS is still in beta by the way.

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