A Linux distribution on the desktop is an amalgam of the tortoise and the little train that could. Ever so slowly, it continues to move onward and upward, ticking away the market share percentages by a tenth of a point at a time. No matter how slow that journey is, the developers of each distribution will keep going until their version of Linux has finally become accepted by the masses—at which point, one Linux distro will rule them all. Until then, the Linux community will continue to enjoy numerous distributions, ready to take over your desktop. But of those hundreds (nay, thousands) of desktops available, which are the best Linux desktop distributions?
After using all flavors of Linux distributions, including Red Hat, Zorin OS, Kali Linux Debian, CentOS, and more, for over 20 years, I’ve pretty much seen every type of distribution possible. That much exposure to a specific operating system makes it rather easy to come up with a list of which Linux desktop distributions are the best. And with that in mind, this is my list of Linux distributions that are best suited for overall usage. Remember, this is for the desktop, so server distributions like Red Hat Enterprise Linux, CentOS, Kali Linux, and SUSE Linux aren’t in the mix.
elementary OS is a lightweight Linux distro at the very top of my “most recommended” list. Why? Two reasons. First, there isn’t a more elegant and clean desktop on the market. Period. The developers and designers of elementary OS have done a remarkable job of creating a desktop that anyone can use, regardless of skill level. From your child to your grandmother, they can all hop onto elementary OS and feel instantly at home—this is one of the few Linux distributions that requires zero learning curve. The second reason is the app store. Although elementary OS comes with a scant few applications pre-installed, the distribution includes one of the finest app stores on the market, so installation of the apps you need to work and play is just a quick click away. Along with the simplicity of the app store, what the elementary team is doing to get developers paid for their work is commendable. elementary OS is based on Ubuntu (which is based on Debian), so this distribution of Linux also enjoys remarkable stability, shares similar software repositories, is incredibly easy to install, has the same level of hardware recognition, and runs great on desktops or laptops.
Ubuntu has reigned at or near the top of every Linux desktop distribution list for as long as I can remember, and there are a number of reasons why. First off, Ubuntu is based on Debian, which is one of the most stable operating systems on the planet. Second, the designers and developers of Ubuntu have gone out of their way to tweak the GNOME interface to make this desktop environment user-friendly and efficient out of the box, so there’s very little need to add GNOME extensions—unless there’s a specific functionality you depend on. If KDE is your desktop environment of choice, you could always opt for Kubuntu. On the desktop, Ubuntu Linux needs very little tweaking to get this desktop distribution to do what you need; from hardware to software to codecs, everything just works. With Ubuntu, you’ll get a relatively new kernel when you install the operating system. And with the apt package manager ready to install any type of software you could want, you can’t go wrong. Ubuntu has proved over and over again that you can use Linux without ever touching the terminal window—that alone places Ubuntu at the top of nearly every “best overall desktop distribution” list.
Pop!_OS is the in-house distribution from System76. It’s based on Ubuntu, so this distribution already has the pedigree to jump to the front of the line. And with System76, you won’t find a single piece of hardware running Windows or macOS, so for open source purists, that’s a win. But Pop!_OS isn’t just a shiny wrapper over an already delicious confection—System76 adds a few extra bells and whistles into the mix to make Pop!_OS something special. First off, Pop!_OS is one of the few distributions that can game without much extra work. Services like Steam function with very little tweaking. And the performance of Pop!_OS—especially on System76 hardware—is unmatched. The choice of the GNOME user interface was a wise one on the part of System76. Although they do take a very vanilla approach to the desktop, it only takes the addition of a few choice GNOME extensions to make the desktop look and behave exactly as you want. Because Pop!_OS is based on Ubuntu, you’ll find this flavor of Linux shares many of the same repositories for software installation. And like any modern Linux distro, Pop!_OS is easy to install. Finally, System76 has added a simple way to update firmware, something very few distributions can claim. All of this combined makes for one incredible desktop experience.
Deepin uses the Deepin Desktop as the default user interface, which is often regarded as the most beautiful desktop on the market. In fact, no desktop even comes close to the beauty found on this flavor of Linux—not GNOME, KDE, Mate, Cinnamon… or any other desktop on any Linux distro. It was as if the Deepin developers took a Ubuntu foundation, layered on the GNOME desktop with some of the most-used extensions and then mixed in just the right bits from the macOS desktop to create the perfect ratio of function and form. Deepin also includes a good amount of software (sharing similar repositories to that of Ubuntu) to help you work and play. The one difference between Deepin and many other distributions of Linux is that Deepin opts for the WPS Office suite of tools over LibreOffice. The good news is WPS is an outstanding app that anyone could use with little to no learning curve. Deepin extends the elegance into the control panel in the form of a sidebar that makes it incredibly simple to configure every aspect of your desktop. Anyone searching for the best looking desktop on the market—one that also just works—would be hard-pressed to find a distro to best Deepin.
Manjaro is the only distribution on the list not based on Ubuntu, which is telling; Manjaro is an Arch-based distribution. Under normal circumstances I’d never place a flavor of desktop Linux based on Arch on a “best overall” list. Why? Generally speaking, Arch Linux isn’t for the average user, but Manjaro isn’t your average Arch-based distribution. Manjaro Linux is what happens when someone asks the question, “Is it possible to make Arch Linux user-friendly?” The answer to that question is “yes.” Manjaro offers a version with Xfce, GNOME, or KDE. You can also select which office suite you want (either LibreOffice or FreeOffice) during the installation of the OS. When new users first log in to the Manjaro desktop, they’ll be greeted by a welcome tool that offers plenty of help on getting started with the OS. And for those who enjoy a fairly traditional desktop, the Manjaro take on KDE is stellar. If you’re looking to kick the tires of Arch Linux, look no further than Manjaro—a distribution that proves even Arch Linux can be an outstanding option for the desktop.
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