It’s time to crown the best of the best Linux desktop distributions for 2020. I’m going to say this up front: Chances are pretty good your distribution isn’t on this list. If not, there’s no need to fret. The very fact that you are using Linux on the desktop should be reward enough. Why? Because you are using an operating system that is superior in many ways. It may not be perfect (no operating system is), but it’s still Linux, which means you’re working with a desktop platform that’s flexible, reliable, and fun to use.
In the end, I have to claim a few of the vast number of distributions to be somehow above the rest. With the exception of a couple of distributions, this is never an easy task. And this year, it’s even harder because some of the usual candidates have fallen by the wayside. But who knows what next year will bring? Besides, the one thing you can count on with the Linux community is that they are always working hard to develop something new and impressive.
Such is the case with this year’s candidates. With that, let’s get on with the list. ‘
SEE: Linux service control commands (TechRepublic Premium)
No distribution is as regular as Ubuntu. Year after year, it not only just works, it never fails to impress, and Ubuntu 20.10 didn’t disappoint. Although this is a short term support release, I decided to add it over the most recent Long Term Support release because of GNOME 3.38. The most recent release of GNOME brought the desktop environment to a level of performance and reliability it had yet to experience. That’s saying something, given how reliable GNOME already was.
With the scale-aware sizing of the application grid, the ability to more easily reorganize the grid, better fingerprint reader support, high precision touchpad scrolling, and a cleaned up default theme, Ubuntu 20.10 is a remarkable desktop operating system. Like just about every year prior to 2020, Ubuntu is still one of the most user-friendly operating systems on the planet. With unrivaled hardware support and an ever-growing user base, you cannot go wrong with Ubuntu. Even though 20.10 doesn’t get support until 2026, by the time the next release arrives, you’ll be ready for the next iteration and still have a few months of support left.
Pop!_OS has been my distro of choice since I purchased my first System 76 desktop. When I migrated from the Leopard Extreme to a Thelio, that did not change. Why? Pop!_OS has the benefit of being based on Ubuntu Linux while adding just the right amount of System 76 goodness to make it really sing on the System 76 hardware. The Pop!_OS/Thelio (or any other System 76 system) combination is as close as you’ll get to the Apple ecosystem on Linux. I’m not comparing Pop!_OS to macOS, this is about the synergy of hardware and operating system.
That doesn’t mean you have to use Pop!_OS on System 76 hardware. This desktop operating system will perform well on any desktop or laptop–it’s just something very special on a System 76 machine. What is great about Pop!_OS 20.10 is that it refines a number of the pieces that were released in 20.04. One of the more important bits is the tiling extension they’ve added. If you’re a fan of tiling window managers, Pop!_OS gives you the best of both worlds. With the click of a button, you can switch between a regular GNOME desktop or a tiling version. It’s incredible. If you’re not a fan of tiling window managers, you don’t have to ever bother with it. Pop!_OS is a desktop distribution that anyone can immediately appreciate and enjoy.
It’s been a while since Fedora has made its way to this list for me, but now is the perfect time. Fedora 33 managed to make bland incredibly good. One of the biggest improvements Fedora made was to leave behind the aging ext3/4 file system in favor of Btrfs. With this new file system, users gain transparent compression and copy-on-write. Fedora has only added the core features for Btrfs, but more will come. Fedora 33 also makes the switch to systemd-resolved for DNS name resolution. That probably won’t affect many desktop users, but it’s an important change nonetheless.
Finally, Fedora 33 replaces the old swap partition with zRAM, which goes a long way to improving the performance of the system. With the addition of GNOME 3.38, Fedora makes the case that a release without much in the way of anything obviously shiny can still be absolutely fantastic. Whether you’re a long-time Fedora user or someone new to the distribution, there’s a lot to really like about this iteration (a lot that you probably won’t ever see or realize is there). It’s clean, it’s fast, and it’s as stable as any desktop you’ll use.
MX Linux (KDE Spin)
It’s been a long time since I’ve had a KDE-based desktop on my radar, but MX Linux (the KDE spin) changes that. Now that the KDE developers have done a remarkable job of shrugging off a lot of the weight from their desktop, it really performs well. In fact, this might be the first time I’ve compared KDE to the likes of Xfce and found it hard to tell the difference in performance–at least that’s the case with MX Linux.
This distribution is based on Debian Buster, so it’s already very stable and includes the Advanced Hardware Support, a repository that allows users to install such things as graphics stacks and firmware including updated mesa packages, xorg drivers, etc. One thing I really appreciate about MX Linux is that it hearkens back to the Linux of old which doesn’t “dumb down” the distribution. You can see signs of that even in the default file manager, where you can easily gain access to Root Actions. Add to this mix a very generous amount of KDE eye candy and MX Linux becomes something very special.
Manjaro is the distribution to make Arch Linux accessible to the masses. If you don’t quite appreciate the gravity of that statement, let me help you. The average computer user couldn’t install Arch Linux (at least not without a lot of hair pulling). Manjaro strips away that complexity and makes Arch Linux not only accessible, but really easy to install and use. Manjaro has done for Arch, what Ubuntu has accomplished for Linux–made it possible for anyone and everyone.
That bridging of the new user to the complicated isn’t the only reason Manjaro makes my list. Manjaro makes it possible–by way of Manjaro Architect–for users to select between a number of different desktops. With the help of the Architect spin, users can choose between GNOME, KDE, Xfce, Lxqt, Awesome, bspwm, Cinnamon, Deepin, i3, Lxde, or Mate. That’s right, you can easily get the Deepin desktop on an Arch Based distribution, which is beyond amazing. The one caveat is that Manjaro Architect (a text-based installer spin) isn’t for the average user, but if you’re up for a bit of a challenge, Manjaro Architect will create the perfect Linux distribution for you.
And there you have it, my best Linux desktop distribution list for 2020. It’s probably not exactly what you were expecting, but with Linux you should expect the unexpected.
Except when you’re using the operating system–then you should always expect the expected.
If you’ve not already, give one or more of these flavors of Linux a go. You won’t regret your choice. And remember, just because your favorite distribution isn’t found here, doesn’t mean it’s not worth mentioning.
Subscribe to TechRepublic’s How To Make Tech Work on YouTube for all the latest tech advice for business pros from Jack Wallen.