The 5 best Linux desktop distributions

Jack Wallen lays out his top five desktop distributions, each of which would be a great choice to serve as any users' desktop.

The five best Linux desktop distributions Jack Wallen lays out his top five desktop distributions, each of which would be a great choice to serve as any users' desktop.

To some, Linux simply has too many distributions. With thousands of variations on the theme, it can be overwhelming to users looking to find a valid desktop operating system. This becomes even more complex when you remember that it's not just about the underlying platform, but the desktop interface, the package manager, and more.

For quite some time I have championed choosing a single default distribution to serve as the standard bearer for Linux. Until that happens, it can be a chore for new users to find a solid platform in which to land.

To that end, I selected the top five desktop distributions found within the Linux community. For a distribution to make my list it must:

  • Have everything working out of the box.
  • Have a user-friendly interface.
  • Include a solid app store.
  • Be regularly updated.
  • Have a shallow learning curve.

SEE: System update policy template download (Tech Pro Research)

With that said, let's find out which distributions made the list.

Ubuntu Linux

No list of best desktop Linux distributions is complete without Ubuntu. Considering that most of the distributions on these types of lists are based on Ubuntu, it should go without saying it belongs. But that's not the only reason. In fact, one of the primary reasons I opt to place Ubuntu on top of the pile is due to what the developers have done with the GNOME desktop. Instead of sticking with the default interface, they blended a bit of the old Unity flavor into the desktop (Figure A), thereby taking an already user-friendly environment and improving it to the point where its usage is an absolute no-brainer.

Figure A

Figure A: The default Ubuntu desktop is as elegant as it is simple to use.

Of every distribution on the market, Ubuntu makes the most sense to serve as the standard bearer for Linux. That's how good this operating system is.

Elementary OS

For years, Elementary OS was my desktop distribution of choice. In fact, had it not been for purchasing a new System76 Thelio, Elementary would still be on my desktop. What makes this flavor of Linux so special? The developers and designers did a remarkable job of putting together a version of desktop Linux that gives macOS a run for its money (Figure B). It's simple, elegant, and rock solid.

Figure B

Figure B: The Elementary OS Pantheon desktop.

And although Elementary OS does default to a bare minimum of applications, it includes its own app store, where users can install the usual plethora of applications. If you're familiar with Windows, macOS, or any flavor of Linux, you'll feel at home with Elementary OS.

Pop!_OS

Pop!_OS was created by System76, to serve as a perfect companion for their outstanding hardware. The description of Pop!_OS might seem a bit off-putting to new users, as it may seem like this operating system is geared more toward developers and scientists. Although both user groups would do well using this distribution, Pop!_OS makes any type of user feel at home. Pop!_OS leans heavily on a fairly straightforward GNOME interface (Figure C), but it does make use of one of the cleanest GNOME themes you'll ever find. On top of the clean theme, Pop!_OS renders fonts better than any Linux distribution on the market. Period. Hands down. That, alone, is worth the price of entry.

Figure C

Figure C: The System76 GNOME theme is tops.

After using Pop!_OS for roughly three months, I can attest it is as stable and user-friendly an operating system as I have ever worked with.

Linux Mint

Although there is a sense of unease brewing with Linux Mint (See: The Linux Desktop Is In Trouble), there is no way to deny its place in the desktop hierarchy. With the default Cinnamon desktop, Mint has become one of the most popular distributions in the Linux market. Linux Mint is the desktop Linux you use when you don't want to go full-on modern (Figure D) but still want something decidedly more user-friendly than the likes of the Xfce desktop.

Figure D

Figure D: The Linux Mint Cinnamon desktop.

You'll find the standard desktop menu at the ready, so you can easily access the bevy of installed applications. And if it's not installed, you'll find it in the Software Manager, ready to be added.

Deepin

Deepin is one of the most beautiful desktop distributions on the market. But don't be fooled into thinking Deepin is just a pretty face. This desktop distribution is as easy to use as it is beautiful. The default desktop (Figure E) lays out a simple dock where you can open the launcher (to view the totality of installed applications) or gain access to favorite apps with a single click.

Figure E

Figure E: The default Deepin desktop.

One thing the Deepin developers have done differently is to add a side panel to house all of the configuration options, as well as notifications. And for those new to Deepin, you'll find an outstanding video that illustrates how the Deepin desktop is used. More desktop distributions would do well to include such an addition to the experience.

Take your pick

There you have it: Five Linux desktop distributions that would each serve you very well. It doesn't matter what your purpose if you're looking for an outstanding desktop experience, any one of these Linux flavors would be a great choice.

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Image: Jack Wallen

By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.