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10 Best Linux Distros for 2011
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10 Best Linux Distros for 2011
November 08, 2011, 03:12:44 AM »
How to choose the best Linux distro for you
Hardware compatibility, ease of use, the size of a software repository. These three attributes are unique to each Linux distribution. But at the same time, each Linux distribution is at liberty to take and mix whatever it wants from any other.
This creates a rather unique situation, where good ideas quickly spread, and bad ones fail. And as a result, there are dozens of distribution updates each month, hundreds each year, in a race to leap-frog each other in the race to the top of the DistroWatch.com charts.
This is why the answer to the question of which distribution is best for you changes with the tides, and why we're keen to keep on top of distribution developments.
What follows are our recommendations, updated for this year, and split by typical users. Try them yourself. They're all free.
1. The best distro for beginners:
We must admit that despite Ubuntu's ubiquity, it has only just managed to hold on to the top-spot as the best distro for beginners. This is because the latest release will feel unfamiliar to anyone from a Windows, Gnome 2 or KDE background, although Mac users might feel more at home than most.
This is due to the Ubuntu team replacing the old desktop with something it calls Unity - a slick and accelerated full-screen interface that allows you to switch quickly between applications and find your files. Except that this first release has some stability issues and if your graphics hardware isn't up to the job, the fall-back to an older desktop creates unnecessary confusion.
But there are two reasons why Ubuntu is still a fantastic choice for beginners - hardware compatibility and ease of installation. Stick the disc in the drive, answer a few easy questions, and you'll find yourself at the desktop in no time at all.
And as long as it works, Ubuntu developers still know how to make a desktop look good. Unity is a new way of using a desktop, but it's also a brave move to try and do something different, whether that's the drag and drop files onto applications feature or the way applications can be installed from the global search pane.
Ubuntu still offers one of the best looking default desktops, an unparalleled software repository, easy installation of proprietary software like Flash and Nvidia drivers, and incorporates one of the largest and most accessible communities on the internet. It's still a winner. But we can't say for how long.
Summary: Easy installation, a massive package repository and a dedicated user community help keep Ubuntu a great choice for newcomers. But Unity is going to cause problems.
2. The best distro for experts:
The Fedora distribution takes a trail-blazing, no compromise, approach to free software. It offers many of the same advantages of Ubuntu like excellent hardware support, a refined desktop and great package choice, with some of the core-philosophy ideals that have helped make Linux such as a success.
The best example of this is the latest release. Fedora 15 is the first major distribution to ship with the new Gnome environment - Gnome Shell. Like Ubuntu's Unity, Shell is an attempt to change people's expectations of what a Linux desktop should look and feel like. It does this using a similar approach to Unity, complete with animated transitions, launch bar and application launcher, but it's a shame that the two projects couldn't work together, as they both suffer from poor stability.
As a result, it's not an ideal distribution if you're looking for proprietary and closed software. MP3 codecs, Adobe Flash and Nvidia drivers are not easy to install, and get even less easier with each new release. Instead, you'll want to stick with the open source alternatives provided by Fedora.
Fortunately, Fedora is still a distribution you can make your own. Creating a development environment is easy, for example, and the locations used by shared libraries, configuration files and kernel headers strictly adhere to long established standards.
This means that with Fedora 15 you get the best of both worlds: the cutting edge world of Gnome Shell, straight from installation CD, and a completely customisable, standard and reliable environment from which you can build your perfect distribution.
Summary: Still the result of a fusion between a noble cause and an uncompromisingly corporate business plan.
3. The best distro for customisation:
Despite being around for a while, it's only over the last twelve months that Arch's popularity has surged, now making it one of the most popular Linux distributions available. This is perhaps surprising because Arch is definitely not a distribution for the unprepared.
Installation, for instance, is a text-based menu that does little to help you partition your drive, configure a wireless device, install packages or even set up a default user. Even after installation has finished, you'll need to grab and configure your own graphical environment as well as add any applications you're likely to need.
But the end result is worth it. You'll have a Linux installation that's running only what you need, and you'll have learnt a great deal about how it runs in the process. This is mostly thanks to the Arch Wiki, a sprawling and well-written information repository that can be used to enable even a Linux beginner to install the operating system.
Arch's package management is also worth a mention. There's no big distribution upgrade every six months. Instead, packages are updated as and when they're released, always giving you the very latest version of everything you install. And there's a mass of packages to chose from, including a bursting repository of user generated packages that are compiled as you install them.
The end result is a cutting edge distribution that's fast, configurable and built entirely to your own requirements.
Summary: A distribution that brings back some of that old Linux pioneering spirit.
4. The best distro for older hardware:
Puppy Linux 5.2.5
Linux's great strength is its flexibility. It runs on everything from mobile phones to spaceships.
As a result, it's extremely good at scaling, and makes a good choice for older hardware. Unlike some other operating systems, you won't have to resort to running older versions either. There are plenty of distributions that will take the latest software, the latest kernel and the latest drivers, and build them into a distribution tailored for older bits of kit.
The best we've found is Puppy. It's a diminutive, yet fully functional, operating system that runs from your system's memory for extra speed. Just burn the 128MB ISO to a CD and boot. What's most impressive about Puppy is that while it may only be running from RAM, it still writes your changes back to the spare space on your CD or DVD boot media, getting the most from both possible worlds.
But the best thing about version 5 is that it now uses the same package repository as Ubuntu. This gives you immediate access to thousands of the most popular packages and means that, while your installation may start small, it's likely to grow into the perfect fit for whatever hardware combination you're using.
Summary: Pull out that old machine from the loft, Puppy Linux will turn it into a fully fledged 2011 Linux powerhouse.
5. The best distro for your desktop:
Linux Mint 11
Things have changed in the Linux distro hierarchy. With Ubuntu's switch to Unity and Fedora to Gnome Shell, there's now room for a first class distribution built around the old familiar Gnome environment.
Which is why Linux Mint 11 is doing so well, despite its continual changes to the default options of the old desktop. Gnome's top-bar is still gone, for instance, leaving the lower status window as the only screen ornamentation. And the launch menu gets the same treatment, replacing Gnome's trio of 'Applications', 'Places' and 'Administration' with the singular Mint Menu.
Version 11 is another solid upgrade, adding a new-look software manager and many other artistic improvements. If you use a lot of applications and come from a Windows background, Mint offers a great version of the Gnome 2 desktop, and unlike Unity or Gnome Shell, won't require any mental re-adjusting.
Alongside Ubuntu's prodigious packages, Mint includes quite a few of its own. And there's still eye candy, thanks to Compiz and the desktop setting panel embedded within a custom Control Center application that's growing with each release. The end result is a distribution that stands on the shoulders of giants to become one of the best contenders for your desktop.
Summary: If you don't like Gnome Shell and Unity, this is one of the the best Gnome 2.x experiences you can have.
10 best Linux distros for 2011
Updated: How to choose the best Linux distro for you
Operating systems News
By Graham Morrison
June 16th | Tell us what you think [ 15 comments ]
6. The best distro for netbooks:
As we're now in the thick of another age of cloud computing, it's only fair that we look at a Linux distribution that's closer to the cloud than most. Jolicloud is an unusual distribution because it manages to bridge the gap between local applications and those online by creating its own desktop interface.
It does this by linking your local user account to one on Jolicloud's servers, which are then used to manage your applications and data though Dropbox and Google Docs. You can install word processors, media tools like VLC, games and many other applications, many of which already have a cloud basis. But you don't notice.
The desktop is cleverly designed to hide the custom browser when it's running so that you can't easily tell the difference between editing a Google doc online, for example, or using OpenOffice.org Writer.
Jolicloud saves its best trick for when you're travelling without a netbook. Your desktop can still be accessed online, even without your machine being on. Our favourite method is through a Google Chrome extension that turns Jolicloud into an app within your browser.
Log into this with your account details, and you'll get almost the same suite of applications and data you get on your netbook. There are differences, but it's still a massively useful addition, making Jolicloud a unique take on a Linux distribution.
Summary: Jolicloud 1.2 gives you access to your desktop wherever you are.
7. The best distro for sys admins:
Debian has become the paternal grandfather of the Linux new wave. Ubuntu, originally based on Debian, has inherited many of its strengths, including its package format, its breadth of packages, configuration files and locations.
And as a result, so has Ubuntu's own derivatives, including Mint, Crunchbang and gOS. This gives Debian a great advantage. It's already going to feel familiar to millions of people who have never used it. And for that reason, it's the perfect choice for system administrators who have used one of its derivatives.
But there's another, more important, reason. Major version Debian releases are generally years apart, and the software that makes the final cut has been tested to the point of destruction. Version 6 took a little longer than planned, but was finally released in February. It builds on what is already the perfect platform for your own tools, utilities and solutions, and enables you to install almost anything you need through the package manager. A task that Fedora can't quite compete with.
Debian might not have the commercial backing of Fedora, but it's still enviably secure, bundling SELinux, the latest X server and desktops, and a new found ability to run as a Live CD, which is perfect for ad-hoc troubleshooting.
Summary: Part-named after the founder's girlfriend, Debian has matured into a stable, sensible and sober distribution for discerning Linux users.
8. The best distro for the office:
This is only distribution in our list to use the KDE desktop by default, and OpenSuse has chosen KDE for a good reason: the desktop is likely to feel most familiar in an office environment.
KDE is often likened to Windows, and now that both Gnome and Ubuntu have taken big steps away from the old-fashioned desktop metaphor, it's likely that KDE will become a stronger alternative for those who still want windows, icons, menus and pointers.
But there's some added complexity now that Novell is no longer independent and it's too early to say how committed Attachmate, its new owners, are to a Linux distribution - although each new release is still on schedule. But if your office systems are critical to your success, OpenSuse has both the pedigree and the functionality you'll need.
It also helps that Novell and Attachmate still make a significant contribution to open source, especially now that OpenOffice.org is no longer relevant and LibreOffice has taken its place. However, at the same time, Attachmate reportedly laid-off its Mono developers in May, and while this project continues under new management, it's not clear what that might mean for the future of its inclusion in OpenSUSE.
Either way, OpenSUSE is still a great distribution for an office environment, with excellent commercial support if you need it.
Summary: Thanks to strong links with Microsoft, OpenSUSE is still a great option if your office needs to work with Office.
9. The best distro for servers:
Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is almost untouchable in the business market. It's one of the most profitable and well supported areas of the Linux ecosystem, and as you might expect, it's expensive. It's only available if you're willing to pay for the service, support and upgrades, at prices that put it out of reach of cash-strapped upstarts.
But RHEL is still open source, and while the binary packages might not be available, the source code for those packages has to be. Which is where CentOS comes in. It takes the source code and rebuilds RHEL in its own image, feature for feature, for each release. It gets close enough to be almost 100% compatible with third-party RHEL packages, and is the best choice for many online projects that can't stretch to a supported RHEL contract.
Version 5.5 was released in May, less than two months after the equivalent RHEL release. You get the same packages, the same fixes, the same Gnome desktop and applications. The only thing missing is support, but the CentOS community is very active, and always more than happy to help, making CentOS the only option for real-world critical performance at almost no cost.
Summary: The only real difference between CentOS and RHEL is the logo and desktop themes.
(we know this isn't strictly Linux, but it's a brilliant BSD distribution)
10. The best distro for multimedia:
Ubuntu Studio 11.04
Linux has thousands of creative software titles, but the average distribution isn't always the best platform to use them. This is especially true of music software, which needs a specially configured kernel and a specific configuration of audio drivers to work at its best. Adjusting your everyday distribution to accommodate those changes isn't easy, which is why there are plenty of distributions that attempt to do the job for you.
The best is Ubuntu Studio. It's designed for music and audio, but you can install anything from the standard Ubuntu repositories. Thanks to the realtime kernel, audio latency is low, and you shouldn't have any problems running resource heavy applications like The Gimp loading a large image.
You won't have to hunt around for the best software either, as the developers have chosen the cream of creative applications to install by default, including audio, video and graphics editors and a customised desktop.
The latest version, for example, is a 1.5GB DVD image, rather than the CD size of Ubuntu, and installation from this can save you a lot of time. But the best thing about this distribution is that it includes a working 'Jack' configuration, a low-latency audio layer that can transform your Linux desktop into a virtual recording studio. A task that isn't very straightforward without a little help.
Summary: Forget the complexity of building a working music studio yourself. Just run Ubuntu Studio and start recording.
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