Are you searching for the best Linux distro (distribution) for your desktop computer or laptop to take you into 2021? This article will guide you to what I believe are the best Linux distros for beginner, experienced, and expert users. Whether you are a power user or just getting your feet wet, there are indeed specific Linux distros best suited for you.
Best Linux Distro 2021
My current best Linux distro (and window manager) = Manjaro i3.
The first rule to remember here is that there will be “the best Linux distro for me” (
Ubuntu 20.04 LTS Update: Manjaro i3) but also “the best Linux distro for you.” What you consider to be the best Linux Distro now will often change over time to match your experience level and other changing factors. This is why I update this post several times throughout each year.
With this in mind, let’s begin breaking down the hunt for your best Linux distro into three categories:
Beginner, Experienced, and Expert. (newly listed in green)
Best Linux Distros for Beginners
For users who want quick access to Linux and an extensive array of software/apps without having to use the command line. Or, maybe you seek an easy way to give Linux a try. For those users, I would recommend:
- Manjaro – a user-friendly, desktop-oriented operating system based on Arch Linux. Key features include an intuitive installation process, automatic hardware detection, stable rolling-release model, ability to install multiple kernels, special Bash scripts for managing graphics drivers, and extensive desktop configurability.
- Ubuntu – a complete desktop Linux operating system, freely available with the largest community support of any Distro. Ubuntu offers a beginner-friendly download page with large text, highlighting the most important things for new users, such as system requirements, live USB guide, and how to switch from Windows or Mac.
- Pop!_OS – another Ubuntu-based Linux distribution featuring a custom GNOME desktop. System76, a Linux computer retailer, develops this Linux distro. Pop!_OS makes this list because they have gone out of their way to ensure that this distro is beginner-friendly by offering 100’s of informative videos and a growing list of help articles.
- Linux Mint – a Ubuntu-based distribution whose goal is to provide a complete out-of-the-box experience by including browser plugins, media codecs, support for DVD playback, Java, and other components. It also adds custom desktop options and menus, several unique configuration tools, and a web-based package installation interface. Linux Mint is compatible with Ubuntu software repositories.
Best Linux Distros for Experienced users
The following distros are very similar to those above. However, the default install does not include as much bloat. This requires a bit more customization and research. This shouldn’t be difficult or frustrating, but instead satisfying.
- Fedora – (formerly Fedora Core) is a Linux distribution developed by the community-supported Fedora Project. An upstream source of the commercial Red Hat Enterprise Linux distribution. Fedora contains free and open-source license software packages and aims to be on the leading edge of technologies while working closely with upstream Linux communities. Fedora Project also distributes Fedora’s custom variations called Fedora ‘spins’ for gaming, security, design, scientific computing, robotics, etc. Fedora’s short version life cycle means that package updates are frequent. This may be scary to some or satisfying to others who enjoy using the latest software.
- Debian – Of course, the common thing that people want is application software. Debian gives you easy access to these without pre-installing them. Debian comes with over 60,000 packages (pre-compiled software that is bundled up in a friendly format for easy installation on your machine) – all of it free. Add some challenge, install Debian Testing or Debian SID.
- openSUSE – The openSUSE project has three main goals: make openSUSE the most accessible Linux for anyone to obtain and the most widely used Linux distribution; leverage open source collaboration to make openSUSE the world’s most usable Linux distribution and desktop environment for new and experienced Linux users; dramatically simplify and open the development and packaging processes to make openSUSE the platform of choice for Linux developers and software vendors. openSUSE also now offers the Tumbleweed rolling release distro.
- Solus – a relatively new Linux distribution built from scratch. Solus a very focused approach to desktop editions: Solus Bungie, Solus Gnome, Solus Plasma, and Solus Mate. That said, their Bungie Desktop has grown rapidly in popularity and is one of the best all-around desktop environments you’ll have the opportunity to boot into.
Notable mention: AntiX – a fast, lightweight, and easy-to-install Linux distro.
Best Linux Distros for Experts
The following distributions focus on being lightweight, simple, and yet far more flexible than most. Right from the install process, you’ll notice that these distros will only install what you explicitly command them to.
- Arch Linux – an independently developed Linux distribution targeted at competent Linux users. It uses pacman, its home-grown package manager, to update the latest software applications with full dependency tracking. Arch can be installed from a CD image or via an FTP server operating on a rolling release system. The default install provides a solid base that enables users to create a custom installation. The Arch Build System (ABS) also provides a way to easily build new packages, modify the configuration of stock packages, and share these packages with other users via the Arch Linux user repository. (used Arch for some time as well, see above screenshot)
- Gentoo – a versatile and fast Linux distribution geared towards developers and network professionals. Gentoo Linux has an advanced package management system called Portage. Unlike a binary software distribution, the source code is compiled locally according to the user’s preferences and is often optimized for the specific computer type. The name was chosen to reflect the potential speed improvements of machine-specific optimization, a major feature of Gentoo. Gentoo package management is designed to be modular, portable, easy to maintain, and flexible.
- Slackware – an advanced Linux operating system designed with the twin goals of ease of use and stability as top priorities. Including the latest popular software while retaining a sense of tradition, providing simplicity and ease of use alongside flexibility and power, Slackware brings the best of all worlds to the table. Originally developed in 1991, the UNIX-like Linux operating system now benefits from the contributions of millions of users and developers around the world. Slackware Linux provides new and experienced users alike with a fully-featured system, equipped to serve in any capacity from desktop workstation to machine-room server. Web, FTP, and email servers are ready to go out of the box, as are a wide selection of popular desktop environments. A full range of development tools, editors, and current libraries is included for users who wish to develop or compile additional software.
- Kali Linux stripped install – a Debian-based rolling release distribution without penetration testing tools. It features timely security updates, supports ARM architecture, a choice of four popular desktop environments, and seamless upgrades by way of rolling releases. Kali Linux is geared to meet the requirements of professional penetration testing and security auditing.
Due to the nature of security audits, Kali Linux, by default, will install with a “single, root user.” …NOT recommended.Update: Kali Linux now defaults to non-root install. As such, I’ve moved this distro up from the bonus section as this setup has always been one of my favorites. Now Kali has just made the non-root install process default. Kudos to them! If you are installing Kali for penetration testing, then see their website. However, if you would like an alternate install that does NOT install with root login and(now by default) and does NOT install penetration testing tools, try this custom install without root for a rolling release Debian managed by Kali.
Notable mention: Linux from scratch – Not a distro, but a challenging project that provides you with step-by-step instructions for building your own custom Linux system, entirely from source code.
I truly hope this quick guide for beginners proves helpful. Most of the distro descriptions are directly from Distrowatch – a handy website for your research. Arch and Ubuntu screenshots from /r/unixporn. What’s your pick for the best Linux distro? Related reading: Best Linux server distributions.