The Top 3 Linux Distributions

With so many Linux distributions to choose from it can be a daunting task to figure out which one you should install, especially if this is your first time installing Linux. Your distro of choice may change depending on your needs and skills. (Powering a toaster vs your personal PC)

We’ve outlined the top 3 Linux Distributions for desktop users in this post. Note: Distributions not in this list are perfectly great. This is mostly a subjective post… A most likely wrong opinion. Our goal is to cover a wide variety of bases, from the “beginner friendly” to the “hardcore do it yourself” distributions. Ok here we go…

1. Ubuntu: Ready Out of the Box

If you’re just getting started with Linux, then I recommend Ubuntu because it “just works”, but still gives you all the flexibility of Linux.

I’ve always struggled with other distros to get them working enough to even start working right after an install. Usually it’s a Wifi connection problem, or some strange inability to install software from the package manager, or some other unexpected problem.

Ubuntu has been by far the most reliable distribution out there when it comes to “just working”, and for beginners I think that is the key.

Summary of Ubuntu Benefits:

  1. Very easy to use and install
  2. Still has flexibility of Linux
  3. More Likely to Work out of the Box
  4. HUGE community.

Downside of Ubuntu: "Bloat"

Bloat is essentially software you’re not using and code that doesn’t need to be there. That can be having LibreOffice on your computer when you don’t use it… All the way down to having your kernel support Nvidia graphics cards when your computer has AMD Radeon, or even something as small as your text editor supporting font groups that aren’t used on your system.

In order for Ubuntu to work for just about everyone, it covers all the bases and then some, which brings a lot of “bloat”.

Bloat isn’t really THAT bad… Especially on modern computers that have plenty of power to spare. It’s just not ideal. Unnecessary code introduces bugs, security vulnerabilities, can slow down the system, and probably some other bad things.

You can minimize bloat on your Ubuntu system by removing unnecessary software. You can even edit the Ubuntu kernel and turn off things you don’t need, but most Ubuntu users don’t do that, so I’m not sure how likely that is to cause problems.

Overall, Ubuntu is a fantastic Linux distribution aimed at beginner users or users who want things to “just work”.

2. Gentoo: Minimal, Complete Control

I’ve done a much more detailed review of Gentoo here. Gentoo is almost as minimal as it gets. All you get is a command line interface and a stage 3 tarball to install the rest of the system, picking and choosing everything you need piece by piece and compiling the whole system from source.

Installing Gentoo requires that you know your system in and out. It forces you to learn, and can be a fun experience for those who want to know how their system works.

There are many advantages of Gentoo, but the bolded list items are what make Gentoo unique:

  • Lightweight, Minimal
  • Fast
  • Great learning experience
  • Secure
  • Rolling release (see full Gentoo review)
  • Ability to Choose your INIT system
  • USE flags
  • Portage is Awesome
  • other benefits I’ve forgotten to list.

Init Systems: OpenRC vs Systemd

The init system is the first program that runs to turn on and setup your computer. Theres various programs, but Systemd is the big one. There’s a bit of controversy over systemd and some people don’t like it. The idea is that systemd is a large ‘monolithic’ program that does too much, where openrc is a smaller program that only does one job and does it well.

Won’t get into it here, or whether or not systemd is worth avoiding, but if you want to use an alternative to systemd, then Gentoo is one of the few distros that give you a choice. For most of us it makes zero difference, so i’d be interested in your thoughts all you systemd haters. (leave a comment!)

USE flags

Gentoo compiles everything from source allowing you the ultimate control over your software. If you’re not going to use a certain part of that package then you don’t need it bloating up your system. Here’s about a quarter of the use flags for Emacs…

Is it necessary to have such a minimal system? Not usually, but people who like fine tuning their system will enjoy Gentoo.

Downsides of Gentoo:

  • Compiling from source takes forever (but no biggie. it can run in the background)
  • Steep learning curve
  • Doesn’t “just work”. If a “simple” problem in other distributions occurs (like sound) you may spend a couple hours trying to fix it.
Note: I wasted a lot of time as a beginner trying to install Gentoo. If you’re trying to “learn Linux” I think a more rewarding experience would probably be building your own PC and then installing Linux on it. Just a thought. (Just make sure each component works well with Linux before buying anything too expensive)

Overall Gentoo is pretty cool. If you want a truly minimal system with peak performance, then Gentoo is the way to go. The only system more DIY than Gentoo is “Linux from Scratch”, but LFS doesn’t have the community or other key features to make it a feasible “every day” computer. Gentoo is as DIY as you can be while still being productive.

3. Arch: Minimal, Simple

arch

Arch is one of the most popular distributions available, and for good reason. It provides nearly all the benefits of Gentoo: Minimalism, control, speed, active community, well documented, rolling release, powerful package manager, etc… But it’s simpler and easier to use.

While Arch for the most part lacks USE flags, and you’re stuck with Systemd… You still get a very DIY lightweight system. Arch will probably be a great distribution for anyone that puts in the time to learn how to use Linux. And if you want to stroke your ego, Arch & Gentoo give you an optional chip on your shoulder because they’re “advanced” systems for the elite hackers. (lol)

Honorable Mentions:

Kali

Kali is the distro for “penetration testers” or anyone in security. The reason I didn’t include it is because it’s not meant to be an every day use system. You’re not supposed to code or browse cat videos in Kali. It’s more of a toolbox, and is typically installed on a USB stick or something and just fired up when you need it.

Second, if you did need a particular security tool… you can just install it on whatever distribution you’re using. 

Debian, OpenSuse, CentOS, etc...

There’s a lot of great distributions out there, but they all accomplish very similar things. I’d encourage you to play with them if you’re interested. 

Summary & Action Steps

For the most part, all Linux distributions do similar things. They help you as a server by powering your web app, TV, microwave, Toaster, etc… And they help desktop users by providing an environment where you can code and watch cat videos. So unless you have a very specific need, Ubuntu, Arch, or Gentoo should cover your needs.

If you’re a beginner, then Start with Ubuntu. Use it for a couple weeks or months. delete stuff, change your desktop environment. Do all your coding and just live your life. Seriously. Ubuntu is fine. Distro wars are a waste of time.

If you want to geek out and just can’t help yourself, then install Arch. You’ll probably be happy with Arch as a main system once you learn to use it. A lightweight rolling release Linux distro is a wonderful experience.

If curiosity gets the best of you, or for some reason you want or need to go further down the rabbit hole, and you’re willing to put in more work, then give Gentoo a try. Just make sure you don’t do it on your main work computer until you know what you’re doing. I happily used Gentoo for several years before deciding to hop around a little more.

Whatever you do, have fun.

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