Top 10 Linux distributions

Most computer users have heard of Linux, but not that many have actually tried to use a version of Linux on their computer. Apart from the obvious fact that Linux is unfamiliar to many, there is also the problem that there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Linux versions (known as distributions) to choose from. So where does a first-timer start?

The best approach is to pick one of the ten most popular versions of Linux and install that. In most cases, the more popular a Linux distribution is the more likely you are to find support online.

Saying with any certainty which are the ten most popular Linux releases is not completely straight forward – there are too many variables – but a site such as Distrowatch maintains a list of the Linux distributions being talked about the most on the site. Using this we can build a relatively good list of popularity:

1 – Ubuntu

One of the best known versions of Linux, founded by SA’s Mark Shuttleworth. Ubuntu is easy to install and designed to be relatively easy for first time Linux users. Ubuntu is very versatile, running on servers, desktops, laptops and netbooks. New versions of Ubuntu are released every six months and the current version is Ubuntu 10.10, otherwise known as Maverick Meerkat. The next release will be in April 2011, named Natty Narwhal, and will feature a number of big changes from the current edition.

2 – Fedora

Fedora doesn’t get as much media time as Ubuntu but it is without a doubt one of the leading Linux versions. Fedora is the community-run version of Red Hat Linux (hence the name) and has earned a reputation for being one of the most cutting-edge distributions. New Fedora releases are made every six months and typically include the latest version of new emerging applications. Fedora also works hard on integrating new technologies, such as kernel based virtualisation, into standard releases.

3 – Mint

Linux Mint is a derivative of Ubuntu Linux but aims to be more user-friendly than Ubuntu; a tough task considering Ubuntu’s ease-of-use. One area that Mint focuses on is improving multimedia performance. Most Linux distributions don’t include proprietary software in their releases and therefore don’t include support for many restricted multimedia formats, such as MP3. Mint makes it as easy as possible to enable this support so new users don’t have to fiddle around with codecs and drivers before they can do what they want to do. Mint also has a set of configuration tools to make managing the desktop as easy as possible. Mint is ideal for first-time Linux users.

4 – openSuse

Suse is one of the longest running versions of Linux. When it was bought out by Novell years back, a community edition was created called OpenSuse. OpenSuse is one of the more popular distributions among enterprise users as it has a well-develop server version. On the desktop, OpenSuse is easy to install and use, and includes the YaST tool, a simplified configuration and application management interface. OpenSuse has a strong user base but with Novell being now being bought by Attachmate there is some uncertainty about OpenSuse’s future.

5 – Debian

The granddaddy of Linux distributions, Debian is also one of the most important. Distributions such as Ubuntu are built on software created by the Debian team. Developments in the Debian world eventually flow downstream to most of the other Linux releases. Debian is popular with experienced users and server users and is not ideal for first time Linux users.

6 – Sabayon

Sabayon is a version of Linux based on Gentoo, a distribution famous for building all applications from source code. This meant that Gentoo was perfectly optimised for every machine it ran on but the time involved in building each application from scratch meant that a full install could take hours, if not days. Sabayon retains some of the Gentoo methodology but also relies on some pre-built applications to speed up the process. Saybayon is a good release for experienced Linux users and not for newcomers.

7 – PCLinuxOS

PCLinuxOS is a version of Mandriva Linux and has one of the most active user communities. PCLinuxOS is intended to be easy to use and uses the KDE desktop as the default interface. Most of the Linux releases on this list default to the Gnome interface which makes PCLinuxOS relatively unique. PCLinuxOS is a good choice for first time Linux users.

8 – Arch

Arch Linux is designed to be a lightweight, even minimalist, Linux release with great flexibility. Arch is aimed at experienced Linux users and uses its own package management system (Pacman) to handle application installations. Unlike most of the other releases on this list, which release new versions at scheduled intervals, Arch Linux has a “rolling release” policy which means new versions of software are released as soon as they are available.

9 – Mandriva

Another of the long-running Linux distributions, Mandriva started out life as Mandrake Linux. Through a series of legal and financial changes, Mandrake became Mandriva. Mandriva is designed to be very user-friendly and is ideal for first time Linux users. Mandriva’s current focus is on providing a release which runs equally well on desktops as it does on netbooks. Mandriva is again facing financial woes but the community continues to work on future releases.

10 – Puppy

Puppy Linux is the smallest release on this list. The entire download is around 50MB and is designed to be as lightweight as possible. More feature-rich versions weigh in at around 90MB. Puppy Linux can be run as a daily operating system but its real strength lies in being used as a “Live” CD which can be used to boot and run any machine without touching the hard disk. Puppy Linux is versatile and portable but not the best choice for inexperienced users.

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Top 10 Linux distributions