Those of you elder Ents who still remember the pioneer days of the web may remember that once upon a time your Present Author blogged about Linux. There was a Linux blog; I was well-known in the Linux community, I posted lots of tutorials, HOWTOs, some GPL'ed code, scripts, and the occasional distro or application review. That's where the "Penguin" in my name came from was Tux, the Linux penguin mascot.
Then the great mobile apocalypse happened.
Suddenly, what operating system ruled the desktop didn't matter so much. Microsoft, which ruled the desktop for two decades in the bloody desktop wars, was out of the race for the mobile round, as Google smartly jumped on Linux and retooled it as Android for the mobile age. That previous period of technology history was a caution, let me tell you, kids! Heroes arose and were vanquished, volleys fired, kingdoms established and crumbled, factions divided, I still have the battle scars.
OK, let's move on to today: Linux doesn't need to work as hard to try to win casual users on the desktop. Those casual users have an Android phone, and they're just as happy playing Fortnite and snapping pics to Instagram on it. The desktop (more correctly, the laptop) is for people who need to get things done now, and increasingly the operating system of choice there is Linux. Without further ado, let's take a look at the hot modern distros of the approaching mid-21st century. We'll cover the top five solutions for every niche.
Standard disclaimer: There is no perfect Linux distro for everyone, and the whole idea of Linux in the first place is to customize it how you think it should run. That's how we got all these distros in the first place. Theoretically, you can take any distro and use the package manager to install and tweak until you've converted it into any other distro. All distros everywhere are just a starting point.
Who it's for: The Grandma
Pros: Super-easy, simplified, uncomplicated.
Cons: Needs a top of the line PC to run, too basic for power use.
You want a distro for "grandma," or any other Joe Sixpack who's barely capable at this whole computer thing. You need it to be stupidly easy to use, easy to transition from Windows or Mac to Linux, and extremely bullet-proof. Get Elementary OS, install it, lock down the user privileges, and don't give them the root password. Elementary is based on Ubuntu, which will come up a lot here because Ubuntu has been the great common denominator of Linux distros for a decade now.
Elementary has won the admiration of desktop connoisseurs for its beauty and snappy design. It feels more like a Google Chromebook or a basic Mac desktop than a Linux distro. It's a distro that puts user experience first, you have to give it that! The drawbacks are that it doesn't come with many tools, and is built with the intent that the user will never want to do anything productive beyond the most basic functions. By the way: it's technically a donation-supported distro, on a "pay what you want" model.
Who it's for: The Average Office-Level User
Pros: Multimedia capabilities out-of-the-box, perfect utility distro.
Cons: Makes Richard Stallman mad because of its proprietary codecs.
Mint took Ubuntu and said, "That's fine for die-hard capital-F Free Software fanatics, but the rest of us just want to play a game, watch a movie, and not care too much about everything being Open Source." They made Mint. Mint is just about 90% as easy to use as Ubuntu but comes with a full install of the top Linux-native applications, all the multimedia codecs it can pack in, and enough of a base to customize it quite far. It's also amazingly trouble-free, well-behaved, and not too taxing on the hardware either.
Mint has been my "home" distro for a decade now. It's almost about time for another distro to rise to take its place, but so far no challenger appears on the horizon. Once I was a hardcore Linux geek and was happy to tinker around on the command line coming up with brilliant hacks to solve problems. Now I don't have the time and just want something to work right out of the box. Mint is the pragmatist's perfect distro when you just want the damn thing to work and don't care how it does it. It comes with a full office suite and toolbox for multimedia editing too, so it's an ideal workhorse for uncluttered productivity.
Who it's for: The Developer
Pros: A minimalist toolbox and hacker's paradise, great on legacy hardware.
Cons: As user-friendly as a rabid rat.
Back in my "Leet Hax0r!" days, Slackware was my distro and I would tolerate no other. It is one of the original patriarchs of the Linux ecosystem, one of the oldest of the original Linux distros surviving today. Often termed "snackware" for its minimal base install, Slackware gives you a basic operating system with built-in tools to use as a springboard to launch a custom-tailored development environment. What it lacks in gloss it makes up for in power tools, especially on the command line. Everything gets installed by hand from source code; you resolve the dependencies yourself. Hope you don't bristle at the words "RTFM"!
With its uncompromising text-mode installer and lack of a package manager, Slackware is built for old-school hackers who live in Vim / Emacs writing shell scripts into the wee hours of the night. Spiting the desktop trend in the rest of the Linux world, it does not come with Gnome, but typically expects you to run Fluxbox or some other stripped-down desktop environment. It's also one of the few distros run by one developer, Patrick Volkerding, whose vision has seen it through the decades as the most authentic Linux experience. It bears mentioning that Slackware is also a distro which will literally run on ANYTHING, any cruddy little old toaster you have sitting around. As Slackware's own site boasts, their server is "a Pentium III, 600 MHz, with 512 megabytes of RAM."
Who it's for: the Power User
Pros: It can be anything you want it to be!
Cons: It isn't anything without your direct oversight and input.
If Slackware is a "do it yourself" distro for text-mode developers, SUSE is DIY for users who want to save time because they have bigger projects in mind. It's also primarily targeted at sysadmins and developers, but with a full-service package system which you can even dive into before downloading the distro. You go there and select from the menu, and they slap it together for you to download on the fly. If your needs are that specific, SUSE is your only option.
Along with being the "control freak" distro, it's also fiercely maintained on the cutting edge. It's polished and well-documented, run by a company - openSUSE is to Enterprise SUSE as Fedora is to Red Hat. Its community has a reputation for being unusually fanatic, even for Linux users. Behind this cultish atmosphere lies a distro that lives up to its hype as long as you're looking for ultimate, un-compromised power and will do anything to attain it.
Who it's for: Servers and Sysadmins
Pros: Enterprise solutions without paying for Red Hat
Cons: Not a daily desktop system.
Since the Debian / Ubuntu / Mint ecosystem forms something like 9/10ths of Linux distros now, it's hard not to feel like you're neglecting Red Hat. El Sombrero de Rojo will always have a fond place in my heart as the first Linux distro I tried back in the day, somewhere around the 5.0 days. Oh, how I stayed up late nights in wide-eyed wonder at this new world! Red Hat started out as a community distro before it went Enterprise and is today a commercial distro with clients like, oh, nobody special, just the US ARMY is all! But I digress… CentOS is the free public cousin to Red Hat. It's replaced Fedora as the go-to free Red Hat.
CentOS has the strengths you would look for in a server: rock-solid stability, network capabilities, high focus on security, and hacker-level tools on tap. What it does not have in mind is that you'll be surfing the web or playing games or using it for an everyday desktop. It does give you some minimal comforts, but it's never going to be that great-looking nor flashy. It's a distro you install on a computer you won't want to touch very often, putting it to work and letting it do its thing unsupervised.
This was a state-of-the-Linux overview for 2019, an increasingly rare kind of post now that the great desktop wars have subsided. By all means, feel free to share your distro recommendations in the comments, but understand we weren't going to try to cover every distro out there. There's still plenty of users who swear by Ubuntu, Fedora, or Debian out there.
Here's something all us Linux-heads don't mention very often: It's amazing! Not just the operating system, but the culture behind it. Look at it go, embraced by multinational corporations and individual hobby hackers alike, sometimes all working together hand in hand. It's running somewhere in the world 24/7. It powers everything from supercomputers to most of the Internet to little bitty phones. Listen at night: the steady hum of the computer age.