Best Linux distros of 2016: Something for everyone

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Swapnil Bhartiya

There is something for everyone

The beauty of Linux is that there really is something for everyone. Amazon, Facebook, and Google run their massive infrastructure on Linux. Companies like Samsung use it in their TVs, smartphones, and smart watches. And then there are ordinary users like you and me who use computers to do work.

In this slideshow for 2016 I have picked distros that excel in certain areas. We will see how many of these distros remain on the list in 2017.

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Best desktop distro: Linux Mint Cinnamon

Linux Mint Cinnamon became my favorite distribution once its base was switched from Ubuntu regular to Ubuntu LTS. Prior to that, Linux Mint developers kept chasing Ubuntu, a moving target that itself is going through major transformation. Once they settled the base, LM developers were able to focus on the core features of Linux Mint itself.

Since LM teams also develop the desktop environment Cinnamon, it freed them to further polish the otherwise buggy desktop environment. As a result, the latest release of Linux Mint Cinnamon is extremely polished and stable. Since it’s based on LTS, it’s supported for much longer than regular releases so once you install it you are good for another 4-5 years. And Cinnamon's familiar UI makes it much easier for Windows users to migrate to Linux Mint. Thanks to Ubuntu base, Linux Mint will work well on most hardware, requiring very little work from users.

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Swapnil Bhartiya

Best all around: openSUSE

openSUSE has been my favorite distribution when it comes to a mature operating system for my primary machines. In 2015, openSUSE teams announced openSUSE Leap that is based directly on SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE) Service Pack 1. This makes openSUSE an appealing system for those who plan to learn more about SLE or use it at work or on servers. With this move openSUSE Leap has also become a serious player in the server space to give competition to Debian, CentOS and Ubuntu.

In the same year openSUSE also announced Tumbleweed, a complete rolling release distribution that stays updated. The big difference between openSUSE Tumbleweed and Arch Linux (or Gentoo) is that you won’t have to worry about recompiling anything, as almost all software packages are available either through official repos, Packman or OBS. I find openSUSE to be an all around great distribution for a bit more mature audience.

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Best convergence distro: Ubuntu

What makes Ubuntu an interesting OS in 2016 is its convergence story -- where the same codebase will run across devices and you can use it on the desktop as well as mobile devices. We may see some progress on that front this year, according to reports.

Ubuntu used to be the king of desktop Linux, but recently Canonical, Ubuntu's sponsor, has changed its focus to mobile devices. Both Mir, the display server, and Unity, the desktop environment, are being developed for mobile first. Then they will arrive on the desktop.

In april, Ubuntu 16.04 LTS will be released, and Ubuntu will also make its debut on IBM’s LinuxONE mainframe.

One bright spot on the desktop: With 16.04, Canonical will ditch online integration of advertisements from Unity Dash, removing a controversial component from the Ubuntu desktop.

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Most customizable: Arch Linux

Arch is the best Linux distribution when it comes to giving users complete control. Some of the things that make Arch great, and why I use it: 1) You install and configure each and every component of the operating system from scratch. 2) There is no default desktop environment or apps. You install what you need, keeping your system lean and mean. 3) Thanks to Arch User Repository (AUR) you have virtually every possible Linux package at your disposal.

I  know Gentoo fans will disagree with my selection of Arch as the most customizable distro. But, while I love the idea behind Gentoo where you compile ‘everything’ I find it counterproductive. I can see where it might make sense if I am running specific hardware for a specific job, but I really can do only so much optimization on a general purpose desktop PC. Compiling everything is not worth the effort.

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Most secure: Tails

Many users may not care about privacy, but it’s a very serious issue for journalists, lawyers, politicians, activists, students...in fact it’s a serious issue for everyone, whether they know it or not.

Tails is the best Linux-based operating system with privacy and anonymity baked into it. The OS is being used by prominent investigative journalists like Glenn Greenwald to protect their works and sources. Perhaps nothing makes a better case for Tails as a secure OS than the National Security Agency (NSA) calling it "major threat." What an endorsement.

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Google.com

Best cloud OS: Chrome OS

When it comes to a cloud-based operating system, nothing beats Google's Chrome OS. Chrome OS, like Android, has put Linux into the hands of multitudes of average consumers,  something no other distro has managed to do. Chrome OS comes pre-installed on a wide range of devices such as  Chromebooks, Chromeboxes, Chromebases and Chromebits.

Although it’s based on the open source Chromium OS project, Chrome OS is not available for download. But anyone can compile it from the source code that’s freely available. Many developers offer pre-compiled images of Chrome OS. But if you want to use Chrome OS, my advice would be to buy a Chromebook, they are dirt cheap. (And you can dual boot these devices with other Linux distributions.)

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Google

Best mobile OS: Android

Android rules the mobile space. It’s the first consumer grade Linux based OS to dominate the mass market, making it a shoo-in for best mobile OS. But there are two other Linux based operating systems that will make waves in 2016 and may give Android a run for its money:

Plasma Mobile: Developed by the KDE Community, Plasma Mobile is based on Kubuntu and uses Wayland. What makes Plasma an important player is that unlike Android or Ubuntu Touch, it’s a community driven project. Anyone can contribute to it. In addition, given KDE’s adherence to standards and free software, it will be the most user-focused operating system.

Ubuntu Touch: Ubuntu Touch has been around for a while. In 2015 we saw the first repurposed Android devices being launched with the Ubuntu operating system. However since Ubuntu is being developed by Canonical it needs financial success to survive. With the demise of Firefox OS that started alongside Ubuntu Touch, 2016 will be an interesting year for this mobile OS.

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Best lightweight OS: Lubuntu

If you have really old or less powerful hardware, such as a netbook, then you need a lightweight operating system that can provide you with a decent working machine. My first recommendation would be to install Arch Linux on it and then get some minimalistic distro with select components to keep it lean and thin. But if you can’t manage Arch Linux then the best distro on these systems would be Lubuntu.

Lubuntu uses LXDE, which is an extremely light weight distribution. Lubuntu may not have all the bells and whistles that you find on desktop environments like Gnome, Cinnamon and Plasma, but it does get the job done.

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MATE Desktop

Best for laptops: Linux Mint MATE

I recommend Mint MATE for laptops because a majority of laptops come with moderate processors and at most 4GB or 8GB of RAM. What makes Mint Mate important is that while it offers the latest technologies it doesn’t consume system resources.

Linux Mint Mate can also be used on a bit older hardware as well as super powerful hardware. I found it running well on my Raspberry Pi and old Acer Netbook. So even if you have powerful hardware, all of your RAM and CPU resources will be left free for the applications to use instead of being consumed by the OS itself.

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Swapnil Bhartiya

Best for ARM hardware: Arch Linux ARM

Today we are surrounded by ARM powered devices - Raspberry Pis, Chromebooks, Android tablets, Nvidia Shield and many more. If you want to run Linux on these devices you need an OS that supports the ARM architecture. The big problem with ARM is that there are so many different chips using different architectures. And if there is any distro that can run on a the majority of these devices it’s Arch Linux ARM (aka ALARM).

Arch Linux ARM is based on Arch Linux, but is being developed by a totally different community and developers. As usual they have some of the best documentation around. And the cherry on top is that you can also use AUR to install many 3rd party applications.

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Best community based server OS: Debian and CentOS (tie)

When it comes to subscription free distributions these distributions rule the Linux world.

Debian is the mother of Ubuntu and is used by those who don’t need any commercial support. Since Debian is known for being the most stable distribution around, it’s default choice on such servers.

CentOS is popular among those who prefer Red Hat Enterprise Linux market. Since CentOS is a community managed RHEL clone, those who know RHEL can very easily run centOS without having to pay Red Hat. If needed they can easily migrate to RHEL which won’t be that easy with Debian or Ubuntu.

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Best commercial server OS: RHEL and SLE (tie)

When it comes to commercial Linux we have two kings: Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE). These two are the oldest commercial Linux vendors. SUSE was formed just a year after Linus Torvalds announced Linux, back in 1992; Red Hat was formed in 1993. In the early days these companies decided to pull out of the consumer space and focus entirely on the enterprise.

Red Hat championed the open source, subscription based model and gradually became the world’s most commercially successful open source company. Red Hat invests heavily in innovation and is among the lead contributors to many open source projects.

SUSE on the other hand went through some rough patches, it got sold multiple times, but continued to survive. In 2014 it was acquired by Micro Focus and since then it has made an impressive comeback. The company is now heavily investing in innovating new technologies in the cloud and server space. Like Red Hat, SUSE is also among the top contributors to many open source projects.

While you can download SLE and RHEL for free, they use a subscription based model where you get commercial support and update for a subscription fee.

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elementary OS Site

Best looking distro:  Elementary OS

When it comes to computers, I, like many Linux users, prefer an operating system that can do more things and not necessarily the one that looks the best. However, the effort that the elementary OS team is making is worth noting.

The OS is based on Ubuntu, but many components, including the desktop environment, were created from scratch. The result is a very consistent, Mac OS X like experience.

The developers of the OS comes from a design background so they pay very careful attention to details. They also include only those applications in the distribution that meet the design principles. And that’s where the catch is. This shifts focus too much onto how things look and away from what they can do. I do believe, though, that as the OS matures it will become more and more useful for power users like me.

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Best special purpose distros: Steam OS and Ubuntu Studio (tie)

Valve Software's Steam OS is the best distro when it comes to gaming. In 2015 Valve started selling Steam OS powered machines. However, you can easily install the Steam client on a Linux system without having to convert it into a game console.

Ubuntu Studio is an excellent distribution for media production as it comes with a lightweight DE and many multimedia software packages. That said, you can easily achieve the same on other Linux distributions.