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The 10 Best Linux Distributions of 2009

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(khess)
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It was exactly one year ago today that I published my original "The 10 Best Linux Distributions" and it's time to put forth a new list for this year's best. Without looking at the old list, I've decided to compile this one from scratch. This 2009 list takes several factors into account for placement in the list: Community support, commercial support, software variety, update engine and distribution frequency. Even for old Linux salts, there are a few surprises on this list. For starters, Ubuntu is not number one.

The problem with this list is that I don't hate any of the distros that I've entered here. Even number ten is one of my all time favorites but something has to be on top and something has to be on bottom. Check out the list and see what you think.

1. gNewSense - Ever since my conversation with Richard Stallman, I've decided that gNewSense is the distro that claims the top spot for this year. Based on Ubuntu, which is based on Debian, gNewSense contains only free software. It's also the distro that Stallman himself uses--how can you beat that?

2. Debian - Debian is a GNU/Linux distribution that has it all: Great support, unsurpassed stability, awesome developers, a huge community, dozens of offspring including Ubuntu and gNewSense, regular updates, apt-get, thousands of ready-to-install programs and it makes a great user computer or server system. Debian also has the best hardware discovery of any distribution, which is probably why it's used to parent so many other distributions. If Debian has one weakness, it's commercial support. There's no Debian, Inc. for businesses to point to should something go awry. For businesses to adopt a particular distribution, it must have commercial support. For some, the risk is too great otherwise.

3. Ubuntu - Ubuntu picks up the slack where (don't confuse this with SlackWare which doesn't make the list this time.) Debian leaves off. Ubuntu offers commercial support, albeit somewhat expensive support through Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial sponsor.

4. CentOS - This distribution is Red Hat Enterprise Linux compiled from sources. It is still my personal distribution for my user/server computer. I do most of my testing on it. I use Debian for testing as well in virtual machines but they all ride on top of my CentOS computer. I spoke with Karanbir Singh, Project Lead of CentOS a few weeks ago and he gave some insight into the project that I had not heard or read before. Listen to the original podcast, if you get a chance.

5. Fedora - Fedora is the community version supported by Red Hat, Inc. It is what we used to call Red Hat Linux. It's also the version of Linux that Richard Stallman says comes pretty close to being an all free distribution. If you can impress Stallman, you've done your job. Fedora is often a bit unstable because it is out on what some call the 'bleeding edge' and is for those who are a bit more on the adventurous side. Don't use it for production. For production purposes, use CentOS if you don't want to purchase a commercial Linux distribution. Just as a side note, this is one of the funniest true stories I've ever read. It would still be funny if it weren't Oklahoma but since I live here, it makes it even better.

6. Red Hat - Short of being blessed by Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds, how can you not love Red Hat? It was one of the first companies that bucked the Microsoft-only trend and gave it a go on Linux. It worked. Red Hat is the most profitable and successful Linux/Open Source/Free Software company in the world. It's very profitable and it keeps growing. It is one of three Linux distributions that ever makes its way into large companies as a supported operating system. SUSE (Not on this list) and Ubuntu are the other two.

7. Gentoo - Do you have a few free weekends and a need for something that goes ZOOM when you're done? Gentoo is for you, then. Gentoo is not for those who are wanting to download, burn and boot; it's for those who like to tinker, twist and fidget with something until it's perfect. If you want something that rocks, and is rock-solid when you're done, then you want Gentoo. Gentoo is the Harley-Davidson of the Linux world. It's cool. It's stable. It's hot. It's also a royal pain in your backside. If you're impatient, like me, keep moving and just appreciate Gentoo from afar.

8. Knoppix - Yeah, Knoppix, baby. It's cool like that. Knoppix is one of those "Show it, don't explain it" distributions. If you want to try to explain Linux to someone, show them a Knoppix Live CD. They might never look at a Windows computer again. It's that good. If you have an old computer that won't handle a large hard drive, buy yourself a fast CD/DVD ROM drive and download, burn and boot Knoppix for your user computer. Save your documents and files to the 'too small for Linux' disk and never look back.

9. Presto - Got Windows but also want Linux? Get Presto. I installed it on my netbook and I love it. When I'm in a hurry and just want to check email or make a Skype call, I boot into Presto and get to work in about 15 seconds flat. It's the best $20 you'll ever spend.

10. Damn Small Linux - Damn Small Linux (DSL) is the cool of cool in small distro land. In as little as 50MB, you can have a full Linux computer and in these days of operating system bloat; that's a real winner. DSL isn't just small but it has features you'd expect from larger distributions: Web, RDP, Terminal Services, SSH, productivity tools, SSH server and much more. If I ran a company with more than just a handful of employees, it's likely that DSL is what I'd use for their user interface possibly as virtual desktops on a hypervisor system. If you haven't experienced DSL for yourself, you should. Download, burn and boot. It's impressive.

If your favorite distro didn't make the cut, I'm sorry, maybe next time. Perhaps you can convince me to write up another list of my reader's favorites if you write back and tell me what they are.

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unixbhaskar
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Thanks for your praise to Gentoo. I am living with GNU/Linux for almost 11 yrs now. And I think OpenSUSE should be included in your list.Most Probably the 10.3 version of OpenSUSE. Any way it is good article to read. Thanks man.

Thanks
Bhaskar,India,

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sourceview
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Well, first of all, I think your boundaries are too narrow! A better article would include all open source operating systems, and differentiate server, desktop and embedded applications. FreeBSD is better than most Linux distros as servers. It is actually "free-er" than Linux, and scales better than linux. Ask Yahoo and several financial institutions.

Second, I don't want Stallman to enter into my decision of what is right for me! I want the server, desktop and embedded distros that best meet my personal needs and my business needs, not the needs and desires of a socialist and/or other wild-eyed purists.

Third, I note three selections based on Debian and three selections based on Redhat. And I am wondering if there aren't some hidden values that you have explicitly put in play i.e. ignoring Suse because it is owned by Novell. Rabid Linuxers are not going to like this, but Microsoft, while building its Monopoly did achieve a major drop in software prices, if you want to go back to the 80's and look pricing over then. And tell me, who has had the greatest impact on the poor and disadvantaged of the world, Bill Gates and his foundation, or Stallman in his MIT ivory tower? Suse makes openoffice more palatable.

I would rate Gentoo as my best selection for servers. I have had 4 Gentoo servers running for a decade without fail or exploit. Their documentation is superior, I don't have to deal with your so-called overpriced "commercial support" and security is high.

I am not a purist, and my company needs profits to stay in business. My selections of Suse offers more and better software at the desktop level than Ubuntu.

One final note, there are thousands of distros. I think it is time linus and BSD stop thinking in terms of branded operating systems altogether. Support now for Linus in any flavor is so pervasive it is laughable that commercial support communities be a criteria. I think every business should have its own distro -- Sears Roebuck Distro, Goldman Sachs distro, Your neighborhood Carpet Cleaning Distro. etc. Give real control to the people rather dictating to them as Stallman desires.

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guest10000
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To be honest, I really miss openSUSE on that list; it's still one of the most innovative distros out there and one of the few who build a distribution from the ground up and not base on Debian. Their build-service is also a great thing, and last not least SUSE-Studio alone is worth a ranking.

Recommending a distro just because Mr. Stallmann gave it his blessings of political correctness is poor grounds for a recommendation.

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ruel24
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First of all, to set the record straight, Fedora is not what we used to call Red Hat Linux. Fedora was an existing project that Red Hat got behind when they folded up their retail desktop Linux operation. Red Hat Linux was a very stable, very highly polished retail offering that didn't provide the latest greatest without updating to the newest release when it came out. Fedora, by contrast, is a bleeding edge distro that constantly tries to stay ahead of the curve, with lots of in-community and in-house development that contributes a lot to the Linux eco-system. They're two different animals.

Second, I can't wait to see the day that people get off the Ubuntu bandwagon. It's not exactly all that special, and mostly relies on Debian's development and packages.

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sureronald
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@guest10000

Recommending a distro just because Mr. Stallmann gave it his blessings of political correctness is poor grounds for a recommendation.

If you have ever listened to one of RMS's speeches or read his essays, then you will agree with Ken Hess that gNewSense deserves that spot at least for this year considering the fact that it is compliant to FSF requirements of what free software (operating system) should be. I think this makes gNewSense unique from the rest of the distros!
My first GNU/linux distro was knoppix and I am still happy to see it in the top ten and dsl surely deserves the 10th spot considering how it has been engineered to provide a very high speed live CD.
Currently I use suse linux enteprise server and gNewSense.

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GoremanX
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I sense a slight bias towards Debian... not sure why exactly.

This is a terrible list.

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Rashakil Fol
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This seems like a reasonable list.

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khess
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@sourceview

I didn't include FreeBSD because it isn't Linux. These are the top 10 Linux distributions. It's possible that I could do a 10 best server OSs but that's a whole other ball of wax.

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zeke123
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Mandriva because its been user friendly for so long (and PCLinuxOS for tweeking it even further). It is by far the best KDE4 desktop right now.

Im a Gentoo guy but for friends and family, Mandriva and PCLinuxOS have been it (I have a half dozen relatives who are using Mandriva/KDE4.3 who are over 70 years old. Three never touched a computer.).

But most importantly (lets face it, put a few KDE desktops side by side and they all look the same so desktops more than distros is the key factor when deciding to switch), we need for a publicly traded Linux distro to succeed because that success would mean others could do it too.
The money and publicity flyboy gave Ubuntu cant be reproduced with other distros so that's why Id prefer for Mandriva to do well so others could replicate it.
(then again, it doenst help when Ubuntu's first splash on the scene was to tell the SUSE and Mandriva's whove been user oriented for a long time that there is no money to be made on the desktop).

Instead of DSL, I prefer Puppy but thats semantics.

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coolbird
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I think you should take a look at Mepis. I've used just about all of those distros since 1998 (SuSE 5.3 / kernel 2.0.36 was my first distro), but have stuck with Mepis for the last several years. I use it at home and at work. My secretaries over the years have all picked it up quite easily and it meets all of our production needs.

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jumico
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Damn small linux is dead though until someone chooses to continue development. So for 2009 it probably shouldn't be in the top ten especially since they haven't had a release this year. Like someone else said maybe puppy would be a better choice. But overall I guess it is still a good distro and may deserve that spot.
Personally I like arch more than Gentoo but that might be because of my laziness.
Another distro which I think is developed by the dsl developer is tinycore. For 2009 it seems like an awesome new distro.

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necrolin
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"gNewSense contains only free software. It's also the distro that Stallman himself uses--how can you beat that?"

Those are two good reasons not to use it. Until free software works on my hardware and actually allows me to do what I need it to do it's a no go on my computers. I have listened to RMS and I personally disagree with 1/2 of what he says. So, no thanks. I'll pass on this one.

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esavard
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How come that Hannah Montana Linux did not make it to the list???

My daughter loves that disto! :)

http://hannahmontana.sourceforge.net/Site/Home.html

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khess
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@esavard

OMG, I can't let my daughter see that.

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garynewell
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Personally I've never been a *buntu fan. I've tried a lot of distributions out as I'm sure many of you out there have...

I've tried Debian, Fedora, Mandriva, Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, Knoppix, Puppy, DSL, TinyCore, Gentoo (and probably a couple more). You could say I like to experiment.

My favourite at the moment is Puppy Linux. It has taken me a while to realise this but for home use I don't need anything that Puppy can't give me.

At home I tend to surf the web and write the odd document. Puppy serves this purpose well and as I use Google Docs for writing letters I don't really need OpenOffice. I never do much more challenging than writing letters or budgeting at home.

I am a programmer by trade and so I use OpenSuse when I want to do any development. It fits in nicely as an operating system where you can do general stuff and also that little bit of techie stuff.

Recently I have been following the linux from scratch guide and I am working my way through creating my own distro for personal use which is simply a web browser with all my drivers detected as to be honest that is all I need day to day.

Puppy currently loads in under 30 seconds which is good but I've set myself the challenge to beat that. Tinycore can beat it but I get the feeling that by the time I have added the drivers and software to get online sufficiently puppy will outpace tinycore.

My wife uses vista on her PC and I had to rebuild it last night due to a fake virus scanner and multiple viruses. Took 4 hours to rebuild back to the previous state by the time all the updates were applied and virus scanner was installed etc. I can download the latest version of puppy in about 10 minutes and it is done.

Why would anyone use windows? I guess Microsoft's problem is that they don't release latest versions as one installable package like you get with linux distros so you have to go through the rigmarole of installing the operating system, service packs and then patches. Yikes

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fpmurphy
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I totally agree with sourceview

Second, I don't want Stallman to enter into my decision of what is right for me! I want the server, desktop and embedded distros that best meet my personal needs and my business needs, not the needs and desires of a socialist and/or other wild-eyed purists

Stallman has got nothing to do with whether a distribution is good or bad.

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Timmi
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I don't understand why so many choices based on Ubuntu. Ubuntu is really no big deal, and you need Mint to finish the job! If Ubuntu is so good, why don't they give Mint their blessing then? It makes Ubuntu accessible to everyone, and configures more stuff for you, why fight it? This exposes an underlying problem in this community: the attitude that users should just learn as they did - after all Linux isn't Windoze... and then they wonder why Linux doesn't get more maket share. Helloo!

Depending on who you talk to, it's what they use on their PC that would get their recommendation as the best distro.

When you write an article like this, you should write it for 95% of the crowd.

  1. Those who would like to give Windoze a final Adieu... your average users... that means, people who expect an out of the box experience.
  2. Then, if you want to get into academic discussions on what is best as a server, write an article for the 5 top Linux distros for the server.
  3. As for the programmers, hackers, geeks... hey, you're not going to change their mind, they're already busy telling anyone who will read (or listen, like the girl behind the coffee shop counter) that their opinion and distro is the holy grail of Linux... so why even bother!

Oh, and by the way, it's not just about the distributions... but also the community experience behind it.... how easy it is to get answers, whether a forum is all about it's moderator's pride and ego or about fixing things... and the development team's enthusiasm or reluctance on implementing a bug fix or driver fix right away when it's simple instead of waiting for the next distro - it's no fun for an end user to be told to start writing scripts or recompiling kernels, and it's no fun either to have to to start your search over again every year because this year's release has a glitch with something that should work (ie: webcam for example), and the other distro has a glitch with something else (your cam works but their WPA is defective).

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sameer5151
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can sum1 send me a list of all the linux os ive been trying 2 find it but gettn no where.......im doing an assignment on linux and one the questions r........various versions of linux os.....i search n nly get distributors my email add is sameer.hoosen@yahoo.com plez sum1 help me

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