A Linux distro is an operating system, much like Windows or MacOS. To build a distro, an organization will use the Linux kernel in collaboration with other software that the organization has hand-picked and/or developed. Software selections typically include a web browser, file manager, work processor (similar MS Office), video playback, chat app, contacts/calendar apps, software manager, etc. The organization has the freedom to include any applications and default settings they prefer. One of the most important pieces of software is the desktop environment (DE) which defines the layout and navigation of the OS. There are many DEs available, including Gnome, KDE, XFCE, Pantheon, MATE, Budgie, and more. Often, having a preferred DE also helps a user decide which distro they prefer.
While it is true that any Linux distro can be customized and changed to fit any persons needs, the effort to do that is often unnecessary. Good default configurations and thoughtful integrations are the key to a great distro. Every Linux distro has a unique set of values and goals that directly affect their intepretation of the ideal OS implementation. This results in multiple distros with unique and invovative features to explore.
There is a magnitude of Linux distros available, all with different pre-installed software and defaults. You can find a large listing of those collected at DistroWatch.
After you read about the picks below, I encourage you to check out the video walk throughs on LinuxScoop or elsewhere on YouTube. If you find a distro that fits your preferences and workflow, your set! If not, try another distro!
In the following distro list I provide: (1) a short description, (2) the default desktop environment and (3) the release cycle.
Automated updates: Fedora Silverblue
Description: Fedora Silverblue is a personal favourite of mine. The project has an "upstream first" mantra which means the project will often put their resources in developing on projects upstream and integrate the "vanilla" implementation of that labor. This is unique to some other distros that work to heavily customize and theme their distros. Thanks to their upsteam work, Fedora is a leader when it comes to integrating the latest updates from integrated software projects.
The biggest perk of Fedora Silverblue is that the image based nature of the system allows the user to take advantage of automated updates. The core system can download and merge updates for the user automatically; the next time the user boots up their system, the updated system image would have been mounted automatically. Similarly, desktop apps rely on flatpak technology and are isolated and updated automatically and independently of the core system.
Currently, the system is best suited for (1) typical desktop users who just want to get work done and are comfortable with a desktop system that manages itself, as well as (2) developers who use a container-centric workflow, as the system comes with plenty of container development tools out of the box.
You can discover more about the unique aspects of Fedora Silverblue here.
Desktop environment: Fedora Silverblue ships with Gnome DE.
Release schedule: New versions of Fedora are released every 6 months.
Well-rounded pick: Pop!_OS
Description: Pop!_OS uses the Gnome desktop environment by default, however, the project adds few extensions to the default experience to "enhance" the user experience. While the project is based on Ubuntu, it modifies the themeing and default packages/apps for the base install.
Unlike Fedora Silverblue, Pop!_OS is a more traditional Linux OS and users who like messing around the command line may be more comfortable with it. With that said, the project aims to provide first-class support for playing games on Linux, since many gaming drivers and apps are available in the Pop Shop software store.
Pop!_OS is a great recommendation for users who are interested in a beautiful and full featured Gnome implementation that has great all-around software support.
Desktop environment: Pop!_OS uses Gnome DE.
Release schedule: Pop!_OS has two release versions. A Long Term Support (LTS) version that is released every two years and focuses on stability, and a 6 month release cycle that focuses on new features.
The "UX considerate" pick: Elementary OS
Description: Elementary OS focuses on ease of use and takes a couple design inspirations from MacOS. Every part of the OS attempts to make the OS legible and easy to navigate. However, because it uses Linux, it is also very effective if you are a power-user. Many Linux OS's will integrate apps and services that do not necessarily follow the aesthetic of the OS as a whole. Elementary may not be as customizable as some other distros, but it makes up for that by having great default configurations. Elementary believes consistency is key to a great user experience. That is why I believe this is a great pick for users who expect a consistent and thoughtful user experience across the OS.
Desktop environment: Elementary created and maintains Pantheon DE.
Release schedule: New Elementary versions are typically released annually.
KDE pick: Manjaro KDE edition
Description: The KDE Plasma edition of Manjaro is a great pick for a Linux OS that prefer a traditional taskbar experience. With that said, KDE is exponentially more customizable than the Windows taskbar experience. In fact, KDE is so configurable you can make it look like MacOS (if you are willing to spend the time). Out of the box, KDE is a fast yet familiar experience. Additionally, the Manjaro theme is very pleasant and modern and the distro includes great driver support.
Desktop environment: Manjaro has 3 official DE editions: XFCE, KDE, and Gnome.
Release schedule: Manjaro has a rolling release schedule. This means that software updates are provided as soon as they become available. This means that there are not traditional annual updates like some other OSs, but instead there is a constant stream of updates every week.
The popular pick: Ubuntu
Description: Ubuntu is probably the most popular desktop Linux OS and is a huge contributor to the entire open source ecosystem. In fact many Linux OS's are based off of Ubuntu OS. Ubuntu is also a commercial product, so it has enterprise backing. Over all, Ubuntu is easy to get familiar with and has helpful documentation and forums.
Desktop environment: By default, Ubuntu uses Gnome DE, though there are additional "flavours" available.
Release schedule: Ubuntu has two release versions. A Long Term Support (LTS) version that is released every two years and focuses on stability, and a 6 month release cycle that focuses on new features.
Check out how to test drive an distro next.