The 10 Best Linux Distributions of 2009

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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