Updated: December 18, 2012
Let's do it, the usual end-of-the-year grand finale. This has almost become a tradition of sorts. Way back in 2009, we had a breakdown by categories. Since, we've done a simple nomination of the five best distributions, from last to first, and this year will not be an exception.
So what did we have in 2012? A lot really. This was an interesting year. It started with massive disappointments, an almost total breakdown of hope, but then came back to life in the shape of the Cinnamon desktop. We also had Canonical commit to five years of support for desktops. And most magically, there's Steam for Linux in the works. However, right here, right now, we want to focus on declaring the top five distributions of the last year. Let's see what we have. Feel free to disagree, of course.
Wow! What! Dedoimedo, are you crazy? You are adding a beta-quality distro to your list, Fedora no less? Yes, I am. The fact is, Fedora is no longer so beta as it used to be. In fact, the crashiness of the past has mostly been replaced by boredom. But there's a desktop environment that makes all the difference, and it's Cinnamon.
Fedora 17 with Cinnamon environment is a refreshing change from the standard formula of blandness and forced would-be freedom of doing nothing useful on your box. With this new desktop, Fedora is faster, sleeker, far more beautiful, lighter on the resources, robust, stable, and with a pinch of codecs, nice programs and some extra icons, you get an awesome treat. In fact, you end up with a state-of-the-art system that will not crash while providing technology, beauty and fun all combined in a punchy, toothy package. That's how it should be really.
The fourth place belongs to Kubuntu, autumn release. I had it committed on my higher-end laptop with its Nvidia card, and unlike Ubuntu, which borked things mightily, everything was dandy. Kubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin was also decent, but it was boring and uninspiring to the point of slitting your wrists with a banana.
Truth to be told, Kubuntu Quetzal also requires that you work some in getting things pimped up to a reasonable level of bling-bling and usefulness, but the effort is smaller and shorter than the one required for the spring release. You might assume that things are rather bad from the last two paragraphs, but not quite. If you can ignore the initial struggle, you end up with a highly polished, refined KDE experience, which combines beauty and functionality in a very flexible package. As far as KDE goes, at the moment, this is the best overall offering in the market, and it's quite handsome, by all means.
It feels as if the Canonical dev team places extra effort on making their Long Term Support releases as good as they can be, and it surely shows in the execution. Pangolin is a very refined distribution, designed to serve you well until 2017. In contrast, Quetzal is not quite as good as it should be. In fact, it was bad, for me.
But Pangolin is indeed precise. It's everything you expect your desktop to be. In my thorough testing, which continues to this day on three different machines, Pangolin keeps on exhibiting almost corporate-grade quality. Everything seems to be working just fine, and there's a nice, pleasant blend of conservative and modern. And it can be made even more awesome if you twine it with Cinnamon and some extra glitter.
This is a revolutionary achievement, on par with the Polio vaccine. Who would have thought that Dedoimedo might declare an Xfce-adorned desktop as a candidate for the top five, let alone the second place? Well, it happened. The LTS release was already a blast, and the 12.10 edition makes things even better. This, in sharp contrast to a rather regressive stock Ubuntu release, with horrendous performance on Nvidia-powered machines. Indeed, Xubuntu has become so good and refined that I am honestly considering including it in my production setup. Bravo.
It's back! Linux Mint has regained its place at the top of the charts, after falling down a whole of four places, mostly because of the unholy Gnome 3 desktop. Since, the dev team has ditched this failure, and the quality and execution of the operating system have climbed up to their expected levels.
The spring release is the big winner here. Nadia, the autumn release, is also quite decent, but it was that much worse than its predecessor, mostly because it forks from a very bad Ubuntu release and inherits some of its shortcomings. However, Mint 13 Maya with the Cinnamon desktop is all you want and need, stable, beautiful, robust, free for the next five years, and comes with all the goodies you can think of. Splendid. For those of you who feel adventurous, you might also want to consider the MATE desktop, too.
Now, these do not belong in the top five, but you might also want to consider them for your collection, or at the very least, thorough testing. Some of the distribution listed below are not as big and mighty as the players above, so you might be disinclined to try them due to a reasonable fear of them being abandoned or discontinued without prior notice. Still, if you do not mind playing and exploring, and you can live with less than perfect support and future prospects, then surely some of the names will invoke a raised eyebrow of pleasant surprise. Others are perfect workhorses, but tend to be more conservative and less popular overall.
Stella 6.3 is definitely one of the worthier and surprising candidates. It's a distribution based on CentOS, which is based on RedHat Enterprise Linux. What Stella does is merely take the stock CentOS distribution, which is in need of some serious pimping, and makes it instantly presentable and usable for the plebes. Lovely jubbly. Oh, CentOS is still as good as it was last year. And it worked great on my SSD-powered machines.
SolusOS is a Debian-based distribution with the good ole Gnome 2 desktop. It definitely offers a unique experience in the world mostly infected by the pseudo-touch bug. It is very fast, elegant and stable, eats only a handful of your RAM, and has all the goodies you want.
Finally, DreamLinux 5 would have been another potential candidate, unfortunately the distribution has since been discontinued. However, the themes and icons can be downloaded for free, and they are available under the GPL license.
And we're done. Party time!
The list ends up with four Ubuntu-based distributions, so you might say I am biased. But no. The rest simply do not deserve to be on the list. Of course, this is a personal take on the computing world, and your needs might be completely different from mine.
What we see here is the rise of Cinnamon and Xfce, we see Mint retaking its place as the champ, we see a decline of Ubuntu, in its Unity form. Fedora is another surprise. Whether the picture remains the same next year is yet to be seen. I am sure it will be quite interesting.
There you go. And I do have one humble request. In order not to spam you with too many links to articles you may already have read, I recommend you do visit the individual reviews, as they link to various tweaking guides, tutorials for setting up graphics card drivers, as well as additional articles reviewing the same distros in various setups on different hardware.
So I guess that we would be all. Enjoy!