Updated: February 8, 2021
OK, let's do it. I'm going to tell you about my top five distros of the past decade. A (very) long view on usability, functional and cultural (so to speak) impact, the value, the quality, the fun I got out of them, how they shaped my usability - and that of others, and a few other interesting tidbits. Nostalgia, forget we must not.
In a way, the article will be similar to my five-year summary (2016-2020), which I did not that long ago. And of course, you're likely to see some of the same names invoked. So if you've read it once, well apologies for that. All right, we know what the deal is for the latter half of this period, but what about the first five years? If you ask me, those were the interesting years - the peak of the PC, the fun desktop period before the mobile era ruined it all. Moving on, ze list.
Fifth place: Linux Mint 16 Petra
I have to say I struggled with choosing the most adequate name for this spot. But then, I realized I was overcomplicating things. Linux Mint Petra was one of those spotless, 10/10 distributions that did everything perfectly. It probably doesn't resonate with too many users as it wasn't an LTS, and thus, didn't hang around long enough to be noticed and used extensively. However, it is a great example of a community project done well. It was refreshing, smart, elegant. In the Linux community, creativity seems to come in long pulses, and you can observe the glory days of KDE, Gnome, Xfce and alike, and then break it down to particular distros, as well. For me, Mints 16-17 were top notch stuff. While Rosa Xfce is probably a more enduring product, Petra had a bit more passion, more joy.
Fourth place: MX Linux MX-18 Continuum
A small, niche, partisan distro that made it - second place in the 2016-2020 summary. Now, if you've read my end-of-year articles (except yesteryear), you may have noticed MX Linux featuring there quite a lot. Which is an interesting plot twist, because my early endeavors with this distro were quite disappointing. But over the years, it's improved, become stable, robust, very elegant, and convinced me to break my tradition of only using serious LTS releases for purposes other than testing. Now, what makes MX-18 so unique is the blistering speed. I used it to revive and revitalize two aging laptops, both pushing into their second decade. A challenge for most modern systems, not so for MX-18.
Third place: Xubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin
You may not remember this little release - but it was one of those feisty Xfce distros that delivered a good, handsome punch. It also made it onto my little Asus eeePC netbook, and did a great job there, offering remarkable speed and functionality, beyond the expected capability of this underpowered device. Any trip down the memory lane is a tricky experience, but I remember Pangolin handling any and every task robustly. The netbook traveled, it got used wildly, and Xubuntu never complained.
Second place: Kubuntu 18.04 Bionic Beaver
The winner of my 2016-2020 list is the silver medalist in the decade competition. In a way it makes sense, because KDE/Plasma didn't really take off until about 2017. In between KDE4 and Plasma 5, there was a long gap in the quality and fun in this desktop environment. Well, technically, I had a long pause in my serious use of KDE, roughly between KDE3.5 and Plasma 5. Long story short, Kubuntu 18.04 Bionic Beaver works well, it improved significantly from the first release (which was meh), and I've cautiously but happily adopted it for my productivity use on the Slimbook. Now, it does the job remarkable well - it's stable, pretty, designed with flair and consistency, and it feels rather semi-pro. Quite solid.
First place: Ubuntu 14.04 Trusty Tahr
This was the one distro that really stood out for me. And it weathered many a challenge I threw at it. It was so good that I adopted into my very narrow, very select arsenal of production-value Linux distributions. I tried it on a whole range of Linux laptops, and it delivered quite well. Intel, Nvidia graphics, you name it. Touchscreen on my Asus Vivobook, no issues. The 4K display on my IdeaPad Y50, sweet again. Fractional scaling, 2014, all good.
The Unity desktop was fast, elegant, practical, way ahead of its time. The speed and ergonomics were right, the combination between classic and modern carefully balanced. Some may say that Unity even got better in Xenial, but I think the sweet spot was 14.04 and how it did things, in look and functionality. 'Twas truly a remarkable system.
That's it. The last decade. Or one might say, the lost decade. We've seen a lot happen in the past 10 years. The fall of Symbian, the rise of Android and iOS, the missed opportunity with the Linux-based smartphone, the missed opportunity that was Windows 8.1, the missed opportunity that was the EOL of Windows 7. The world changed, becoming less desktop, more phone, less accurate, less search and less free Internet, more silos for idiots. And among all of them, Linux, pottering quietly.
Well, you can't go back and rewind the clock. But you can reminisce on the good ole days, and reflect on the fun experiences. For me, Ubuntu 14.04 Trusty Tahr was the pinnacle - excellent product plus I was still young and full of hope back then. Now, I'm just young. The hope isn't entire gone, but I'm far more cautious with the Linux desktop. And so, that would be my ten years. Let's raise a penguin to the next decade, and see where it takes us. Thus endeth my nostalgia litany.