Updated: December 26, 2011
End of the year, the final scores. Let me tell you my version of the best of the best, for Linux distributions that came to be in 2011. In 2009, I used several categories likes security, updates, performance, and others to grade different distributions, and then summed the score. In 2010, I simply gave you my interpretation, with various usage models as the crucial factor. This year, we will do a simple countdown, with top five nominees rated and listed.
Overall, 2011 was not a good year for Linux. Many a distribution flopped, with a significant decrease in quality. Gnome 3 virtually killed half the desktop base, and Unity did not help much either. There was quite a bit of forking and reforking, with old, classic names fading into obscurity and irrelevance. The next-year dream of Linux dominance is probably not going to happen, not in its current form anyway. Without further ado, let's declare the winners.
Fifth place: Linux Mint 12 Lisa
Mint won last year, but it's down a whole of four places, mostly because of the new desktop interface. Even Gnome 3 Fallback and MATE cannot redeem the disaster called Gnome 3. I must say that Mint developers did a truly heroic job of making their system as usable as possible, given the circumstances, including Mint Gnome Shell Extensions and other polishes and fixes, but it's just not enough. While Lisa delivers a handsome experience from the applications perspective, the desktop framework leaves a lot to be desired. And as such, Mint finishes in the respectable but unsatisfactory fifth place.
Fourth place: Chakra Linux 2011.09
Chakra is a relative newcomer to the Linux world. But it's one great surprise. First, it is a pure KDE desktop. Second, it is based on Arch Linux, which is probably the least friendly Linux around, save for Gentoo. And yet, Chakra is fast, responsive, robust, and quite useful, despite its bastard heritage. It has some rough edges, but overall, it does its job well. I am positive it will grow and flourish in 2012.
Second place: CentOS 6 and Kubuntu 11.04, sharing
CentOS 6, first. For me, this was the most anticipated release in a long time. And just as I've expected, it is worthy enough of being included in my production setup. For most ordinary people, this distribution may look a bit old and archaic. Indeed, it is based on Fedora 12, which has seen light some two years back or so. However, let not numbers deceive you. CentOS is a blast. It is super-light, super-fast, super-stable, with a million years of support, and running a mature and pleasing Gnome 2 desktop.
I've also written a handful of articles explaining how to pimp your CentOS into perfection, including guide numbers one and two, how to install Nvidia drivers, and how to handle repositories correctly. All combined, these guides should help you make your CentOS installation as modern, relevant and beautiful as you desire. And it will run true and fast and without any hiccups till approx. 2017. That's quite a bargain for zero money.
Kubuntu 11.04 Natty is an extremely polished KDE distribution, probably the best to date. Like CentOS, I was thoroughly impressed with it and had it committed on my monster desktop. This makes a new and deadly combo and it's quite a bit of a revolution, as my setups rarely if ever change. Specifically, Kubuntu Natty Narwhal is beautiful, elegant, fast, and robust. It blends the ease and availability of the Ubuntu family with a modern and sleek approach of KDE4.6. You will like it, a lot.
First place, grand winner: Ubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot
I am rather surprised by myself, as I would never have believed that this Unity-flavored distribution could make to the top of the charts. And I'm saying this as a person who does not use Unity as his preferred desktop choice, not truly like it, yet. However, the overall quality, both of the underlying system, the presentation layer and the final package, convinced me that Ubuntu has the most to offer to the widest range of users.
In my testing, Ocelot, for all its silly name, was virtually spotless. It worked without any problems on both low and high-end hardware, in complex multi-boot configurations, with pretty much everything and anything tested. Ocelot is also visually pleasing, it is fast and responsive. Unity is becoming more and more normal, and with the ability to move the Launcher to the bottom, you're all set. What more, Ubuntu is turning into a true brand, allowing you to buy programs, games and music from within the desktop, which is quite nice.
I may not be the target user for Ubuntu and its new interface, but the charm and practicality cannot be denied, even by hardcore geeks. It's not quite Mac, but it definitely is not Gnome 3, as you can actually interact with your desktop and you have shortcuts. Aesthetics aside, and most importantly, everything works. As simple as that.
Some others ...
Now that the suspense is over, let us mention a few other distribution that you ought to check. As for the rest, if they are not on this mine list, you probably should not bother.
In no particular order, Puppy Linux remains the cute champion of the live session only, lean mean and light like a feather. Then, there's Fedora, who would have believed it. But in fact, Fedora 16 WITH the KDE desktop is the most stable and least intrusive Fedora release I have tested so far, and probably the most complete and least beta-quality product of the family to date. Scientific Linux 6.1 Carbon is another fairly strong candidate, and it runs the old but great Gnome 2. Almost as good as CentOS, but not quite there.
And that is all for this year.
I am absolutely sure this article will provoke as much agreement as hate and criticism, as the controversial list topped by Ubuntu is going to anger the hardcore users. But that's the simple reality, the way I see it, take it or leave it.
Like I've mentioned earlier, 2011 was a turbulent and unhappy year for Linux. KDE has blossomed but then it's little wilted in the winter. Gnome 2 and Gnome 3, that's a sad story, let's hope MATE wins, although I'm skeptical. Unity started as something you had to hate, but it's becoming a normal alternative to existing choices, and a rather good one. Do not diss it too lightly, take it for a spin. You might be surprised.
So you might ask me, dear Dedo, were you testing desktop interfaces or Linux distros? Well, for most part, the two are inseparable, no matter how much you try. It's the precarious, delicate combination of the system AND the desktop that makes the final product. Even though you can separate them, it is quite evident from dozens of failing attempts that the task is not that simple. A good desktop is an art, and it has to look pretty. But then, it also must be solid, robust and without any bugs. In this brutal race, Ubuntu 11.10 Oneiric Ocelot comes as the big winner of 2011. It, works, period.
That would be all. See you around. Happy New Year!