Updated: January 27, 2021
Last year, for the first time in a decade, I did not write my end-of-year best distro reports. Because there wasn't anything majorly exciting to report about, and also because I found myself quite dejected and tired of testing systems for the sake of testing, going through the same old problems, bugs and regressions. Some of you even emailed me about this distinct absence of written judgment.
Then I thought, well, if 2020 wasn't fun Linux wise, perhaps we can have a longer view? How about the best distro released in the last five years? That sounds meaningful, and should also give us a good dose of reflection and nostalgia. Now, as always, this is subjective, so if you don't see your favorite distro on the list, it's because I'm writing from my perspective. Begin, shall we?
A bit more on the selection criteria and a bit of history ...
As you can imagine, the contenders will of course be the best 1-2 distros from each year. Only makes sense. But then, something that was good and relevant in 2016 doesn't necessarily mean it has the same value in 2019, and vice versa. Timing, needs, all of those count. Context is quite important.
Long-term, there are also the questions of stability, usability, overall useful in times of need, the actual impact on my day-to-day productivity, on the Linux ecosystem as a whole. Moreover, a multi-year view gives one a better understanding of how a product/project performs and behaves. Sometimes, you can't really see the true effect or value of something unless you span it over much longer periods of time - its irrelevance, too.
And so, over the past five years, many things happened. Systemd adoption, Unity desktop going away. The rise of the Plasma desktop, the quiet sidelining of the Xfce desktop. The growth of the self-contained application formats, more Linux gaming support, less Linux gaming support. Birth and death of many a distro.
In this time period, I also bought myself a new laptop for serious use - a Slimbook Pro2, which is also an important milestone (for me). At the same time, I had issues with an aging netbook, and I spent time looking for ways to revive it. More on this a bit later. An older Linux-laded notebook saw itself relegated to the shelves, if not quite abandoned.
Finally, I experienced many a moments of "almost there" - only to be disappointed with the next release of whichever distro and its share of random bugs and problems. As it happens, the Linux desktop never broke through, and the way the technology world is going, it most likely never will. All right, enough ranting. Let's have a look.
Fifth place: Linux Mint 17.3 Rosa Xfce & Fedora 24 Gnome
Back in 2016, these two distros shared the first place, and I think they are still tied. For me, Mint 17.3 is probably the best Mint release - after this milestone, I didn't find Mint quite as appealing and powerful as it used to be. It became duller and buggier, and Xfce lost its momentum. But 17.3 was as tight as distros get.
I was never a great fan of Fedora and/or Gnome 3, but Fedora 24 was an exceptionally good, stable distro. Again, for me, it sort of represents the peak for Fedora - the next release was also reasonable, but in the more recent years, there are just way too many bugs and problems. I found myself using Fedora a fair deal, the 24-25 family, which is quite telling given my view on the default lack of usability in the Gnome desktop.
Fourth place: MX Linux MX-17 Horizon
Small Linux distributions are a gamble. You may land on a gem, but the experience is fleeting, precarious. My journey with this system has been quite jumpy. I wasn't pleased with the earlier releases, but year after year, it would improve, slowly, steadily, continuously, tenaciously. At some point, it stopped being background noise, and it became something quite respectable, solid. I could say that MX-17 is the moment when MX Linux sort of got imprinted in my consciousness, and it became a distro worthy of respect and further consideration. In general, I think 2017-2018 were the high mark for the Xfce desktop, and Horizon did really well in bringing it all together.
Third place: Kubuntu 17.04 Zesty Zapus
While this was only an experimental interim release, for me it signifies a major turning point. After several years of mediocre performance (not in the pure performance sense), the Plasma desktop finally took off from there, and has retained a consistent, fresh approach ever since. Zesty brought seamless drivers support and good fonts, something that used to be a big pain point in the past. It didn't live for long, but it convinced me that Plasma could be the future desktop for me - which is something that I started mulling about as Unity's own future became uncertain.
Second place: MX Linux MX-18 Continuum
In 2019, something quite remarkable happened. For the first-time ever, I deployed a non-large distro in my production environment. In other words, I deployed a distro that does not have the backing of a large company and does not offer any formalized LTS release. That distro is MX-18, and it helped me revive a dying Asus eeePC netbook.
But this is a result of several years of continuum-ous [sic] improvements that went into MX Linux, making it a serious choice for home/desktop usage. MX-18 was (and still is) friendly, elegant, loaded with goodies, stable, and fast. If you end up using it on newer, more powerful systems, you might not be able to appreciate how nimble it is, and how well it performs on old hardware. I had this little distro subjected to quite a few serious tests and challenges, and it delivered extremely well in all aspects. Then again, in a way, like Rosa Xfce, MX-18 represents the high mark for MX Linux, in my opinion. The successor release isn't quite as good, but then, time will tell how this system evolves.
First place: Kubuntu 18.04 Bionic Beaver
This probably won't come as a surprise. The early days weren't as promising as one would expect from an LTS release. Things improved significantly after several months, and when I got myself the Slimbook machine, it was the expected choice. But the stakes were great.
If you've followed my website for the past 15 years, then you know I've always been a great fan of KDE, and I've used SUSE 9/10 quite a bit, including my day-to-day production setup. We're talking some rather cool stuff and concepts like Nvidia drivers, NTFS support, virtualization, Internet connection sharing and routing, custom PPTP dial-up scripts and whatnot, back (mid 2000s) when these were not guaranteed. It was delightful.
Then, I moved on to various guises of Ubuntu, settling on Trusty, and have not really used KDE/Plasma in my production setup for roughly a decade. I've also not used Linux that much in my production setup at all, given the restrictions - mainly gaming and office. So the idea of using a Linux laptop for serious work was a big one, and also a very interesting (ongoing) experiment.
Bionic Beaver delivered. I've got a stable platform that does not bug me, and it provides me with the means to achieve the aforementioned productivity. Very elegant. I've since deployed additional instances of Beaver around, including some upgrades, and it handled all the tasks fairly well. Moreover, the consistency and fun factors in the Plasma desktop remain, which is also quite important. As it happens, the more recent Focal is quite similar in look and feel, and it may prove its value in a few years. At the moment, for me, Beaver does the job, and does it well. Hence, the gold medal.
Here we are. Or rather, here I am. Will you send me an angel, I mean distro. So yes. The past five years, and the best distros spawned, hatched, released, and tested. Percentage wise, Xfce takes the lion's share of medals, but it's also the case of Xfce being "better" earlier, and Plasma later in this period. And even Fedora got onto my list, because a few years ago, it was quite nifty and fun. Then I got old and cynical. Or something.
The top entries for this list also feature distros that I use on my production systems. Combat-tested so to speak, with great delight and excellent results. My take on 2016-2020. And yes, you guessed right. We will have a sequel article, and it will cover the ENTIRE last decade. We'll examine 2011-2020, and vote on the bestest distro of them all. Take care.