Updated: December 30, 2019
Another year comes to a close. Another year of distro testing, surprises, illusions, disillusionment, some happiness, some sadness, and most of all, not the year of Linux after all. But while the dream may be fading, there's still reasons to be jolly. Or at least content. Because some pretty nice and solid Linux distros did come out in 2019, and we need to crown the bestest of them.
Last year, the winner was MX Linux MX-17 Horizon. It delivered a good, whole desktop experience. A pleasant twist, one sorely needed in the lethargy-bound world that is home Linux nowadays. Which makes for an interesting little competition this year, because it's not just about boring technical details, it's also about giving users something they can proudly run and enjoy, beyond the rudimentary point-and-click essentials. I've already given you my take on the Plasma, Gnome and Xfce winners, so now we need to put all that together, and see what comes out. Let's do it.
Fifth place: Zorin OS 12.4 Core and Kubuntu 19.10 Eoan Ermine
The tail end of this competition is shared by a Gnome and a Plasma distro, Zorin on one end, and Kubuntu on the other, the latest release. Both have their unique points. Zorin is accessible out of the box, comes with excellent connectivity, but then struggles with performance and battery life. With Ermine, it's the opposite. Superb speed, lots of off-socket juice, great looks, but then you get some oddities, like printing or language. And of course, these two systems come from the opposite ends of what the Linux desktop ought to be, although Zorin uses a highly modified Gnome formula, which in essence, makes it into a classic desktop like any. At this point, whatever you pick, you should find value in your choice.
Fourth place: Manjaro 18.0.4 Illyria Plasma
With Arch-based distros, it's like going into a nightclub in Amsterdam. You never quite know what's going to happen. But over the past couple of years, I've been warming up to Manjaro, more and more, and tested no less than three different instances this year. I wasn't quite sure which edition to pick here, the Plasma one, or the Cinnamon one - tested against version 18.1 Juhraya, and in the end the Illyria Plasma one won by a tiny margin. You get the usual dose of goodies, plus some nice, unique Manjaro extras. There were also some crude moments, and the package management needs a serious facelift, but if you want something different, then you will like how Manjaro does things.
Third place: CentOS 8
I deliberated long and hard how to stack the distros in this article. Objectively, CentOS 8 isn't a desktop distro, and it takes work before you can use it in the typical desktop function. Plus it runs the Gnome environment, which isn't suitable for immediate desktop use, not the way the classic desktop formula dictates. But once you get the spit and polish in place, the rock-solid stability, ten years of support, and a good mix of hardware compatibility, software, and perks make it for a rather smart choice for everyday use. It sure could be more accessible, but even so, it comes with a strong punch. Also, this demonstrates that, despite my subjectivity, I can still be objective about quality and value where they are to be found, the desktop environment choice notwithstanding. Good is good, no matter what.
Second place: Kubuntu 19.04 Disco Dingo
As you know, Kubuntu is my daily driver - the Bionic LTS flavor on my Slimbook. Which makes me inclined to like Plasma systems. And yet, easier said and done. Among the many different KDE-clad desktops that were released this year, few managed to provide the necessary bundle of stability, consistency and looks. Among the lot, Disco Dingo seems to have fared the best. 'Tis a short-lived, interim release, but while it's supported, you can expect a good dose of fun, speed and decent software. To wit, silver medal.
First place: MX Linux MX-18 Continuum
Something rather remarkable happened in 2019. I committed MX Linux into my production setup. Well, in a secondary function, but it's still more than I've done with pretty much any other distro in roughly a decade or so, other than my standard Ubuntu/Kubuntu mix. I hadn't planned on it, but then I needed a super-light distro for my ancient Asus eeePC, and Continuum delivered. Furthermore, it also behaved well in other setups, on other hardware, and all in all, it never faltered or annoyed me.
This is a really neat little distro, with a good mix of usability, style and functionality. It doesn't have the pro edge, but perhaps you don't need that. I would like to see some of that, something that's been sorely missing across most of the Linux desktop scene for ... well, ever. Maybe something that could happen in 2020. Now, MX-19 isn't quite as refined as its precedessor, our winner, but we still have a full year ahead of us.
It is impossible to know in advance what will happen, which is why I'm always looking forward to my own soulsearching at the end of the year. Interesting, much like in 2018, the first two places are identical in spirit if not the exact version number. MX Linux, Kubuntu spring edition. I guess we can see obvious patterns. In a way, they are a good thing, because predictability helps when one wants and expect stability and reliability, but at the same time, they could also make it difficult or even impossible for distro projects to break out of their own self-imposed cycles of quality, for better or worse.
Philosophy aside, if you are looking for some fresh distro fun, MX Linux MX-18 seems to be the hot cake, and Kubuntu is a solid, established Plasma player. If you like Gnome, there are some nice options there, too. Compared to 2018, this year was far more rounded, both in terms of distros, their underlying architecture as well as desktop environments. It was also less fun overall, which is worrying. Seems like we might be running out of steam. But I'd like to be a naive optimist for a while longer if I can. Happy 2020, and hopefully you'll find some fun and frolick in the distro list I made above. Tux away.