Best Gnome distro of 2019

Updated: December 19, 2019

Ladies and gentlemen and rare penguins. It's time for another best-of article. Today, I'm going to cover the Gnome desktop. Just a handful of sunsets ago, we did the Plasma finals, with Kubuntu 19.10 Eoan Ermine as the lucky winner. Now, we shall look across the playground at the other major camp.

Gnome hasn't been the same since the integer increment from 2 to 3. What used to be super-slim, super-fact and super-ergonomic desktop became a minimalistic platform that just doesn't work for me, mostly because it removes essential components from the classic desktop formula that people need and expect. That doesn't mean Gnome can't be enjoyed, with some rigorous alterations and tweaking. In fact, there are some pretty decent systems wearing this guise out there. Let's see which one deserves to be the champion for this year. Follow me.

Zorin OS 12.4 Core

I tested this distro around March. Beforehand, I did some Fedora 29 tweaking and a Mint Cinnamon review, but while these could be bundled under the Gnome banner, I decided to exclude them; the former since I had really tested it back in 2019, and we have Fedora 30/31 for the current year, and the latter because Cinnamon is its own desktop.

I have to say, Zorin delivered a pretty impressive show - near-flawless results in the important categories, like phone connectivity, network connectivity and such, good customization and accessibility, a colorful application set, and lots of small gestures toward the common users. Definitely sailing smooth on the uniqueness front. But performance and battery life were typically bad, and font clarity was quite tricky. That said, this was a pretty slick distro, and a fresh dose of hope for my jaded, battered soul.

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Solus 4.0 Fortitude

Here, I did decide to include Solus, even though it runs its own Budgie desktop. But the two share quite a lot, and I felt it was appropriate listing it in this compilation. Like Zorin, it has lots of unique features and options that you don't see elsewhere. I had crisp fonts, excellent driver support, smart package management, and then some. The problems, well, kind of remain the same - speed, battery life, usability quirks. Nevertheless, it's more than commendable seeing Herculean effort transforming a bland and difficult desktop into something elegant and thoughtful. Especially since most of the Linux world is playing dead possum and waiting for a Nirvana that shall never come. Quite a feisty early entrant.

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Fedora 30 Workstation

I probably did more Fedora 30 testing than any other distro, save maybe MX Linux. But I installed the system in my eight-boot setup on a laptop with Intel graphics, I did an in-vivo upgrade on the same box, and then I also tried it on an old Nvidia-powered machine. The first two attempts were quite all right overall, but the last experiment was a difficult, unhappy ordeal that took away much of the joy and fun I had otherwise.

Overall, Fedora 30 did deliver improved performance and better accessibility to everyday needs, like media codecs or third-party repos. But I also had lots of issues with hardware support, subpar battery life, and immense usability problems, and I had to modify and tweak the distro quite a bit before it gave me the expected desktop experience. It was okay, but in general, Fedora remains a strictly nerd-and-dev distro, and it's not really intended for general usage. Shame, because there's so much potential there.

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CentOS 8

Perchance CentOS 8 is the answer to my needs, then. It's like Fedora, only with more stability and much longer life support. Once you get past the usability issues, you have a fire-and-forget box for a decade or so. That can be a worthy bargain. Indeed, I was very happy to play with the distro and see what it can do, spending quite a bit of time changing the defaults as part of my make-perfect series. I even game the Stream edition a whirl, in anticipation of what this semi-rolling version could offer me down the road. Now, it wasn't trivial, this whole journey. I had to add third-party repos, solve problems with the extensions framework, add a lot of cool stuff that you need for home use, and then some. Performance is tricky, and battery life average. But there is a sweet prize at the end of all that struggling: ten years of support. Once I had everything sorted, I was quite happy, but in its default mode, CentOS 8 isn't a home desktop - although it makes a terrific one once transformed - and definitely not for newbies.

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Fedora 31 Workstation

Being able to test two Fedora editions in one year gave me a good opportunity to compare the two. Good news, it's a tad better, no spoilers! The everyday stuff needs are improved. You have less trouble when it comes to your network, your smartphones, your media, or even how to get third-party, proprietary software. The performance is also better, and you get solid battery life, which is an unexpected twist. Unfortunately, the desktop had all sorts of bugs and crashes, and I had to invest a lot of time making it usable, which is an effort that I find more and more difficult as years go by. Reasonable, at the end of the day, and if Fedora can sustain the momentum, it might even be really good two or three releases from now.

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And the winner is ...

Looking back - and it's always good to pause and reflect - I'd have to say Zorin 12.4. It offered the most complete Gnome experience out of the box. If you're a Gnome person, then this distro might just be what you need. But if you're looking for perfection, then it's a tricky game.

The thing is, most of these distros have something really good and phenomenal, but then lack severely in other areas. It's a very weird situation, and far more pronounced in the Gnome space than in the KDE space. The reason is probably the highly stripped-down, spartan nature of this desktop environment, which leads to a lot of creative freedom in how different projects try (or not try) to solve it. For instance, CentOS 8 forces you to use third-party repos, which you don't really need in Zorin. But you do get 10 years of support. Fedora is offering the best performance, but it's short-lived and buggy. And so on.

So let me rephrase my winner statement. For general use, Zorin is definitely the most rounded and accessible Gnome system I tried in 2019. If you're willing to invest time in taming Gnome, CentOS 8 will be your favorite. If you don't mind crossing the party lines, Solus is an understated fighter in this arena. But then, something is still missing ...

Conclusion

Sometimes, it's not easy wrapping up articles, especially when they carry a less-than-ideal resolution. I am biased when it comes to certain things, but then I have to externalize my message and think of what the common user would want or need. When it comes to Gnome, I spend more time with CentOS than other distro, and maybe one day it could become a daily driver in my home. Maybe. A big maybe. But as a desktop, it takes effort that Zorin doesn't, and Zorin is a smart, brave effort to transform a difficult baseline into a friendly, unique system, which is why it's the winner in this article.

We're not done, though. There's still Xfce to do, and after that, we'll look across the entire Linux spectrum, and see what gives. My needs are quite simple and yet quite stringent, and it often takes a lot of work and testing before I allow myself to introduce new software into my production setup. So far, no big cliffhangers here, you know where I stand when it comes to operating systems. But I am always looking out for the next thing, hoping there might be something out there, something that will break the cycle of apathy and compromise. To be continued.

Cheers.

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