Updated: May 12, 2018
Greetings. Over the years, I have compiled several articles detailing the best-of software for Linux and Windows, starting as early as 2008, and then making the last bundle in 2012. Six years is a very long time in the software sphere, so I thought about making another compilation.
My criteria for the inclusion and nomination are relatively simple: Applications need to be robust and stable, they need to accessible, the installation process should be relatively straightforward, and ideally, these will be cross-platform tools that run on other operating systems, too. There's a certain degree of personal taste, too, but I believe my choices are pragmatic, useful and fun. With the necessary expectation for a certain amount of hype, let us proceed. And do note, in some cases, you will see older and/or official screenshots, but that's mostly for aesthetic purposes.
Table of Contents
- 3D animation and rendering
- Backup & imaging
- Desktop dock
- Desktop dock-like applets
- Desktop menu
- Desktop search
- File managers
- FTP clients
- Image manipulation
- Image viewer
- Instant messaging & VoIP
- Mail clients
- Text processors
- USB creation/writing
- PDF readers
- Text editors
- Other stuff
Blender is a free, open-source 3D computer graphics program used for creating animated films, visual effects, art, 3D printed models, interactive 3D applications, and video games. Blender supports 3D modeling, UV unwrapping, texturing, raster graphics, and skinning, fluid and smoke simulation, particle simulation, soft body simulation, motion graphics, video editing, compositing, and more. This application is not easy to master, and in fact, it can be quite overwhelming. There's a very steep learning curve, and significant talent is required to get things done well, but it also offers stunning results for those willing to invest the effort.
Kerkythea is a standalone, cross-platform rendering system that supports raytracing and Metropolis light transport and uses physically accurate materials and lighting. Plugins are available for a range of modeling programs, including SketchUp, allowing you to export your files directly into the Kerkythea format. A 64-bit version called Echo Boost (Windows only though) offering some additional performance and rendering improvements, was released in 2013, but this seems to be the last (current) software release. Technically, Kerkythea may be considered discontinued technology, but it still a useful program to have around, and in my opinion, the easiest and yet most effective rendering tool available to amateurs and semi-professionals, free of charge. I've rendered most of my 3D art using Kerkythea.
CloneZilla is a complete system imaging and restore program, available as a standalone live Linux distribution. It allows you to backup, clone and restore high-quality disk and partition images on a range of hardware models and filesystem times, including NTFS, making it suitable for mixed and dual-boot environments. CloneZilla is also useful in the business setup, as it can clone as many as 40 systems in parallel. The tool also supports MBR and GPT partition tables, so you can use it on machines with either BIOS or UEFI. You can also use encryption. P.S. You may also be interested in my full usage tutorial, too.
This frontend for the immensely flexible and powerful rsync tool remains my favorite GUI wizard for data backups. Grsync has a relatively simple interface, but it does provide you with all the necessary options for replications, including wildcard filters, scheduling, dry run simulations, local and remote copies, and more.
In this regard, not much has changed in the past six years, either. Firefox remains one of the best, or let's say, least worst browser options for Linux. Version 57 (Quantum) and above do offer improved performance, and the look & feel is reasonable, although much of the addon functionality has been lost moving to the WebExtensions framework. That said, you still have a modicum of control over the browser's behavior, and it's more stable and mature than most alternatives, including those directly spun from it.
Google's product remains the close second choice in this field, with capabilities very similar to Firefox. Over the years, Firefox has become much closer to Chrome in its look, behavior and overall feature set, but the two are not quite the same. My Linux tests show that under heavy load, Firefox is a slightly better performer, while Chrome has better UI responsiveness overall. Chrome also comes with a rich portfolio of extensions, but again, they do not quite scale up to the old Firefox addons arsenal. In general, for most users, the considerations will probably depend on device portability (the use on mobile platforms, account sync, etc). In general, Chrome is a reasonable option.
The use of Mac-like docks is not required in most Linux distributions, especially those that use the classic desktop layout with a permanent panel + task manager. However, in systems with a two-panel layout, or those without an explicit space/location for a list of running application windows, docks can be extremely useful. Most notably, Gnome and Xfce desktops can benefit from docks, and they have been implemented in many ways, including Dash to Dock, Dash to Panel, Docky, Plank, and others. Most of them use the icons-only no-text layout, which is also popular in Plasma and in Microsoft Windows 7 and above, with the ability to pin individual applications.
Dash to Panel is a Gnome extension that combines the Gnome Activities + Favorites + top panel into a single frame, which can positioned anywhere on the screen. It features several system applets, an application menu, a desktop show button, and programs can be easily pinned or rearranged. You can also configure the look and feel to a high degree.
This Cinnamon desktop tool offers a powerful, flexible icons-only panel behavior, with a very detailed and flexible configuration menu, including preview, grouping, context menu, mouse actions, individual desktop workspace layout, activity, and more. We will talk about this in more detail sometime in the future.
Whisker Menu is an alternative application launcher for Xfce. It is customizable, with an easily redrawn interface. It includes inline search with shortcuts for online usage, favorites, categories, and more. Whisker is very easy and convenient, and nails down the menu formula perfectly.
The built-in Plasma desktop search tools remains the most fully featured utility of this kind. It can be used to start/stop application, issue shell commands and install software, browse folders, files or even websites, listen to music, perform mathematical operations, manage the system, and more. You can selectively enable or disable the available plugins, and there's a great deal of configurability built into Krunner.
This virtual globe application allows users to explore and learn the geography and environment of various planets in the solar system, with primary focus on Earth, but also Mars and Venus. Marble supports on-line mapping sources like OpenStreetMap, provides route planning, and can be used in numerous map modes, including political, historical, satellite, weather, and others.
If you're keen on playing old games, DOSBox remains the go-to tool. This x86 PC emulator offers complete support for legacy graphics, sound, mouse, and modem, including IPX and Serial networking, allowing you to run old DOS-based games and programs that are no longer supported by modern operating systems.
Truecrypt (GRC link)
TrueCrypt is a powerful, cross-platform real-time on-the-fly encryption software. It can be used to create encrypted volumes (file containers), encrypt entire partitions or drives, and even encrypt the entire operating systems (Windows only). The program had been suddenly discontinued in 2014, with version 7.1 the last one featuring encryption capabilities (version 7.2 can only decrypt). An independent audit has found no serious flaws in the program, and thus it remains safe to use, although future compatibility with new filesystems may be questionable. There's also an attempt to revive TrueCrypt in all sorts of ways. At the moment, though, the original tool is a perfectly suitable choice.
This utility is the successor to TrueCrypt, created as a fork from the original project. Not sure if this is 100% kosher from the copyright perspective, but so far the program seems to be doing well. VeraCrypt supports a similar feature set to its predecessor, but it also includes various security and performance improvements, which should speed up encryption and decryption on modern architecture. The two programs are not compatible, but it is possible to convert TC files to the new VC format without data loss. VeraCrypt also supports encryption for GPT system partitions.
Added as a native capability in Plasma 5.12 LTS, Vault is an extension of the desktop functionality, allowing you to create encrypted folders (essentially containers) on the fly. The user can create as many folders as they like, and keep them anywhere on their system, and then they grows with usage, so you are not limited by a preset size. Vault offers easy portable security with file manager integration, without interfering with other encryption tools or solutions.
While there are numerous available file managers for Linux, often divided along the distro/desktop line, Dolphin, being the primary workhorse of the KDE/Plasma family, is available as a program in pretty much any Linux system with the right amount of dependencies and libraries, and it offers the most comprehensive overall set. Dolphin features tabbed navigation, split view, command-line, search integration, and network support. The interface is highly customizable. There are also some drawbacks, notably the safe removal handling of external devices like smartphones and cameras, and support for Samba devices. However, it is extremely flexible and extensible, and comes with a range of useful plugins.
FileZilla is a fast, popular, cross-platform FTP client. The program supports FTP, SFTP and FTPS. It also supports multiple connections to allow faster data transfers. As of 2017, FileZilla also features encrypted storage for user passwords, which was not available in previous versions.
Several years ago, a gaming revolution started - the lovely Steam client was finally made available for Linux, opening doors to a wealth of possibilities and opportunities. Since, Linux gaming has flourished, with more and more companies offering native support for Linux, primarily Ubuntu. Indeed, this is the easiest, most comprehensive way to enjoy gaming on Linux, including expensive, high-profile titles.
GIMP is a free, cross-platform image manipulation program, with a rich, comprehensive set and a unified, tabbed interface since version 2.8. It offers a wide range of tools, plugins, scripts and filters for graphic editing of images, although it does require extensive knowledge to be fully utilized.
GwenView is a fast, simple, east-to-use image viewer for KDE desktops. It supports quick-edit, shortcuts, meta data editing, export into a bedazzling array of formats and sharing services, video support, and the ability to import images directly from external storage. The program can also be extended with plugins.
Microsoft has made its de-facto VoIP tool more accessible to Linux users recently, and the new Skype For Linux is responsive, fast, it supports voice and video calls, the use of Skype bots, plus music and video integration. The software is available in DEB and RPM formats (and some others with a few tricks), and it will configure its own online repo for auto-updates in the popular crop of distributions based on Debian, Ubuntu and Red Hat systems.
Despite getting a lesser share of limelight from Mozilla, Thunderbird remains a popular, effective mail client, with email, news, RSS, and chat functionality, extensions, support for industry standards, and good security. The program is cross-platform, free, and portable, and offers the most comprehensive, hassle-free bundle of functionality among various available options in the Linux world.
Audacity is free, open source, cross-platform audio software for multi-track recording and editing. It is an excellent program for audio processing, and it includes many powerful features like timer and sound activated recording, multi-channel recording, supports import/export in numerous formats, unlimited undo, a wide range of plugins and filters, and an intuitive user interface. Most of my various music-flavored Youtube channel creations have been processed one way or another through Audacity.
Avidemux is a cross-platform video editor, with support for many audio and video formats. It can also be used to embed subtitles, with some rather sophisticated features and option, it can cut, splice or join clips, and it supports various video filters and effects. Avidemux also has a command line, scripting facility, and multithreaded processing.
This command-line program (and its associated set of libraries) remains the one go-to media conversion program. It has such a long list of functions and supported formats, it is almost impossible to write them all down. Dozens of audio and video filters are available, allowing you to pretty much transcode any file to any file, extract audio from video clips, or split and join files. You can also capture streams from TV cards in real time, and use hardware acceleration.
I occasionally create video clips for my Youtube channel, and they have all been exclusively processed and rendered in KDEnlive. This program is not restricted to Plasma desktops, despite its name. You get multi-track editing, support for numerous formats, standards and aspect rations, and a range of audio and video effects and transitions, like distortion, rotation, color change, audio fade, old video, etc.
Forked from Amarok, Clementine is a cross-platform music player. Clementine offers dynamic playlists, visualization, statistics, support for USB and MTP protocols, and transcoding. It comes with a tag editor, album cover wizard, plus the ability to download missing cover art and tags. It also supports podcasts and Internet radio, with individual plugins for various popular (and payware) services like Spotify, SoundCloud, Last.fm, and others. For more details, please take a look at my review from several months back.
Almost predictably, VLC remains my top choice for a video player. In fact, it is a superb generic media player for any type of audio or video, and it is a close match to Clementine as a music box. VLC supports a huge range of options from its unassuming interface, including network streaming, media conversion, subtitles, filters and effects, skins, and more. The new 3.0 version also comes with state-of-art support for UHD, 60fps videos, 360-deg videos, 3D audio, Chromecast streaming, and still more.
AbiWord is a free, standalone word processor. The program comes with import/export support for a range of formats, including Word, Office Open XML, ODT, RTF, and text, and it can also save LaTeX documents. AbiWord has many advanced features expect from a word processing software, like spell and grammar checking, styles, tables, templates, and more. Still, some things are missing, the file format support is adequate if not perfect, and it is not designed to be a replacement for fully fledged office bundles, but it offers a lot of goodies from a small, light footprint.
The document workhorse of the open-source world is LibreOffice, offering a complete suite with word processing, spreadsheet and presentation application, plus additional database, math and drawing tools. LibreOffice can read and write a huge range of files formats, with improved Microsoft Office compatibility, especially since version 6.0. LibreOffice also has scripts, extensions, supports 3D objects, document signing and encryption, and it is even possible to modify the interface to mimic the ribbon-like UI introduced in Microsoft Office 2007.
Not strictly Linux, Microsoft's online edition of its highly popular office suite is available to anyone with Internet access and a compatible, modern browser. In Linux, you can sign into Microsoft Office Online and use the full range of the suite, including Outlook, Skype and OneDrive. Taking it one step further, Manjaro Linux offers its own implementation of Microsoft Office Online using its JAK framework, which wraps individual programs into standalone browser applications, with native desktop integration, plus several UI tweaks. This provides Linux users with greater cross-platform compatibility and flexibility, especially when working with Windows users and Microsoft Office users.
LyX is a friendly, powerful frontend to LaTeX, a typesetting document system that separates style from content. The layout of what the document will look like is encoded separately from the actual data (content), allowing for uniform, professional presentation, aided by supreme academy-popular Latin Modern and Computer Modern fonts. This concept is also popular with Web design (HTML and CSS), and it's also taken more traction among home office suite users, who can generate and use styles rather than manually decorate their documents.
LaTeX is largely inaccessible to most users due to its rather programmatic lexicon, which requires people to write using a non-human-friendly syntax of commands and instructions (a-la HTML), which is where LyX comes in, offering a friendly GUI with popular features and options through its interface, with additional capabilities of the full LaTeX language for power users. I have created my Apache Guide and the Linux Kernel Crash Book using LyX, and wrote several guides explaining some of the more advanced topics in the program.
My go-to partitioning software has always been GParted, used installed in various distributions or running from a live session when changes to the underlying disk structure require the affected operating systems to be offline. GParted is a powerful and flexible tool that can be used to create, resize, grow, shrink, move or delete disk partitions, as well as format them. GParted supports both ms-dos and GPT partition tables, and it has can perform the full range of its operations on BTRFS, EXT2/3/4, FAT16/32, NTFS, and ReiserFS, with additional support for many operations on HFS/HFS+, JFS, LVM, Reiser4, UFS, UDF, and XFS. GParted is fast and reliable, and a must-have part of any system administration arsenal.
Distributed as an AppImage, which ensures easy portability and execution on a majority of Linux systems without any preparations or additional installations of dependencies, Etcher is a lightweight, fast and reliable USB flashing tool. It supports virtually any type of image and target device, comes with built-in safety features to avoid accidental damage, and it can validate written images to avoid corruption. It also includes a command-line interface. My extensive testing with Etcher shows a true 100% success rate.
Primarily intended for KDE systems, Okular is a multi-platform document viewer, with support for many file types, including PDF, PS, TIFF, CHM, DjVu, DVI, XPS, PDF, ePub, Mobipockets, Markdown, various image formats, and more. Okular also supports DRM, as well as bookmarks and annotations.
Linux does not really require any security tools, which is why I decided to omit a longer list mentioning several rootkits scanners and on-demand anti-virus scanners that I've mentioned in previous articles. Moreover, the hardening frameworks like AppArmor and SELinux are rather distro-specific and difficult to analyze or use in isolation. The one piece of security software that can be of values to most people is Gufw, the frontend to Uncomplicated Firewall (ufw), which itself is a frontend for iptables and netfliter. Gufw supports many operations and tasks expected from a personal firewall, like incoming allow/deny rules and policies, logging, outgoing filtering, rate limiting, and IPv6 support.
The acronymously named Kate (or KATE) is a text editor for the KDE/Plasma desktop, and it comes with some rather nifty features, including tabs, spelling, syntax detection and auto-completion for more than 200 languages. Kate has a good regex-enabled search facility, and can also be used in vi mode. You can save sessions, which helps if you work with large sets of files, and you can transparently load and save files to network devices and remote shares (HTTP, FTP, SSH, SMB, and more).
If you need to run legacy operating systems, test new software without making extensive changes to your underlying setup, or run multiple systems in parallel, virtualization makes perfect sense. VirtualBox is a free, cross-platform virtualization product, offering a powerful, flexible platform for software isolation and testing. The program comes with advanced networking and storage management, 2D and 3D support for some of the guest operating systems, shared folders, encryption, CPU extensions support, EFI boot support, USB support through extensions, and more.
Another highly useful virtualization product is VMware Player, or rather VMware Workstation Player, a slimmed down but free version of the full Workstation suite. It can be used to run another operating system on top of your host, with features likes 3D support, shared folders, auto-install for some systems, advanced networking, and more. It is very simple and intuitive to use, although you need the Workstation to unlock the full set of capabilities.
As you can see, it's an incomplete list, partly because I have no immediate needs or wider experience with certain tasks, hence I'm not in a position to advocate any particular software in that regard, and also because this list could easily become endless, which sort of negates the "best of" idea. But I did struggle with some of the categories, for instance, like the screenshot tool. Seemingly trivial, but I couldn't really say that either Spectacle or Gnome screenshot qualify, even though I use them often. Lastly, I did not list some of the categories from back in 2012, because I didn't feel they warranted that much exposure.
Which is where your recommendations come in - feel free to email me and share your opinions. If and when you send me an email, forever alone, I will add your candidates here - including your justification why you believe this or that software actually merits mention, and better yet, why it should be considered a superlative must-have in someone's arsenal.
There you go. Lists like this can easily be overhyped, but I tried to provide useful, practical information, based on long-term, personal usage, and pretty much every program comes with a tutorial or a review behind it, sometimes even more. None of the stuff presented here is just a random pulled-out-of-sleeve trick. Hopefully, this will be a reasonable baseline for your endeavors and escapades in Linux.
But there's more. If you have any suggestions, please bring them forward. I will definitely examine and explore your recommendations, even if I ultimately decide not to include them. Then again, I might discover a fresh jewel or two and update the article. Well, the only thing left is for you to start exploring. And maybe extend your gratitude in the basest of forms - monetary. That would be all for today. Take care.