Here are 13 of the best, oddest and most useful distributions that Linux has to offer, and why on Earth you’d want to use them.
Red Star OS
One distro that’s never going to trouble the top of the Distrowatch rankings chart is Red Star OS. This is the Linux distribution that was developed/is being developed as the officially sanctioned operating system of North Korea, apparently at the behest of Kim Jong-Il, the country’s leader.
It’s based on the familiar KDE 3.x, but with added touches including the Woodpecker antivirus software and the Pyongyang Fortress firewall.
Familiar apps have been renamed too: there’s a notebook app called My Comrade, and Firefox is called My Country (perhaps fittingly, as North Korea has its own internet). We searched for ‘Democracy’ in the default search engine, but nothing came up…
The classically educated might be able to guess that this is a small distro, possibly in the same vein as Puppy or Damn Small Linux. You’d have difficulty, however, comprehending just how small it is. MuLinux requires 20MB hard disk space and 4MB RAM, and will run on an Intel 80386 processor or later.
That’s the same Intel 80386 processor that was released in 1985, meaning Mu will breathe life into even ancient hardware. Mu is no match for a modern system in terms of productivity, having been finished in 1998-99, but if you have a 25-year-old machine that you want to rescue from the scrapheap, it’s the distro for you.
Ubuntu Satanic Edition
Ubuntu spin-offs are ten-a-penny, but we have to recognise that the makers of Ubuntu SE have gone beyond the ordinary in their quest to please The Dark One. The dark theme and collection of background images is the most obvious modification, and the sound effects and startup jingle have also been customised.
Ubuntu’s fondness for alliteration is still there (the last three releases have been Lucifer’s Legion, Microsoft Massacre and Necrophilic Necromancer), but the version numbers have been modified to 666.8, 666.9 and 666.10 respectively.
Oh, and it doesn’t have live CDs; they’re “undead”. Endearingly bonkers.
One for the techies, this: the thing that marks GoboLinux out from the rest is its filesystem layout. Most Linux distributions use an archaic non-arrangement wherein an application’s files are scattered around your hard drive in several different folders.
GoboLinux adopts an OS X-like approach (which Apple took from RISC OS), and stores all files associated with an application in a single folder in /Programs.
If you like software freedom, you’ll love GNewSense. It’s based on Ubuntu, but has had all non-free software removed, including those tricky non-free driver files that are loaded into the Linux kernel (known as binary blobs). Unfortunately, many of these blobs are drivers for wireless networking cards, so GNewSense may not be the best distro for laptops.
On the plus side, it has removed or renamed software that doesn’t fit the Free Software Foundation’s definition of freedom (Firefox, for example, is renamed as Burning Dog), and it doesn’t provide any links to non-free repositories, making it even more free than Debian.
Until we get the Hurd to replace the Linux kernel and create Gnu/Hurd, GNewSense (and Trisquel, a similar project based on Debian with a much cooler logo) is the closest we’ll get to completely free.
Sabily/Ubuntu Christian Edition
Formerly known as Ubuntu Islamic Remix, Sabily is Ubuntu with extra Islam. The theme is Islamic green, the Applications menu has been expanded to include a selection of Quran study/prayer-time software, and the DansGuardian web filtering tool has been given an easy-to-use front end in the shape of Webstrict.
Ubuntu Christian Edition is, perhaps not surprisingly, the equivalent for Christians, and features religious study tools as well as improved web filtering (Ubuntu CE’s DansGuardian UI is what inspired the developers of Sabily to include their own).
We also have to tip our hat to Jewbuntu, simply for having such an inspired name.
Originally released in the late 90s for Apple computers using the PowerPC chip architecture, Yellow Dog found its niche among people who wanted an even more different way to think differently. All was good, but then Apple abandoned PowerPC in favour of Intel chips, which it’s still using today.
This left Yellow Dog out in the cold, but after a change of ownership it re-invented itself as an OS for high-performance multicore computing – most notably as the OS used on PlayStations hooked up to form cheap supercomputing grids.
We blow our own trumpet so rarely round here that we’d almost forgotten where we put it, but it’s worth shouting about the work that disc monkey Mike Saunders puts into the DVD for TechRadar’s sister title, Linux Format, every month. Mike packs the distro on the free DVD with extra PDFs, extra software, extra desktop environments and heaps more extra options. We love you, Mike.
We love the freedom that we have to modify and recompile source code according to our needs, but very few of us actually do this, because it’s easier to just download a Deb or RPM file. The lazy majority would not like Gentoo – or Linux For Masochists, as it’s sometimes known – for the simple fact that you have to compile it yourself.
That’s not just the apps – it’s the whole thing, including the kernel and all the other bits of your current distro that most people take for granted. The point of this is that if your Linux distro is compiled for your exact hardware, it should be possible to wring every last drop of performance from your kit. You just need to make sure that you have a large supply of coffee to hand before you attempt to install it.
And yes, we know that there are versions of Gentoo in existence that are easier to use, but they’re not really Gentoo now, are they?
There still exists among our Windows-using cousins the risible idea that Linux isn’t good enough to take over on the desktop; that the continued dominance of Microsoft on the desktop is inevitable, because Linux is not up to the job technically. This can easily be refuted: the cleverest people on the planet – the scientists searching for clues about the beginning of the universe – use Scientific Linux at the CERN laboratories.
It’s based on Red Hat, and anyone can download and install it on their machine. You don’t even need a PhD in theoretical physics.
We’re sure that nobody runs this as their full-time operating system (if you do, get in touch and tell us why), so although it’s technically a distro, it’s best thought of as a specialist tool.
Parted Magic is a live distro that comes with all the tools you need to fix broken partitions. If something won’t boot, this is what you use to fix it, and that goes for both Linux and Windows machines. As a troubleshooting aid, it’s indispensable.
Before Unity, Gnome 3 and KDE 4 came along and showed the world what it was missing, the Linux desktop was a staid place, enlivened only by the ongoing flame wars between KDE and Gnome users. This is odd, because as long ago as 1997 we had a far glitzier alternative: Enlightenment.
Enlightenment is a window manager, and is beautiful without distracting you from the task in hand or forcing you to adopt your way of working to it. And the best way to get it is to install Bodhi Linux, which is why it’s on this list.
Umpteen Ubuntu remixes
It’s often said that there’s too much choice in Linuxland, but the truth is actually that there’s too much duplication. Each of the distros featured in this list fulfils a need, and brings something new to the party. But there are many, many more that don’t.
If you’re thinking of remixing your favourite distro to give it an Xfce or LXD E desktop, don’t: because someone will already have done it; and we don’t need any more dead wood clogging up the internet.