Join me as I look back at the best Linux distros of 2A021 — and no, before you think it: they’re not all Ubuntu based!
I may write a blog about Ubuntu. I may use Ubuntu. But the Linux ecosystem? I know it’s far more than just Ubuntu. It’s a rich and vibrant scene chock-full of choice, colour, and creativity. There are dozens upon dozens of top-drawer distros out there, all deserving of attention.
—Plus: a schmaltzy end-of-year look back like this would be awfully short if it only included Ubuntu! 😉
What follows is intended as a celebration; a shoutout to some of 2021’s standout Linux releases in my opinion. This post is not a proclamation of superiority; distros aren’t ranked in any special order; and anything not featured isn’t automatically being badged as un-good.
Compiling a list like this on my own was a big ask (it’s genuinely never been as hard as this year) so I turned to omg’s Twitter followers for help. Their responses aided me in deciding exactly which distros to include — so if you got involved in that, you have my sincere thanks!
There were plenty of highlights—and even a few surprises this year. From familiar faves to novel newcomers, here are my picks for the best Linux distros of 2021!
Endeavour OS ‘Atlantis’
Were I handing out an award for the Linux distro I’ve heard the most hype about this year, EndeavourOS would clinch it, no contest. This Arch-based distro has grown a very loyal following —and for good reason: it’s genuinely that good.
EndeavourOS is sometimes described as “Arch for human beings”. I think that description does it a disservice somewhat. It is far more than just Arch with water wings. It’s a carefully curated experience of its own. And while it does make Arch easier to use (at least by n0obs like me) it also takes care to make it enjoyable to use, too.
Heck, the clue is in the name: EndeavourOS is a Linux distro that’s all about the journey. If regular Arch is a weekend dropped into the wilderness, EndeavourOS is more akin to a backpacking trip with a map and a few directions: you can explore all of the same places, you just have more of a structure in place to guide you to them.
Although a rolling release, the distro issues refreshed
.iso images as “jump on points” for newcomers. December saw the launch of EndeavourOS ‘Atlantis’ (followed by Atlantis Neo) – both packed full of refinement, enhancement, iteration, and ideas.
If you’re intrigued by Arch Linux but have yet to try it, EndeavourOS is the perfect introduction.
Zorin OS 16
The Zorin OS 16 release grabbed a lot of attention this year, and you only need eyeballs to see why: it is beautiful.
Zorin’s ice cool new GTK theme is an impeccable compliment to its customised GNOME Shell desktop experience (single panel, standard app menu). But this beauty is more than skin deep as the release includes a number of novel new features, such as a software wizard that tells users who try to run a windows installer if a native Linux version of the app is available. These help the distro feel just as good as it looks.
And yes, I can’t lie: I love that it added a wobbly-window feature called jelly mode!
For a few years Ubuntu-based distros were a bit of a meme. They were considered low-effort reskins offering few substantive differences. Oh, how the times have changed! Zorin OS 16 shines brought amongst all Linux distros, Ubuntu-based or otherwise, and shows no sign of letting up.
By many measures, Zorin OS 16 is now the ideal Linux distro for beginners.
I love GNOME 41. It’s a fantastically refined experience. And the best way to try GNOME 41 “out of the box” is on Fedora. No other distro makes GNOME feel quite as “at home” as it does here. So naturally, October’s arrival of Fedora 35 Workstation was a big event for my fellow fans of the GNOME project.
Though established, Fedora isn’t a Linux distribution keen to rest on its laurels: Red Hat devs and the Fedora Linux community make sure each update pushes forward by leveraging the latest open source (and often new) technologies. For example, the Pipewire experience on Fedora 35 is simple out of this world good — Ubuntu sorely needs to catch up.
Alongside the main desktop edition were a number of companion spins, including Fedora Cloud, and a new Fedora Kinoite, the latter being billed as a “reprovisionable desktop system featuring the KDE Plasma desktop”. Add in Fedora Silverblue and, well, every base is covered!
In short, if you want to ride the crest of the open source wave near the front, Fedora 35 is the one to choose.
Linux Mint 20.2
I dare say there’d be a riot if a version Linux Mint didn’t get a mention — and rightly so. This year saw a couple of releases, the biggest of which was Linux Mint 20.2 (fyi: Linux Mint 20.3 is imminent).
At the heart of Linux Mint 20.2 is the Cinnamon 5.x series desktop. Mint’s lean, clean DE made major strides to reduce its resource usage (you can even set a RAM limit for it now).
The Nemo file manager gained more capable search features, notifications were reworked to be less annoying, and power improvements mean Mint offers better battery life on portable devices (and is also better at letting you know when power is running low).
Linux Mint 20.2 is a masterclass in how to deliver a stable, user-friendly desktop Linux operating system.
As I said at the outset: writing a list like this is hard. I don’t want to appear like I’m denigrating the achievements of whatever OS I don’t mention. But I also have to be strict; if I list every distro that did something I found awesome this year I’d be writing it well into the next one!
So it came down to elementary OS 6.0 and Pop!_OS 21.10. Both are solid releases, but Pop!_OS 21.10 just nudged it for me because (bias klaxon) I’m a bit more sympathetic to the GNOME-y UX than I am the Pantheon UX. And yes: a large part of that is my inability to adapt to life where
super doesn’t open an app launcher 😂!
Pop!_OS 21.10 was Ubuntu, done better. There, I said it. From its theme options to its recovery options to its inclusion of newer kernels and graphics drivers… It’s a distro that feels like its going somewhere. The Cosmic desktop is as pointed and purposeful to productivity as possible.
Irrespective of where the Cosmic desktop heads in its post-GNOME future, it’s arguably reached a zenith. No gimmicks, no insistence on doing things any one-particular way, no headaches; Pop!_OS truly “just works” for the majority of people. To loan it a streamline: Pop!_OS is Linux for human beings.
Yes, you’re free to make exaggerated vomiting noises now! 😆
Oh, and Ubuntu 21.10 of Course
Ubuntu 21.10 arrived in October to modest fanfare — the Ubuntu hype machine of yore is long gone. ‘Impish Indri’ (as it’s named) is a solid release. Heck, it’s probably the best Ubuntu release in the past 3 or 4 years in terms of raw performance (Canonical’s engineering efforts in this area are clearly paying off).
Ubuntu’s first bash at marrying GNOME’s “horizontal” workspace and app launcher with the vertical Ubuntu Dock is… It’s interesting. Functionally, it’s not a bad attempt. It works a lot better than it could’ve, so work clearly went in to it.
But, and I don’t know if I’m alone in thinking this, it doesn’t very feel cohesive. Indri feels more like a belated and reactionary adaptation to GNOME 40 than, as in Cosmic’s case, a considered ideation that channels it.
Sadly, that’s kind of Ubuntu desktop’s USP atm: a collection of parts that sit together, but don’t necessarily feel like they fit together. Distros like Fedora lead the way in promising next-gen tech like Wayland and Pipwire, while distros like Zorin and Pop!_OS cater to the things users want from a desktop.
Ubuntu 21.10? It has flashes of brilliance but it’s lacking a little je ne sais quoi.
A TON of other Linux distros issued very good releases this year, including the excellent elementary OS 6 (recently updated to 6.1). The switch to Flatpak? Flawless. Introducing a standardised dark mode? Fantastic. Those slick multi-touch trackpad gestures? Finger flickin’ great.
Other honourable mentions include Manjaro (always marvellous), KDE Neon (I know, I know; it’s not a distro); Slax (solid choice for 32-bit folks), and Garuda Linux (doing some interesting stuff). Feren OS also gets a mention because I keep saying I’m going to try it and I don’t — next year, I will!
I didn’t set out to write an index of every distro release this year, so naturally this list is personal to me. These are the distros I’ve had first-hand experience of or seen the most enthusiasm for in my inbox or on Twitter. Naturally you’ll have your own top five, so feel free to share it down in the comments.
And if you’re keen to hear about non-Ubuntu distros more often, maybe omglinux.com could be a thing!?