The question of how many Linux distributions there are, is a very hard one to answer.
Short answer: hundreds.
Long answer: The number fluctuates based on factors such as what one considers a distribution to be, how many people have to be using (and/or aware of) it, and whether it has to be actively maintained to make the list.
Experienced Linux enthusiasts might put together their own personalized distributions, including all of the features and applications that they need, and excluding all those irrelevant to them. That counts as a distribution, right?
For the rest of us, the extent of the options available make the choice just that much more difficult.
Let’s look over 12 of the most widely-known distributions to further confuse — excuse me, I mean enlighten — the matter.
Some considerations to keep in mind when choosing a distribution are its environment (desktop/server/etc.), its support (or lack thereof), its ease-of-use (or not!), maintenance (update schedule, or lack thereof), and its security.
Besides all that, it’s really all a matter of what you’ll be doing, and whether a distribution is designed to meet your needs — whether those needs be un-assuming, or demanding.
Fedora is a community-developed distribution supported by Red Hat. Red Hat (now a commercial distribution) was first released in 1994, while Fedora was released in 2003.
Fedora is a favorite among many developers, administrators and experienced Linux-users. It is considered to be in the mid-range of the “easy-to-use” scale, and one of the most secure and stable distributions.
Fedora’s default desktop interface is Gnome. Fedora “spins” are versions of Fedora available with non-default desktop environments, such as KDE, XFCE, Cinnamon, etc.
There are also Fedora task-oriented distributions available, such as Design Suite, Games, Jam, Robotics Suite, Scientific, and Security Lab.
Visit the Get Fedora website.
CentOS, first released in 2004, is another take-off of the Red Hat distribution.
It is marketed as “a solid, predictable base to build upon”.
CentOS a popular — probably the most popular — distribution of Linux used on servers worldwide.
Visit the CentOS website.
Debian was created in 1993. It is one of the oldest distributions, and the foundation of many other distributions available today.
Debian is a favorite among many developers, system administrators and Linux-users. It is not considered to be particularly easy to use, and so it not a great choice for beginners. There are stable versions and developer (unstable versions) available.
The default Debian desktop environment is Gnome, but XFCE, KDE, Cinnamon, MATE, and LXDE are readily available, and others can be used with Debian also.
Visit the Debian website.
Ubuntu was released in 2004 as a take-off of Debian, and has since become one of — if not the — most widely-known distributions of Linux.
Ubuntu is recommended for beginning Linux-users due to its ease-of-use, hardware support, stability, and the large community of support that comes with it.
Ubuntu has its own desktop interface, Unity. Various “flavors” of Ubuntu are available with other desktop environments, or for specific purposes, etc. Some flavors are Edubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Ubuntu GNOME, Ubuntu MATE, Ubuntu Studio and Xubuntu.
Visit the Ubuntu website.
Mint is a take-off of Ubuntu, and was created in 2006.
Mint developed its own desktop environment, Cinnamon, which is its default today. Mint also helped to develop the MATE desktop environment.
Mint is characterized by its attention to detail, and the fact that its developers integrate feedback from the Mint community into their work.
In terms of ease-of-use for beginners, Mint in highly rated; it focuses its experience on desktop users.
Visit the Mint website.
elementary OS is a take-off of Ubuntu, and was first released in 2011.
elementary OS is best described as minamalistic, catering to users who have little use for a PC beyond multimedia and web-browsing pursuits.
It focuses on the user experience, striving to make its desktop-only experience a simple one.
elementary OS has a unique desktop environment, Pantheon, that appears similar to OS X.
Visit the elementary OS website.
Mageia was released in 2010 as a replacement to Mandrake/Mandriva, which was first released in 1998 but is no longer supported.
Mageia ranks high on the ease-of-use/user-friendly scale, but still falls behind Ubuntu.
Mageia supports a range of desktop environments, such as KDE, Gnome, XCFE, Mate, and Cinnamon; KDE is the default.
Visit the Mageia website.
SUSE was created in 1992. Later it became a commercial version, and the open source (free) versions was named openSUSE.
OpenSUSE claims that its installation/configuration tool, YaST (Yet another Setup Tool), is the best available among Linux distributions. It has a lot of advanced options that may be confusing to beginners.
OpenSUSE is a stable distribution that uses KDE as its default desktop environment, although Gnome, XFCE and LXDE are also offered as options during installation.
Visit the OpenSUSE website.
Arch was released in 2002. It is not a good beginner distribution, as it focuses on a DIY approach geared toward experienced Linux-users.
Arch Linux is also not considered a “stable” platform, as the constant updates include the latest versions of the kernel and software, whether or not they’re the stable releases.
The desktop environment in Arch Linux is whatever you choose to install, or none at all if you prefer the command line. There is no default.
Visit the Arch Linux website.
Slackware was created in 1993, and is the oldest distribution still maintained today.
It is the most Unix-like distribution, most say, and although it strives to be user-friendly, it ranks much lower on the scale than many other distributions.
There are two versions of Slackware — the stable one, and the cutting-edge one (which acts as a testing ground for the stable version).
Slackware’s default desktop environment is KDE.
Visit the Slackware website.
Gentoo was first released in 2002. It is named after a species of penguins.
Gentoo allows you to customize most — if not all — details of the kernel and packages, meaning that it can take a bit of time to compile, but is highly-optimized to suit your needs.
Due to this versatility and the work it takes, Gentoo is not a great distribution for beginners, but can be tackled by anyone willing to put some work, time, and effort into it up front.
Gentoo is not particularly stable, especially when customized to use the latest versions of the applications and kernel.
Visit the Gentoo website.
Android, first released in 2008, is an operating system designed for mobile use on phones, tablets, etc., and as such is not generally considered to be an actual distribution of Linux.
Many people still consider it to be a Linux distribution, and so I think it deserves an honorable mention!
Visit the Android website.
As I mentioned, there are any number of Linux distributions available at any given time.
The Distro Watch website is the best source I’ve found to keep track of the distributions that have been made public.
For me, making the choice to start — and stick — with Fedora was an easy one.
My Dad, being a long-time Linux enthusiast, had already done all the hard work of experimenting with Linux as it grew, and had picked the one that best suited his needs.
That works for me — I merely reap the benefit of his already having the install files and updates on hand when I need them!
Not to mention that he himself is very handy to have around to answer my questions when other sources fail me.
My first and foremost research tool for all topics (besides my Dad) is Google, but for this particular post I spent quite a bit of time reading Introducing Linux Distros, which goes into a ton more detail than I do here; I highly recommend it.