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The Best Linux Distribution of 2015 (or 2015 Distro Reviews Recap)

Actually, instead of trying to name the best Linux distribution of 2015, a meaningless distinction without considering use cases, I'll just list the three that I chose to install on a new used laptop that I use for more serious activities, distributions I chose for a mix of characterisitcs most important being their reliability. I also list distributions that have lasted the longest on the now nine OS multi-boot laptop with a larger hard drive.

I also describe some of the strongest impressions that the distributions I reviewed over the past year made and mention the distributions that, because of time constraints, I couldn't review, but are worthy of honorable mention.

For details of certain claims in this article, visit the relevant reviews on the site.

Biggest Impressions

openSUSE
openSUSE's fundamental design, flexibility, and power is excellent, mainly because of the system management tools including the GUI and command line modular system configuration suite -- YaST, the zypper command line package manager and its libzypp and zypp configuration file structure.
While providing YaST for GUI system management, openSUSE also allows users to administer the system by using command line tools and editing configuration files. My appreciation of openSUSE increased this year because I had a reason to look into the structured and well commented set of zypper/zypp configuration files and use more of the YaST modules.
Arch
Arch is great. It is more stable than some horror stories would imply. I first installed Arch in January of 2015; after a few months of trouble free use I had to reinstall because of a problem with my wireless connection authentication caused by Kwallet. I don't think this was an Arch update breakage problem. The second Arch installtion has been running well for at least six months.
I still wouldn't rely on Arch at all, and don't really need to (or any one distribution) since I multi-boot, with two separate data partitions accessible to the other eight Linux OSes installed on the same laptop as Arch -- one of which is also accessible by Windows natively and the other through the Paragon ExtFS software. Notice Arch isn't on the other laptop with space for only three of the distributions that I find most reliable, as well as having other characteristics I find desirable, and as a set offer varity.
As a reason for not depending on Arch, consider the problem mentioned in the review of Antergos 2015-04-26, regarding VMware kernel module compilation. The problem was that the version of gcc used to compile the latest kernel version in the default stable repository -- the installed kernel in an up-to-date system -- was not available in the default stable repository. This made it impossible for VMware to compile its kernel modules. This problem makes me wonder whether its true something I read somewhere -- that Arch developers do things like this to discourage those that are not right for the Arch way.
Arch is also not as hard to set up as some would suggest. Definitely not as complicated as Gentoo, Sabayon when converting to source or hybrid source/binary package management, or NixOS.
But solving or working around problems like the above, and generally installing, configuring, and maintaining Arch is very educational and helps to use the other more dependable distrobutions better, thanks to the Arch Way's self maintenance and the documentation that is very clear and practical. The forums are also very helpful, and in my experience with friendly moderators.
Ubuntu
Coming back to Ubuntu after a while with Ubuntu 15.10, I realized it is a solid and reliable distribution, that didn't disappoint even once. I used 15.10 to set up a LAMP stack on the new used laptop to introduce myself to Drupal and during the process I was impressed with its solid reliability. One of the ways Ubuntu manages this is by not bothering to enable certain problematical features like hibernation. But there is enough documentation that describes the simple fix for this issue. A real brightness panel applet for brightness would also be nice, but at least the OSD display is there when using the keybord backlight control.
And since I rotate my use among the various distributions and desktop environments, Unity doesn't get old.
Fedora
Fedora 23 was much improved since the last time I used it when it deleted the contents of the EFI partition during an update. It is the distribution that has the most polished boot experience, with the smoothest transition from selecting it in GRUB, through the Plymouth animation, to the appearance of the greeter, with no systemd or GRUB script generated messages.
It is also the only distribution that recognizes and enables the fingerprint reader automatically.
Manjaro
Manjaro is another excellent distribution, providing an easy installtion of Arch but with features designed to increase the reliability of the Arch base. It does this by first using its own set of repositories. The stable set of Manjaro repositories contain packages that have been tested more extensively than in the Arch repositories, but the testing and unstable sets are available to be closer to Arch. Despite what some critics say is a flaw in using its own delayed repositories, necessary security updates are not delayed for testing like other updates, but are fast-tracked.
Manjaro also allows installation of multiple versions of the same kernel flavor, unlike Arch and like other distributions. It also has its own GUI and command line settings manager for system-wide settings, including a component for easy kernel upgrades and hardware driver installation, some custom tools for pacman related maintenance, and pre-installation of pacman GUI tools which also include support for the AUR. The latest version of Manjaro also seamlessly integrates all of its tools into the KDE System Settings.
Another strength of Manjaro is the large number of community editions fully customized for Manjaro, offering desktop environments other than the official Xfce and KDE DEs. In recent months community editions featuring the uncommon Budgie desktop, Fluxbob, JWM, and others have been released.

Installers

This year saw more and more distributions adopting the distribution independent Calamares installer. Calamares provides distributions that don't have their own installer a modular installer framework to adapt to their needs. Although development is active and features are being added, in 2015 it lacked features such as the ability to configure encryption or logical volume management, and in fact it can't do much besides selecting partiions for mount points. I does however provides a simple and mostly reliable installation. Sabayon, Antergos, and Apricity switced from their previous installers to Calamares. Manjaro which participates in Calamares development provided Calamares as an alternative installer to its more capable Thus installer.

On the other end of the installer simplicity-complexity spectrum is the openSUSE installer which is very well designed and very capable of complete configuration of the installed system. Because of the extensive capability, suitable even for enterprise systems, it is more comlicated than more basic installers like Ubiquity. Unfortunately, the environments provided by install media in which the installer runs, whether a live ISO or the dedicated environment for the Full DVD ISO, was disappointing in terms of some stability issues. Despite these recent problems, I still think openSUSE's YaST installer is the best installer of all.

The YaST installer itself had nowhere near the problems that the Cnchi installer of Antergos 2015-04-26, which was the worst installation experience of the year.

The following table has some impressions of the installers of distributions reviewed over the past year.

Distribution Installer Positive Hilights Negative Hilights
Antergos 2015.04.26 Cnchi
  • very simple yet effective UX design
  • nice extras like a component allowing selection of software and OS components to install such as printing support
  • extremely unstable
  • wouldn't allow mounting EFI partition to /boot/efi, selecting this mount point reverted to /boot
  • UUIDs of machine used to build ISO were written to /etc/fstab of installed system instead of creating/using UUIDs of target machine
  • installer didn't include resume or plymouth hooks to /etc/mkinitcpio.conf file preventing hibernation and Plymouth to work out-of-the-box
Apricity 2015.07.28 Cnchi
  • very simple yet effective UX design
  • UUIDs of machine used to build ISO were written to /etc/fstab of installed system instead of creating/using UUIDs of target machine
Fedora 23 Anaconda
  • allows a custom set of software to be installed by selecting a base environment and addons grouped by functional categories (at least in the Net installer)
  • slightly more capable than the typical installer, allowing more configuration options
  • workflow navigation using the hub-and-spoke model isn't as intuitive as the sequential workflow navigation
Netrunner Rolling 2015.11 Calamares
  • very simple installer
  • nice slide show
  • very simple installer, missing features such as encryption and and logical volume management
  • labels of existing partitions not shown
  • instasller fails to format selected partition for / necessitating pre-formating of the partition with KDE Partition Manager included in the live environment
  • binary for video hardware included in /etc/mkinitcpio.conf was not optimal for my hardware
openSUSE 13.2 YaST
  • the most capable installer allowing full configuration of installed system, suitable even for sophisticated enterprise systems
  • balances the complexity of the installer with a good workflow design and a "Help" button on each screen
  • installation media and environment (not installer) very buggy
  • existing partitions were not recognized when using the the full DVD ISO on a disc or when using the KDE live environment ISO on a disc, maybe because of power saving features built into hard drive
  • the live environment ISO on a USB thumb drive always booted into failsafe mode, which meant that the KDE environment had to be started manually
  • users that prefer a simple installer similar to Ubuntu's Ubiquity might find it to be to complex
openSUSE Leap 42.1 YaST
  • the most capable installer allowing full configuration of installed system, suitable even for sophisticated enterprise systems
  • balances the complexity of the installer with a good workflow design and a "Help" button on each screen
  • no live environment ISO, users must use SUSE Studio to create a live iso
Rosa Fresh R5 Mandrake/Mandriva derived isntaller
  • allows shrinking existing Windows partition as a petitioning option
  • can choose to enable CUPS, Samba, and OpenSSH server in the installed system during installation
  • extremely unstable, crashed multiple times
  • keyboard wasn't configured properly
  • uncommon settings such as a user id of 500 instead od the typical user id of 1000 causing problems accessing shared data partition
Sabayon 15.10 Calamares
  • very simple yet effective UX design
  • nice extras like a component allowing selection of software and OS components to install such as printing support
  • very simple installer, missing features such as encryption and and logical volume management
  • labels of existing partitions not shown
  • instasller fails to format selected partition for / necessitating pre-formating of the partition with KDE Partition Manager included in the live environment

Software Availability

The availability of software in the distribution's repositories is one of the major factors that makes a distribution usable. I found the distribution with the largest set of available software to be Ubuntu. As support for this, consider that all types of packages ranging from vokoscreen screen recorder application, Pepper Flash, to the computer aided engineering programs code-aster, code-saturne, and Salome programs are available in Ubuntu's repositories. Add to the already large number of packages in the Ubuntu repositories, PPA's, and the wide availability of .deb packages from software developers (Opera provides only .deb packages for Linux) and Ubuntu (and its derivatives) has (have) the best software availability.

Of course, as Debian is the base of Ubuntu it has all of the software that Ubuntu provides, but Ubuntu and derivatives supports PPA's allowing even more software and more up-to-date software.

The claim that Ubuntu has the best software availability is contrary to one of the reasons Arch is currently regarded highly which is that it has one of the largest set of available software, thanks to the AUR repository. While it is true that the AUR hosts a large number of packages, the Ubuntu repository has about the same amount without the inconvenience of having to build the packages locally. The building of packages locally may be a considerable inconvenience for some especially with packages that are large and updated frequently.

The programs mentioned above are all available in the Arch but only from the AUR but all have to be built locally, and in the case of the pepper, and again these have to be built locally. In the case of Pepper Flash, it is actually extracted from a download of the current Google Chrome and then packaged for installation by pacman. Over the past year I've seen this process break on several occasions because the Google URL for downloding Chrome changed without notice. Another cost of the AUR's abundant packages is the increased unreliability in maintenance of these packages. In my experience with Arch, the real and common danger during updates is these AUR packages.

After Ubuntu (and its derivatives), Arch (and its derivatives), and Debian (and its derivatives), openSUSE comes close to carrying as much software -- if the necessary OBS and PackMan repositories are enabled. It provides all of the sample packages listed above except code_aster in its repositories or additional openSUSE Build System repositories (which don't require local building). Sadly the quality and currentness of packages in user OBS repositories -- as opposed to major upstram project repositories -- could be better in some cases. The OBS may also have packages for some editions and versions of openSUSE and not for others.

I find the package management infrastructure in openSUSE to be the best of all of the distributions I've tried this year. The zypper command line program is powerful and flexible featuring an intuitive command synatax and informative and well formatted output with the small nice touch of hilighting the first letter of packages in a large list of packages and hilighting the highest level changed version category in lists of available updates.

The structure of the set of configuration files that govern the operation of the various package and repository management tools seems well designed. Combined with the YaST GUI modules for package management and repository management and the fact that update utilities are well integrated in the desktops in openSUSE, including Enlightenment, it seems to me that openSUSE has great package management facilities.

Performance

Unfortunately I didn't take a close look at performance metrics in my reviews this year, something I hope to change in the future. But I did notice that two small Debian based distros, Semplice which features a custom desktop environment built on Openbox, and PointLinux usidg the Mate desktop to be, subjectively, surprisingly responsive.

Unreviewed but Worthy of Mention

Voyager X8
Like Voyager 14.04 LTS which I reviewed last year, Voyager X8 is the best Xfce distribution. The aestehetic and usability customizations are again excellent. Unlike 14.04 which was based on Xubuntu 14.04, this version is based on pure Debian. This version optionally integrates the KDE window manager, Kwin, to remove Xfce's only real flaw -- that it doesn't have any advanced graphical method for provoding an overview of Windows and desktops. Unfortunately, Voyager is just customization of Xfce built usign other distributions' tools and not a real updatable distribution with repositories of its packaged customizations.
Semplice
Semplice is a Debian based distribution that is available in two editions, one using a Debian Stable (currently Jesse) base and another using a Debian Unstable (Sid). I used the edition built on Sid for weeks and found it very lightweight and responsive. It was even surprisingly stable through updates and demonstrated that Debian Sid is a viable alternative to rolling distributions (unless using KDE which was at a transition from Plasma 4 and Plasma 5).
Manjaro
I've said enough about Manjaro.

Conclusion

As I mentioned at the top of the page, it doesn't make sense to me to try to name a distribution as the Best Distribution. After narrowing down candidates to a certain number, they all offer different unique strengths. Nor is it even necessary for anyone to settle on just one distribution, since multi-booting on an EFI/GPT computer is trivial. But I can provide a couple of lists that could indicate some of the best distributions at this time.

The first is the three distributions I chose to install for very long term use on a new, used HP EliteBook 8540w mobile workstation. These might be seen as those distributions that I, on some level, think are the most reliable, the most current, and the most polished, without having to depend on any one, and taken as a set providing variety on the machine on which they are installed.

  • Ubuntu (non LTS), with a committment to upgrade/reinstall every six months
  • Manjaro
  • openSUSE Tumbleweed

Fodora is a close fourth.

The other list is of those distributions that have lasted the longest on my other laptop which started the year multi-booting eight Linux OSes and Windows but ended the year with one additional Linux distribution. These are:

  • Ubuntu, first as 14.04 LTS then 15.10
  • openSUSE, since before ordinatechnic.com, starting with 12.3 with reinstallations to accomodate reviews, and typically Tumbleweed which has lasted for many months
  • Manjaro since late 2014
  • Arch since January 2015
  • Antergos since May 2015

Fortunately Linux users and enthusiasts, there are many distributions to use and get to know.