Overview of Popular Operating Systems

This page offers an overview of popular operating systems and my recommendations.

Created
March 30, 2020
Updated
May 8, 2023

Quick Visual Overview

Below is a picture depicting various (in my opinion) important computer operating systems. The picture uses colors to differentiate various types of usage. Here is some explanation of the colors used:

Black
Operating systems that I would use only in a virtual machine or on a spare PC because of their potential instability.
Blue
Operating systems I would install on a brand-new computer. They offer the latest software and hardware support. They usually have frequent updates.
Green
Operating systems that usually prioritize stability and long-term support. They have smaller and less frequent updates, but they may lack the latest software or hardware support. Although they focus on stability, they are still recent enough for use on desktop computers.
Red
Operating systems with infrequent updates, often very long support duration, and a focus on stability. They often lack the latest software or hardware support. These usually target super-stable server usage or old computers. Desktop users would find them too outdated or limited.
Gray
Operating systems I don't have much experience with.
Visual overview of some of the most popular operating systems

You can download the image shown above from this link: visual operating system overview SVG image.

Overview of Linux Distributions

Linux is an operating system kernel available as freely-redistributable source code. Linux itself does not provide user programs or a graphical user interface. This is where Linux distributions come in. Someone takes the Linux kernel, adds some userspace tools (very often GNU utilities, BusyBox, or BSD tools), adds a graphical interface to it (like Gnome, KDE, etc.), and creates an operating system that can be installed on a computer. These operating systems are referred to as Linux distributions because they use the Linux kernel. Some are created by individuals, some by various communities, and some Linux distributions are developed by companies for enterprise use.

Some Linux distributions offer different editions that target different use (server, desktop, IoT, etc.) or offer a different set of preinstalled programs. I usually prefer to choose the main offered edition of each distribution as it tends to be the best-supported one. If there is a choice of multiple graphical desktop environments (GNOME, KDE, etc.), I prefer to use either the default one provided by each distribution or GNOME. GNOME is a modern, full-featured desktop environment supported by most enterprise-ready Linux distributions. Other desktop environments often lag in terms of modern technology support (GNOME uses Wayland by default instead of the old X11 protocol). But some desktop environments such as XFCE can be a good choice on older, less performing systems.

Red Hat Family

These distributions are developed or sponsored by Red Hat, Inc., which is one of the largest contributors to the Linux kernel and other open-source software. These distributions focus on developer, server, and enterprise use. Red Hat provides its code modifications back to the upstream code.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)
A commercial enterprise operating system. It prioritizes stability over the latest features. Its primary uses are servers and professional workstations. Many server-grade commercial programs for Linux are designed to work on RHEL.
CentOS Linux
A free rebuild of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. It has been discontinued in favor of CentOS Stream.
CentOS Stream
A development version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. It is "not designed for production use" [source]. In my experience, kernel updates often broke UEFI Secure Boot, and programs like VMWare Player couldn't compile kernel modules because CentOS Stream had backported kernel patches that were not present in Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Compared to Debian (described below), CentOS (or RHEL) does not offer many software packages and is harder to configure (it puts security before user convenience by having a firewall and SELinux enabled by default, not enabling services automatically after its installation, etc.).
Fedora Linux
A leading-edge desktop and server operating system that incorporates the latest technologies that will eventually land in CentOS Stream and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Great for use on desktops and test servers. I use Fedora on my computers because it offers new software, and it has been stable and reliable.

Red Hat-Compatible Systems

Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is a commercial product that requires one to acquire a license in order to use it. Because RHEL is open-source software, there exist free operating systems that are built from the RHEL source code. These operating systems are usually fully compatible with RHEL, the only major difference is different branding (different name, logo, wallpaper).

AlmaLinux
AlmaLinux is basically a free version of RHEL built from the RHEL source code.
Rocky Linux
Rocky Linux is another operating system built from the RHEL source code that aims to be a free clone of RHEL.
Oracle Linux
Oracle Linux offers the Unbreakable Enterprise Kernel, which is more up-to-date than the default RHEL kernel, and it also includes support for some features that RHEL doesn't support (like BTRFS). It promises full compatibility with RHEL.
VzLinux
Built from the source of RHEL. I haven't tried it.
EuroLinux
Built upon the source of RHEL. Although including "Euro" in a project name seems weird, cheap, and limiting to me, EuroLinux seems to have been around for almost a decade. I haven't tried it myself.

SUSE Family

Developed or sponsored by the company SUSE. These distributions focus on enterprise and developer use and can be used as an alternative to Red Hat. They provide YaST, a configuration utility that provides a way to easily configure various system settings in one place.

I have found openSUSE a little bit bloated. It installs a lot of unnecessary software by default — who needs a program for burning CDs to be installed by default anymore?

SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE)
An enterprise-grade commercial operating system. Its primary uses are servers (SLES) and professional workstations (SLED). It is a competitor to the Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
openSUSE Leap
A free operating system based on SLE. It provides modern software on a stable base. It is great for use on desktop computers and home servers.
openSUSE Tumbleweed
A rolling-release distro providing the latest software. It is a great alternative to Fedora Linux as an up-to-date desktop operating system.

Debian and Ubuntu Family

Ubuntu seems to target home users, smaller enterprises, and hobbyist servers. Together with Debian, they tend to be easy to use and configure, very often used for smaller home projects (Raspberry Pi). They put convenience before security (e.g., firewall disabled by default, automatically starting services upon their installation, etc.). The included software also tends to be slightly modified from the upstream version, which may bring additional bugs. There are many derivatives of Ubuntu and Debian for use on desktop computers, such as Pop!_OS, Linux Mint, etc.

Debian
Debian is a community project. It may be difficult to set up because it doesn't install some hardware drivers by default. Software included in each Debian release is often extremely outdated because Debian freezes package versions for each release and only provides important bug fixes as updates. The testing and unstable Debian branches contain more up-to-date software, but I didn't find these branches stable enough for everyday use. Because of its focus on old and stable software with small and infrequent updates, Debian is more useful on servers and in containers than on desktop computers.
Ubuntu
Ubuntu is based on Debian and is developed by Canonical Ltd. It is a great desktop and server operating system for Linux beginners because of its ease of use and polished user experience, but advanced users may find it way too outdated. Along with Fedora, Ubuntu was one of the first Linux distributions that supported UEFI Secure Boot, although Fedora's implementation was more thorough.
Ubuntu LTS
The long-term support version of Ubuntu. It is intended for servers and users who don't like updates. Many desktop programs and games are tested to work on Ubuntu LTS, and many popular user-friendly Linux distributions use it as their base. Ubuntu LTS is one of the three most common Linux distributions with enterprise-grade support along with Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SUSE Linux Enterprise.

Other Linux Distributions

There are hundreds of other Linux distributions (see DistroWatch). I included only those distributions that I think are the most important to know.

Arch Linux
Arch is a rolling-release distribution that provides the latest versions of unmodified (vanilla) software. Because it provides only a basic installer, it is best suitable for more advanced Linux users who want to build their system with exactly the configuration they want. The Arch Wiki pages serve as a great resource that can be used even on other Linux distributions.
Gentoo
Instead of using binary packages, everything is provided as source code to be compiled by the user.
Clear Linux
Developed by Intel for the Intel x86_64 CPU architecture. It has a modified Linux kernel and other system components to achieve the best performance on Intel x86 processors.
Manjaro (Arch-based), Linux Mint (Ubuntu and Debian-based), elementaryOS (Ubuntu-based)
These distributions aim to be friendly to Linux beginners on desktop computers. These distributions usually take an existing Linux distribution, add software that was not included by default (such as patented multimedia codecs or proprietary software), modify the user interface to attract more people, disable or delay security updates so that these updates don't break the heavily modified system, and give it a new name.
They may be good enough for a grandma, but not for people who expect the latest technologies, stability, and security. These Linux distributions are popular among Linux beginners because they are easy to use.

My Recommendations

Most desktop and laptop computers come preinstalled with either Windows, macOS, Chrome OS, Ubuntu LTS, or Fedora Workstation. System76 sells computers with the Ubuntu-based Pop!_OS system. ARM single-board computers often provide Debian, Android, or Arch Linux-based images as the default system. Servers often support Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise, Ubuntu LTS Server, or Windows Server.

I have used Fedora for almost everything for years (but I acknowledge that even though it is the best operating system for my needs, it is not perfect). OpenSUSE Tumbleweed is a possible alternative to Fedora. Debian and FreeBSD have served me well as server operating systems on older or low-end computers. MacOS is a great desktop operating system that can be used for software development if Linux is not available. And lastly, keeping a Windows computer or virtual machine may be the only way to run some software or to update some device drivers.

I gave Ubuntu a chance many times, but it failed me many times. The first time I tried to install Ubuntu in 2008, it asked me to erase all Windows data and then it failed to install anyway. My problems with Ubuntu almost always stemmed from some provided user-friendly utility breaking the system. For example, selecting proprietary Nvidia drivers in the system settings broke the graphical interface. Could it be that other Linux systems don't break because they don't offer user-friendly tools? But I think the situation may have improved since ~2008 and ~2013 when I gave Ubuntu the last chance.

Haiku OS is, in my opinion, the most promising lightweight and complete operating system for very old desktop computers. ReactOS and FreeDOS are not stable enough for serious work.

Parents' Desktop

Desktop operating systems for regular home users who want a reliable, secure, and user-friendly computer experience with good hardware and software support and an easy way to install additional software. No, I haven't found any single Linux distro that fits this category.

  1. Windows,
  2. macOS,
  3. Chrome OS.

Advanced Desktop

Desktop operating systems for software developers or network administrators. It must work well on modern hardware.

  1. Linux (Fedora Workstation, openSUSE Tumbleweed, Ubuntu),
  2. macOS,
  3. Windows.

Gaming Desktop

Desktop operating systems that provide the latest graphics drivers and that are well supported by games and proprietary hardware drivers.

  1. Windows,
  2. Linux (Fedora, Ubuntu, Pop!_OS, openSUSE Tumbleweed, Arch Linux, maybe Manjaro),
  3. macOS.

Server

Server operating systems. The configure once, let it run for years kind of stuff.

  1. Linux (RHEL or its clones, SLES/openSUSE Leap, Debian, Ubuntu LTS Server),
  2. BSD (FreeBSD),
  3. Solaris,
  4. Windows Server.

Very Old Computers

Old operating systems or their continuations for very old computers from the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Besides the operating systems listed above, some lightweight Linux or BSD distribution that still supports the processor in the old computer can be used on old computers. Window Maker desktop environment imitates the NeXTSTEP user interface look and feel. IceWM looks similar to Windows 95.