The best Linux distros you've never heard of

Discover a new breed of distros for 2011

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Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. Before this wisdom dawned on the Linux community, Red Hat, Debian and Slackware had spawned several dozen distros. Some died a single-release death, but a lot survived and a vibrant community grew around them.

That, along with all the distros designed to meet specific needs, means there's a lot of variety in the Linux world. While community is key to a good desktop distro, it also needs thorough documentation on wikis and blogs, and ample support.

In addition to community-based channels, such as mailing lists, user forums and IRC, some distros also offer more traditional paid-for support packages.

What's more, the most talked-about distros – including Ubuntu, Fedora and OpenSUSE – aren't necessarily the most friendly for new users. They make installing non-free codecs simple, but there are others that – at the expense of some flaming from the free software community – ship with non-free packages, enabling you to play all sorts of online and offline media, and even games designed for Windows.

Which distro you should use depends on what you need. Moreover, despite their thriving communities, most distros – aside from the popular ones – are developed by a one-man team. These limited staffing levels explain why they don't make releases at fixed intervals. This might be a turn-off for some, but it does make for stable releases.

In any case, everything you need is included in the repository. The choice of distros available doesn't shrink as you move away from the desktop towards netbooks, either – you'll find spin-offs of the most popular desktop distributions. But there are also a bunch of other good options.

The best thing about netbook distros is their approach to helping you get the most out of the vastly decreased amount of screen space you have to work with. We can't ignore lightweight distros that don't tax old hardware incapable of running Windows 7, either. Their tiny size doesn't mean that they compromise on eye candy. So if you're tired of the brown or blue, perhaps it's time to give something new a try. Here's our pick of the best.