• free code operating system

last modified October 31, 2019 by strypey

Free Code OS (Operating Systems) for the Desktop

Although I will happily recommend any free code operating system (OS) over Windows or MacOSX for philisophical reasons, the bare bones truth is that not all OS are created equal. These page will document my experiences with a range of free code OS (mostly distributions of GNU-Linux), roughly in the order I (Strypey) tried them, and rate them according to whether they are suitable for; G (general users), R (requires geek support), or M (masochists only). Distros which are no longer maintained are marked with D (discontinued). Here's a one glance summary, with links to DistroWatch:   

(G) Suitable for General User

Mint (Highly recommended), PCLinuxOS, Sabayon, Trisquel (Highly recommended)

(R) Requires Geek Support

GNU-Linux: Antix, Debian (Stable), ElementaryOS, Gnewsense (up to 2.3), GeexBox (media player only), kxStudio, Mandiva (formerly Mandrake), Peppermint, Puppy, Tails, Trisquel-Mini, Uruk, Webconverger (browser only)

Other: Haiku

(M) Masochists Only

GNU-Linux: Bodhi, ClearOS, Red Hat, Ubuntu, Mageia

(D) Discontinued

BLAG, Dyne:Bolic, Musix, PureDyne, SnowLinux, XPud

Other: Syllable

If your hardware supports it, I recommend trying out the distros endorsed as entirely free as in freedom by the GNU Project. Of those on their list as of 2019, I've had best results with Trisquel.


Red Hat Linux (M, now Red Hat Enterprise Edition and Fedora community edition)

Developed by: Red Hat Inc.

PC used: Whatever mongrel desktop PC was in the classrooms

When I did my Microsoft technician training in 2001/02 we did very briefly install Red Hat (probably one of the 6.0 or 7.0 releases). This was also the distro we used, mainly in command line mode, when I did my Linux Administrators Certificate in 2003 (probably an 8.0 or 9.0 release).

Mandrake Linux (R, now Mandriva)

Developed by: MandrakeSoft

Derived from: Red Hat

PC used: A desktop PC put together from recycled bits and pieces

In 2004, I got hold of install disks for what was then Mandrake (probably a version  9.0 or 10.0), and ran it as a desktop OS for a year or so (this is when I recorded the Is Windows Ready for the Desktop interview). I had broadband access by then (internal dial-up modem cards were never very well supported in Linux/GNU), so it was quite usable as an internet terminal. It came with a good range of built-in software, but user-friendly repositories for updates and adding applications were not standard then, and I don't remember if I'd figured out how to install new applications yet.

Ubuntu (G)

Maintained by: not-for-profit Ubuntu Foundation (tied to and part-funded by Canonical Ltd.)

Version used: 5.04 (Hoary Hedgehog) through to 12.04 (Oneiric Ocelot)

Derived from: Debian

Default desktop environment: GNOME 2, then Unity from 11.04 (Natty Narwhal)

PC used: Toshiba Satellite A10, Acer AspireOne mini-laptop, a multitude of mongrel desktop PCs and other people's laptops

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes

Ubuntu my was preferred distro for about 6 years, due to its rapid progress in making GNU/Linux more user-friendly as a desktop OS. The only major struggle I had with it was patchy support for certain Toshiba Satellite chipsets (particularly fan control). Sadly, various questionable decisions by those in charge of Ubuntu releases, as described in Post-Ubuntu Blues, left me feeling that I can no longer use or endorse Ubuntu, for the time being at least.

Dyne:Bolic (D)

Endorsed by the Free Software Foundation. 

Discontinued (formerly maintained by: Dyne.org Free Software Foundry and Rastasoft)

Version used: Dhoruba (2.3)

PC used: various mongrel desktop PCs

Dyne is designed to work off a USB stick, although there are ways to "dock" it on a PC. As I recorded in a blog post, I was flattered when my paper on the parallels between geek and green movements was referenced alongside a talk by Jaromil of RastaSoft.

PureDyne (D)

Discontinued (fomerly maintained by: GOTO10 Collective)

Version used: Carrot and Coriander (9.11)

Derived from: Dyne:Bolic, then Debian, then Ubuntu

PC used:  various mongrel desktop PCs

Didn't seem much different to the version of Ubuntu it was based on. Only produced a couple of version. Seem to have been the product of some arts funding, and was abandoned when the money dried up. Possibly also because once they switched to an Ubuntu base, they were doing essentially the same thing as the UbuntuStudio project, started in 2007.

GNewsense (R)

Sponsored and endorsed by: Free Software Foundation

Version used: 2.3 (Deltah)

Derived from: Debian > Ubuntu (but version 3.0, released in 2013, is based directly on Debian 6, and version 4, released in 2016, is based on Debian 7).

PC used: various mongrel desktop PCs 

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: not with 2.3

WebConverger (G)

PC used: various mongrel desktop PCs

Kiosk distro which launches straight into a Firefox web browser. Designed for internet cafes, and other users who want to provide web access with no user access to the underlying system.

GeexBox (G)

Version used: 1.2.4, 3.0

Default desktop environment: XBMC

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop, various mongrel desktop PCs

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin+ : yes 3.0 can be run off the USB with no obvious loss of performance

A distro specifically designed for playing multimedia. Pre-2.0 versions were designed to be burned on a CD-ROM. After booting from the CD, the PC would spit it out, allowing the user to put their media disc in the drive, as well as playing media off internal or USB drives. From 2.0 on, the custom interface was replaced with XBMC (X-Box Media Centre), and the size of the .ISO jumped from around 20MB pre2.0 to over 100MB by 3.0.

PCLinuxOS (G)

Derived from: Red Hat > Mandrake/ Madriva (although significantly forked, eg uses Apt instead of RPM for package management)

I've never used this as a production OS, but I have trialled various versions (GNOME, KDE, LXDE) with a range of mongrel desktop PCs. Seems pretty stable, but I haven't explored further due to my bias towards FSF endorsed or Debian-derived distros.

Peppermint (R, only because version upgrade from Two > Three required reinstall)

Version used: Two, Three

Derived from: Debian > (L)Ubuntu > Mint

Default desktop environment:  LXDE

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop

This distro is aimed at people who mainly use their PC for the internet, perfect for "netbooks" like EEE PC and Acer AspireOne. Standard desktop is a nicely polished version of LXDE. Only niggles with Two are a lack of any kind of dock for commonly used applications (although the menu is sensibly laid out), and the need to use a Terminal to make any changes to the preferences persistent. I hoped version Three would fix some of these issues, without sacrificing the speed and stability, but it came with a few stability issues of its own. Version Four is now available, supporting both 32-bit and 64-bit hardware. I haven't tested this yet due its ultimate dependence on Ubuntu, and because my search for the ideal 'lite' OS for less powerful PCs has refocused on distros using the Enlightenment desktop (see Bodhi and SnowLinux).

Antix (R)

Version used: ?

Derived from: Debian > MEPIS

Default desktop environment: KDE

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop

I blogged about this as Installation Antix

Debian (R)

Maintained by: Debian Project (under the legal umbrella of not-for-profit funding organisation Software in the Public Interest)

Version used: Squeeze (at the time the latest version in the stable branch, although Wheezy was released in 2013, and Jessie in 2015)

Default desktop environment: GNOME

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop, various mongrel desktops

Debian is a little confusing for someone used to Ubuntu. Little things like having to login as the radical (root) user, instead of just throwing 'sudo' before admin commands, may throw you a bit at first. Being back in GNOME 2 may also throw you, although if you've been using Ubuntu for a few years, you might remember it fondly.

The built-in browser experience is a bit crap. Although YouTube does work on both Eiphany and IceWeasel 3.5 (presumably through HTML5 rather than Flash), if you want to use things like GMail, you will need to install a newer version of IceWeasel. First, manually add the repository (I chose the 'esr' version):

  1. Click on System > Administration > Software Sources
  2. Click Third-Party Updates, and click 'Add...'
  3. Copy the APT Line from Mozilla.Debian.net (start with "deb"), type (or paste) it into the dialog box, and click 'Add Source'
  4. Click close, and when the dialogue box pops up, click 'Reload'

Then install the browser:

  1. Login as radical: type 'su -', then enter your radical password
  2. Install: type apt-get install -t squeeze-backports iceweasel (or whatever the instruction is at Mozilla.Debian.net  for the version you've chosen)
  3. When is asks "do you want to continue", type 'y'
  4. I recommend restarting the computer after major updates, or at least log out, and log back in, to be sure that any changes to the graphical engines have been activated.

While we're on browsers, I recommend replacing the default search in the address bar (usually Google) with StartPage, which can run your search through SSL so it's harder to scrape for personal info, or DuckDuckGo.


Endorsed by the Free Software Foundation. 

Maintained by: Brixton Linux Action Group

Version used: Spartakus (14000)

Default desktop environment: GNOME

Derived from: Fedora

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes 

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop

This is probably the most painful GNU/Linux experience I've had so far. As with ClearOS, the BLAG installer automatically creates LVM (Large Volume Management) partitions for itself, which are difficult and frustrating to remove. The Spartakus software repositories are broken, and after hours of web searching, I haven't been able to figure out how to change to the standard Fedora sources.The other complaints I have about the system (crap media playing, crap browser experience etc) may be caused by upstream software packages, but because I can't perform any kind of software update, this doesn't help. 

ClearOS (M)

Maintained by: not-for-profit ClearOS Foundation

Version used: Community Edition 6.3.0

Derived from: Red Hat > CentOS

PC Used: various mongrel desktop PCs 

I got as far as installing this, but haven't yet figured out how to configure it. I'm assuming it is designed to run as a 'headless server', not a desktop OS. ClearOS also creates LVM partitions by default.

Tails (R)

Developed by: RiseUp Labs

Derived from: Debian

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop

A USB-only version designed for being stealthy. Includes an option to camouflage the desktop as Windows XP. Not endorsed by the FSF because it includes proprietary firmware ("binary blobs") in the Linux kernels it uses, but since it is intended to run as a live system on whatever computer the user has access to, this is an understandable compromise.

Trisquel-Mini (G)

Endorsed by the Free Software Foundation.

Maintained by: The Trisquel Project 

Version used: 6.06 (Toutatis), 7.0 (Belenos)

Derivation: Debian > Ubuntu 

Default desktop environment: LXDE

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes 

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop

This was a pleasant surprise. The least trouble I've had with a new distro since I discovered Ubuntu. Certainly the most user-friendly of the FSF-endorsed distros I've used so far.  As with Peppermint, the LXDE menus aren't the most intuitive for doing things like changing input language, I might try the GNOME version at some point.

I originally rated this R, is because it did some strange things when I installed it from a LiveUSB, mainly installing the Grub, the swap file and various other bits and bobs on the USB, instead of on the partition I was installing to. The LiveUSB was created with UNetbootin on Windows, so I thought it could be an issue with that software, although Trisquel is a distro Unetbootin claims to support. This has happened to me with Trisquel 7 too, and folks on the Trisquel forums have said it is caused by using UNetbootin. Changing swap to an existing 2GB partition I have for swap was a bit tricky, but the Ubuntu community SwapFaq document helped a lot.

Note: I've read somewhere (old Debian docs?) that each GNU/Linux partition on your drive needs its own swap partition, since they don't play nicely sharing those), but folks on the Trisquel forums assure me this is no longer the case. Also, if you mount your user file partition as /home during install, making sure that the 'Format' tick-box is *UN-TICKED* (unless you want to delete all data on your user file partition), it will be mounted as the /home directory by default when you use the new system. It's always a good precaution to take a fresh back-up of any data you don't want to lose before making any major changes to your hard drive, especially installing new OS.

Trisquel (G)

Endorsed by the Free Software Foundation.

Maintained by: The Trisquel Project 

Version used: 6.06 "toutatis", 7.0 "belenos", 8.0 "flidas"

Derivation: Debian > Ubuntu 

Default desktop environment: Mate (from 8.0 on, before that GNOME)

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes 

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop, Fujitsu Lifebook laptop, Vision+

Toutatis was my favourite version of GNU/Linux in years. It just works. Installs in your sleep. Rans like a dream on my Acer.

Belenos, on the other hand, tends to have the same install problems with UNetBootin as Trisquel-Mini (installing GRUB to USB not hard drive), and requires at least 2GB RAM to function properly, unless its installed to an SSD, or you switch to a more light-weight desktop like Enlightenment, OpenBox (great for games if you know how to launch the game by typing its exact package name into a terminal), or LXDE (in which case you might as well use Mini). On the Fujitsu, the wireless chipset was not supported, so it was of limited use as an OS for that PC. With Flidas, GNOME was replaced with Mate as the default desktop, and the performance improved considerably.

Bodhi (M)

Version used: Probably 1.? (tested in late 2011, early 2012)

Default desktop environment: Enlightenment E17 (since replaced by a custom E17 fork called Moksha)

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes 

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop and an older laptop

Bodhi runs installs well as a live system, and the Enlightenment desktop looks lovely for a very minimal drag on performance. Sadly, the one time I tried to install it to a laptop, I was unable to get even wired networking going, so a bit useless. I was recommended the E17 version of SnowLinux, but this has since been discontinued.

SnowLinux (D)

Version used: 4.0 Glacier

Derived from: Debian (each version number also has a release based on Ubuntu, in 4.0 it's called Frosty)

Default Desktop: Depends on version chosen; Cinnamon, Mate, XFCE, or EnlightenmentE17 (tested)

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop

SnowLinux was reasonably easy to install, but getting software updates to work was a bit tricky. When I tried it, SnowLinux had only existed since 2010, so I was hoping future versions might become more beginner-friendly. Sadly, the project is discontinued.

Musix (D)

Endorsed by the Free Software Foundation

Version used: 2.0? 3.0?

Derived from: Debian

Default Desktop: a range are available

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: no

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop

I was unable to install this on my mini-laptop as it didn't work with UNetbootin or any of the other USB creator apps. I've since learned a few other ways to create a boot USB , and obtained a couple more PCs I can test on, but haven't got around to trying it again yet. Musix aims to be an audio production distro, a fully free code replacement for multimedia distros like UbuntuStudio or kxStudio, and more user-friendly than Dyne:Bolic. Distrowatch reports the project as "discontinued" and its been removed from the FSF list as

ElementaryOS (R)

Maintained by: ElementaryOS Council

Version used: Luna (0.2)

Derived from: Debian > Ubuntu

Default Desktop: Pantheon

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop, mongrel desktop

As promised, ElementaryOS is very pretty. Like SnowLinux, it's a relatively new distribution, and I hope they will get the few bugs sorted out over the next couple of releases. I managed to install it to my AspireOne and try it out, but when I burned it onto a CD to try to install to my mongrel desktop, it booted, but the graphical interface didn't work properly enough to install it.

Mageia (M)

* Discovered in a blog comment
* Made a bootable USB with Unetbootin
* booted successfully into menu screen
* tried to search for CD-ROM and USB, no success, probably because the installer thinks it's running off a CD-ROM, and asked me what device to use for install
* cancelled out and got a menu asking where to find the installation source
* chose hard drive, then USB drive, then the appropriate partition (I have a multiboot on an 18GB USB drive)
* success! installation launched
* License agreement gives credence to the propaganda phrase "intellectual property". Grr.
* exit didn't work during install, no option to go back
* partitioner failed to format existing linux partitions
* formatted partition and tried again, success!
* Mageia is:
  * disruptive - no option to check all my OS were present before installing GRUB, and no option not to install GRUB which is a pain, as it made a bloody mess of my boot system
  * ugly - LXDE, while intended to be minimalistic, just looks crappy
  * confusing - although I did manage to configure a wireless ethernet connection during install, the thing doesn't have a browser installed by default, and even updating the core software gave off all kinds of contradictory messages

Sabayon (G)

Maintained by: ?

Version used: ?

Derived from: Gentoo

Default Desktop: a range are offered, I think I used the GNOME edition

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes

PC used: ?

From what I remember (took no notes at the time for some reason), Sabayon was easy to install, and looks nice, but the default desktop required quite a bit more power than the PC I was using could supply.

XPud (D)

Maintained by: Karyo Technologies

Version used: ?

Derived from: Debian > Ubuntu

Default Desktop: Ion

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop

This is a kiosk style distro, like Webconverger, which ran nicely on my Acer.

Linux Mint (G)

Version used: 17.3

Derived from: Debian > Ubuntu

Default Desktop: Cinammon

Can be installed to USB with UNetbootin: yes

PC used:  Fujitsu Lifebook laptop

Installs in your sleep. Runs like a dream. Everything just works out of the box. The only problem I've struck is where I've tried to hook up a digital TV as a second monitor, which crashes Cinammon when I try to use both at once, but it reverts to Cinammon Fallback, which still works, and the problem is totally solved if I just switch the built-in monitor off. I would highly recommend this as a first distro for new GNU/Linux users, before having a go at Trisquel or one of the other FSF-endorsed distros.

kxStudio (R)

Maintained by:

Version used: 14.04.2 (64bit)

Derived from: Debian > Ubuntu

Default Desktop: KDE

Can be install to USB with 'Restore Image' in the Disks utility: yes

PC used: Killjoy , my friend's Vista laptop

So far I've only tried kxStudio as a live system, which worked well, although I'm not a fan of KDE. I had so much trouble installing it on my friend's laptop I ended up helping him install Mint instead. The kxStudio installer crashed a couple of times after having made permanent changes to the partitions, leaving the system unusable, and I found other users in complaining of similar problems in forums. Hopefully these problems get fixed, as it's good to have alternatives to UbuntuStudio or Musix

Uruk (R)

Maintained by:  Iraqi hackers

Version used: 1.0 (32-bit)

Derived from: Debian > Ubuntu > Trisquel

Default Desktop: Mate

Can be install to USB with 'Restore Image' in the Disks utility: yes

PC used: Bishop , Pilot

Overall this is a pretty distro, with a lot of thought given to what people want to use a desktop/ laptop OS for. Freedom-respecting distro (not yet endorsed by the FSF but probably qualifies), so don't be surprised if some of your hardware doesn't work (eg built-in wifi on laptops). So far, I've only tried a live session on each PC. All the hardware worked on Bishop (which also worked well with Trisquel), but sadly 1GB is not enough RAM, even with the Mate desktop, which is significantly more lightweight than GNOME or KDE. As soon as I opened a web browser and started watching a YouTube video, the system started staggering and was hard to shut down. On Pilot the wifi didn't work (like on Trisquel), and I had to turn it off to get the live session to boot. Everything else seems to work ok, and I'm guessing it would run smoother if I used the 64-bit version. Live sessions didn't always shutdown smoothly and sometimes needed the power button held down.


Haiku (R)

License: BSD-style

Version used: RC1

PC used: Acer AspireOne mini-laptop

As I wrote on the blog, I was able to burn this to USB, using the instructions on their website, and boot into it on my laptop. It's remarkably stable, and usable for an alpha. I look forward to the release of 1.0.

Syllable (M)

License: GPL

PC used: mongrel desktop

Not to be confused with Syllable Server, which is a GNU/Linux distro. I was able to burn the desktop version of this to CD-ROM, and boot from it. It's a simple, tidy desktop, and could be an excellent OS for a mini-laptop, or with a bit of work to integrate touchscreen support, an embedded OS for a tablet or handheld. Unfortunately, the project seems to have been fairly dormant since 2012.


OpenIndiana (formerly OpenSolaris)