Note: Our power user Linux distros round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in May 2013.
The Linux power user is a celebrated breed, and one that does not simply burst fully-formed from the earth. All newbies must toil long and hard with their Linux installations before they can describe themselves as one.
At the very least, the power user will have a great degree of skill concerning all things Linux, whether it's the kernel, Bash or package management systems – and they won’t be afraid to get their hands dirty in the name of configuring the system.
It seems, in many ways, that power users are a dying breed. Almost all modern Linux distributions require little effort to get up and running, or to install new software or configure basic functionality. By definition, no power user will want to run any of these distros. This is why, despite their popularity, the likes of Ubuntu and Mint are not featured here.
In addition to a driven installation, which separates these distros from most others, what's even better is the adaptability quotient of the distros in our roundup. You can easily coax any of these operating systems to perform tasks as disparate as churning out music at parties, or hosting complex websites.
The development methodology and underlying package management system are still relevant concerns, but if you're driven by the desire to squeeze every ounce of power out of your Linux distro, you could be a power user…
How we tested…
All of the distros on our list have been around for a number of years, and indeed we’ve revised our appraisals of them over the course of several years. Over this period, they've each earned a large amount of kudos by offering unique perks or advantages over their peers, whether in terms of software management or ease of installation.
All these distros are extremely stable and so our roundup isn't so much about performance as adaptability. We're looking for things that make them ideal for experienced Linux users who are tired of newbie-oriented distros and want to do more with their Linux machines. This is possible when you have great control over every aspect of the distro.
Everything should be configurable and capable of being changed to your liking. The ideal distro for power users is one that encourages tinkering extensively with all the different aspects of the OS, and makes you work towards a perfect system. Which hopefully, you’ll get in the end.
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Test 1: Installation
How easy is the first step?
These distros may be aimed at power users, but that doesn't mean you want to tear your hair out during the installation process, however much street cred you may stand to gain later on. And it's not a question of how long it takes to install – that's a triviality – but rather how complicated the process is.
Slackware is one of our favourite distros, and its installation isn't complex at all, unless you consider an ncurses-based installer complicated. The installer is certainly different, but by no means difficult to navigate. You may want to keep a copy of the Slackware book with you, maybe on a notebook or tablet.
When you run the setup, which takes you through several installation steps including package selection, pay special attention to the prompting mode and the software series. You can either install everything by selecting Full on the prompting mode, or select individual packages by choosing the Menu option.
You then have to select which software series to install. If you choose individual packages, the installer will not tell you how much space it will need – unlikely to be a problem on modern drives, but still something to consider. Slackware gets a bad rep because it doesn't offer a graphical install, but it still provides a very straightforward installation.
Fedora and Debian both provide a graphical installation method more akin to those of mainstream consumer distros. The process is very simple, and several tasks – such as the partitioning of disks – can be automated, but it's best if you at least review the partitioning scheme or do it yourself, especially if there are existing partitions on the disk that you would like to preserve. Neither distro lets you select the packages to install when installing from the live CD.
Arch is one of the easiest distros to install, although it's far from the most straightforward to get running since it doesn't provide a usable system post-installation. The most difficult step is the network card configuration. If you're unable to configure your wireless card, you can run an Ethernet cable to your machine until the installation is done, and then try to configure the card later.
Once the base Arch system is installed, you move on to meatier things, such as installing the X window system, video drivers, if needed, and the desktop environment. Even after that’s done, you still have to install all the apps you may want to use, such as Firefox, VLC, LibreOffice and others. Complex, but at least the installation makes no assumptions about the way you're going to want to use your system and allows you to configure it exactly.
Installing Gentoo is far more tedious than the other distros, even Arch, because it makes even fewer assumptions: Gentoo is all about building itself specifically to your hardware, and to your precise needs and wants. As such, it makes you do everything from defining USE flags to compiling the kernel, so be prepared for the installation to run to several days, perhaps, depending on your configuration and needs. Be sure to keep the installation documentation to hand when you begin.
Test 2: Default packages
Not that a power user cares anyway…
An operating system is only an organised collection of a user's preferred applications. If this statement is true then, despite completing the installation process, it'd be unwise to label Gentoo or Arch as operating systems, because installing these distros leaves you with a barebones system that you must then populate with all the apps that you require. Not only that, you don't even get a default desktop environment, and have to choose one to install.
There are no defaults when working with Gentoo or Arch. Their intention is to give the user complete control over what they wish to install on the machine. While the other three distros in this roundup also allow you to select which packages to install during installation, they still aim to provide you with a nearly complete system immediately. That means out of the box, these distros offer a text editor, web browser, PDF reader and more.
For these three distros, despite the wide array of default packages, you still need to install codecs and other plugins before you can play media files, or enjoy videos on YouTube, or even get the most out of your proprietary graphics card.
Slackware offers Calligra as its office suite in KDE, while Fedora and Debian both ship with LibreOffice. You can also choose which desktop environment to install with Fedora depending on the installation media you use – check out the Fedora Spins project.
With Slackware, you only get the choice of KDE and Xfce during installation. Gnome or Mate fans will have to install their favourite environment post-installation.
Test 3: Adaptability
How easy is it to configure these distros to your liking?
As we've mentioned several times already, one of the best things about these distros is that they are highly configurable. But what does that really mean? Aren't all Linux distros configurable?
You can change the desktop background, the icons theme, define keyboard shortcuts, configure power management, and make many other changes to the appearance and behaviour of all Linux distros, so what's the big deal?
Well, aesthetic configuration is only a small part of the overall picture. While many other distros stop at providing all the functionality listed above, the distros on our list go further and offer users the chance to make not just cosmetic changes but configure just about everything that can be configured. This gives you the chance to tweak everything for your specific needs – and that includes the kernel.
You don't have to install the distro and then go about removing packages and settings you don't want, which will never deliver as good a system as one built from scratch to your specifications.
Gentoo is an extremely configurable distro that you can optimise for just about any application. The Portage system is at the heart of everything that's great about Gentoo. It delivers pinpoint control when installing packages, and the USE flags enable it to provide compile-time option support. This means you can define the precise features you want a package to support.
For instance, if you don't run the KDE desktop when you install packages, Gentoo compiles them without support for KDE, trimming them down and avoiding unnecessary processing. This is why defining the USE flags is an integral part of installation.
As it doesn't burden you with unwanted apps or libraries, Gentoo is very fast. It insists you inspect the kernel during installation and remove features you don't need. No other distro lets you streamline the kernel before installation.
The test-bed of tools and technologies that eventually end up in Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Fedora is an ideal distro for those hoping to be on the bleeding-edge of development.
Still, one of the worst things about Fedora is its default graphical front-end to its package manager, yum. You should try Yumex if you want a stable and feature-rich alternative. That said, while Slackware, Gentoo and Arch force you to the command line for many configuration tasks, Fedora offers excellent graphical tools for things like configuring the network, firewall, etc. It's perfect for almost all kinds of users, and can easily be configured to be a game station, music streamer or even web or file server.
It may be best suited for developers and admins because of the tools it has to offer, but Fedora is not nearly as flexible as Gentoo, Arch or Slackware.
Whereas most distros make several changes to software packages, with Slackware you get packages nearly identical to upstream offerings. People complain of a steep learning curve, but anyone familiar with the command line and classic Unix tools will find it straightforward.
Striving to produce the most Unix-like distro available, Slackware makes ease of use and stability top priorities. This makes it ideal for servers. Slackware can be configured to run with KDE, Xfce or any desktop environment supporting any window manager. It gives great control over shaping the system during installation, thanks to its advanced package selection.
Slackware doesn't follow an open development methodology, which means it doesn't maintain a software repository or a bug tracking facility.
Debian is extremely stable, and this makes it ideal for servers. Its ability to please a large section of general-purpose desktop users has often been questioned because of its insistence on shipping older packages in order to be as stable as it can be.
That said, you can easily use the unstable repository if you want to be on the bleeding-edge. In fact, each of the three official Debian repositories have inspired several other distros. With Debian, you can run the same distro across many different architectures, as it supports i386, SPARC, AMD64, PowerPC, MIPS, ARM and other platforms.
Almost all software packages provide binaries for Debian, so you won't have installation woes for any package.
Arch doesn't believe in hiding the internal workings of the system. Like Gentoo, it's great if you wish to learn what makes a Linux distro tick. But despite their similarities, Arch provides a somewhat simpler way of building your system. You don't have to spend precious hours maintaining and grooming the system, as you do with Gentoo.
With its minimalistic philosophy, Arch stands in contrast to most other distros that compete to be the most feature-rich and beautiful. Other than a core system, which enables you to install additional packages, Arch makes no assumption about the kind of system you want, and allows users to mould the distro.
Building the distro from the ground-up results in a much speedier system. Like Slackware, Arch provides software packages from upstream without any modifications.
Test 4: Release schedule
Not that a power user cares anyway, part two
There are three popular development methodologies that Linux distributions typically adhere to – fixed schedule, fixed feature and rolling release. There's the fixed schedule, as followed by Fedora, where they try to push a new release out every six months, and Debian, which pushes out a new major release roughly every two years.
These distros, more often than not, are drastically different from one release to the next. Switching from one release to the next thus involves a fresh install, or at least a major upgrade. This is more time-consuming and painstaking than a rolling release.
Next, we have the feature release model, as followed by Slackware. Here, instead of announcing a date for the next release, the distro is released when it's good and ready. The project decides on a number of features it wishes to implement in the next release and works towards incorporating all the new features into the distro, releasing it only when all of these have been added. The current version – 14.2 – was released in mid-2016 after a three year gap.
Lastly, you have the rolling release cycle. This practice is followed by Arch and Gentoo. These distros, instead of a full-sized release, offer a small, minimal distro that you can use to install the base system. You then install the latest revisions of everything else that you need over the internet. With the very involved installation procedures that these distros require, the rolling release offers an install-and-forget way of working, and this is a feature that you can't possibly dislike.
Test 5: Documentation
Because even a power user may need to RTFM
From installation, to desktop environment, to package management, Linux distros can sometimes change the status quo without warning. When this happens, the project's documentation and a helpful community can make the difference between a fatal kernel panic and a smooth-running system.
All the distros in this roundup can (thankfully) boast of a large repository of helpful documentation. Some, like Debian and Fedora, have been the subject of detailed books that describe setting them up for home use or as servers. Additionally, the popularity of each of these distros means that you can easily find answers to your queries with a simple search on the internet.
Gentoo and Arch, as you might expect given their relative complexity, offer the most extensive documentation. This tends to detail even the most basic of technologies, such as configuring the Ethernet interface or the Xinitrc and fstab files. This is especially needed for such distros because of their different way of doing things. Familiarity with any Linux distro can prepare you for just about all others, but Gentoo and Arch are so different that without proper documentation, even a seasoned Linux user might lose his or her footing.
All the distros also have an active community that you can engage with on mailing lists, forum boards and IRC. Additionally, on their websites, Slackware and Debian provide a list of companies/individual consultants that can be tapped for technical support.
Test 6: Package management
Tools, repositories and happy customers
On Arch, you can use the Pacman package manager to install applications. Pacman uses compressed files, or tarballs, as a package format. It works by syncing the local packages with the server. Pacman supports dependency resolution and can download and install packages with a single command. The /etc/pacman.conf file contains a list of repositories.
In addition to the default, there's also Arch User Repository (AUR), a community-driven repository maintained by Arch users. Users can vote on the packages in the AUR, and if a package gets enough votes and has a compatible licence, it gets pushed onto the official repositories.
Like Arch, Gentoo doesn't provide any default packages, but it makes installing apps a breeze thanks to the Portage system, which is frequently identified as one of the best package management systems on Linux.
Emerge is a command line interface to the Portage system and, as with Pacman, you can use emerge to install, remove, upgrade and query packages. That said, you may have to do some fiddling, adjusting the USE flags or using package.mask before you can install packages. This is a tedious process, especially for the uninitiated. The reliance on USE flags to define what packages you want or don't want on your machine gives Gentoo an edge over the others in terms of speed – the package management systems on other distros also seem slower than Portage.
Home of the yum package manager, Fedora offers several graphical frontends for you to manage packages, none of which are quite as good as the third-party solutions you can get. Yum relies on the reasonably standard (within Red Hat-derived distros) rpm package format, and you thus get the advantage of tapping in to many different third-party repositories, in addition to the default. You will have to configure these repos if you wish to install multimedia codecs and plugins, as a stock Fedora installation doesn't play many media file formats.
Debian's package management systems, APT and dpkg, need no introduction. Both of these are like Clint Eastwood – they continue to deliver outstanding performances year after year. Debian allows you to configure several other repositories, such as non-free and contrib, which contains packages that don't gel with the very strict Debian Free Software Guidelines. As with Pacman and yum, you can use APT to install local packages, leveraging on the repositories to resolve dependencies.
Unlike the other distros, Slackware doesn't offer a single full-featured tool for package management. Instead, you have a separate tool to install, update and remove packages. As Slackware uses source tarballs as packages, you also get a tool to convert rpm packages to tar.gz packages.
If you're willing to sacrifice a few features, you can use the pkgtool utility to manage packages. This tool allows you to install and remove packages, but nothing else.
Test 7: Fun quotient
Let’s put a smile on that face
Our whole reason for the selection of these distros is that they offer a chance for Linux users to go over and beyond what they are normally used to doing on their systems. There's a lot of mucking about with files such as /etc/fstab, and setting up hostnames and configuring network interfaces with Arch and Gentoo. And all of it using command line tools!
These are generally processes that almost all Linux distros outgrew by the time we entered the 21st century. Their insistence on doing some things the old-fashioned way is not what makes them special, rather, it's the fact that this gives you the chance to learn the many things that modern distros take for granted.
Fedora has a lot to offer if you're interested in being at the cutting-edge of Linux development. If you've never ventured beyond newbie-friendly distros, such as Ubuntu and Mint, Fedora provides the perfect starting point towards attaining power user status.
Slackware and Debian are for more seasoned Linux users, who are willing to move towards more difficult things but still want enough familiarity to continue their learning. These distros introduce you to the possibility of working with the command line, as opposed to the graphical interface, for any number of routine tasks.
Finally, we have Arch and Gentoo. These are for adventurous souls who are ready to learn a completely different way of working. These offerings will introduce you to the core of Linux like no other distros. Forget graphical interfaces that obfuscate all configuration files – with these two distros, you are forced to spend time with configuration files you probably didn't even know existed.
The only area where Gentoo and Arch falter is default packages, and we spent a lot of time debating whether we should award them five stars each. This is because by not providing any default packages they offer much greater control to the user to design the distro to their liking. This degree of control is the hallmark of a distro suited for power users.
After much consideration, we decided to dock points from both distros. Once that was done, it was obvious that we would have to be equally harsh on the scoring for the other distros in the documentation and package management sections.
This is why Debian and Fedora only managed four stars each in these two sections, despite offering detailed documentation and excellent package management tools. Even though we couldn't find any fault in APT or yum, Arch's Pacman and Gentoo's Portage system fare better because of the level of sophistication and elegance with which they manage packages.
Debian and Slackware are an ideal starting point for would-be power users, and give you an idea of how configurable and flexible Linux systems can be.
Arch versus Gentoo
We were tempted to award first place to Arch because it's easier to install and doesn't require management of USE flags before installing packages. But the real test here is the level of control the distros offer to the users in moulding the distro to their exact specifications.
Gentoo offers pervasive control. It allows you to fine-tune the kernel during installation, so that you can remove the features you don't want. It doesn't get more configurable than this! What's more, the USE flags which let you prepare the system for all the packages you wish to install (or not) are a really novel feature.
The USE flags provide the means to specify the options and features with which Portage installs packages. This helps you cut down dependencies, package size, compile team and results in a faster and leaner system. This is why Gentoo is so much faster in comparison with the other distros.
1st: Gentoo: 5/5
2nd: Arch: 5/5
3rd: Slackware: 4/5
4th: Debian: 4/5
5th: Fedora: 3/5
KDE has long been a favourite with power users because of all the configuration options it offers. By extension, all KDE distros can then be described as distros for power users. So you can try the likes of OpenSUSE or Chakra Linux to get a taste of KDE's flexibility; these are built around KDE, rather than the KDE-based spins of other popular distros you might see around.
We've tried to limit our selection to distros that not only allow you greater control in configuring the system, but are also fun to use. The distros in our list are different from all other modern Linux distros in almost all aspects, be it installation or package management. Also, they are great for familiarising yourself with the internal workings of Linux, and teaching you things that you wouldn't be aware of if you used other distros.
For this reason, it's difficult to recommend any other distro. If you've already mastered Gentoo and Arch, or are ready for even more of a challenge, you can try Linux From Scratch. LFS is a book that guides you to build your system from scratch. Unlike Gentoo and Arch, which at least provide a working base system, with LFS you have to do all the work by yourself.