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The Best Linux Distros for Laptops, Both Old and New

The Best Linux Distros for Laptops, Both Old and New

Laptops are an extremely valuable tool for people who travel a lot and often find themselves working while on the road. A regular all-purpose laptop can do the job just fine in most cases but certain jobs require a computer that’s a bit more specialized. Having good hardware tends to help regardless of what type of work you’re doing, however, the software is not to be overlooked either. Especially the operating system. With that in mind, in this article, we’re going to take a look at the best Linux distros for laptops as of 2020.

But why Linux? Well, there are plenty of good reasons, some of which we’re going to discuss in more detail a bit later on, but the short answer is that Linux is simply more flexible and versatile than any other operating system. There are hundreds of distributions to choose from and many of them are designed specifically for things like programming, web development, and system administration. There are also distros for beginners, distros for gamers, and even distros for kids.

Since people use laptops for a lot of different things, we’ve included a mixed bag of distros on this list to make sure that we’ve got something for everybody. An essential thing to keep in mind is that laptop hardware isn’t as easily replaceable as desktop hardware. So before you try to install a particular distro, make sure that your machine can handle the system requirements. We’ve listed them under each distro to make things more convenient for you. With that out of the way, let’s jump straight into it.

1. Manjaro

  • Very helpful Hardware Detection tool
  • A high number of desktop environments
  • Architect version works just like Arch Linux

Manjaro is a great Linux distro for laptops for multiple reasons. One of the most important ones being the Hardware Detection Tool. Just as its name indicates, this is a utility that detects any piece of hardware attached to your computer and automatically downloads drivers for it, provided you’re connected to the internet of course. The tool is particularly helpful to desktop users who are constantly switching components but it comes in handy regardless of what type of computer you’re using since it saves you the trouble of looking up drivers manually.

Manjaro 20 Lysia
Manjaro 20 Lysia Desktop

Another major advantage of Manjaro is that it is based on Arch Linux. While Arch-based distros are generally meant for coders, that’s not necessarily the case here. The Architect version of Manjaro is indeed aimed at programmers and developers but you can also find three all-purpose versions. You’ve got Xfce for a fast and lightweight desktop, Gnome for a modern yet simple look, and KDE Plasma for a very flexible and flashy distro. In addition, there are a bunch of other community-driven versions that let you choose from even more desktop environments. You’re definitely spoiled for choice here.

If you know what you’re doing, we would definitely recommend trying out the Architect version as it allows you to choose the kernel, desktop environment, the branch of Manjaro you want to use, and much more. In other words, you can fully customize your operating system to fit your laptop’s hardware. If you’re looking for a beginner-friendly distro, on the other hand, it’s probably best to go with something like Gnome or community-driven editions like Cinnamon or MATE.

Minimum system requirements:

  • 1 GHz CPU or better
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 30GB of storage

Latest stable version: 20.0.3

2. Ubuntu

  • Great for beginners and veterans alike
  • Excellent long-term support
  • Plenty of flavors to choose from

Ubuntu needs very little introduction as it is one of the most popular Linux distros for laptops out there. A lot of modern laptops actually ship with Ubuntu pre-installed so it’s possible you already have some experience with this excellent distro. If you haven’t, now’s the perfect time to check it out because Ubuntu comes in a wide variety of flavors and each of them has live disk images, which allow you to use the operating system without installing it on your laptop. If you’re not sure how to create a live DVD or USB you can go to the official website where you can find guides for both Windows and macOS users.

Ubuntu 20.04 LTS
Ubuntu 20.04 LTS Desktop

Given that there are so many versions of Ubuntu out there, it can be a bit tricky to find the perfect one for your specific needs. You can go with the standard Ubuntu LTS (long-term support) version if you want to make things easier for you. This version was designed specifically for desktop PCs and laptops and comes with five years of free security and maintenance updates. But if you’re looking for something a bit different, you can grab a version of Ubuntu that comes with the Budgie or MATE desktop environments, both of which provide you with a classic and intuitive desktop experience.

Meanwhile, there are some flavors that are a bit more specialized like Ubuntu Studio, which is one of the best Linux distros for content creators and graphic designers. Then, you’ve got something like Ubuntu Server, which is in our opinion the best and most reliable Linux distro for server administrators and IT professionals. Don’t need a special OS for work? No problem. You can grab Ubuntu GamePack instead and enjoy thousands upon thousands of video games on your Linux laptop. We could spend a few more hours talking about all the Ubuntu flavors you can find out there but you get the gist – there’s a version for pretty much anything you can think of.

Minimum system requirements:

  • 2 GHz dual-core CPU or better
  • 4GB of RAM
  • 25GB of storage

Latest stable version: 20.04 LTS

3. Linux Mint

  • A great choice for beginners
  • Desktop environment resembles Windows
  • Easy file sharing across a local network

If you’re in the market for a beginner-friendly Linux distro for your laptop you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better one than Mint. This is the quintessential distro for users who are switching from Windows to Linux and want a user interface that resembles the one they’re already used to. Mint is a fairly lightweight distro that comes with multimedia support and plenty of useful applications straight out of the box. In addition, it also includes some very handy tools like Timeshift, systemD, and Flatpak, among many others.

Linux Mint 19.3 Cinnamon
Linux Mint 19.3 Cinnamon Desktop

Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu and is available in three different editions. The version that looks the best and has the most interesting features would have to be Cinnamon. Though still in Beta at the time of this writing, the latest release of Mint is set to bring some exciting new additions to the table, including enhanced support for Nvidia GPUs. The most interesting feature, however, is Warpinator, a tool based on Giver that makes it easy to share files with other users across a local network. Cinnamon is the closest of the three versions to Windows but if you’re looking for something a bit different you can always go with MATE or Xfce instead.

Although Linux Mint is well-known for taking lots of inspiration from Ubuntu – and even making improvements in certain areas – the developers are also working on a version that’s based on Debian. Known as LMDE (Linux Mint Debian Edition), this version’s aim is to ensure that Mint will continue to live on and receive updates in the unlikely event that Ubuntu was ever to disappear. LMDE is an equally good Linux distro for laptops as it looks and acts very similarly to the standard editions. If for whatever reason you want a version of Mint that uses Debian instead of Ubuntu as its base, don’t hesitate to check out LMDE.

Minimum system requirements:

  • Unspecified 32-bit or 64-bit CPU
  • 1GB of RAM (2GB recommended)
  • 15GB of storage (20GB recommended)

Latest stable version: 19.3

4. Linux Lite

  • A great choice for older laptops
  • Fairly low system requirements
  • Bundled with an impressive number of apps

This one isn’t necessarily aimed at modern systems, but if you need a good Linux distro for older laptops, Linux Lite is definitely a fantastic choice. For starters, this is one of the most lightweight Linux distros on the market that can still provide a traditional user experience. Meaning you get a lot more than a terminal and few basic apps. A lot more in fact. Linux Lite is considered a gateway operating system designed for users who are switching to Linux from older versions of Windows like XP or Windows 7.

Linux Lite Desktop Preview

Linux Lite is based on Ubuntu and is designed to be suitable for home use, work, gaming, educational purposes, and anything else you can think of. This versatility comes from the fact that the distro is bundled with a very impressive array of applications. It also comes with a built-in firewall, proprietary software, and a desktop environment that should feel immediately familiar to Windows users. The developers of Linux Lite tried their best to make sure users have everything they need upon installing the operating system, without having to download any additional software.

Speaking of software, Linux Lite is compatible with Microsoft Office straight out of the box and also includes things like Mozilla Firefox, VLC media player, Skype, Spotify, Kodi, and many other useful apps. If you’re a gamer, you’ll be happy to know that Steam also comes pre-bundled with the distro. Meanwhile, Dropbox and Thunderbird are both included as well, making it easy to check your emails and upload files to the cloud. Linux Lite might not be as flashy as other distros, but it certainly comes packed with a lot of goodies in spite of its small size.

Minimum system requirements:

  • 1 GHz CPU or better
  • 768MB of RAM
  • 8 GB of storage

Latest stable version: 5.0

5. CentOS

  • A great choice for developers and sysadmins
  • Relatively user-friendly thanks to YUM
  • Based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux

CentOS is another distro that’s heavily catered towards coders and system administrators, which makes it an excellent choice for work-related purposes. That’s not to say that casual users should stay away from it, but there are more user-friendly options on this list if that’s what you’re looking for. CentOS is fairly technical in nature and is meant to be used in conjunction with the YUM command-line package manager. If you don’t know your way around terminal commands but want to use CentOS anyway, you can make YUM a bit easier on the eyes by installing a graphical user interface on top.

CentOS 8
CentOS 8 Desktop

CentOS is based on the highly acclaimed Red Hat Enterprise Linux but unlike RHEL, however, this isn’t a commercial distribution. Given that you can get it for free, it should come as no surprise that CentOS isn’t quite as powerful at RHEL, at least not in its base form. However, CentOS is open-source software that can be modified to your liking. This means that if you know what you’re doing you can customize CentOS to the point where it can achieve the same level of functionality as RHEL, particularly since the distro benefits from a lot of support from both the developers and a very passionate community.

If you’re not the type of person who likes messing around with software, you can simply grab one of the two main versions of CentOS and use them as they are. Your first pick is CentOS Linux, which focuses on stability and features regular updates. Then, there’s CentOS Stream, a distro that comes with rolling releases and modifications designed for users who want to have the latest technologies and tools at their disposal.

Minimum system requirements:

  • 2 GHz CPU or better
  • 2GB of RAM
  • 20GB of storage

Latest stable version: 8.2.2004

6. Sugar

  • Designed for educational purpose
  • Very user-friendly and lightweight
  • Suitable for users of all ages

This may seem like a bit of an odd choice but laptop users come in all shapes and sizes so it would have been a shame if we didn’t include at least one distro for kids on this list. Sugar is more of a desktop environment than a full-fledged distro but we think it’s worth mentioning regardless just because of how incredibly useful it is. Sugar was developed in the mid-2000s as part of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program, a non-profit initiative that aims to transform education for children everywhere.

Sugar Distro Preview
Sugar Linux Distro Desktop

One of the primary goals of the program was to develop low-cost laptops and the other was to create a software learning platform to go along with it. This platform became known as Sugar. Sugar features an intuitive and fairly simplistic user interface along with a plethora of apps and games known collectively as “Activities.” Many of these activities are designed to help children train skills like reading, writing or counting while others and simple little games like Turtle in a Pond or Maze Web.

One of the best things about Sugar is that you can install it on pretty much anything. Sugar is the default user interface of OLPC laptops but can also be installed on top of Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, and various other Linux distros. In addition, there’s also a live version known as Sugar on a Stick that can be installed and booted directly off a thumb drive along with an online variant known as Sugarizer. The online version is still in the early stages of development so if you need a great educational platform for your kid but don’t want to mess with your existing distro, we recommend getting Sugar on a Stick instead.

Minimum system requirements:

  • 1 GHz 64-bit CPU or better
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 1GB of storage (2GB recommended)

Latest stable version: 0.116

7. Lubuntu

  • Lightweight version of Ubuntu
  • Comes bundled with many useful tools
  • A great looking desktop environment

If you’re rocking an older laptop you probably won’t be able to install a fairly demanding distro like Ubuntu on it, but you can install a lightweight version instead. While there are plenty to choose from, including the aforementioned Linux Lite, none comes quite as close to the original as Lubuntu. This lightweight distro takes everything we love about Ubuntu and compresses it into a smaller package while also removing some of the non-essential stuff in the process. The end result is an Ubuntu spin-off that looks and functions almost identical to the original but requires far few resources.

Lubuntu Desktop Preview
Lubuntu Desktop

One of the most impressive things about Lubuntu is the fact that the distro manages to be lightweight without sacrificing usability. This is very much a traditional OS that comes equipped right off the bat with all the tools and applications you would expect. This includes things like multimedia players, office applications, PDF reader, image editor, web browser, and so much more. Of course, you can always browse the intuitive Software Center if you ever need additional applications. Lubuntu also supports the Ubuntu repository so finding even more software packages will definitely not be a problem.

As far as the user interface is concerned, you’ll be happy to learn that Lubuntu is one of the best looking Linux distros for laptops out there. And it manages this without using a resource-intensive desktop environment like Gnome 3, which is a staple of regular Ubuntu. Instead, Lubuntu went with a lightweight LXqt-based IDE combined with the Arc theme and Papyrus icons for a streamlined and modern look. Even better, this desktop environment is quite similar to Windows in terms of functionality so you should have no problems adjusting to it if you’re already familiar with Microsoft’s operating system.

Minimum system requirements:

  • Pentium 4 CPU or AMD equivalent
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 8GB of storage

Latest stable version 20.04

8. Elementary OS

  • One of the best-looking distros on the market
  • Good choice for users familiar with MacOS
  • Comes bundled with a plethora of drivers

Some people just want an efficient and feature-rich Linux laptop distro with a desktop environment that doesn’t get in the way. Others look for distros that come with lots of bells and whistles to dazzle the eye. A group of developers decided to make a distribution that does both and the result of their work is Elementary OS. A lot of people consider Elementary to be on the best looking Linux distros for laptops available on the market today and it’s easy to see why. The OS comes with a unique desktop environment known as Pantheon that looks simply amazing.

But Elementary OS isn’t all style and no substance, however. This powerful OS can help you get the most out of your laptop and is more than capable of handling any task you can throw at it. While generally, a Linux targeted at beginners, particularly those switching from macOS, Elementary is a good pick for Linux veterans who want a distro that can be used for coding, design, or any other work-related purpose. And because Elementary OS is relatively lightweight compared to other distros, you can install it on a wide range of older laptops.

One of the reasons why Elementary is a good fit for laptop owners is because it comes bundled with most of the drivers commonly used by laptops, including fairly old models. That’s pretty useful since it can be difficult to download drivers off the internet when you’re using your laptop while traveling. On the flip side, the distro doesn’t have a whole lot of pre-installed applications, though you do get most of the basics, including a browser and email client. Still, it’s probably best to hit up the AppCenter and stock up on all the software you’re going to need before heading out.

Minimum system requirements:

  • Intel i3 or equivalent dual-core 64-bit CPU
  • 4GB of RAM
  • 15GB of storage (SSD recommended)

Latest stable version: 5.1

9. OpenSUSE

  • Good choice for developers and sysadmins
  • Comes bundled with many specialized tools
  • Relatively user-friendly thanks to YaST

OpenSUSE is another very popular Linux distro for laptops that primarily targets coders and IT professionals. Like a lot of other distros, it can be turned into an all-purpose operating system but developers and system administrators are the ones who are going to get the most out of it nevertheless. That’s because OpenSUSE comes with a lot of specialized tools like OBS (Open Build Service), openQA, and Kiwi. There’s also a very comprehensive system configuration and installation tool known as YaST, which makes the distro a bit more accessible to users who don’t enjoy working with the terminal.

OpenSUSE Leap 15.1
OpenSUSE Leap 15 Desktop

The developers of OpenSUSE worked hard to ensure that the distro can be used out of the box with little to no configuration. There’s rarely a need to install any drivers regardless of whether you’re using a new or older laptop. This makes it perfect for situations when you need to install a new operating system and don’t have access to the internet. And since this is a modern and very well-maintained distro that has great support for old hardware, you can bet it’s going to run smoothly on pretty much any laptop that came out in the last 10-15 years.

Unlike most of the other distros we covered in this article, OpenSUSE doesn’t have a whole bunch of different variants to choose from. There are only two – Leap and Tumbleweed. We recommend picking Leap if you want to play it safe since this is the version that has regular releases and is the most stable of the two. On the other hand, Tumbleweed has all the latest features coming from upstream and isn’t doing terribly itself in the stability department. Another way of thinking about this is that Tumbleweed was designed for power users and developers while Leap caters to a more casual audience.

Minimum system requirements:

  • Pentium 4 1.6 GHz or AMD equivalent CPU
  • 1GB of RAM (2GB recommended)
  • 3GB of storage (5GB recommended)

Latest stable version: 15.1

10. MX Linux

  • Suitable for newcomers and veterans alike
  • A great choice for users familiar with Windows
  • Particularly suitable for older laptops

MX Linux is a pretty underrated Linux distro for laptops that has a great deal to offer and is very accessible to users of all skill levels. A collaborative effort, MX Linux is what you get when you combine antiX Linux with MEPIS. The communities of both distros have been cooperating over the past several years to bring the MX Linux project to live and the results are pretty impressive.

MX Linux 19.2
MX Linux 19.2 Desktop

MX Linux is a midweight operating system based on Debian Stable that uses Xfce4 as its default desktop environment. Xfce IDEs are known for focusing on functionality over looks but this particular version doesn’t look half bad. The interface is fully customizable and very easy to wrap your head around, especially if you’re coming from Windows. Speaking of which, things like the taskbar and MX Tools, which shares a lot of similarities to the Windows Control Panel, should also help make you feel right at home if you’re switching from Microsoft’s operating system.

To make things even simpler for newcomers, MX Linux users the highly intuitive antiX Control Center and includes a bunch of useful applications that come pre-installed. As always, you can get even more software packages from the repository. As far as installing these packages is concerned, you have a couple of options at your disposal. You can either use the CLI APT-based package manager or you can download and install them using Synaptic. Also worth noting is that MX Linux has a ton of great options for live booting so if you like to carry your OS on a USB wherever you go, you’re definitely going to like this distro.

Minimum system requirements:

  • i486 Intel CPU or AMD equivalent
  • 512MB of RAM
  • 5GB of storage

Latest stable version: MX-19.2

Honorable Mentions

Although we think the distros we covered in this article are particularly suitable for laptops, technically speaking, you can install pretty much any Linux distribution on your computer provided it meets the system requirements. A few other good choices include:

Why You Should Choose Linux for Your Laptop

Back in the day, people used to buy laptops mainly for their convenience as most of them weren’t nearly as powerful as the desktop computers you could get at the time. While convenience is still a major factor to consider when buying a laptop, nowadays you can get one that’s just as capable, if not even more so, than most desktops, and you can even get it for a similar price. Sure, Windows and macOS can definitely take advantage of modern hardware but if you want to squeeze as much performance as possible out of your machine, you’ll want to go with Linux.

Linux is a very flexible operating system that can be molded to fit every possible configuration. And since most distros don’t come bundled with bloatware or unnecessary clutter, you don’t have to worry about unwanted applications slowing down your laptop. Not to mention that many distros only install the bare minimum, such as the kernel and a terminal, and let you fully customize everything else. You simply can’t get that level of control over your software with other operating systems.

What if I’m Using a Very Old Laptop?

The beauty of Linux is that you can find distros that run perfectly even on ancient machines. Admittedly, some of the most popular distros like Ubuntu won’t be able to revive every possible laptop, but even those work flawlessly on systems that are over a decade old. You can’t really say that about the latest versions of Windows and macOS, which are very much optimized for modern hardware and can struggle heavily when installed on older machines.

An important thing to consider when it comes to old laptops is that they generally come with very limited storage. And since switching components can be a bit of a hassle, you’re probably not keen to disassemble your old laptop just so you can install a new hard drive. But if you’re using Linux, you don’t have to. That’s because there are lightweight distros out there that weigh as little as 50 MB. At the same time, you can boot a lot of distros from a USB drive, which means you can use a modern operating system on a fairly old laptop.

Which Linux Distro Should I Install on My Laptop?

As you might imagine, there’s no straightforward answer to that question since it depends on what you’re using your laptop for. The good news is that you can find plenty of distros for pretty much any purpose you can think of. For example, if you’re looking for a jack-of-all-trades operating system that looks and feels great, Ubuntu would be an obvious choice but distros like Manajaro and Linux Mint are certainly not to be overlooked either.

Linux Mint is a particularly good choice if you’re switching from Windows while distros like Elementary OS were designed to make the transition from macOS as smooth as possible. Then, you’ve got distros like Linux Lite and Lubuntu which can take full advantage of older hardware without sacrificing anything when it comes to looks. In fact, both of them look very visually appealing, as do most other distros on this list. Elementary OS is probably the best looking one at the moment but most of our other picks are very easy on the eyes in their own right.

Another essential aspect that needs to be taken into consideration is your experience level. Linux is a lot more user-friendly these days than a lot of people might expect, however, a sizeable portion of distros continue to have a steep learning curve. If you’re a developer, that’s probably not a big issue for you, in which case you may want to go with something like openSUSE or CentOS. If this is your first time looking into Linux distros for laptops, on the other hand, we recommend something more accessible like Linux Mint, Ubuntu or Elementary OS.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re rocking a new or an old laptop and whether you need a visually appealing operating system or one that focuses entirely on functionality, you can bet there’s a Linux distro out there that offers exactly what you’re looking for. The distros we covered in this article were handpicked to ensure that there’s a little something for everybody but it goes without saying that there are plenty of other good choices out there, so don’t hesitate to experiment until you find the perfect distro for your laptop.

If you’re not ready to commit to any of the distros right off the bat, we recommend using their live versions for testing purposes before you make a final decision. That way, you’ll be able to compare the pros and cons of each distro and figure out for yourself what works best for you and your laptop. Every distro on our list is completely free so there’s no reason not to check them all out at your earliest convenience.

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  1. Matthew

    Have been thinking alot about a change of OS, I shall give Elementary a try as would like to explore what linux has to offer. Good write up, thanks. 🙂

  2. Peter

    Arguing about distros is pointless. Completely pointless. It is usually the mark of someone that has no idea what they’re doing. The kernel is the kernel is the kernel. use your time and effort in learning about it rather than the plethora of meaningless distros available

    1. Alloydog

      Who’s arguing? The author is simply giving his opinion about what he considers to be the best distros for laptops. And YES, it is relevant.I have been playing with old, second hand laptops for nigh on twenty years now and I can say that the choice of distro is very important, especially if hardware resources is limited. For example, back in the day, when the main choice of desktop was between Gnome and KDE, KDE was feature rich, very flexible and oozing eye-candy, but it would grind to a halt on older laptops. Gnone, more basic, not so customisable, if you were new to Linux, but was good for resurrecting older hardware. Also, difference distros used different filesystems, daemon processes and so on. What worked well on one laptop, might not be so good for another.

  3. Efron

    Thanks Jason, good article.

  4. Matthew Hutton

    Have been on the look out for that ultimate distro choice as have been distro hoping since my move from W10, have now settled for Ubuntu Cinnamon Remix, which has been a great move for me, it does all I need it to with a no hastle installation along with no driver faults!! Though no harm in trying other out on the fly 🙂

  5. ravso

    Linux Mint, cannot really install programs from Internet w/o OS fighting you every step of the way, cannot detect hardware already installed except for video card then there are issues with the display after manufacture download of the drivers. Plan to switch to Manjore or other OS like Cinnamon Remix hopefully it works out considering I am new to the Linux/Ubuntu type of OS.

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