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Best Linux Distros for Developers and Programmers as of 2020
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Best Linux Distros for Developers and Programmers as of 2020

Linux might not be the preferred operating system of most regular users, but it’s definitely the go-to choice for the majority of developers and programmers. While other operating systems can also get the job done pretty well, Linux is a more specialized OS that was designed specifically with programming in mind. Of course, “Linux” is an umbrella term that can refer to any number of Unix-like operating systems.

There are around 600 Linux distros to choose from, so even veteran users may sometimes struggle to find the perfect flavor for their current project. Even though they’re all part of the same family, Linux distributions can vary greatly from one another. If we’re talking programming and development, in particular, there are a few obvious distros that you’ve probably already worked with in the past like Ubuntu or Fedora. However, there are also a few very solid ones that you may not have considered until before.

In this article, we’re going to cover both types, but before we get into the nitty-gritty of things let’s talk a bit about why you want to choose Linux over other operating systems in the first place.

Why Linux Operating Systems are Perfect for Developers and Programmers

It’s no secret that other operating systems like Windows and macOS are way more popular than most Linux distributions. There are many reasons why that is but the one that immediately stands out is the ease of use. Linux is seen as being more complex and while it’s true that certain distros can be difficult to wrap your head around, there are plenty that are very easy to learn. In fact, there are quite a few Linux distros that are aimed specifically at kids. Therefore, the learning curve isn’t actually that big of an issue here because Linux is great for users of all skill levels. You just have to know which distro to pick.

One of the best things about Linux is that you don’t have to spend a penny on it. There are a handful of enterprise-grade distros – primarily aimed at sysadmins and server managers – like Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and Oracle Linux that do require you to buy a license, but those are exceptions. For the most part, Linux distros are open-source projects that are available entirely for free. In addition, you don’t have to buy any apps or software either since all packages and tools can be downloaded for free as well.

Speaking of tools, there is a very wide selection of them that are compatible with every Linux distribution. These range from file management and system management tools to monitoring tools for system administrators and everything in between. While some tools like remote desktop clients require you to go to the company’s website and download the software the old fashioned way, you can install most Linux utilities by simply issuing a command in the Terminal.

The Holy Grail of Programming

The Linux Terminal is in and of itself a very handy and powerful tool that can make life easier for programmers and developers. Like most things on Linux, the Terminal can be customized in a variety of ways and supports most of the popular scripting languages right off the bat. That means you can start bashing scripts and testing programs without installing any additional software. That said, you can install an IDE (integrated desktop environment) if you want to work with a more user-friendly interface and use an online terminal or script editor to work on your projects. The choice is entirely up to you.

Linux’s inherent flexibility and modular nature are two other reasons why developers and programmers prefer it over other operating systems. You can download one of the many lightweight distros in less than a couple of minutes and they are guaranteed to work on pretty much any machine, regardless of its hardware. Alternatively, you can grab the minimalistic version of a big Linux distro and add extra modules or packages if and when you need them. Not to mention that most Linux distros come with a live version that allows you to run the OS directly from a CD, DVD, or USB flash drive. That means you don’t even have to install Linux on your computer in order to use it.

We could go on and on about why Linux is ideal for programmers and developers but you’re probably itching to see some concrete examples, so let’s dive straight into the list itself. Without further ado, below you can find what we consider to be the best Linux distros for programming and developers as of 2020.

1. Ubuntu

  • Very reliable
  • Great long-term support
  • User-friendly

We don’t think it would be a stretch to call Ubuntu one of the most popular Linux distributions out there. Even people who aren’t very familiar with Linux have at least heard of this one and it’s easy to see why. While Linux, in general, has traditionally been associated with programmers and techies, Ubuntu was one of the first distros to cater to the masses. Even by today’s standards, Ubuntu can rightly be considered a very accessible operating system that’s easy to recommend to users of all skill levels.

Ubuntu 20.04 LTS
Ubuntu 20.04 LTS Desktop and File Browser

But just because Ubuntu was designed to be more user-friendly than most other distros, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad option for hardcore tech junkies. Quite the contrary. Ubuntu is the go-to operating system of many developers, including the folks behind the Android Open Source Project. And if you visit the distro’s official website you’ll immediately notice that Canonical, the developers of Ubuntu, even has a very extensive portal filled with countless tutorials, guides, and other resources meant for developers.

Ubuntu comes with a very popular package management system known as Snap that lets users install new pieces of software quickly and painlessly. There’s also a very impressive Software Center, a large variety of flavors to choose from, and excellent LTS (Long Term Support) that lasts for up to 5 years. Although the original is generally considered the best, there are many other variants of Ubuntu that might be more suitable for your projects, such as Lubuntu or Xubuntu, to name just a couple of well-known examples.

Why is Ubuntu the Best Linux Distro for Programming?

Thanks to the fact that Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux distros out there, you can always find tons of resources on how to get the most out of it. Long-term support is not a problem here either and you can also expect plenty of ease-of-use features like the Software Center and the Snap package manager.

Download Ubuntu

Latest stable release: 20.04

2. Debian

  • Focuses on stability
  • Easy to install
  • Lots of useful programming tools

Debian is another well-known Linux distro that has been around forever. Initially launched way back in 1993, Debian has served as inspiration for many other distributions, including Ubuntu. Debian is compatible with tens of thousands of software packages and makes it remarkably simple to install everything you need using anything from commands like dpkg to front-end interfaces like Synaptic. The OS itself was designed to run on pretty much any type of machine so there’s no need to worry about potential compatibility issues.

Debian 10
Debian 10 Xfce Desktop

Among other things, Debian is also known for being extremely stable. The developers offer LTS and don’t generally update the OS unless there’s a good reason for doing so i.e. when they want to add interesting features. As a result, there’s very little filler or bloatware. In addition, Debian contributors must adhere to a very strict set of guidelines that dictates what type of software can and can’t be included in the operating system’s next release.

With Debian being around for as long as it has, you can expect to find plenty of resources that will help you get started on the right foot with the OS. One of the most important ones is the manual itself which contains an entire chapter dedicated to programming using Debian. If you’re just starting out as a programmer or developer make sure to follow that guide because it’s very helpful.

Why You Should Choose Debian for Linux Coding

The Debian manual contains a whole chapter that can teach you the basics of programming along with some more advanced concepts. If you’re already an experienced coder, you’ll definitely appreciate Debian’s focus on stability, great support for .deb files, and intuitive UIs like Synaptic.

Download Debian

Latest stable version: 10.4

3. OpenSUSE

  • Created specifically for programming
  • Has both regular and rolling releases
  • Built-in tools for developers

OpenSUSE is a fantastic Linux distribution for system administrators and developers, as well as regular desktop users. This is a very flexible distro that comes in two variants and includes an intuitive package installation tool known as YaST. The tool also acts as an all-in-one control center that can be used to manage various other aspects of your operating system.

OpenSUSE Leap 15.1
OpenSUSE Leap 15 Desktop

If you’re not a fan of YaST, it’s worth noting that you can use OpenSUSE without installing additional packages since a lot of the most important tools for developers are available right off the bat, including Vim, CMake, RPM, and OBS. But if you decide that you do want to install more software you can go to the official website and simply download everything you need from there. The website has a great filtering system that will allow you to quickly find packages not just for your specific version of OpenSUSE but also other Linux distros.

As far as the variants mentioned earlier are concerned, they’re known as Leap and Tumbleweed. Leap is the version you want if you’re looking for stability since it uses regular releases instead of rolling ones like Tumbleweed. On the other hand, if you want a bleeding-edge distro that incorporates all the latest technologies as soon as they become available, Tumbleweed is for you. Regardless of which one the two variants you choose, you’ll find that OpenSUSE has plenty to offer and is extremely versatile, to the point where it can give even Ubuntu a run for its money.

Why OpenSUSE is One of the Best Linux Distros for Developers

OpenSUSE was designed specifically for developers and programmers. As such, you can find plenty of useful tools here along with a very solid package manager in the form of YaST. You can also choose between regular and rolling release versions, though we recommend sticking with the former.

Download OpenSUSE

Latest stable version: 15.1 (Leap)

4. CentOS

  • A non-commercial version of RHEL
  • Has both regular and rolling releases
  • Comes with the Red Hat Developer Toolset

CentOS is a free and open-source distro based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), a very popular commercial (paid) distribution. The two distros share many of the same packages but CentOS is more suitable for individual users while RHEL tends to target companies. CentOS doesn’t have quite the same level of functionality as RHEL but it’s highly customizable and can, at least in theory, be modified to the point where it becomes a near-identical replica of the commercial distro. However, the process is difficult and not very feasible for most users.

CentOS 8
CentOS 8 Desktop

Just like OpenSUSE, CentOS comes in two different variants – CentOS Linux and CentOS Stream. CentOS Linux is the stable release that comes with regular updates and attempts to recreate RHEL using freely available resources. Meanwhile, CentOS Steam is the variant that features rolling releases and makes a number of distro-specific modifications. Steam is a collaborative effort that’s constantly evolving. The ultimate goal here is to essentially create an even better version of RHEL.

CentOS uses a package manager known as YUM that you should already be familiar with if you’ve ever worked with Fedora in the past. YUM looks like a command-line tool in its base form but can be enhanced with a graphical user interface by various tools. The CentOS repository contains a plethora of useful utilities, including the Red Hat Developer Toolset, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Why CentOS is Excellent for Programming in Linux

CentOS comes with many resources found in its commercial counterpart, RHEL, including the highly popular Red Hat Developer Toolset. You also get a very intuitive package manager known as YUM and two different versions of CentOS to choose from.

Download CentOS

Latest stable version: 8.1.1911

5. Pop!_OS

  • Young distro released in 2017
  • Designed for developers and STEM research
  • Comes with support for modern AMD and Nvidia GPUs

Pop!_OS is a relatively young Linux distribution that took a lot of people by surprise upon its release back in 2017. The distro was developed in-house by computer manufacturer System76 to be bundled with the company’s machines as an alternative to Ubuntu. Pop!_OS was primarily designed for developers, creative professionals, and STEM research. Like pretty much any other Linux distro, however, regular users are more than welcome to try it as well.

Pop!_OS 20.04 LTS
Pop!_OS 20.04 LTS Desktop and Device Info

Most popular Linux distros have been around for decades so Pop!_O’s age makes it quite unique in a number of ways. For one, it comes with out-of-the-box support for modern Nvidia and AMD graphics cards, which makes it perfect for gaming. The OS also comes with disk encryption, advanced window and workspace management, power management profiles, keyboard shortcuts, and many other useful features. The overall aim of Pop!_OS is to be a valuable asset to users by helping them streamline their workflow.

Unlike most Linux distributions, Pop!_OS isn’t a community-driven project. Instead, the OS is developed and maintained primarily by System76. That said, all the code used by Pop!_OS is open-source and can be freely modified by anybody. While the operating system was designed to work hand-in-hand with the company’s computers, you can download it for free from the official website and install it on any compatible machine.

Is Pop!_OS a Good Linux Distro for Developers?

Pop!_OS is a surprisingly solid Linux distribution software that has a lot to offer to programmers. The distro includes many modern features and has great support for Nvidia and AMD graphics cards, allowing it to take full advantage of today’s powerful hardware.

Download Pop!_OS

Latest stable version: 20.04

6. Fedora

  • A non-commercial version of RHEL
  • Sponsored by RHEL creators
  • Workstation variant is aimed specifically at developers

Fedora is similar to CentOS in the sense that it’s also a non-commercial distro based on RHEL. The OS is even sponsored by the same company, Red Hat Inc., and is known to be the go-to distro of Linux creator Linus Torvalds, which is quite an impressive endorsement. Fedora is very easy to recommend for development since one of its variants was designed specifically for developers, programmers, and makers of all kinds. Be aware, though, that this is a fast-moving distribution that constantly tries to integrate all the latest technologies. Therefore, it might not be the best option for users who don’t like change.

Fedora 32
Fedora 32 Desktop

If you do like living on the bleeding edge of Linux, on the other hand, you’ll definitely love what Fedora has to offer. The Developer Portal contains all the resources you could ask for while the Fedora repository includes a lot of useful utilities such as Eclipse, a fully-featured IDE that supports Python, C++, Ruby, PHP, and many other scripting languages. All the software is open source and the Fedora community is very active so you can expect every OS update to bring something new and exciting to the table. If you’re willing to update your operating system at least once per year, that is.

Just like a few of the other distros on this list, Fedora is available in multiple variants, each specialized in a certain area. You have a server variant, an IoT variant and, of course, there’s also a version aimed at developers known as Fedora Workstation. This version comes with a very sleek user interface, support for GNOME Boxes, OCI (Open Container Initiative) image support, a very impressive set of development tools, and so much more. Other Fedora variants like Silverblue and CoreOS also have a lot to offer to developers so don’t hesitate to check those out as well.

Why Fedora is Among the Most Popular Linux Distros for Programming

Fedora is the go-to distro for many veteran programmers, including the creator of Linux himself, Linus Torvalds. You get access right off the bat to powerful utilities like Eclipse and the option to install a myriad of other useful tools straight from Fedora’s Developer Portal.

Download Fedora

Latest stable version: Fedora 32

7. Arch Linux

  • The base version is very minimalistic
  • Highly flexible
  • Allows you to build custom distros

Tired of operating systems that come with a lot of needless bells and whistles? Well, if you’re the type of person who likes to keep it simple you’re definitely going to appreciate Arch Linux. This popular distro is all about simplicity and ease of use, though the initial setup process can be a bit time-consuming depending on your exact needs. The gist of Arch Linux is that it allows users to start with a very simple foundation and build their ideal operating system from the ground up.

Arch Linux 5.5
Arch Linux 5.5 GNOME Desktop

The base version of Arch Linux only includes the kernel along with a package manager known as Pacman. There is no graphical interface, window manager, or any other utilities but you can download everything you need manually. The beauty of Arch Linux is that it lets you install only the programs you need and there are plenty of options to choose from thanks to the distro’s rich repository. Most of the packages are provided by the Arch Linux community, with users having the option of voting for the best ones. If you’re not sure which packages you should start with, you can simply go with the ones that have the most votes.

The fact that Arch Linux only includes the bare essentials can seem intimidating to new users, but building your own OS from scratch isn’t as complicated as you might imagine. At least not with this distro. Arch Linux has a very helpful community and you can find a detailed installation guide on the official website. If you’re willing to invest some time and energy into this distro, you’ll find that Arch Linux is one of the most flexible operating systems out there.

Why Go With Arch for Linux Programming?

Arch Linux is a very flexible distro that doesn’t include many tools straight out of the gate but that’s exactly why so many programmers love it. Arch Linux only gives you the base essentials to start with but makes it easy to install everything you need at your own pace, giving you plenty of options to customize the OS to your specific needs.

Download Arch Linux

Latest stable version: 5.6.15 (rolling release)

8. Manjaro

  • A more user-friendly version of Arch Linux
  • Supports multiple IDEs
  • Allows you to build custom distros

If you like the idea behind Arch Linux but find the installation process to be too complicated, you may want to look into Manjaro instead. Manjaro is an Arch-based Linux distro that comes with a very intuitive user interface (among other things), which makes the OS a lot easier to install and manage. You would lose on some of the inherent flexibility provided by Arch Linux but you can still expect a fairly high degree of customization. You can think of Manjaro as a more beginner-friendly version of Arch Linux.

Manjaro 20 Lysia
Manjaro 20 Lysia Desktop

While not quite as young as Pop!_OS, Manjaro can still be considered a new distro given that it has been around for less than a decade. The OS is being developed and maintained by a very passionate community that’s constantly finding new ways of improving the user experience. One of the best features is a nicely designed system control panel that lets you install, update, and remove packages with ease.

Some of the other highlights include a tool that automatically downloads drivers for any new piece of hardware detected on your computer, the ability to switch between kernels with ease, support for multiple user accounts, multi-lingual support, and more. Arch Linux is available in four different variants, three of which come with IDEs. You can choose between Xfce, GNOME, and KDE Plasma or go with the Architect variant for an Arch-like experience where you can fully customize the OS using the CLI.

Is Manjaro a Good Option for Linux Developers?

Manjaro is one of the most popular Arch Linux-based distros for coders and with good reason. The distro is easier to install and manage while also being extremely flexible. If you’re looking for a more user-friendly version of Arch that comes with multiple IDEs, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better option than Manjaro.

Download Manjaro

Latest stable version: 20.0.3

9. Gentoo

  • Compiles packets locally from source code
  • Highly flexible
  • Allows you to build custom distros

Gentoo is a pretty unique distro that gives you complete control over your operating system but has a somewhat complicated installation process, not unlike that of Arch Linux. Another similarity between the two is that Gentoo also only comes with the kernel and a package manager. What allows Gentoo to stand out from the crowd is the fact that it compiles everything else you want to install directly on your computer. This can cause some issues if you don’t know what you’re doing, which is why Gentoo isn’t really recommended for beginners.

Gentoo Linux KDE
Gentoo Linux KDE Desktop

But while some may view the installation process as a drawback, others will see it as a major benefit. That’s because Gentoo provides an unmatched level of flexibility, allowing you to fully customize everything from software repositories to hardware settings. This ensures that you always have maximum compatibility between the software and the hardware while also giving you the opportunity to install specific versions of any package.

Given Gentoo’s complexity, we strongly encourage you to check out the distro’s handbook on the official website for tips and guides on how to get started. Alternatively, you can be trying to figure things on your own by experimenting with the distro, however, doing so can be very time-consuming. Luckily, there’s a live version of Gentoo that allows you to play around with the distro without installing anything on your computer.

Why Gentoo is Such a Popular Linux Distro for Programmers

Very few Linux distros give you as much control over your operating system as Gentoo. Not only can you customize everything on your OS using Gentoo but the distro’s ability to compile packages locally from source gives it a nearly unmatched level of flexibility.

Download Gentoo

Latest stable version: 17.1 (rolling release)

10. Raspberry Pi OS

  • Meant to work alongside Raspberry Pi 4
  • Many interesting features
  • Great for beginners

Formerly known as Raspbian, Raspberry Pi OS is a specialized Linux distribution designed to work hand-in-hand with the eponymous mini-computers we all know and love. The operating system recently had a facelift and a name change that came alongside the announcement of a new version of Raspberry Pi 4 that features 8 GB of RAM. Naturally, this distro isn’t ideal for regular PC users but it’s an absolute must-have if you’re a programmer working on Raspberry Pi projects.

Raspberry Pi OS 10
Raspberry Pi OS 10 Desktop

Following the most recent update, Raspberry Pi OS supports 64-bit architecture, allowing users to take full advantage of the increased memory. In addition, the operating system now has more features than ever, including new applications, a screen magnifier, support for all the popular scripting languages, and more. As of June 2020, the developers have also made significant progress towards implementing a Vulkan driver, which is expected to greatly improve the micro computer’s already impressive capabilities.

Learning to code and develop projects with Raspberry Pi has never been easier and one of the main reasons for that is the constantly evolving operating system. While the board supports a wide variety of other distros like Debian and Gentoo, you’ll get the most out of it by pairing it up with the Raspberry Pi OS because the people who are working on the hardware are the same ones providing the software.

Should You Pick Raspberry Pi OS for Linux Programming?

Naturally, this is more of a niche option, but a definite must-have if you’re planning to work on projects involving Raspberry Pi computers. The Raspberry Pi OS was designed to allow programmers to get the most out of their microcomputers, especially now that the distro supports 64-bit architecture.

Download Raspberry Pi OS

Latest stable version: 10 (Linux kernel 4.19)

Honorable Mentions

We didn’t want to make this list too long so we settled on just 10 entries. As you can imagine, though, there is a myriad of other excellent Linux distros for programmers and developers. Check out our honorable mentions down below if you’re looking for even more good options.

Final Thoughts

Linux is the preferred operating language of millions of programmers and developers around the world. You only need to take a brief look at the distros we covered today in order to understand why that’s the case. While in recent times Linux has become pretty popular with people who use it for gaming, video editing, or various other purposes, at their core, most distros were created by programmers for programmers.

Two of Linux’s biggest advantages are its open-source nature and the fact that it comes in hundreds of different flavors, which means you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a distro that’s right up your alley regardless of whether you’re looking for an all-purpose OS or a programming powerhouse.

If you’re a beginner, you should probably stick with a user-friendly distro like Debian or Ubuntu, at least until you get an idea of what Linux is all about. Once you’re ready to take things to the next level, you can try building your own custom distro using Arch Linux or Gentoo. The possibilities are pretty much endless when it comes to Linux.

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