Note: Our weird and wonderful niche Linux distros round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in December 2011.
Fed up with the bog-standard Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora and so on? Looking for a distro that reflects your individuality? In this round-up we've discovered no less than 13 of the best, oddest and most useful distributions that Linux has to offer.
They include one distro which is the official, sanctioned OS of North Korea, no less, along with a Satanic Edition of Ubuntu (yes, you read that correctly), and also a distro which is so light it will run on a PC from the mid-80s. That ancient 386 in the attic could still be useful, then…
Read on to find out more about each of these interesting distros – and why on Earth you'd want to use them.
- 10 of the best Linux distros for privacy fiends and security buffs
- 5 of the most popular Linux gaming distros
- 10 best Linux distros: which one is right for you?
- What's the best Linux distro for beginners?
- How to choose the best Linux distro for laptops
Red Star OS
One distro that's never going to trouble the top of the Distrowatch rankings chart is Red Star OS. This is the Linux distribution that was developed/is being developed as the officially sanctioned operating system of North Korea, apparently originally at the behest of Kim Jong-Il, the country's ex-leader.
The latest release – version 3.0 – was released back in 2014 and gives the desktop (and installer) an OS X-like makeover. It works surprisingly well, although you'll need to learn Korean to have any chance of understanding what's going on.
Familiar apps have been renamed too – there's a notebook app called My Comrade, and Firefox is called My Country (perhaps fittingly, as North Korea has its own internet). We searched for 'Democracy' in the default search engine, but nothing came up. If you're desperate to try it for yourself, download the 2.5GB ISO from this website and try it in a VM.
The classically educated might be able to guess that MuLinux is a small distro, possibly in the same vein as Puppy or Damn Small Linux. You'd have difficulty, however, comprehending just how small it is. MuLinux requires 20MB hard disk space and 4MB RAM, and will run on an Intel 80386 processor or later.
That's the same Intel 80386 processor that was released in 1985, meaning Mu will breathe life into even ancient hardware. Mu is no match for a modern system in terms of productivity, having been finished in 1998-99, but if you have a 25-year-old machine that you want to rescue from the scrapheap, it's the distro for you.
Ubuntu Satanic Edition
Ubuntu spin-offs are ten-a-penny, but we have to recognise that the makers of Ubuntu SE have gone beyond the ordinary in their quest to please The Dark One. The dark theme and collection of background images is the most obvious modification, and the sound effects and start-up jingle have also been customised.
Ubuntu's fondness for alliteration is still there (the last three releases have been Lucifer's Legion, Microsoft Massacre and Necrophiliac Necromancer), but the version numbers have been modified to 666.8, 666.9 and 666.10 respectively. Sadly, development appears to have ceased, but if you're a fan of the dark arts and Gnome 2-based desktops, then Ubuntu SE may still appeal.
Oh, and it doesn't have live CDs; they're "undead". Endearingly bonkers.
This is one that will appeal to the techies out there – the thing that marks GoboLinux out from the rest is its filesystem layout. Most Linux distributions use an archaic non-arrangement wherein an application's files are scattered around your hard drive in several different folders.
GoboLinux adopts an OS X-like approach (which Apple took from RISC OS), and stores all files associated with an application in a single folder in /Programs.
The most current version of GoboLinux is 015, which was released back in 2014 boasting the Enlightenment 18 desktop along with refreshed versions of the GoboLinux management tools.
If you like software freedom, you'll love GNewSense. It's based on Ubuntu, but has had all non-free software removed, including those tricky non-free driver files that are loaded into the Linux kernel (known as binary blobs). Unfortunately, many of these blobs are drivers for wireless networking cards, so GNewSense may not be the best distro for laptops.
On the plus side, it has removed or renamed software that doesn't fit the Free Software Foundation's definition of freedom (Firefox, for example, is renamed as Burning Dog), and it doesn't provide any links to non-free repositories, making it even more free than Debian.
Until we get the Hurd to replace the Linux kernel and create Gnu/Hurd, GNewSense – along with another Ubuntu-based distro by the name of Trisquel – is the closest we'll get to completely free.
The bizarrely named C.A.IN.E stands for Computer Aided Investigative Environment, and is basically targeting those who need to perform computer forensics. It's described as "an interoperable environment that supports the digital investigator during the four phases of the digital investigation."
To this end, it focuses on a user-friendly front-end that organises software tools into modules for easy access. It can be installed to the hard drive or run direct as a live CD – the current version 7.0 (DeepSpace) is based on Ubuntu 14.04.1, and was released in November 2015.
Yellow Dog was released in the late 90s for Apple computers using the PowerPC chip architecture, and found its niche among people who wanted an even more different way to think differently. All was good, but then Apple abandoned PowerPC in favour of Intel chips, which it's still using today.
This left Yellow Dog out in the cold, but after a change of ownership it reinvented itself as an OS for high-performance multicore computing – most notably as the OS used on PlayStations hooked up to form cheap supercomputing grids.
This is a distro for media enthusiasts. Whether you're into music, graphics, video, photography or publishing then you'll find Ubuntu Studio comes with all the apps you need pre-installed, complete with workflows to help you get stuff done. It's bang up to date too, with builds based on the latest LTS and cutting-edge releases available.
All you need to do is follow the Ubuntu-friendly installer, choosing which package sets to install. Once complete, you'll reboot into an Xfce 4-powered desktop
We love the freedom that we have to modify and recompile source code according to our needs, but very few of us actually do this, because it's easier to just download a Deb or RPM file. The lazy majority would not like Gentoo – or Linux For Masochists, as it's sometimes known – for the simple fact that you have to compile it yourself.
That's not just the apps – it's the whole thing, including the kernel and all the other bits of your current distro that most people take for granted. The point of this is that if your Linux distro is compiled for your exact hardware, it should be possible to wring every last drop of performance from your kit. You just need to make sure that you have a large supply of coffee to hand before you attempt to install it.
And yes, we know that there are versions of Gentoo in existence that are easier to use, but they're not really Gentoo now, are they?
There still exists among our Windows-using cousins the risible idea that Linux isn't good enough to take over on the desktop – that the continued dominance of Microsoft on the desktop is inevitable, because Linux is not up to the job technically.
This can easily be refuted: the cleverest people on the planet – the scientists searching for clues about the beginning of the universe – use Scientific Linux at the CERN laboratories.
It's based on Red Hat, and anyone can download and install it on their machine. You don't even need a PhD in theoretical physics.
We're sure that nobody runs this as their full-time operating system (if you do, get in touch and tell us why), because although it's technically a distro, it's best thought of as a specialist tool.
Parted Magic is a live distro that comes with all the tools you need to fix broken partitions. If something won't boot, this is what you use to fix it, and that goes for both Linux and Windows machines.
It also allows for secure disk erasing (making sure that data is really nuked), benchmarking, and disk cloning among other features. As a troubleshooting aid, it's indispensable, but it will cost you $9 (around £6.30, AU$12.70) to download direct from the author's site.
Before Unity, Gnome 3 and KDE 4 came along and showed the world what it was missing, the Linux desktop was a staid place, enlivened only by the ongoing flame wars between KDE and Gnome users. This is odd, because as long ago as 1997 we had a far glitzier alternative: Enlightenment.
Enlightenment is a window manager, and is beautiful without distracting you from the task in hand or forcing you to adopt your way of working to it. Bodhi Linux ships with a modified version of the Enlightenment desktop called Mokha, which means 'emancipation, liberation or release', and it's this decision to go with Enlightenment over other, better known desktops, that puts it on our list.
Papyros (coming soon)
The purpose behind this new Linux distro is to give those who love the material design of Android the opportunity to run the same user interface on their computer. Papyros is so new at this stage that at the time of writing it was still in alpha pre-release stage, with the developers currently working towards version 0.3.
However, if you're desperate to experience the user interface for yourself, you can install the shell in Arch Linux. This will give you a decent flavour of what's coming, and we'll certainly be keeping a close eye on this one.