I need a Linux distro that is more customisable than Ubuntu


I spend quite a lot of time reading the pages at Reddit and one of the most common questions in the /r/linux4noobs subreddit is “Which distro should I use?”.
Today I am going to answer the following request by referring back to my experience with each of the distributions I have tried in the past 2 years.
So the request in full is as follows:

I am just breaking into Linux and I have dual booted Ubuntu a couple of times to test it out, but always crawl back to windows for games and such. I really want to use linux as my main OS and Windows as my backup. I am currently loading it onto a Sony Vaio S VPCSB190X which has some trouble with Hybrid Graphics (AMD 6470m and Intel 3000) when I have run it on Ubuntu. Anyways, I want to test out a distro which has more customization and will test me a bit more than ubuntu, but doesn’t require me to spend 8 hours of work just so I can goof around on reddit or play something in Wine. Thank you so very much


The user in question states that Ubuntu causes problems with the machine in question so the first thing I would do is work out the exact specifications for the computer in question.
The computer has been listed as a Sony Vaio S VPCSB190X.


Processor – Intel Core I3
Speed – 2.1 ghz
Video – AMD Radeon HD 6470M
Memory – 4 gb
Hard Drive – 320 gb
Display size – 13 inches
The text in the request says that Ubuntu is out of the question because of the hybrid AMD 6470m and Intel 3000 graphics.
Alas the request also says that the user is looking for something a little bit more challenging than Ubuntu so lets discount Ubuntu as an option because this is clearly not what the user wants.
There are for me 3 main requirements:
  1. It has to be customisable.
  2. It has to be more challenging than Ubuntu.
  3. The user should be able to do basic tasks such as browsing the web.


When people talk about customisation they are usually talking about user experience and therefore this usually boils down to the choice of desktop.
Which desktops have the most customisable features:
  1. XFCE
  2. KDE
  3. Mate
  4. Consort

Using Distrowatch I can use the search feature to list only the distributions that use these desktops.

I am only going to list distributions that I have actually used as I can only really make a judgement based on my own experience.

  • SolusOS – Consort
  • Linux Mint – Mate/KDE/XFCE
  • Snowlinux – Mate/KDE/XFCE
  • Debian – KDE/XFCE
  • Mageia – KDE/XFCE
  • openSUSE – KDE/XFCE
  • PCLinuxOS – KDE/XFCE
  • Arch – KDE/XFCE
  • Slax – KDE
  • SolydXK – KDE/XFCE
  • Linux Lite – XFCE
  • Xubuntu – XFCE
  • Emmabuntus – XFCE

Narrowing it down

The above distributions can all be easily customised but the other requirements are that the distribution has to be more challenging than Ubuntu but must still be capable of doing the basic tasks.
I don’t think any of the above distributions fail when it comes to being able to do the basic tasks. It is easy enough to install any of those distributions and get to the point of getting online, using the obvious tools such as audio players, watching videos etc.
The first distribution I am going to rule out is PCLinuxOS. I wrote a review of PCLinuxOS in April 2013. The title of the review was “Is there an easier transition to Linux from Windows than PCLinuxOS?”. If the user is looking for something more challenging than Ubuntu then PCLinuxOS isn’t it.
I would happily recommend PCLinuxOS to a whole host of computer users. It uses the KDE desktop which definitely makes it customisable and it really is a good operating system. PCLinuxOS has all the applications you could possibly need from the outset including LibreOffice, Clementine, GIMP, Dropbox, Thunderbird etc.
If PCLinuxOS is too easy to use then I am going to knock Arch off the list because it may be too challenging. I had my first look at Arch in March 2013 and I was impressed with the documentation that accompanies Arch. It does however take a wee while to get it installed and therefore if the user wants to have the home comforts straight away then this is the main reason to rule out Arch.
SLAX is really a portable version of Linux and the user did not request a portable version of Linux. The SLAX review was also written in March 2013.  Slax uses the KDE desktop and I have to say that the plug and play modules that are used within Slax makes it very versatile whilst keeping the size down to the minimum required for running from a USB drive.
Linux Mint Mate and Linux Mint XFCE probably aren’t going to be much more challenging than Ubuntu however they are both heavily customisable.

I was really impressed when I reviewed SolusOS in February 2013. Again SolusOS will not be particularly challenging as it is one of those distributions that pretty much works straight out of the box. It comes with a great set of applications installed by default including LibreOffice, Dropbox, Thunderbird and PlayonLinux. Really it makes a good alternative to Linux Mint.

In addition to SolusOS I also tried SnowLinux out in February 2013. SnowLinux gave me significant issues when I used it including permissions issues, Synaptic not working from the XFCE menu and issues connecting to the internet. If the user wants a challenge then this would certainly fit the bill. The question is do you want a challenge for the sake of it?
Linux Lite is another very good distribution which uses the XFCE desktop. I have omitted it from the final list because it won’t really provide much of a challenge. It works out of the box and because it uses XFCE it is instantly customisable. Emmabuntus is omitted from the final list as well for the same reasons as Linux Lite. The main challenge with Emmabuntus is the fact that some of the windows have French titles. (Not really all that challenging).

The final countdown

  • Fedora
  • Debian
  • Mageia
  • openSUSE
  • SolydX
  • Xubuntu
Fedora, Debian, Mageia and openSUSE are all very good options for this user. They all give a good user experience out of the box but provide a different challenge to the one proposed by Ubuntu.
I reviewed Mageia last week and I hit significant challenges with regards to the partitioning, the network centre and setting up the repositories. As a standalone distribution Mageia would provide a good learning curve with most applications being instantly available.
Fedora is a completely free distribution providing only free software. Whilst this means the distribution works out of the box to get things like Flash working you have to put in a bit of effort and if you really want to experiment then you can try to stay completely free.
Debian is also a completely free distribution and therefore provides similar challenges to Fedora. Debian would be a good fit as it gives a certain amount of familiarity to the user who has tried Ubuntu.
openSUSE is probably actually just as easy to use as Ubuntu but because it uses different tools I have put it in the final countdown.
I reviewed SolydX last month and it impressed me. It has a good selection of applications. SolydX fits into the category of being a lightweight distribution and as such includes Gnumeric and Abiword instead of LibreOffice. It uses XFCE which makes it customisable and is based on Debian. SolydK is the KDE version which includes more mainstream applications. Definitely a contender.

And my choice would be….

I would recommend any of the final list for this user but the one that I would probably recommend overall is Xubuntu.
Xubuntu provides an endless opportunity of options for customisation and because it has the Ubuntu roots it will be familiar enough to the user in question.
There is enough about Xubuntu which will provide a challenge without putting pointless obstacles in the way.
Thankyou for reading


  1. While Debian is a completely free distribution, using nonfree software is as easy as updating your repositories and putting nonfree in it as well. I suspect it won't be much different on Fedora. Opensuse has 1-click installations available on the website for nonfree stuff.

    Personally I tend to stick with the larger distributions because they usually have less rough edges, support and help is easier to find and it's less likely the distro will just die because the maintainer stops putting effort in it.

    • Sure, but the question stated that he didnt want to fiddle for 8 hours to get his system set up.

      In the end it doesn't really matter which distro you choose because of the flexibility of Linux. Any distro can easily be set up with nearly any desktop environment you like. Therefore I think it's better to base your choice on matters like:
      – Rolling release or stable releases with upgrades/reinstalls? First option means you don't have to reinstall or do heavy upgrades that might do your system more harm than good, second option means that your system is less likely to break because of software updates
      – If you go for stable releases; what is their release schedule and how long will they support older versions?
      – The community and how known the distro is. A bigger distro with a bigger community means it's easier to find support when something goes wrong or you simply have a question. Besides is less likely the distro will simply die out. Also bigger distro's are usually better tested
      – Ease of setup: distro's like Mint, Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS etc. are usually already great out of the box. Debian and Fedora will require some configuration (repositories, nonfree drivers and software) but are also generally easy. Arch, Gentoo, Linux from scratch etc. are very tricky and require hours of setup and configuration but you will learn a lot about the inner workings of Linux along the way
      – How fast will the maintainer update your favourite applications? Arch and Fedora are pretty bleeding edge while Debian Stable will leave you with generally old (but stable) software.

      Personally I'm using Debian testing right now because it gives me the best combination of everything: no reinstalls needed because its (semi) rolling, more recent software than Stable but still well tested, pretty easy to set up and configure, very flexible and general purpose and a huge community.

  2. Of course any Distro can be made to look Like any distro. Xubuntu is essentially a XFCEskinned ubutu. You can use Unity in Fedora, and in my Ubuntu system, I have Mate, KDE, XFCE and Unity installed. For most out-of-box versatility you can not beat Debian. For most convenience and particularly if you want to try the widest variety fo games Ubuntu is best…(in my opinion)

  3. Funnily enough. I run Ubuntu (unity) on my all powerful 8gig Ram Desktop.

    BUT Xubuntu on my dirty 'ol Dell m4400 14" laptop and I actually enjoy the laptop more sometimes.

    Ditto Denny Strijdonck.

    And yes, it's easier to customise, therefore save battery, cut down on un-necessary resource usage etc

  4. I really don't think of Xubuntu as challenging at all. It and the closely related Ubuntu Studio are the two distributions I am most likely to put on the laptops that I give to my nephews and nieces (old laptops that have been written of from my workplace; it's funny how well a six year old machine runs with Linux).

    • I agree that it isn't overly challenging. The specification is for something that isn't Ubuntu (and Xubuntu just about covers that), is customisable (Xubuntu definitely covers that) and provides a challenge. What defines a challenge is difficult to quantify and will mean different things to different people.

  5. Time for you to install and review Manjaro Linux. The best of Arch. Always very current, stable, easy to install and maintain. I think Arch is an incredible upstream distro, like Debian, creating fertile ground for lots of downstream distros. I think Linux users will turn their attention to rolling distros like Gentoo and Arch much more in the next few years. Distros like Manjaro are a good entry point for less advanced users who want to benefit from a rolling distro. Manjaro complements its upstream upstream cousin, Arch, nicely. Both cater to different users but, combined, are growing their shared community, to the benefit of both.

    I have used many distros, including: Mandrake, Suse, first version of Fedora, first version of Ubuntu and ran an Ubuntu commands site, Debian, Gentoo, Arch, Mint and quick loads of others. But, I am having the most fun with Manjaro. Load it once, roll forever….

  6. Merely a suggestion:


    But it is the most customized version of Ubuntu available.

    The default environment is KDE, but the following options are also installed and may be accessed at the log-in screen:

    — Cinnamon
    — Cinnamon 2D
    — GNOME
    — GNOME Classic
    — GNOME Classic (No Effects)
    — GNOME Openbox
    — KDE Plasma Workspace
    — KDE / Openbox
    — Lubuntu
    — Lubuntu Netbook
    — Openbox
    — Ubuntu
    — Ubuntu 2D
    — XBMC
    — Xfce Session
    — Xubuntu Session
    — Ubuntu Studio

    It might be worth considering.

  7. I use Gentoo on my laptop but the wife, kids, inlaws, parents and a few others I know are all running either on PCLinuxOS-KDE or Kubuntu (10.10 was the first one I found good).

    Its KDE simply because people love to make their computer their own (once theyre shown how), none of our KDE desktops look the same at home, some like icons and side panels, some want a clean desktop with disappearing panels and only one uses Activities full time but with a passion.
    I like Kubuntu a lot because its almost a plain KDE experience and the configurability let's me make my desktop run the way I want, not someone else…
    Were going to change our Dolphin setups to how 'we' want them no matter what he run so the distros dont really matter…my son changes KDE distros every few months and he always sets it back up exactly the way he wants it each time that he forgets what hes running.

    Im really not a distro guy, like many I whore around to much but KDE and XCFE are the two desktops I run. The distros themselves change every few years…

  8. Have you ever tried Crunchbang Linux? It is Debian based with Openbox on top, VERY light weight and blazing fast. You can do your stuff out of the box but offers high customization posibilities, thus more challenging but you wont regret!

  9. Seriously? You replace Ubuntu with Xubuntu? Isn't that like trading in your brand new Toyota for another one, same model, same specs, only a different color? This is getting more options?

    Look, you want customization, then you want KDE, and you want a KDE specific distro. What kills me is your comment that PCLinuxOS is TOO easy… Is there a such thing? PCLinuxOS + KDE for the win!

  10. Linux Deepin has to be the easiest Linux OS I have ever tested. It worked right out of the box, even plays mp3, mp4, etc… It has both Firefox and Chrome installed, has both Kingsoft Office AND the standard Libre Office (for those who dislike Java, or in case one doesn't work). You basically have all the necessary software at your disposal right away!

    It also has a very nice, simple and elegant desktop interface, accompanied by its own brand of config tools to cater to the different desktop needs. One other thing that really stood out to me is their Software Center (or so I think it's called). It's very similar to the Google Play Store for Android. All you have to do is click and install. It really doesn't get easier than that!

    The only quirk is though the OS is in English, the developers are mostly Chinese, which means one, you can't participate in the Forums, and two, software updates (yes, in English) are on the Chinese servers (we all know how painful downloading could be sometimes).

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