As is tradition, each year at FOSS Post we take a tour around Linux distributions released during the year, and compare them to see which one was best suited for Linux desktop users.
There is no universal “best”, of course, and things are quite subjective and debatable around that term. But in our selection, we apply a wide-range of different criteria on all the distributions released during the year in order to determine the best one. Which is generally a Linux distribution that:
- Does not consume a lot of resources by default.
- Have a desktop that doesn’t lag or freeze.
- Can be configured however users like, but not bloated with configuration options.
- Have a good access to a wide range of software and packages.
- Have a good appearance and look & feel by default.
- Supports any hardware users may have, especially the modern one.
- Generally stable and bug-free, does not show error messages from time to time.
- Suitable for university students, teachers, engineers, average SMBs workers and basically anybody who isn’t developing nukes.
- Doesn’t require a prior experience to use it.
Our 2019 winner was Ubuntu MATE, and the 2020 winner was Linux Mint. Today, we are more than happy to choose MX Linux 21 as the best Linux distribution released in 2021.
Many interesting distributions were released in 2021, and of course you know about distributions like Mint, Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE and other well-known mainstream distributions. Our eyes were headed towards distributions like Nitrux and EndlessOS, which although are quite unique and revolutionary in their system design, don’t often receive good recognition in the media.
However, MX Linux has won the bet. And in today’s article we’ll be reviewing MX Linux 21 to see what qualified it to be the best distribution of the year.
MX Linux 21 Review
MX Linux was first released in 2014. It is a combination of efforts from antiX and MEPIS Linux distributions, both which were suited for old hardware users back in the day. “MX” is the first letter of MEPIS (M) + last letter of antiX (X) = MX.
The distribution is based on Debian, and the latest version, MX Linux 21, is based on Debian 11 Bullseye.
Just like its parent distributions, MX Linux aims to be user friendly as much as possible, as well as being usable on older hardware.
The distribution skyrocketed in 2020 and 2021, and today, it ranks as the #1’st distribution on Distrowatch (Not that it means a lot, though).
It is worthy to note that MX Linux does not use systemd by default, although that it is included in the distribution and supported. Instead, it uses systemd-shim, which along with SysVInit provide system services management.
You can also choose to use systemd by default from the boot menu itself, as there are two options to choose from in the GRUB menu:
MX Linux Installer
Unlike most Linux distributions out there, MX Linux features its own installer. It includes the very basic steps of selecting the partition for where to install the new OS, time zone selection, user information entry and other traditional steps like any OS installer:
Notice, however, that during all the steps of installation, there is a sidebar that includes information about the current step for the user. This is a quite helpful and unique feature, because new Linux users may not know how to proceed with some steps, or what is the difference between a home and a root partition, but the help information in the sidebar will explain all that for them:
The entire installation process won’t take more than 5 minutes.
MX Linux is not just one Linux distribution, instead, there are many available flavors for it, which include Xfce, KDE and Fluxbox desktops. However, the most “main flagship” one is the Xfce version, which currently uses Xfce 4.16:
The distribution features a traditional user experience and design by default, but with a unique change: You have the desktop panel on the left side of the screen, just like in Unity:
Of course, you can change it if you want to become like an ordinary Xfce desktop:
There are many different GTK and icon themes preloaded with the system, and you can switch between them however you like:
It is true that the default appearance of the distribution, as well as its own apps, are quite classic and traditional. But this comes with the positive side of being very functional and full of interesting features, as well as being very lightweight on old hardware (Even 2GB of RAM would be acceptable).
Unique Utilities & System Management
The main aspect that made us choose MX Linux as the winner of 2021 is how much effort was invested in creating the different utility and system management apps in the distribution. It is quite similar to Linux Mint in that regard, but with more of “functionality” in the cup.
For example, MX Linux has a special “tour” app that guides the new user through everything he/she may need to know about their new system:
But it is not one of those cheap “document center” apps that come with most Linux desktops, instead, it is fully detailed and supported with useful pictures to make the user completely understand how to navigate around the system:
It also has its own control center, which you can use to launch many different utilities to configure anything on your system, from NVIDIA drivers and all the way up to GRUB and Plymouth boot themes:
The boot options tool include everything a user may need to tweak:
Power users are going to enjoy MX Linux, because it includes many advanced tools for them as well. For example, you can enable or disable network drivers and options according to your own needs:
And there is also a Crontab GUI frontend that enables users to automate running any task they want on their systems. It comes with helpful documentation on how to use it as well:
A small utility for formatting USB sticks and burning ISO images on them is there too:
Did you notice that all MX Linux apps have this “Help” button in them? This is one of the unique features of the distribution which makes it astoundingly user-friendly, because users don’t have to Google on how to use this application or that, nor do they need to access an online source to learn how to use their systems. Instead, all apps come with their own documentation which is accessible by one click from the apps them selves, and which also works offline:
This makes the distribution fantastic for users in any regions which may have low or poor Internet connection, because it is already loaded with everything a user many need, both from the apps side as well as the documentation side.
Finally, the distribution includes Timeshift by default; an app which can create system snapshots – just like in Windows – to provide backups in case of any system error or issue:
There is also an ISO builder to create your own MX Linux flavor:
Just like Debian, the distribution uses the apt package manager for software management. It comes with Synaptic as well for graphical package management for users wishing to do it easily.
MX Linux, however, has its own graphical package manager as well. The default view allows users to easily install any well-known applications or desktops in few clicks:
Users can also choose to install any package they want from the available repositories on their OS. A search functionality exists to instantly find the package you are looking for and mark it for installation:
More interestingly, the distribution comes with Flatpak support by default, and Flathub repository already integrated for easily downloading & installing any Flatpak application:
After marking a Flatpak package for installation, you will see its progress in the same window:
Since MX Linux 21 is based on Debian Bullseye 11, it is not much expected to receive a lot of updates for the available packages, because Debian tries to be a stable Linux distribution and hence has a conservative policy on how to push package updates. But thanks to Flatpaks integration by default, users can install any 3rd-party applications they want as Flatpaks in order to get the latest versions of them, without having to sacrifice the stability of their base systems to do so.
Inkscape, for example, can easily be installed as a Flatpak:
And just like Linux Mint, users can manage their system repositories or choose the best available mirrors they wish to download software from:
MX Linux 21 is top-notch when it comes to software management.
Hardware Resources Usage
You would perhaps be surprised to know that MX Linux 21 uses only 579MB of RAM by default after a fresh boot:
$ free -m total used free shared buff/cache available Mem: 7782 579 6343 39 859 6923 Swap: 0 0 0
And boots in around 5 seconds:
mhsabbagh@fs:~$ systemd-analyze Startup finished in 2.593s (kernel) + 2.621s (userspace) = 5.214s graphical.target reached after 2.441s in userspace
All the special MX Linux apps are nothing more than normal GTK applications, and hence each one you open from them won’t use more then 40-80MB each. So the only thing that you would have to worry about is the web browser (Firefox, Chromium… etc), because that would be what uses most RAM (Even more than the desktop).
Download MX Linux 21
As we said, MX Linux is available in Xfce, KDE and Fluxbox flavors. All which come with different functionalities and default system applications. But you can download any version you desire from the official MX Linux download page.
It is also worthy to note that MX Linux has a special release cycle model, and that there are new snapshots released on monthly basis in order to keep the ISO images continuously updated.
The Bottom Line
So overall, all of these reasons were what motivated us to choose MX Linux 21 as the best desktop Linux distribution of 2021. Combining hardware support, low resources consumption and huge number of utility apps and deep functionality options… It all creates a wonderful Linux distribution for the average user.
Perhaps the only thing that the developers need to work on is the default UX and UI for their default apps and overall system, as it sounds too traditional and classical from the first while, comparing to distributions like elementaryOS 6 which feature more elegant user interfaces.
But… That aside, MX Linux 21 is one of the best Linux distributions out there to try, and we recommend any new user thinking of switching to Linux from Windows to test it out.
Congratulations to MX Linux developers, and everyone who has worked on creating this great distribution! It truly paid off.
Hanny is a computer science & engineering graduate with a master degree, and an open source software developer. He has created a lot of open source programs over the years, and maintains separate online platforms for promoting open source in his local communities.
Hanny is the founder of FOSS Post.
Very thorough and fair review of MX Linux. It has a strong heritage, which makes it a solid choice for new users and experts alike. I started a long time ago with its parent MEPIS Linux, which got a lot of things right many years ago, such as the installer. Just as a small correction, the M from MX is from MEPIS, not MEIPS. Thank you for the write-up; I hope many potential users can benefit from your article.
Thanks for the correction, updated.
You mention that the boot up time (presumably power on to graphical login display) was about 5 seconds. Was there any difference in time between using the SysVInint method and the systemd method? Also was there any differences between RAM usage between these two methods. One might expect the systemd method to use more overall because of various specific to systemd things kept running.
No there was no difference between them, neither in boot time nor in RAM usage after boot (the systemd boot was only +20MB more).
I recently believed that MX was the best linux distro, Poren decided to install XEBIAN (https://xebian.org/) .(I suggest you do a review of it…) It is running perfectly on my note and today I don’t change it for any other. In fact there has to be Debian in the blood,,,,,,,,
Tried almost every distribution from Distrowatch but always come back to Endeavour or now my new favourite, ArcoLinux, I like the Arch Linux way.
MX is ok, but no Must to have for me.
HI. Very good MXLinux review. Thank you!
At the part “There is also an ISO builder to create your own MX Linux flavor:” That app is named `mx-snapshot`. Might want to specified that. Thanks!
MX is fully okay with parent Debian. There are other children of Debian that are not okay. They will break thing’s if you mix. I rather not name-names. But we hard core user’s know.
Seems to be more of a distro for low end or older systems. I still don’t get the popularity beyond its less resource impact on hardware? I think its definitely feels a lot like Linux Mint used to be before it became more resource hungry. As a person who has tried a lot of distro’s over the years. As far as their uniqueness compared to others, they all tend to be similar when you factor in whatever flavor of desktop environment you choose.
I ran across MXLinux while looking for a replacement to another distribution.
I have been testing MXLinux 21 on a few computers (desktop and laptop) for several weeks. I thought I was being smart downloading the AHS (advanced hardware support) version because I was testing on new as well as old architecture. After wasting a lot of time, I submitted a bug report on Christmas day. The maintainers got back to me the same day the problem was resolved by downloading the standard version instead of the AHS version.
I have to agree with this review. There are a few things in this review I haven’t tried yet, such as the TimeShift feature. This is by far the easiest to use and most complete distribution I have used. I am still testing, but I am sure this will be my main Linux. I am switching from Ubuntu because of their increasing use of Snaps and the problems I encounter with them.
KDEnlive (one of the applications I install using a bash script) on this distribution is a little sluggish to respond for a couple minutes when a clip is loaded, but I don’t know if that is a KDEnlive (a much newer version than I have used before) or MXLinux issue.
The only other issue I have encountered is with the mx-user-manager. It is a very useful tool to create and manage users and to manage groups. However, if that tool is used to create groups, it does not follow the normal convention of putting user group IDs (GID) into the user group ID range of 1000-59999, but instead puts them into the system group ID range of 100-999. This is not an issue for the casual user, but makes it difficult to migrate users and groups to another Linux machine (whether MXLinux or other distribution). This GID behavior is contrary to Debian and most other Linux distributions recommendations. The way to avoid the improper assignment of GIDs is to open a terminal session and use the ‘addgroup’ as sudo. I submitted a bug report on this issue but they summarily rejected it as a non-issue. So, I don’t see that ever changing unless other system admins report the bug. Just beware of the issue and work around it with the addgroup command. Once the groups are created, then go back to mx-user-manager and use it to manage users group assignments.
The tools provided (of those I have used) are easy to use and thorough. The number of tools for administrative tasks might even seem overwhelming.
It is really nice having a 192 page pdf user manual on the desktop. It is very informative.
The default installation makes it extremely to setup SMB shares so you can share files with Windows computers. The default setup should be good for most home server uses. It configures as a stand-alone server.
I really like the feature where can make snapshots of the system configuration and burn to DVD or to a thumb drive. Very nice to be able to do a fresh installation of your OS, programs, and configurations. You can also do the same task for installing on others’ computers by making the installation media not include user accounts. And installation is fast. From the downloaded install image put onto a thumb drive, I was able to do a fresh install of MX Linux 21.2.1 on a computer with an i3-3240 processor and 20GB RAM, install current updates, install my normal programs using a bash shell script in less than one hour. The install itself from boot to the installation media (a thumb drive) to reboot on completion of the installation was 11 minutes.
In July 2021 I purchased a really low-end laptop ( 128GB NVMe drive, 4GB RAM) with Win 11. While memory was not expanable, the laptop had an unused m2280 NVMe slot, which I populated with a 500GB module. I can use the system for more than 10 hours on a charge, as opposed to Windows 11 for about 3-1/2 hours.