10 obscure (but useful) desktop Linux distros

You’ve likely heard of Ubuntu, Red Hat and Fedora, but there are strange, lesser-known versions of Linux worth knowing about.


The Internet Runs on Linux

The operating system Linus Torvalds created has become so popular that it has more peculiar offshoots than the Star Trek universe has fan fiction novels. You’ve heard of the big ones – Ubuntu, Red Hat and Fedora, to name a few – but there are strange, lesser-known versions worth pondering, even if only to shake your head in astonishment.

Still, don’t dismiss them out of hand. Almost all of these obscure and lesser known variants were created to fill a specific need. They may seem bizarre, but you may one day need a Satanic operating system – or one that will get your tweener daughter psyched about Linux. Or maybe you have a specific technical need one of these can easily fill.

More importantly, these demonstrate the extraordinary power, flexibility and customization features of Linux, an operating system that can be tweaked and packaged up for wildly diverse users, from kids to the religious, to crime scene investigators to musicians.

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Dave Taylor / CAINE Linux


Ready to open your own crime scene investigation computer analysis lab? CAINE (Computer Aided INvestigative Environment) is the perfect fit It's an Italian Linux distribution designed specifically for forensic analysis and other police work.

CAINE Linux includes a wide range of CSI-ready tools and programs, including some fascinating steganography tools, the Autopsy Forensic Browser and a package of programs known as TheSleuthKit.

More interesting to budding detectives, CAINE includes UFO – Ultimate Forensic Outflow – which supports full and detailed analysis of a recovered computer, including browser history, password recovery, malware analysis, log viewers and network analysis tools.

CAINE Linux is the operating system that Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes would use if they worked in the 21st century. 

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Dave Taylor / GNewSense


Does this describe you? You're so deep into the anti-corporate anarchy subculture of open source that the very idea of trademarks and software copyrights fill you with a deep and profound anger. Then you will adore GNewSense Linux. It’s a Linux distro designed from the OS up to remove all licensed and proprietary additions.

To some extent, it’s just another revolution around the wheel of Unix history: BSD 4.4 Unix was a rewrite of AT&T Unix that got rid of AT&T intellectual property within the OS. GNewSense seeks to do the same from Linux, and with surprising success.

More specifically, GNewSense has all software that is not open-source removed, from the OS kernel up to the individual programs. As the team managing the system states:: “To use free software is to make a political and ethical choice asserting your rights to learn and to share what you learn with others.”

Built atop Debian 7, you’ll never hit a trademark or licensing issue with GNewSense and the anarchist in your heart who yearns for all software and information to be free will be gleeful.

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Dave Taylor / Red Star OS

Red Star OS

Red Star is not for everyone. In fact, it is specifically designed for those who need an operating system with built-in content filtering because they live under strict government censorship.

Red Star OS is the official operating system of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (a.k.a. North Korea). It’s based on Linux, but it allows the government to implement a closed system, both with network access and individual programs.

Red Star OS isn’t open source, of course. It is what’s known as “close sourced” and has some interesting hidden tricks. For one thing, it can automatically watermark media files. Not scary enough? It will automatically delete “inappropriate” files and block your access to major segments of the global Internet.

If you’re curious to try this one out, do so very carefully! There is code deep in the OS that reputedly reports back to DPRK central systems on what you are doing, where you are located, and much more. Forewarned is forearmed.

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Dave Taylor / Damn Small Linux

Damn Small Linux

It is a good thing we live in an era where hard drives and storage systems keep getting bigger. Because the operating systems we run have an annoying tendency to spread and sprawl. The general feeling among developers seems to be that if the OS grows to 10GB, everyone can buy a bigger disk. Fortunately, some developers seek to create small and nimble solutions.

That’s the inspiration behind Damn Small Linux (DSL): it’s the perfect OS for situations where you don’t have space. In fact, Damn Small Linux fits in a single 50MB package. Yes, that’s MB, not GB.

This means that DSL easily fits on a flash drive or even one of those business-card size storage devices and, because it makes such light demands on the hardware, it can run on even the most ancient of systems.

To be fair, Damn Small Linux isn’t going to replace your new Red Hat installation anytime soon. But it can work perfectly as an SSH server or something similar. Amazingly, even with that tiny footprint, the development team has somehow managed to squeeze GUI admin tools into the system.

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Dave Taylor / Ubuntu Satanic Edition

Ubuntu Satanic Edition

Did Flip Wilson inadvertently inspire Linux hackers everywhere when he said, “The devil made me do it!?”

Regardless of how his odd effort to create a Satanic Linux distro got started, its developers have clearly had a lot of fun creating stylized icons and wallpapers. And the latest version of this devilish release is – humorously – known as version 666.9. This version, presumably on the assumption that satanic Linux users are also heavy metal fans, includes lots of public domain heavy metal and related music.

This is all undoubtedly handy for stressing out co-workers. And it is the only version of Linux that’s likely to get you kicked out of church choir. But, in the spirit of full disclosure, Ubuntu Satanic Edition is really a skin or theme on top of the regular Ubuntu Linux, sporting darker themes, scary wallpapers, and other mood setting elements.

Maybe Ubuntu Satanic Edition isn’t the version you want to install on the CEO’s laptop (unless you work for Metallica.) But it is a viable flavor of the system and there’s no question that it’s perfect around Halloween and for the Goth developer who prefers working in the IT sub-basement.

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Dave Taylor / Ubuntu Christian Edition

Ubuntu Christian Edition

Satan not your bag? No worries, there’s a Linux distro for Christians that’s built atop the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution.

One of the best features of this version of Linux is for parents: If you're worried about what your kids are getting into online, Ubuntu CE includes dansguardian parental controls system.

What makes it Christian? Well, it sports inspirational wallpapers. And it includes Xiphos and Gnome Sword – two popular Bible study programs, along with church programs Quelea and OpenLP.

The latest version is based on Ubuntu 12.04. Ubuntu CE is intended to sit atop standard Linux and to bring the larger Christian community into the Linux world.

If you’re worried that it won’t be a match because your pastor or congregation is Catholic or Protestant, the developers are quick to assure users that it caters to the needs of all Christians, regardless of denomination.

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Dave Taylor / Yellow Dog Linux

Yellow Dog Linux

Have you been dying to assemble a cluster of Sony Playstation-4 systems to create your own supercomputer grid? Yellow Dog Linux might be your solve.

Built atop Red Hat Linux/CentOS, Yellow Dog was hatched back in the era when Apple allowed third-party companies to make Mac systems built on a PowerPC core. That era didn’t last long. And PowerPC CPUs have long been supplanted by faster and more capable chips. But Yellow Dog has evolved and continues to be a sweet distribution for complex setups.

Yellow Dog is the distro you want for high-performance multicore computing setups you have planned.

Not only that, but the latest version supports the IBM Cell SDK, Barcelona Superscalar, and the highly efficient E17 desktop work environment. Together, they offer a clean interface and power over even your most sophisticated and complex computing setup.

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Dave Taylor / Zeroshell Linux

Zeroshell Linux

Is a hefty Linux distro more than you have the appetite for? Not interested in all that extra software in Damn Small Linux? Zeroshell might be perfect for you. It’s a Linux distribution specifically created for embedded systems like routers, net balancers, firewalls, proxy servers, OpenVPN clients and DNS servers.

As a bonus, it turns out that Zeroshell Linux is the perfect operating system for a Raspberry Pi device.

Unique to this Linux distribution, Zeroshell has no graphical interface or GUI software included. You will have to access and configure it all from a Web browser running on a different machine.

It does include a RADIUS server for secure authentication, QoS management and traffic shaping support, HTTP proxy server, host-to-LAN and LAN-to-LAN, multi-zone DNS, and support for Kerberos 5 authentication.

Even better, it’s available as a live CD distribution and it can be run easily from a flash drive. There’s even a 512MB image you can download that’s bootable.

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Dave Taylor / Tails Linux

Tails Linux

If you’re feeling like privacy is a vanishing commodity, you are not alone. Fears over the erosion of online privacy are the foundation of the Tails Linux distribution.

Built atop Debian and supported by both Mozilla and the anonymous Tor browser team, Tails is for anyone who takes their privacy and anonymity seriously.

Interestingly, it’s a live distro designed to work directly off a flash drive or similar, so you can boot up on just about any Windows PC, access the Internet, and disconnect, without leaving a single trace of your activity.

All connections are routed through the Tor network. And state-of-the-art cryptographic tools are available to encrypt your files, email, and instant messaging communications.

Tails is an acronym, though a rather painful one: The Amnesiac Incognito Live System.

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Dave Taylor / Hannah Montana Linux

Hannah Montana Linux

Yes, there’s a Linux distro themed around the old Disney TV show and billion-dollar franchise Hannah Montana. Admittedly, it hasn’t been updated for a long while, but – to prove that Linux comes in many strange flavors and is available for diverse needs and users – it does exist.

As you would expect, HML features a pink desktop wallpaper with Hannah Montana staring at you. Oddly, there is no mention of her double life as Miley Cyrus. 

The developer of this distribution isn’t a Hannah Montana superfan. He just wanted to design a version that would attract young children to Linux rather than to Windows or MacOS X.

It’s built atop Kubuntu KDE 4.2, and it’s not much more than an interesting theme atop a standard Linux. But kids getting interested in Linux? What’s not to love?

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