College students stand to benefit greatly from using the Linux operating system. Linux is secure, easy to use and well-tested; there’s no need to worry about viruses or malware.

No one company owns Linux, and it’s not just one operating system. Since it’s an open source software, many communities are able to develop and support a variety of Linux distributions.

Part one of this series detailed how to get started using Linux. This part covers some of the best Linux distros to consider.

Be sure to review the basics about picking a Linux distro presented in Part One. That introduction discusses the different desktop interfaces mentioned in the distro choices reviewed here.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu screenshot

Ubuntu is an open source software fronted by Canonical, a company based out of England and California. Its default desktop is a specially developed, user-friendly interface called Unity. Several more traditional desktop environments also are packaged around Ubuntu.

Each desktop has its own supporting community and targeted appeal. All the various desktop versions of Ubuntu—Unity, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, GNOME and Kubuntu—are maintained for long term support (LTS) status for three to five years. All of these desktops share the same Ubuntu underpinnings; the only difference is the user interface.

Despite its ease of use, Unity is not universally liked. There are some key difference that set it apart from the traditional look and feel of a desktop. For example, the Unity bar sits vertically on the left edge of the screen. The Dash and the Heads up Display (HUD) combine to replace the traditional menu and include a search area and filtering system called a Lens. These features help users fine tune what is displayed, such as file locations, recent applications and downloads.

Edubuntu

Edubuntu Screenshot

Edubuntu is particularly attractive to the educational community. Hence its name, which refers to Ubuntu Education Edition. The goal of the Edubuntu developer community is to supply an easy to install and maintain operating system with all the best free software available in education to both teachers and students.

Edubuntu runs using Unity—the included education packages separate it from the standard Ubuntu Unity distro. Though you could run any of the other Ubuntu flavors and add these educational programs from the Ubuntu Software Center, Edubuntu has them all pre-installed and configured to run right out of the box.

Here is a quick rundown of all of the education-based software bundled in this distro. These packages are available as separate, open source projects, but you rarely find any of them together in a specific Linux distro.

The KDE Education suite has a collection of educational software, which includes:

  • GCompris – an educational software suite of activities for children aged 2 to 10.

  • Celestia – a space simulation tool for exploring the Milky Way in three dimensions.

  • Tux4Kids – combines fun and learning to create a kid-centric presentation.

  • Epoptes – a computer lab management and monitoring tool.

  • gbrainy – a brain teaser game and trainer for students of all ages.

  • Desktop Publishing – programs for page design, art creation and editing, such as Dia, Inkscape, Gimp and Scribus.

  • LibreOffice – a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tool and database front end, all fully compatible with many other office suites, including Microsoft Office. You will find LibreOffice in many of the leading Linux distros.

UberStudent

Uberstudent ScreenshotUberStudent is a unique Linux distro designed for the needs of students. It is the brainchild of education specialist Stephen Ewen.

This distro is an excellent tool for students for two reasons. One, it has a very useful set of programs that make students’ lives much easier. Two, all of its specialized software is neatly organized in well-crafted menus.

For example, each application category in the menu has a sub-category of related menus. These sub menus include WebApps, Documentation and Resources.

UberStudent’s bundled software focuses on learning task completion and academic success. It is sophisticated yet easy to use. It targets advanced secondary school and higher education students.

My many years as a teacher taught me that organized students achieve success much more consistently than unorganized learners. UberStudent’s specialty applications include note taking, task planning and project organization for both academic and non-school activities.

Unlike many other Linux distros, UberStudent only comes in one desktop flavor, Xfce. This choice is one of the easiest desktop interfaces to use. It runs great on legacy computers that are underpowered in terms of memory, graphics and processors. This makes UberStudent very handy for students who lack computing skills or are transitioning from a Mac or Windows platform.

UberStudent includes academic templates for student-centered computer assistance. For example, a script runs when booting and places a set of templates for academic work into the user’s template folder. These become available in the context menu as well.

UberStudent makes learning Linux easy with its New-User helps feature. For example, whenever a program lacks good documentation by default, user tips are added to a Documentation submenu in the program’s menu entry.

Another great new user feature is built around the LibreOffice Writer word processor. The second time you load UberStudent, a dialog asks if you wish to go to a brief tutorial about interoperability between word processor file formats. This is handy for students less familiar with open source file formats who have to send their documents to students and professors using other platforms.

Linux Mint

If you aren’t in the market for specialized educational distros, Linux Mint is an ideal choice. This distro is a close cousin to Ubuntu Linux.

The main difference is Linux Mint uses its own home-grown desktop environment called Cinnamon instead of Ubuntu’s default Unity interface. But like Ubuntu and other leading Linux distros, Linux Mint is also available in Xfce, KDE and Mate.

Linux Mint’s Cinnamon desktop is one of my favorite computing environments. It has a bottom panel bar and menu system very similar to Microsoft Windows. That makes the combination a great choice for those looking for a hassle-free migration to Linux.

The Cinnamon desktop perfected two very popular features that only recently have become popular in Windows 10. These are applets on both the desktop and panel bar, and the Scale and Expo screen views.

These are options for viewing your screen and open work-spaces at a glance. You can activate the feature by clicking a button on the bottom panel or hovering over a designated hot zone in the corner of the screen.

Linux Mint offers a variety of features that most other distros don’t provide. A special new user panel offers detailed information about Linux Mint’s features and how to use many of the tools built into the operating system. You can display this menu-style and hide it when not needed.