Here’s a collection of 20 that are worth checking out. There are plenty more, so if you’d like to add your favorites, share them in the comments!
Fedora 10 – One of the few live distros that didn’t have any trouble with the hardware on my MSI Wind netbook. My acid test: can it properly suspend and wake? Yes – and it does it faster than Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7. OpenSUSE and Ubuntu both failed to resume properly.
Damn Small Linux – I wouldn’t feel right not listing Damn Small. It’s pretty amazing what you can do with a whole OS that’s not much bigger than most Windows antivirus applications. 50mb gets you Firefox, XMMS, VNCViewer, MS Office Viewer, and much more. It’s also easily extendable through the MyDSL service or by using the apt command.
Linux Mint – While it’s based on Ubuntu, Mint has some features that I think make it a bit more user-friendly. For starters, there are several easy ways to find and install new software including the dead simple Mint Software Portal. Find an app, click the install button, bada bing!
64 Studio – If you’re into digital content creation of any kind – audio, video, or graphics – 64 Studio is a distro worth downloading. It’s packed full of awesome multimedia apps and, contrary to the name, is available for 32-bit platforms as well.
live.linux-gamers.net – One of the big complaints about Linux is “Where are the games?” If you’d like to see some, why not download a live DVD that contains a truckload that you can run without even installing anything? FPS, racing, platformer, you name it – this disc has it covered.
Slax – This has always been one of my favorite light Linux distros. It’s about 200mb and includes plenty of great apps. It includes a really slick boot option as well: to act as a PXE server, allowing other machines on your LAN to boot Slax over the network.
NimbleX – If you’re looking for a lightweight base to run virtual PCs on, check out NimbleX. It’s the smallest distro I’ve seen that comes with Sun’s Virtual Box. You can even customize your ISO on the web site before you download it if you want. Awesome.
Haiku – Inspired by BeOS, Haiku strives to provide an environment that is simple enough for beginners to use, yet powerful enough for more experienced users to enjoy as well. As they say on their web site, Haiku wants to be “free of unnecessary complexities.” There’s also Zeven OS, a Linux distro with BeOS-inspired visuals.
ReactOS – Definitely an ambitious project, ReactOS is trying to produce a free, non-linux environment that is fully compatible with Windows applications and drivers. It’s got a long way to go, but it’s an interesting project to keep your eye on.
Mac-on-stick – Sure, OSX is pretty and functional, but can it fit on a 32mb flash drive? Mac-on-stick is a complete Mac OS 7.0.1 environment that runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, and even Pocket PC. Use it to run old-school apps or classic games like Dark Castle. It’s also part of the Portableapps.Com suite.
OSX86 – No, there’s no link for this one, gang. I’ve included OSX86 (which you can probably find yourself on any major torrent tracker by searching for kalyway) because it’s an amazing example of what an enthusiastic computing community can accomplish. There’s even a customized version floating around that is tailored for the MSI Wind netbook..
NetBSD – If you’re not interested in trying the Hackintosh thing, why not play around with OS X’s foundations? One of the great things about NetBSD is the amazing number of hardware platforms it can run on, including the Playstation 2 and Sega Dreamcast. You may also want to try Jibbed, a lightweight NetBSD livecd spinoff that runs XFCE4.
Open Solaris – The good folks at Sun play a big part in the development of a pretty mean free OS. Open Solaris is incredibly stable and is designed for reliability and network performance. It makes an excellent foundation for NAS devices and servers.
FreeNAS – Speaking of NAS, if you’ve got an old junker around that you’d like to turn into something useful, FreeNAS is a nice option. It’s a barebones distro based on FreeBSD and is designed to turn old hardware into simple network attached storage.
IE Application Compatibility VPC Images – More free stuff from Microsoft? The VPC images include .vhd files of XP and Vista machines that can be run inside Virtual PC to test applications in different Windows OSes with different versions of IE.
VICE – Again not technically an OS, but I’m not sure anyone is really looking to multiboot the Commodore 64 or VIC20 operating systems. The VICE emulator will also run C128, PLUS4, and PET programs.
GeeXboX – Another great use of an outdated machine is to turn it into a media server/HTPC and GeeXboX is an excellent operating system to power it. There’s even an ISO generator that runs on Mac and Windows that you can use to build a customized GeeXboX disc with different themes, languages, network settings, and more.
Untangle – Untangle is a free, open source gateway that is available as both a full-blown OS and a Windows application. The Windows “app” is a nice option if you don’t have the hardware to spare for a standalone gateway machine.
Ultimate Deployment Appliance – UDA is a slick VMWare appliance that allows you to easily serve ISO images via a PXE environment. I love it. No more griping about badly scratched Vista or XP install discs, I just boot via the LAN interface instead.
gParted – If you’re using a “questionably legal” solution like Hiren’s Boot CD to manage drive partitions, you should give gParted a try. The interface and functionality is very similar to Partition Magic, and gParted is totally free and open source.