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The best Linux distros for gaming in 2021

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For newer Linux users or people looking to switch, it can be a minefield to try and find accurate and up to date info on what Linux distro to game with. Here to help. What is the best Linux distribution for gaming? It's actually not a tough question.

With how far Linux has come in only the last 2 years, you can play a seriously large amount of games now. Sadly, there's some (quite a lot actually) places out there that seem to slap a new date on old crusty articles and give really bad Linux gaming advice. Most of the people writing these types of articles elsewhere clearly don't use Linux - I do, and I have done for around 15 years now.

Let's start off with what not to do shall we? First off, don't bother with SteamOS from Valve. Currently, it's out of date and has been for some time now. It hasn't been properly updated since 2019! Valve are not working on it but they might return one day. Anyone suggesting it likely has no idea what they're talking about and any website listing it is junk.

Next: Ubuntu GamePack or any "specialized" Linux gaming distribution. You can throw almost all of those types in the trash. They really don't do anything normal Linux distributions don't do already and they can often introduce their own special bugs. I consider them like the old discs you would find in the bargain bin in a local PC store. You really don't need them, don't waste your precious time.

So what to actually install at the end of 2020 and in 2021 to game on Linux?

The answer is actually really simple, it's not a long list and you have two really easy choices: Ubuntu or Pop!_OS. With their LTS versions (Long Term Support), you can use them as a safe bet for years.

Pictured - Ubuntu 20.04 running Steam on my laptop.

Why those? Well, Ubuntu is almost always the most widely used Linux distribution by normal desktop users. On Steam, it has always been on top as the most used distribution by gamers - there's an obvious reason for that too — it works. It's what I always recommend to newer users because it's like a warm cuddly Linux blanket. It's easy to find answers for, and it's not complicated to use. As for Pop!_OS, it's based on Ubuntu and since System76 sell desktop Linux hardware with it you can be sure it's also well tested. 

Even our own GamingOnLinux livestreamer uses plain Ubuntu! Ps. follow us on Twitch

If you do want a specialized distribution, perhaps for a console like experience that SteamOS was supposed to offer then take a look at GamerOS. Despite the naff naming, it offers up a good big-screen experience for Steam. 

Apart from that, everything you need can be easily installed directly on Ubuntu. Steam for the biggest library of Linux compatible games and for the Steam Play Proton compatibility layer for playing Windows games on Linux, Minigalaxy for GOG games, RetroArch for emulation, itch.io has their own client too for lots of indie gems and the Lutris game manager for everything else. It's really easy to get going too, on Ubuntu you just need to open up Ubuntu Software and search for Steam and it does it for you.

Don't make it complicated for yourself. I say all this as an Arch Linux user, which is a bit of a long-running joke about you always knowing who an Arch user is as they will tell you - and oops, I just fell into it. I'm saying it for good reason though! I have been through Arch Linux, Manjaro, Fedora and more and I still consider Ubuntu to be the number 1 Linux distribution for getting going quickly especially if you're not too comfortable yet. 

Keep in mind that just as macOS and Windows do have plenty of issues, so does Linux. Don't expect perfection, be prepared to learn a bit and do things differently. If you need help, we have plenty of resources available for you. We have: a Forum, a Discord, IRC, Matrix, Telegram. You will find answers across there, with the Forum being the best way because search engines pick up answers from forums and do not from social chats like Discord.

Lastly - have fun and keep on gaming on Linux

Article taken from GamingOnLinux.com.
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About the author -
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I am the owner of GamingOnLinux. After discovering Linux back in the days of Mandrake in 2003, I constantly came back to check on the progress of Linux until Ubuntu appeared on the scene and it helped me to really love it. You can reach me easily by emailing GamingOnLinux directly.
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126 comments
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Dorrit 5 Mar
Quoting: slaapliedjeEither way, Debian is a fantastic Distribution for just about anything, gaming included
This.
Quoting: slaapliedjeYou just need to know the secret sauce to setting it up
The sauce can simply be MX-Linux, Debian prêt-à-porter.
Pangaea 9 Mar
Kinda strange to mention Ubuntu but not the better alternative Linux Mint. Since starting with Mint, I've never had the urge to distro hope again. It simply works.

Steam and all their DRM can jump off a cliff tho.
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Quoting: Dorrit
Quoting: slaapliedjeEither way, Debian is a fantastic Distribution for just about anything, gaming included
This.
Quoting: slaapliedjeYou just need to know the secret sauce to setting it up
The sauce can simply be MX-Linux, Debian prêt-à-porter.
To be fair, the only things I do after a debian install to make it 'gaming ready' are the following
 
sed -i '/main/main\ non\-free\ contrib/g' /etc/apt/sources.list
dpkg --add-architecture i386
apt update
apt install nvidia-driver steam


Then if I feel the need, I'll edit /etc/default/grub to add 'splash' to the grub command line, and run update-grub. Then you'll have the splash screen if you want to make it neat for someone else. Of course if you don't have an nvidia card, you don't need to install that. Of course if you prefer lutris over steam, that's now in the repos (though you'd have to enable backports for buster to get it, which you should probably do anyhow. Though Bullseye should be releasing in the coming months).
Eike 9 Mar
Quoting: slaapliedjeTo be fair, the only things I do after a debian install to make it 'gaming ready' are the following

Yes!

... and happy 6 years cake day!
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Quoting: Eike
Quoting: slaapliedjeTo be fair, the only things I do after a debian install to make it 'gaming ready' are the following

Yes!

... and happy 6 years cake day!
Indeed! After that it basically lasts forever. I'd had the same install for years and years, and the only reason I re-installed was due to going from 32bit to 64bit... and even then, there was a way to upgrade that way, it was just kind of a pain. But I've had the same install on my server since then.
Eike 9 Mar
Quoting: slaapliedjeIndeed! After that it basically lasts forever. I'd had the same install for years and years, and the only reason I re-installed was due to going from 32bit to 64bit... and even then, there was a way to upgrade that way, it was just kind of a pain. But I've had the same install on my server since then.

I had given up my old Debian install after, dunno, 15 years or so, because the X server couldn't cope with a very outdated config file entry. I'm still not sure if it was luck or bad luck that I only found out afterwards. I guess a fresh install every decade is ok. ;)
slaapliedje 10 Mar
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Quoting: Eike
Quoting: slaapliedjeIndeed! After that it basically lasts forever. I'd had the same install for years and years, and the only reason I re-installed was due to going from 32bit to 64bit... and even then, there was a way to upgrade that way, it was just kind of a pain. But I've had the same install on my server since then.

I had given up my old Debian install after, dunno, 15 years or so, because the X server couldn't cope with a very outdated config file entry. I'm still not sure if it was luck or bad luck that I only found out afterwards. I guess a fresh install every decade is ok. ;)
Ha, on my desktop I will play around with other distros occasionally. Mainly because I get bored of the stability in Debian... even though I run Sid there!
Redface 10 Mar
Quoting: PangaeaKinda strange to mention Ubuntu but not the better alternative Linux Mint. Since starting with Mint, I've never had the urge to distro hope again. It simply works.

Steam and all their DRM can jump off a cliff tho.

Mint is kind of Ubuntu + some extra packages, not a complete distribution on its own.
So you can consider it as included.

What Mint does is they add the Ubuntu repositories and their own, where packages not in Ubuntu, or in some cases a bit different than was Ubuntu does.

Here are the number of available deb packages on a Mint 20 install I have with no extra repositories added:

grep ^Package /var/lib/apt/lists/*ubuntu*_Packages |awk '{print $2}'|sort -u|wc -l
62917

grep ^Package /var/lib/apt/lists/packages.linuxmint*_Packages |awk '{print $2}'|sort -u|wc -l
461

That is a factor of 136 more debs available from Ubuntu than from Mint when you install Mint, or put in another way over 99% of available packages are from Ubuntu.

Mint does not provide kernel, system libraries like glibs, perl, python and java support or snap or flatpak, Nvidia drivers and mesa, those are all from Ubuntu.

What Mint does is provide some good desktop environment and some utility programs, but not a complete distribution, they rely on Ubuntu, or Debian for LMDE.


Last edited by Redface on 10 March 2021 at 7:53 pm UTC
tuubi 10 Mar
Quoting: RedfaceWhat Mint does is provide some good desktop environment and some utility programs, but not a complete distribution, they rely on Ubuntu, or Debian for LMDE.
Mint is based on Ubuntu just like Manjaro is based on Arch. But all four of these are distributions by definition. Whether they're "complete" enough to pass your purity test doesn't really matter.
Redface 10 Mar
Quoting: Eike
Quoting: slaapliedjeIndeed! After that it basically lasts forever. I'd had the same install for years and years, and the only reason I re-installed was due to going from 32bit to 64bit... and even then, there was a way to upgrade that way, it was just kind of a pain. But I've had the same install on my server since then.

I had given up my old Debian install after, dunno, 15 years or so, because the X server couldn't cope with a very outdated config file entry. I'm still not sure if it was luck or bad luck that I only found out afterwards. I guess a fresh install every decade is ok. ;)

I had a really long running Debian install back in the day. Mostly running sid, aka unstable since the stable releases always where years delayed back then. When it was close to a release I changed it to follow testing to help test it, and then once it was release the software was kind of old for a desktop. And testing then after a new stable release was a big mess for months due to a lot of transitions that where hold back due to the long freeze, so I switched to unstable again :-)
And rinse repeated that a couple of cycles over the years.

Then Ubuntu was announced to be coming soon with a at that time revolutionary release concept: release when its time, instead of release when its ready. Since there is always that one program which should get next version, or this or that bug that needs to be fixed, And stuff can be updated after release.

I installed Ubuntu 4.10 Warty Warthog and stayed on Ubuntu as my main OS since then.

My desktop which is currently running Hirsute that will release as 21.04, was installed as Ubuntu 12.10. On another disk and in another PC, I converted it to GPT and UEFI when I transferred it to its current SSD.
Linux, and especially apt based systems are just amazing.
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