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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 Currently, it's out of date and has been for some time now.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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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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deathxxx 15 Dec, 2020
Quoting: AsciiWolfJust make sure to install Steam on Ubuntu from Valve website and not distribution repository. The distro one is outdated and problematic, even on 20.10. It will hopefully be in a better shape in 22.04.
I used always the distro package and never have any problem!
One problem if you use non distro package, ist that, you'r game dir will be different and something may not working whell, like UI or in game graphics.
Bogomips 15 Dec, 2020
I play in 2021 like it was 2019 thanks to Debian!
soulsource 15 Dec, 2020
There is an important piece of information missing regarding Ubuntu: People should imho only use LTS versions. The non-LTS versions are horribly unstable (bordering being completely unusable), and will only lead to frustration.

My personal recommendation would still be Debian Stable. Apart from the installation process (Debian has by far the superior installer) it's like Ubuntu, but a lot more stable. And I really mean _a lot_ more stable.
Because i use Pop_OS i'm not sure if it's a good choice. . i had several problems from native games like slow start(Besiege and others), not even start(slipstream), crushing or input doesn't work (reassembly and rise of the tomb raider) and the biggest. . gpu driver error (sapphire amd rx 580)i had to refresh installation twice, and this is just the things around gaming.

Pop_OS has my favorite user experience but i'm not sure on how "good" is for gaming
buenaventura 15 Dec, 2020
I want to like ubuntu and the like, but Im too used to my minimalist archlabs with just plain old openbox + tint2. And then you just have straight vanilla arch underneath that and install everything you need, and nothing special. But there is a commandline barrier or whatever that wont work for new users. For new users with a powerful computer I would probably advice Ubuntu too I guess, and I would direct them to google for questions :D
vipor29 15 Dec, 2020
manjaro and pop os are my choice.using ubuntu still has it's issues like crashing for no reason but still running.they need to figure that out.
Arehandoro 15 Dec, 2020
Quoting: 3zekiel
Quoting: FauconNoirWhy everyone is talking about Pop!_OS ? What is so cool about it compared to others like Ubuntu or Manjaro for example ?

Ubuntu took / is taking a strange direction again (snap packages) which is bothering to say the least. It relies on proprietary server, is pretty much canonical locked in and is technically not that good. It is - like often with canonical - a rushed solution trying to reinvent what was already ongoing (flatpak, called xdg app at that time) but cutting every possible corners to go faster. Result is bloated install size, unclear sandboxing capacities, very slow first (but not always only the first) startup times, and overall opacity on what you install on your computer since it comes from a locked in source.

Flatpak is from Red Hat/IBM, it's also pretty much Red Hat locked in FlatHub (and nothing stops them from locking it even more like they've done with plenty other products), flatpak does not have confinement unless you use SELinux, which it isn't so easy to install in Debian based systems, you can't install different channels of the same application, runtimes don't get updated when apps depending on them are updated. None of them are perfect.

I use fedora because it's pretty up to date and for gaming, specially with AMD and in need ot Windows games, it's pretty needed, but it's definitely not the distro for new users.

Before recommending any distro to people first we should know their needs and uses, not just blindly recommending one. It's not the same someone that wants to play some Steam games, that someone that wants to play the latest with the latest hardware.
Micromegas 15 Dec, 2020
Quoting: soulsourceThere is an important piece of information missing regarding Ubuntu: People should imho only use LTS versions. The non-LTS versions are horribly unstable (bordering being completely unusable), and will only lead to frustration.

My personal recommendation would still be Debian Stable. Apart from the installation process (Debian has by far the superior installer) it's like Ubuntu, but a lot more stable. And I really mean _a lot_ more stable.

It seems that it's always a trade-off between latest drivers and updates (and the freedom to install newer software versions) versus a very reliable, stable computing environment. For me Mageia hits the sweet spot here as a very stable distribution for the non tech savvy user with lots of testing by the distribution maintainers and with major upgrades every 1.5 years. But I totally see that users have different needs, like a user of Void or a user of Debian (very) Stable.
Tuxee 15 Dec, 2020
Popcorn!

And since the distribution-which-must-not-be-named was named, I expect some flaming down the road. So far it has been way too civilized and therefore utterly disappointing.
3zekiel 15 Dec, 2020
  • Supporter
Quoting: Arehandoro
Quoting: 3zekiel
Quoting: FauconNoirWhy everyone is talking about Pop!_OS ? What is so cool about it compared to others like Ubuntu or Manjaro for example ?

Ubuntu took / is taking a strange direction again (snap packages) which is bothering to say the least. It relies on proprietary server, is pretty much canonical locked in and is technically not that good. It is - like often with canonical - a rushed solution trying to reinvent what was already ongoing (flatpak, called xdg app at that time) but cutting every possible corners to go faster. Result is bloated install size, unclear sandboxing capacities, very slow first (but not always only the first) startup times, and overall opacity on what you install on your computer since it comes from a locked in source.

Flatpak is from Red Hat/IBM, it's also pretty much Red Hat locked in FlatHub (and nothing stops them from locking it even more like they've done with plenty other products), flatpak does not have confinement unless you use SELinux, which it isn't so easy to install in Debian based systems, you can't install different channels of the same application, runtimes don't get updated when apps depending on them are updated. None of them are perfect.

I use fedora because it's pretty up to date and for gaming, specially with AMD and in need ot Windows games, it's pretty needed, but it's definitely not the distro for new users.

Before recommending any distro to people first we should know their needs and uses, not just blindly recommending one. It's not the same someone that wants to play some Steam games, that someone that wants to play the latest with the latest hardware.

You can't really compare the case of flathub and snapcraft here. For flathub, absolutely everything (packaging wise) is open source and publicly available, same for server side sw. If they try to lock in, you can just pull everything and push somewhere, so the power is much much more in the hand of the community. Also, Fedora themselves (which are not strictly red hat) are doing their remote, gnome has theirs too I think. So the know how exists.

Now, of course, there are some issues. But if you update normally - I mean update all, not just one app -, runtime update will also work. But I agree, some dependency stuff need some improvement.
As for confinement, I'm pretty sure there is an apparmor backend. Confinment does work for me on work PC ubuntu, so not sure there really is an issue here ?

Flatpak is not perfect (well, nothing will ever be perfect) but it is moving forward quite nicely, and has good foundations. It also had a slow start, and some people thinking the pre 1.0 version were production ready and judged as such. Right now however, it has come along very far, and is a very good solution.
For snap, it is really just generalized docker with vendor lock in, so there's not much to be done to save it. Adoption (or its lack thereof for Snap) does show who's winning...

Now the issue is just like Mir/upstart, Canonical caused needless fragmentation because they think they can have influence on GNU/Linux direction by doing lock in / needless forks or new projects. But ultimately, they rush, gain some adoption while they are alone, and then slowly fail. It takes more or less time for each project, but ultimately they still fail, simply because their solution cause many unsolved/unsolvable technical issues, and because they always fail to gain real community traction (since they work against the existing community...). Leaving the issues of supporting their dying mess to others. At least for snap, it will be easy to just erase it, you will not have some "service start xxx" stuff in scripts for years to come.

With Pipewire, flatpak will pretty much have the final piece to its puzzle, and snap will hurry to where most Canonical forked / in house projects are now ... The code cemetery.

Now for the part about not recommending anything to anyone, yes we are clearly talking gaming here. But the overall usability of the system does matter (the very slow (first) startup times for snap apps as an example) as people rarely only just game on their system. Selinux is also an argument for basic random "found off the internet" stuff protection. Having spotify/Onlyoffice is probably something that will become important soon (French administration still sends you docx stuff as an example... Albeit less and less).


Last edited by 3zekiel on 15 December 2020 at 6:48 pm UTC
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