13 weird and wonderful niche Linux distros of 2017

1. Red Star OS

The ‘hermit kingdom’ that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is one of the most isolated countries in the world. The internet is strictly censored (indeed, most North Koreans have never even heard of it) and access to computers is patchy. 

Unwilling to rely solely on operating systems developed by the imperialist US, supreme leader Kim Jong-Il sanctioned the development of an official OS of North Korea named Red Star, which is based on Linux and uses North Korean terminology and spelling. 

Red Star fully lives up to the Orwellian reputation of the DPRK. It is closed source and has a feature which watermarks any media files copied to external drives with the hard drive’s serial number. This is most likely because North Korean dissidents often swap banned films using a ‘sneakernet’ of USB sticks. Red Star also has a supposed ‘virus scanner’ which can automatically delete censored files. The root user is disabled by default, meaning you don’t have full control over your system. 

For this reason, you should only run Red Star inside a virtual machine. See our guide on how to do this here. 

Development of Red Star has continued under the auspices of supreme commander Kim Jong Un. Version 3.0 was released back in 2014 and uses the KDE desktop environment, bearing a strong resemblance to macOS. It works quite well but is preconfigured to only use North Korea’s intranet by default, so can’t access the web at large, except for a few pages on the Mozilla website. 

As the OS is based on Linux, skilled users can tinker with the language and DNS settings to use it in English with internet access. There’s also a server-only version (4.0) used by the DPRK’s official airline Air Koryo which can connect directly to the internet, but it’s not available for general download.  

The default web browser Naenara (meaning ‘My Country’) is a modified version of Firefox 3.5. We searched for ‘democracy’ in the default search engine, but nothing came up.

As a final reminder: if you want to give this a whirl, don’t install the OS on actual hardware, but rather inside a virtual machine.

  • Download Red Star OS here

3. Ubuntu Satanic Edition

This self-described ‘Linux for the Damned’ enjoys the notoriety of being banned from the popular Linux OS database Distrowatch. Version 666.9 (we promise we’re not making this up) is based on the rather dated Ubuntu 10.10. Like regular Ubuntu, the Satanic Edition is fond of alliterative names for new versions including Lucifer’s Legions and Jesus’ Jugular. 

The dark themes, fiery wallpaper, and Gnome 2 desktop along with various custom sound effects and death metal music combine to make for an OS which Dante himself would be proud of. The website promises to ‘keep your PC looking evil, even when you’re not using it’. 

Although development on this Linux tribute to the Dark One seems to have halted, you can still boot Ubuntu SE from a Live medium – or as the developers prefer to call it an ‘undead’ CD.

  • Download Ubuntu Satanic Edition here

5. GNewSense

If you like software freedom, you’ll love GNewSense. The OS has had all non-free software removed, including binary ‘blob’ files in the kernel, so-named as they use proprietary code. Unfortunately, many of these blobs are drivers for wireless networking cards, so GNewSense may not work well with laptops. 

On the plus side, it has removed or renamed software that doesn’t fit the Free Software Foundation’s definition of freedom. The OS uses a modified version of Debian’s IceWeasel browser, for instance, to avoid using the Firefox trademark. GNewSense doesn’t provide any links to non-free repositories, making it even more free than Debian.

After a three year hiatus, the latest version of GNewSense, codenamed Ucclia, was released in May 2016 and is based on Debian 7. It can be booted as a Live CD to help you check whether it supports your hardware.

  • Download GNewSense here

7. Yellow Dog

Yellow Dog was released in the late 90s for Apple computers using the PowerPC chip architecture, and found its niche among people who wanted an even more different way to think differently. All was good, but then Apple abandoned PowerPC in favour of Intel chips, which it’s still using today.

This left Yellow Dog out in the cold, but after a change of ownership it reinvented itself as an OS for high-performance multicore computing – most notably as the OS used on PlayStation 3s hooked up to form cheap supercomputing grids known as ‘clusters’. It’s based on Red Hat Linux.

  • Download Yellow Dog here

9. Ubuntu Christian Edition

Having given the devil his due with Ubuntu Satanic Edition earlier in this article, it’s only fair that we let Christians rejoice about the version of Linux crafted just for them.

Ubuntu CE offers a non-denominational version of Linux for Christians, based on the standard Ubuntu builds. The latest version is built on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS (long term support). 

The stated aim of the project is to try to encourage more people within the Christian community to realise the power of Linux and switch to Ubuntu.

The latest release incorporates Xiphos, a bible study tool, as well as worship presentation software OpenLP and Quelea, which can be used to project bible verses, hymns and so on.

Ubuntu CE also includes the powerful ‘Dansguardian’ content filter providing advanced parental controls. The wallpaper has been thoughtfully chosen with Biblical quotes.

  • Download Ubuntu Christian Edition here

11. Parted Magic

Parted Magic is a Live distro that comes with all the tools you need to fix broken partitions. If something won’t boot, this is what you use to fix it, and that goes for both Linux and Windows machines. It is most often used as a tool, although technically it is a Linux distribution in its own right. 

Parted Magic also allows for secure disk erasing (making sure that data is really nuked), benchmarking, and disk cloning among other features. As a troubleshooting aid, it’s indispensable, but it will cost you $11 (around £9, AU$14) to download direct from the author’s site. For an additional fee you can order it preinstalled on USB or DVD.

  • Download Parted Magic here

13. Zeroshell Linux

Zeroshell comes from Italy, and it’s a small Linux distro designed to run as a Live CD for servers or embedded devices such as routers. You can even install it onto a Raspberry Pi. 

It has no GUI but you can access and configure it from your web browser. Zeroshell is a lot more powerful than the average router’s web interface allowing you to perform activities such as assigning IP addresses, DHCP provision and changing DNS settings. It can function as a proxy, VPN access point or a firewall, and can interface with any network appliance. 

Zeroshell is in active development: the latest version (3.7.1) was released in January 2017.

  • Download Zeroshell Linux here


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