There are distributions that are really cool although not as popular as Debian or Fedora. The best thing about Free Software is that, with so much freedom and choice, it seems everything is possible... and it is! Here goes a selection of some of these distributions that surprised me in a very pleasant way.
If you need to refresh your memory about the most important distributions you should know about, check out our post "The main GNU/Linux distributions you should know about"
If you want to review the concept of "distributions" to help you pick the best for you, take a look at "What are GNU/Linux distributions (and how to choose the right distro for you)"
Finding distributions like GeeXboX is a real pleasure. It is a multimedia center for home theaters. The iso image is very small (about 75Mb) but has everything for home entertainment (Video, Music, Photos + add-ons) with a beautiful and ridiculously simple interface. It can easily be booted from a removable disk and, given it's lightweight, it's still quite fast. In spite of it's simplicity and single purpose, it is a complete operating system able to browse the web, check e-mail, download torrents and do some other stuff related to multimedia. With this distro you can easily transform your computer into a state-of-the-art entertainment center that you can proudly display in your living room.
Is similar to GeeXboX but more oriented towards serving music on a network. It rips CDs automatically, downloads album arts, streams media to other devices and, overall, gives a pleasant experience from installation to usage. It's a nice way to turn an old computer into a cool jukebox!
What makes Incognito so particular is the conjunction of software and configurations to make your computer and your Internet connection anonymous and stateless.
For the anonymity part it heavily relies on the Tor network to encrypt information and hide your identity. The principle is rather simple: you establish an encrypted connection to a Tor server. At this point someone could know who you are but not the information you are exchanging. This information is then relayed by three servers from the Tor network before it is sent unencrypted to the final destination. At this point someone could know what is the information being exchanged but not who is asking for it.
Apart from Tor there are lots of software, default websites and configurations to clean all traces of your activity. It does not keep logs or Internet history (except for the files you download), it uses Scroogle as home page (a privacy-protected and ad-free version of Google) and it alerts you about privacy threats you might be facing. It was intended for army personnel (to exchange secret information), for journalists (to communicate from countries that control Internet connections), for companies (to communicate sensitive information while abroad) and so on... Be warned that this system is not 100% secure (it never is). Someone could use the time stamp of the information to link the user to the information, or eventually, someone could own all three servers you have used to hide. So, do not rely on it completely if your life depends on it!
Elastix is aimed exclusively at providing a home or office VoIP telephone system using Asterisk. You might need to have some specific hardware according to your setup to take full advantage of its capabilities. As we all know, telephony has changed since the Internet started providing cheap voice and video communications. The Free and Open Source Software in this field has nothing to envy their proprietary counterpart, much to the contrary. There are also many software like Ekiga or Jitsi that uses SIP protocol to make computer-to-computer or computer-to-phone calls at very cheap rates using your usual desktop distro. You can find a tutorial about it here.
Ok, this might not be intended for average people like you and me but it's still awesome enough to enter this list. It's a distribution designed to build clusters of computers that work together for applications that demand high computational power. What clusters do is to add up the power of several computers as if they were only one super-powerful computer. Clusters are often a good solution for demanding tasks and low budgets. There is apparently a Rocks cluster in Germany that gathers more than eight thousand CPU's together! If you have several computers gathering dust and would like to have one that behaves as the sum of them all, try it out!
Although GNU/Linux distributions are mainly packed with Free Software, most distributions are not entirely free/libre. The great majority of them contain some sort of restricted software like firmware blobs or hardware drivers. In fact, only a dozen distros are endorsed by the FSF and can be considered fully free. Among these, there is Trisquel, a beautiful and well packed distro based on Ubuntu and Debian. Even though it has stripped out all proprietary software, the system runs smoothly, even on tasks that are usually not so easy to do without some pieces of restricted software. Flash videos on YouTube, for example, can be played out of the box thanks to FlashVideoReplacer or Gnash instead of using the Adobe Flash player, the Nvidia proprietary driver is replaced by Nouveau (a smooth but sometimes 2D only driver) among other free/libre choices.
The developers of this distribution have made a fantastic work both in functionality and design while maintaining a completely free software repository. If being free is your priority, I highly recommend using Trisquel. Find out (before installing) if your hardware is compatible with free software by visiting this site: http://www.h-node.com/search/form/en. If your computer has some unsupported hardware but you still want to use Trisquel, you can install the drivers yourself manually, but don't expect to receive support from the Trisquel community if you decide to use restricted software!
The other free distributions recognised by the FSF are listed on this page: List of Free GNU/Linux Distributions - GNU Project - Free Software Foundation (FSF)
As the name suggests, this live distribution can be booted from a CD or a USB drive and be used to rescue a broken computer. It has a graphical interface that is perfect for those who are not command line wizards and a bunch of software useful to restore a system. Some of these software are developed by the maintainers of SystemRescue themselves. They have been around for several years, have a frequent update cycle and, overall, are really doing a great job to pack all these tools together and make rescuing easier. Some other distributions that do a similar job and are definitely worth mentioning are RIP (Rescue Is Possible), Parted Magic and Ubuntu rescue remix among others.
Clonezilla is yet another very handy distro that every computer technician should have in a pen drive. It is a live bootable system that can be used to create clones of hard drives. Once you learn how to use it, this little distribution will help you clone information like no other software. The distribution does only one thing, but does it well. You can create ISO disk images of an entire disk or of one partition, break down the information in smaller files, replicate and restore the information in a drive or a partition. Together with SystemRescue, it is an invaluable tool for repairing and troubleshooting computers.
Inquisitor is a powerful tool to add to the arsenal of computer technicians willing to test hardware using Free Software. This distro can be booted from a live CD or from a network and make hardware stress tests and monitoring to ensure that all hardware will endure the demands of a production environment. It is particularly useful on large scale enterprise platforms but will also give home users some level of confidence in the reliability of their machines.
Actually, LFS is not really a distribution. The intent of LFS is to give you the tools to build your own GNU/Linux perfect distribution. If you feel like building your own distro, then LFS is a good way to start. Using it just for fun is also a very nice way to learn how GNU/Linux works and how software can be put together to make the magic of an OS happen. The downside of using LFS is that you will have to compile all software and maintain it yourself when they get outdated. Sometimes the benefits can outweigh the costs.
LinuxMCE is not at all a distribution. It is rather a tailored set of software on top of a Kubuntu desktop, providing a variety of interesting functionalities regarding home automation and media centres. Once you have installed Kubuntu 10.04 (the latest stable version currently supported by LinuxMCE) you can proceed to the installation of the iso disk image of LinuxMCE. Your computer will then become a home theatre, a security video recorder, a home automation system, a VoIP phone system with video and also a home made server. Pretty cool isn't it?
To discover more distributions you can visit distrowatch.com that has more than 300 distributions listed and organised. This list does not include every awesome distribution on the planet, and if you do know an awesome distribution that should be included, please share!