What;s the difference between all those desktop distros?
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...I keep hearing about Slackware being great to learn about Linux, but it doesn't come with a GUI already functional...
Simply not true! The default desktop environment for Slackware is KDE (fully functional), but you can also select from Xfce and a few others. Plus there are other desktop projects that can be added to Slackware.
I personally (more often) use Debian's netinst (CLI only) then add a WM\DE using aptitude. Slackware can be downloaded with a GUI to start not so much a package manager per se but I have not tinkered with it much in a long time.
You can learn on anything. But I'd suggest you try Salix, and not just because it's on one of my computers. We call it "Slackware for lazy slackers"! You get the Slackware repository, plus lots of extra software and useful "housekeeping tools". You get the advantages (the only distros as reliable as Slackware are CentOS and Debian Stable) without so much hard work.
Generally, the difference between a "light-weight" distro and a heavy one is the desktop environment.
KDE, Gnome, and Unity are "heavy"--that is, they use a relatively high percentage of resources. XFCE is no longer light--it's sort of middle. LXDE and Enlightenment are relatively light, though Enlightenment is the flashier of the two. Window managers, such as Fluxbox, are lighter still. I tend use Fluxbox and Enlightenment, depending on the computer.
The Linux that lies beneath is pretty much the same across major distros, except possibly for some highly-specialized ones designed for specific tasks.
Wikipedia has a list of distros commonly considered light-weight. I can't say I've used any of them with any regularity (I did take a look at Crunchbang when it was very very new, but that was six years ago), but it might be a good starting point.
I did use Salix on my netbook for a while; it's a nice job of work.
The main difference between distros, or groups of distros (since a lot are derived from a few), is package management. How they handle package installation, upgrading, etc. Desktop environments/window managers are a matter of taste. I like KDE, some people can't stand it. You can use any on any distro. It's what's underneath that counts.
Normally I recommend Mint, but there seem to be a lot of people at the Mint forum having video problems with version 17. I've just finished testing it, and it took me a couple of hours to get a GUI running.
"Nice" to me is a stable, light distro I can tinker around with on the command line to learn more advanced aspects of the OS, as well as use as a regular desktop GUI. Nothing bloated or unnecessary.
I keep hearing about Slackware being great to learn about Linux, but it doesn't come with a GUI already functional.
As far as GUIs go, I like Cinnamon better than Gnome/Unity or KDE.
That's because you're listening here, there is no Slackware forum so this is the defacto place for Slackers to hang out. If you were to go to any of the other distro forums you'd hear great things about them too.
Slack has variety of DE's you can install and the install process is pretty straight forward give it a shot..