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Choosing a Linux distribution

Posted 11-25-2019 at 05:52 AM by hazel
Updated 01-16-2020 at 04:49 AM by hazel

  • The problem
One of the commonest newbie questions on this site is "What Linux distro would you recommend for me to use?" It's understandable that newbies ask this question. With Windows, the answer to "What Windows should I run?" is easy: the latest one that will run on your machine (and that is still supported by Microsoft and the companies that produce your antivirus software). But Linux comes in a lot more than 57 varieties, most of them equally up to date. Which then should one use?

Experienced Linux users react to this question in several different ways, not all of them useful. Some simply recommend their own favourite distro, without seriously considering whether it is suitable for novices. Some answer, "The one you like best. Download a few, burn them to disc and try them out for yourself." And some merely get annoyed about the question.

Trying distros out, for example inside something like virtualbox, is certainly useful. But in effect, it simply moves the question back one step. Given how many distros there are, which ones are worth trying?

Maybe it would be helpful to think of the Linux universe as stretched out along a number of different dimensions. Some that are worth considering are newbie versus expert, simple versus complex, bleeding edge versus stable, fixed release versus rolling release, and big versus small.
  • Novice versus expert

Some distributions are definitely angled towards novices, notably the *buntus and Mint, but also AntiX and MX. Others, like Slackware, Arch and Gentoo, are definitely for experts. And some are in between like Debian and Fedora. A lot depends on what you want from Linux: do you just want a system that is secure, easy to manage and lets you do the things you want online (a perfectly reasonable ambition) or do you want to learn how your system works and how to make it work better? If you are the second kind of person, Ubuntu may not satisfy you for long.
  • Stable versus bleeding edge
Do you want the latest "bleeding edge" software, or do you value stability? If the idea of buggy programs crashing frightens you, you will probably not be happy with Fedora or even Ubuntu. Something like the stable Debian branch or one of the distros based on it would suit you better.
  • Separate releases versus rolling release
Updating individual programs is easy in Linux, but many distros have discrete releases just as Windows does. This means that eventually, when a new release comes out, you will have to carry out a major upgrade. This might be done as a fresh install or via the package manager, depending on the distro. Other distros, like Arch and the unstable release of Debian, are rolling releases, meaning that you upgrade them continuously, program by program. You never have a total system upgrade. Some people prefer this, while others get nervous because of the increased risk of incompatibilities between programs. That will not happen when there is a clean break between releases.
  • Simplicity of structure versus ease of use
Another temperamental factor is whether you want things to be simple or whether you want them to be easy. The two are definitely not the same. A simple system is one in which there are few internal complications and it is easy to see exactly how everything works. Simple systems are reliable and good tempered so they suit people who are paranoid about things going wrong. This is often described as the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) However such a system is often not easy to use, which makes it unsuitable for complete novices. Slackware is a case in point.

Conversely, to make a system easy to use requires layers of cushioning between the inner workings of the system and the user. This gives you an experience more like that of Windows, in which you know how to do things but have no idea how they are actually being carried out by the machine. For some people, that's ideal. For some, it's worrying. The difference from Windows of course is that Windows doesn't ever let you find out how it works. With Linux, all you have to do is switch to a distro that is more hands-on than the one you were using before.
  • Do you want a big choice of applications?
Do you want a big choice of programs or will one program for each purpose (as in Windows) satisfy you? Debian, Ubuntu and Gentoo have huge software repositories. Many distros have much smaller ones.
  • What package manager does the distro use?
While you can use just about any desktop on any distro, the distro's package manager is not negotiable. Every distro has one and only one package manager which is used to install, update and perhaps remove software, though there may be several different user interfaces to it. If you have once used a distribution of a particular family, for example the Debian family (which includes Ubuntu, Mint, AntiX and many others), you will have become familiar with the apt system which this family uses as a basic package manager, so you will be less inclined to try something from the Red Hat family like Fedora, which use a different package manager.
  • How old is your computer?
You also need to consider your hardware. If you have an old computer and you still want to work at a reasonable pace, you will need a smaller desktop and less fully-featured programs. AntiX has these by default (which is why it is often recommended for "antiques") but in fact any distro can be customised to be kind to old hardware. The problem is that when you first install a Linux distribution, you get the default desktop for that distro, which may be a big, feature-rich, resource-hungry one. You might then well conclude that this distro is not for you, when in fact it could easily be made more lightweight simply by installing something like fluxbox and using that instead.
  • And finally
I can recommend a very useful site for people thinking of switching to Linux and confused about which distribution they should try: The site as a whole contains a bewildering amount of information, but I can thoroughly recommend its "Top 20" page at where the most popular Linux distros are described in detail with their pros and cons. Conversely, if you have heard about some obscure Linux distro and want to know what it is like and whether it might suit you, Distrowatch will be able to tell you far better than we can here.
Posted in For newbies
Views 1521 Comments 1
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Total Comments 1


  1. Old Comment
    Very good. Your comments are well thought out and presented well.Thanks for the information.
    Posted 11-26-2019 at 06:44 AM by greencedar greencedar is offline


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