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Old 02-05-2018, 07:46 AM   #1
Mill J
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Post Linux Newbies - How To Choose A Distro


Introduction

The purpose of this post is to help you get started on your Linux journey. It is not intended to be a complete guide to Linux or all the different distributions of Linux ("distros"), and it is not endorsed in any way by Linux Questions (LQ).

Before you dive into learning Linux, you might want to make sure that Linux is what you’re looking for:Of course, sometimes the only way to figure out if Linux is for you is to try it.

Let’s start by saying that there is no single “Best” Linux Distribution for everybody - you’ll have to find the “Best” one for yourself. Asking which is the “Best” on a forum will probably not get you very far, since most Linux users have already found what works best for them personally.

It is also important to realize that this question has been asked many, many times. In fact, a search of LQ alone will bring up many such instances. A great way of narrowing down distros is through a web search. “Beginners Linux Distros 2018”, for example, will bring up several websites with the “Top 5” or “Top 10” Best for the year 2018, which generally narrow down to the same “Beginner-friendly Distros”. However, these may not be ideal for you as an individual.

Things to avoid
  • Avoid picking a distro just because it is highly recommended by a friend or relative. You can consider it, but unless the recommending person knows your needs and is willing to work with you and answer your questions as you get started, do your own research.
    *
  • Do not get an unofficial copy of a paid Linux distro and expect the community to help you when something goes wrong. Instead, most enterprise Linux distros have a free version available, e.g. Red Hat has Fedora, SUSE has OpenSUSE, etc.
    *
  • Avoid all security/penetration testing distros. These distros are not suitable for use as a general desktop distro and can be dangerous for an inexperienced user. Please review the Kali Linux sticky thread for further information.
    *
  • Don't give up on Linux because the first distro you try doesn't boot. Try another distro until you find one that boots and go from there.

Things To Consider

Note: The following six sections do not cover all the dimensions of Linux distros, and are not meant to replace your own research but rather to give you some preliminary ideas.

1: Skill Level

You will find distros ranging from "beginner level", such as Linux Mint, ZorinOS, PCLinuxOS, etc. to "expert level", such as Slackware or Gentoo. Even if your ultimate goal is to use an expert distro, it is a good idea to start with a distro designed for beginners until you get some practice. A regularly updated list of beginners’ distros can be found at Distrowatch.

2: Age Of Your Hardware

Linux distros range in size from several megabytes (Tiny Core, Slitaz, etc.) to several gigabytes, and the selection of distros you will be able to run is directly based on the power, RAM and age of your hardware. If you have a modern/powerful system with lots of RAM, you should have no problem running even the heaviest distro. However, if your system is a little older, less powerful, with a medium amount of RAM, you’ll want to check out distros that specify “Lightweight”. On extremely old, low-power systems with very little RAM, you might want to try the minimal distros that are actually built for old hardware (antiX, Puppy, etc.). Check the distro’s own website for minimum RAM and CPU requirements.

NOTE: Different Graphical Environments will also make a difference to the size/speed of the distro.

Something else to take into consideration when choosing a distro is the bootloader. You'll want to check the firmware of your hardware to see if it is UEFI/GPT or BIOS/MBR. If UEFI, you can use it in its native mode or in legacy mode where it behaves like a BIOS. Some of the smaller Linux distros need a BIOS or a legacy mode UEFI for their installation. If you plan to dual-boot and are using Windows on a UEFI machine, it is advisable to boot Linux with the same method as Windows. Older hardware will use BIOS for your bootloader, while newer hardware tends to use UEFI. Select your distro candidates accordingly. For more information on the differences, see here and for information on installing on Mac/Apple hardware, see the link in the Further Reading section below.

3: Graphical Environments (GUIs)

While the graphical environment in Linux is not technically a part of the operating system, it's something that is usually included in a desktop Linux distro and it is a very important choice for the beginner. As with the distros, they range from Heavy Desktop Environments (DEs) (KDE, Cinnamon, Gnome, etc.) to Lightweight Window Managers (WMs) (Fluxbox, Openbox, JWM, etc.).

The "Heavy" DEs have many features and generally have a smooth modern interface. The "Light" DEs/WMs are still very customizable (though you sometimes have to configure them by hand) but, without all the animation, they run much faster. There are many choices, but you can narrow this list down with a web search, for example "Best Linux Desktop Environments 2018". Watching videos describing the features of a DE is a good way to see what it is capable of doing, but even then you’ll probably have to install several different DEs before finding your favorite.

Remember that if you don't like a DE, you can always tweak it or replace it until you like it. In Linux there is never any need to settle for less then the "Best" for you.

4: Terminal/Command-Line (CLI)

While you do not have to learn the terminal to use a desktop Linux distro (it is necessary for most server distros), sooner or later you’ll find that the best way to do some tasks is with the command-line. But don’t worry, there is no need to dread the terminal. The terminal is not only easy to learn and use, but is also very powerful. Showing you how to use the terminal is beyond the scope of this post, but you'll find some tutorials linked in the Further Reading section below. A web search, for example “Linux Terminal” or “Linux Terminal Tutorial”, will also bring up many references and step-by-step tutorials for learning the Linux Terminal.

There are a number of different terminal applications, some fancier than others. The desktop's default terminal is good enough for most people. But if you don't like it for some reason, there are plenty of alternatives.

5: Server or Desktop

A desktop distro is for your general “home/office computer”. It is a good choice if you are looking for something for everyday tasks (web browsing, editing and viewing files, reading, etc.). These distros usually ship with a GUI (Graphical User Interface) preinstalled.

A server distro on the other hand is optimized for hosting web services such as websites, web-apps, email, etc., and often ships with applications to achieve that. Servers seldom have a GUI preinstalled since this is unnecessary for regular server tasks and a drain on CPU and RAM resources. A thorough knowledge of the command line/terminal is essential to install or set up a server.

Note: A Desktop Environment can be installed on a server distro, and server applications can be installed on a desktop distro, but it is recommended to use a distro for what it is designed to do.

6: Release Model

You might be wondering what the difference is between a Stable/Fixed and Rolling distribution. A fixed distribution does not change except for updates to fix bugs and security holes, which makes it very stable. Most software problems will have been resolved before the new version is released. This makes it a recommended option for a beginner, especially a version that has LTS (Long Term Support) since these are supported for several years. Eventually, however, a new release will come out and you will have to upgrade your entire system.

Rolling Releases have small and frequent updates. You install once, but update frequently. These distros are less stable but you will always have the latest software without ever needing to reinstall your whole system. There are of course some hybrids that might be considered Semi-Rolling, for example Debian Testing. These behave like rolling releases most of the time, but become frozen from time to time when they are being prepared to become the new stable release.

Some More Steps

Now that you’ve narrowed your choice down to several promising distros, you should visit the websites of these distros. Here you'll find out why a distro exists and how to download and install it. Many have great tutorials, videos, forums and wikis in case you get stuck. Also ask yourself some questions such as:
  • What are you going to use the distro for?
  • What do you want it to look like: Modern, streamlined?
  • How heavy a distro can your system run?
  • Does your system run UEFI or BIOS?
  • Do you want a specialty distro, such as one designed for the office, Multimedia, Graphics, etc?
  • Which release model sounds better: stable with LTS or rolling?
  • Do you want it to work out of the box, or are you prepared to do some tweaking?
  • Do you need a Desktop or a Server distro?
  • Do you want to dual boot with Mac/OSX or Windows?

If you still can’t decide on one to try, just download and test (see Testing/Trying below) several that sound close to what you’re looking for. It's actually a good idea to try several distros since you will then be able to better compare them.

Testing/Trying

There are several ways of testing different Linux distros without installing to a hard drive. Downloading and creating a Live CD or a Live USB of the distro you are testing (check the distro’s website for instructions) is probably the best way to go. This is a great way to figure out if the distribution will run on your hardware. It will also allow you to check if you can connect to the internet, or whether you like the Desktop Environment and the Package Manager.

NOTE: Unless you have a distro that supports persistence, any settings, installed packages, or any other changes you make, will not be saved when you reboot.

Another great tool for testing distros is VirtualBox. This application allows you to install and run Linux in a virtual environment on your existing operating system (e.g. Windows or macOS), without worrying about messing up. You'll find many tutorials on the internet. You can also find many distros peinstalled on virtual harddives at OSBoxes, these are also a great way of trying a distro without the need of installing.

Here are several tools that can be used to create bootable flash drives and CDs. It is not a complete list and is only provided to give you some ideas on what is available:
  • K3b is for burning CDs and DVDs on Linux.
  • ImgBurn is a disc burning tool for Windows.
  • Rufus is for creating bootable USBs on Windows.
  • Unetbootin is for creating bootable USBs on Windows, Linux, and Mac.
  • Etcher is for creating bootable USB and SD cards on Windows, Linux, and Mac.

Installing

This brings us to installing. Head over to the distro's website for instructions. Unless you are one of the lucky ones who find their “Best” distro the first time they install Linux, you’ll likely need to test, install and use multiple distros (this is called "Distro-Hopping") before you find the “Best”. Even then, some never find the “Best” and install and use several different distros.

If you ever have a question or a problem: "Just Do A Search". 99% of the time, somebody somewhere has had the same problem or question. If this web search fails, that's where Linux Questions comes in. Don't be afraid of breaking your install, you'll learn a lot when you fix things. Remember to keep your data backed up regularly and, if the worst comes to the worst, you can always reinstall.

Good Luck on Your Linux Journey!

Further Reading and Links

50 Open-Source Alternatives to Windows XP is several years old but still relevant today.
Installing Linux on Mac
Dual Boot Mac And Linux
Basic Commands For Linux Beginners
More Basic Commands For Terminal Beginner
Getting Started With Linux
DistroWatch is a website for finding and staying up-to-date with different Linux distros.
Alternativeto.net is a great site for finding alternatives for your software.
Linux App Finder is great for discovering new apps.
The Linux Kernel
 
  


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