Picking a Linux Distro

Which distro is right for me?
Which distro should I use?
What version of Linux is the best for beginners?
How do I choose a distribution?

I frequent Linux forums to offer and receive support, and these questions are asked almost every day by someone new to Linux. I asked it myself when I began. Before I make recommendations, I should start off by saying that I have tried 12+ distributions. I should also say, though, that some of the distributions I didn’t stay very long with or get to know well, and there are some major ones I haven’t even dared try (Gentoo, Slackware, Linux from Scratch, for example).

This isn’t intended to be a complete list, and it’s not intended to be unbiased. It’s intended to give people new to Linux a starting point. I’m prejudiced in favor of Debian-based distributions, but I also think that even if you don’t end up with a Debian-based distro, there should be at least one Debian-based Linux that will suit your beginner needs. Once you get more comfortable with Linux, you can always try out others. To be fair, I’m also going to post links to more comprehensive lists of distributions, in case Debian-based distros don’t suit your needs.

The format will be distribution name, then a description of whom the distro is ideal for.

Linspire
You love Windows. You’re used to Windows. You want to do almost everything the Windows way. You want software installation to be click-n-run. You want excellent hardware detection and no command-line. And… you don’t mind paying a little money. Note: Linspire (as of 5.0) has you run as root (administrator), just as Windows does. If you want better security, you should create a user and run as user, not root. Oh, and your computer has at least 256 MB of RAM (preferably 512 MB).

Mepis
You don’t love Windows, but you’re used to Windows. You want to be able to try out Linux before installing it. You don’t mind ugly logos (at least until you change them). You want things point-and-click, but you don’t mind dipping into the DOS-like command-line every now and then if you have to. You want a distro with very little support but that, frankly, usually does not need much support. You want a free distro but don’t mind the prospect of possibly having to pay for it in the future. Oh, and your computer has at least 256 MB of RAM (preferably 512 MB), same as Linspire.

Ubuntu
You’re moving away from Windows, you could do without Windows and “the Windows way” of doing things. You want something completely free—so free that you don’t even want to pay for shipping and handling to have these free CDs mailed to you. You also don’t mind it being so “free” that it doesn’t include multimedia codecs—you’ll have to install those codecs yourself. You want something basically user-friendly, but you’re not afraid of using the command-line, as long as you’re given specific instructions on what to type there. You’ve got a decently modern computer (256 MB of RAM is preferable, of course).

Debian
You’re ready to dive right in to Linux, and you don’t care about “user-friendly.” You want stable, fully-customized, and fully free. No, they won’t ship you free CDs like Ubuntu, but you get to build the system exactly how you want it. Oh, and you love using the command-line. Any RAM will do, as long as you build the right system for it.

Damn Small Linux
You either have a very slow, old computer (less than 300 MHz processor, less than 128 MB RAM) or you want to have a Linux distribution that you can carry around on a USB stick (the entire distribution is 50 MB—about the same size as ten MP3s). You’ll do whatever you can to make it work.

And that’s it. As I said before, these are good starter distros based on the aforementioned user profiles. If Debian-based distros don’t do it for you, you can always move on later to Fedora-based ones or use SuSE or Slackware or Vector Linux. The whole point, though, is not to confuse new users with too many options—the above five should suit any beginner’s needs.

Why Debian?
Well, first of all, that’s what I know the most about. Secondly, there are several prominent Debian-based distros that meet just about every beginner user need (listed above), but there is not, for example, a Red Hat-based version of Linspire. Nor is there a Mandriva-like version of Damn Small Linux. Lastly, the package management/software installation is so easy. You either, using Synaptic Package Manager, search for a package, double-click it, and hit “Apply” or just type su apt-get install packagename, and the package is downloaded and installed (and so are all dependencies).

Need More?
Linux Distro Chooser
DistroWatch
Choosing a Distro: A Newbies Guide
Beginner’s Guide to Linux Distros

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