What is a Linux Distribution and How to Choose the Best One

If someone asks you what version of Linux are you using, they probably don’t mean which version of the Linux kernel are you running, but rather which Linux distribution are you using and the version number of that distribution. Technically, Linux is just an operating system kernel and all the other bits like the tools, the graphical user interface and the apps are written separately and independently from that kernel. In fact many of the tools and GUIs run equally well on systems like FreeBSD.

From early on, “Linux” became the de facto name for the entire OS from its kernel right up to the desktop and it is this combination of kernel, installer, tools, GUI and apps which is known as a Linux distribution (or distro). There are several major Linux distros, and thousands of minor ones, which can make picking the right distribution a bit complicated.

Among the top Linux distros are Mint, Debian, Ubuntu, Mageia, Fedora, openSUSE and CentOS. Each has it own unique angle on what makes a good Linux distribution. Here is a brief look at what makes each one special.

Ubuntu is probably the most widely used Linux distribution today. It is easy to install and easy to use. Although based on the Debian distribution (see below) it includes a unique graphical user interface called Unity.

Reviews about Unity have been mixed but overall the Linux community is starting to accept it. Unity can be replaced with another desktop if desired, or one of the official Ubuntu variations can be installed like Kubuntu, which comes with the KDE desktop.

A key advantage of Ubuntu is that it is built and supported by a commercial company, Canonical, which means its rate of development is fast and there are also options for professional support. The company also offers a Long Term Support (LTS) version, which receives five years of support from Canonical.

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Linux Mint has become increasingly popular over the last few years, in part due to Ubuntu’s inclusion of Unity as the default desktop. Mint is based directly on Ubuntu (and therefore also Debian) but comes in a variety of versions with different default desktops. Mint’s Cinnamon desktop is a new desktop built on GTK+, the user interface toolkit of GNOME, but it is not dependent on GNOME itself. There are also versions of Mint using the MATE desktop, a fork of GNOME 2, as well as KDE and Xfce versions.

With its roots in Ubuntu, Mint is designed to be easy to use and customizable, while offering a more traditional desktop experience.

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Mageia has a long heritage which stretches back to the late 1990s where it can trace it roots to Mandrake Linux and then the Mandriva Linux. Technically it is a fork of Mandriva which was launched when the company behind Mandriva went in to liquidation. Even though it has a turbulent past, it still remains popular, particularly in Europe.

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openSUSE is the community version of SUSE Linux, a commercial Linux distribution which has been around a long time. Like Ubuntu and Fedora, having a commercial version means the development of the distribution is tied to a business meaning the releases are timely and forward thinking. The commercial versions of SUSE can even run on mainframes, while the community version even has a special Raspberry Pi build.

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Debian is truly the grandfather of Linux distributions. It has been around since 1996 and has only had 11 releases in 17 years. It favors stability over bleeding edge and is 100% open source shunning any proprietary technology including the graphics drivers from AMD and NVIDIA. It isn’t really a distro for beginners but it does offer solid stability.

Fedora is the community-supported cooking pot version of Linux owned by Red Hat. Red Hat offers a commercial derivative of Fedora (with an emphasis on stability and less new features) that it sells to business as Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). For those interested in RHEL, CentOS (Community Enterprise Operating System) is a rebuild of the RHEL sources which aims at 100% compatibility with RHEL without infringing on any of Red Hat’s copyrights.

Fedora’s biggest disadvantage for beginners is that it has a very short support life cycle with versions becoming obsolete within a year. However for those who want the latest technology and want it quickly, Fedora is often seen as the darling Linux distro.

Picking the best is hard, however here is a rule of thumb. If you are a Linux beginner but you are used to the desktop environment of Windows or OS X, then Mint is probably the best option. If you want something a bit different that is still easy to use, then go with Ubuntu. For techie types, Fedora is probably the best choice. To run it as a server, CentOS is the default choice for many system admins.