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.

ubuntu_13_10_screenshot

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.

mint_linux_mate

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.

mageia-3-desktop

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.

opensuse_Application-Launching-GNOME-13.1

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.

24 comments

  1. Why not show Linux Mint’s Cinnamon desktop. It is by far a much more elegant desktop than Xfce. It is using GTK3 when possible and has a nice flow to it. Really customizable.

      • As am I. having a go with Ubuntu Salamander on the desktop, but I find it a bit awkward (that Unity thing)… Mint is straightforward, very stable and just keeps working brilliantly, beautifully: no slowdowns, no issues with malware or other rubbish. You want to be productive: go with Mint. Oh, and if your laptop or desktop has say, 4 gig RAM and is currently running XP and you hate to give it up, well, you don’t have to. Install VirtualBox (no cost), install XP SP2 in it (without antivirus and all that other useless stuff), and watch Windows *really* fly!! Once you have it the way you want it, create an VBox ‘appliance’: that way, if it fails or slows down for whatever reason, you can just restore Windows from your ‘appliance’.

  2. both the glory and the downfall of the Linux distros and assorted components is the amount of flexibility available. It’s wonderful being able to pick and choose what works best for you and your situation. It’s awful to be presented with so many choices to make when all you know is the MS or Apple platforms.

    I happen to really dislike the new win8 desktop, and I lump the Unity and Gnome 3 desktops in with that win8 desktop… simply awful. I currently have win7 installed but even there I don’t use the current desktop. I revert to something more like the old win2k desktop. On LInux I happen to like the old Gnome 2 desktop just fine… new is not always better! …and please do not force me to use the new if I don’t want to.

    Anyway, for me, the choice of LInux Mint with the MATE desktop is working well for a desktop platform and CentOS (using the minimal ISO) is my choice for servers. I don’t know who thought to start the minimal ISO for CentOS but it certainly has proven to be the best choice for me.

    And there’s the catch. What works best for me may not be best for you. That’s the glory of have choices. So long as I get to keep my choices, you can choose what ever works best for you. Just don’t say my choices are bad, they aren’t, they’re just my choices and they work for me. I can recommend my choices (I think they’re good choices) but you need to figure out what works best for you. That takes time and experience. Good luck.

  3. “Ubuntu is probably the most widely used Linux distribution today”
    Windows is the most widely used O/S today but that does not mean that it is the best O/S or that it is for everybody. Ubuntu is the most popular because it is the most “pushed”. To read articles, reviews and pundits’ opinions, one would think that Ubuntu is the only Linux distribution out there. Ubuntu is also the most Windows-like of all distributions so it presents the least “culture shock” for those switching from Windows.

    “Ubuntu ….is easy to install and easy to use.”
    No easier than Mageia, MEPIS, Mint or any other distribution with a graphic installer and a graphic desktop.

    “A key advantage of Ubuntu is that it is built and supported by a commercial company”
    I see you still subscribe, for whatever reason, to the quaint notion that software MUST be supported by a commercial entity. In case of Ubuntu, the fact that it comes from Canonical, is its biggest shortcoming. Canonical is dictatorial. It does not take users’ opinions or requests into consideration. Unity was rammed down the users’ throats before it was fully ready because Canonical wanted to be the first Linux distro with a touch-screen interface. Canonical behaves like a certain company in the NorthWest many of us have tried to get away from. Ubuntu is trying to become the Microsoft of the Linux universe.

    Community-supported distributions are much more responsive to the users.

    Mint is nothing more than Ubuntu with a different desktop environment.

    You omitted the longest continuously developed distribution in existence – Slackware. Slackware is definitely not for begginers but it is the distribution that will teach you the most about Linux.

    • Slackware was the first distro I ever used! However I couldn’t include every distro in this overview. But yes Slackware is certainly worth looking at for those who want to learn more about Linux and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty a little!!!

    • Max, Sorry but I couldn’t cover every distro. Those two are certainly worth considering but I feel that they are less mainstream than the ones I included. However that doesn’t mean they aren’t good.

  4. Yes, Arch and Gentoo should have been mentioned so all base distros are covered… These are distros that offer more control and are able to be more light than the above options. Making them perfect for seasoned Linux users.

    • Daniel, As I mentioned to Max I couldn’t include every distro in this overview. I am sure everyone has their list of important distros, this was mine, yours could be different, which is of course one of the wonderful things about Linux! I also didn’t mention Puppy (a very good lightweight distro) or Sabayon, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful.

  5. This article is a perfect commercial for Ubuntu. Other distros are easily dismissed either with historical notes or with very shallow comments. Thanks but I am not buying into this crap.

    • Sorry you feel that way, personally I use Linux Mint but I think the article is fair. Neither I nor MakeTechEasier have anything to gain by promoting one distro over another, but even the Linux Mint web site acknowledges that Ubuntu is more popular.

      But you see this is beauty of Linux, there are many good, solid distros available and you can pick the one you like the most.

  6. this article is weak. OP, go back and study linux then come back here and re-write the whole damn thing. if you want to write an article about linux then better do it right else right something else.. eg, how to twerk or something.

    • Ichini, thanks for your comments, however I feel they are misplaced. The idea of the article was to give a brief overview of main Linux distros. It is not intended to be an in-depth look at each and every distro (which is impossible) nor is it intended to be a in-depth review of the distros mentioned.

      I had to leave out lots of distros, some of which have been mentioned here by others.

      I have been using Linux since before v1.0 of the kernel and I have professional training in Unix-based OS system administration.

      If you could kindly point out where the article is weak I am more than willing to learn from your sage advise.

    • Since you’re so intelligent, go write your own and share the link here for us to read. I’m sure it will be so strong in comparison! /sarcasm

    • Jouzeek, Thanks for mentioning Cr OS Linux. Unfortunately it is impossible to include every Linux distribution!

  7. Mageia and openSUSE build on which desktop environments? From screenshot looks like both are KDE….openSUSE with homerun? Perhaps you should have included that detail and a bit more info of DE as such. Like KDE has its own suite of applications…

  8. @Wayne M:
    Are the Comments supposed to only sing the praises of the authors, or are they to express readers opinions?

    How did I make Gary look bad? Please provide specifics rather than a vague, general accusation. If you think that was/is my purpose, then you did not understand my comments.

  9. @Anand:
    You have that backwards. A desktop environment is added to a distro, a distro is not built around a DE. The *buntu family is a good example. Ubuntu originally was released with Gnome DE and now has Unity as its DE. Some in the Ubuntu user community wanted to use KDE, XFCE or LXDE as their desktop environment. So they took the Ubuntu core and substituted the other DEs for Gnome, creating Kubuntu, Xubuntu and Lubuntu community editions, respectively. Other distributions, such as Sabayon and Fedora, have the developers create versions with various desktop environments.

    You can “play” developer by downloading and installing antiX Core. This will create a functional system with a command line interface. Using apt-get you can then add any desktop environment you wish (KDE, Gnome, Mate, Cinnamon, RazorQT).

  10. What about this distro? What about this distro? You forgot this distro! hahahaha dummies. How many times does he have to say he couldn’t include them all?

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