If you're new to the Linux world, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of distros available to you. On the surface, it may look like an endless maze that leads you through a bottomless rabbit hole. However, even the most avid distro hopper has a daily driver they eventually settle on. This guide aims to help you find your new home in Linux while making the experience as enjoyable as possible.
Managing Your Expectations
Before beginning your journey, you have to know what you want out of your system. This involves finding a balance between how you want to use the distro and what you can expect to accomplish with your machine. Although many Linux distros can help you "breathe new life" into older systems, it's important to note that your machine will still limit what you can do with the operating system, regardless of the distro you choose to settle into.
You should not expect any Linux distro to be a magical pill that will solve your machine's constraints. If all you have is 256 MB of DDR2 memory on your computer, you're going to have to live with extremely limited functionality.
When you're looking at what to aim for, it's important to consider two things:
- How strong your machine is: you may have different priorities of what you want based on whether your machine boots in seconds or takes longer than it takes you to make coffee.
- What you want your experience to look like: more technically skilled people may want more granular control over their systems, while people who are beginners will shy away from anything that requires extensive terminal use outside of maybe installing an application from included repositories.
Given the varying rates of these two factors among several different groups of people and other things that could come into play when making a decision, we are making recommendations based on several broad groups:
For Those Completely New to Linux
If you've never touched a Linux system, you're better off trying something that's popular, highly supported, and an easy-to-use desktop environment.
If you're coming from Windows, you would get along well with a distro that uses KDE Plasma, Cinnamon, or Xfce. They all come with a familiar-looking desktop layout with an application menu that sits on a panel at the bottom of the screen by default with persistent icons showing favorite applications and those that you currently have open.
If you're coming from macOS, you'll find distros featuring GNOME, COSMIC, and Pantheon to be the most familiar, each coming out of the box with a dock for your favorite applications, always within reach at the bottom of your screen.
Generally, you should be looking at systems that share a code base with Debian or Ubuntu. It's no surprise that the majority of distros in our recommendations for beginners are based on these two.
Most, if not all, Linux applications support the Debian APT architecture, and the majority of guides written for Linux include commands that operate with the Debian APT package manager. All of these make it easy for any newcomer to get started.
If you go on a Linux forum asking for help, most people will reply with commands and instructions that work perfectly on these types of distros, and you'll find this as well when you're searching online for answers.
The Debian/Ubuntu world is always ready to receive beginners with open arms and has many ways to hold your hand while you get acquainted with Linux. You can also gain easy access to a very powerful package manager known as snap.
For Those With High-End Systems
If you're running a computer with 32 GB of high-speed dual-channel memory, an NVMe drive, and a CPU/GPU combo that lets you have carte blanche over everything you run, you do have some bleeding-edge options at your disposal.
For high-spec machines running the latest hardware, your experience in Linux will largely be determined by the kernel and repositories available to you. This is especially true when you're gaming, as some very important features like Fsync and Esync that improve the performance of non-native games need to be up to date.
For people who want to squeeze every bit of performance out of powerful machines without a lot of headaches, the Arch world will be very attractive. Even though installing Arch is no simple chore, there are plenty of Arch-based distros that can set up your computer quickly and easily. Arch-based distros offer an immense catalog of applications from the official repositories, dwarfed by an even more gargantuan user repository (the AUR) containing the latest applications.
The only major caveat to using an Arch-based distro is that you may be stumped by minor stability issues. But what you get back from it in terms of sheer performance and flexibility usually compensates generously for the small bugs that occasionally appear in some applications.
For The Elderly and Those With Little Know-How
It might be instinctive to install Windows on a computer for your elderly relatives and for those who have little else to do than browse the Web and write the occasional email. However, you may be surprised to find that Windows is not really that easy to use (like regular updates breaking the system), but there are variants of Linux that are far easier for them to use and offer far fewer opportunities to damage the system.
When it comes to the choice of distro, everything mentioned in the section for those who are new to Linux applies here, with a few minor changes:
- Avoid using a distro with an overly complicated desktop environment. Sure, KDE Plasma looks beautiful, but it's harder to appreciate when you just want to see things a bit clearer and have to go through several menus to get everything just right.
- If you're working with someone whose vision has deteriorated, enlarge elements like icons and panels while still leaving enough screen real estate for applications to show up and not have to be moved much.
Besides distro choice, it's very important to make sure that other parts of the environment (applications, browser extensions, etc.) that the person operates in are sufficiently prepared for ease of use and accessibility.
For Those Who Code
If you're a developer, you may find yourself becoming more selective depending on your niche. If you're looking to make the most out of your development experience in Linux, distro choice is about as important as what code editor or IDE you use.
When it comes to which codebase you should choose, the world is your oyster. Distro recommendations for the avid developer range all the way from Debian to Arch Linux, depending on your personal requirements.
It's also worth mentioning that you would also benefit from going on a journey to learn how Linux works as an operating system. If you have the stomach for it, check out Linux From Scratch to learn more.
For Those With Low-End Systems
If you're struggling to find the RAM to spare for anything, you will find most popular distros to be a bit heavy. Even some distros that advertise themselves as "lightweight" have the look and feel of something light but don't generally do much to truly slim down the system's overhead.
To truly choose a slim distro for Linux, it has to either come with or allow for the installation of an appropriate window manager or desktop environment. Given these criteria, you can be as creative as you want with your choices.
For the lightest experience possible, ditch the idea of using a desktop and just opt for a window manager like bspwm. Be warned that you'll need to get very comfortable with the terminal, but once you do, you'll notice that you can do just about anything a fully-featured desktop Linux distro can offer!
If you don't quite have the stomach to go commando with a window manager, choose a feather-light desktop environment like LXQt or MATE. They may look dated and difficult to navigate, but they're designed to work in very restricted environments, like old machines with severely limited resources.
Most distros will include these desktop environments. Once you install them, just select them before you log in to make the switch.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why does Linux have so many distros?
Every developer has a vision of what their ideal system looks like. When you have an open-source community, you'll often find that software tends to fork in multiple directions, many times leading to innovative pressure in different directions. As chaotic as it may look, it also gives you the flexibility to choose something that ideally fits your particular scenario. People have been getting Linux to run on several different platforms for decades. This is what came out of all that effort.
Are there any distros with higher levels of security?
So-called "security-oriented" distros are often hardened for particular niche use cases but won't often make a difference on the consumer level. Any Linux distro will be as secure as you allow it to be. If you plan to run SSH, for example, learn how to secure your SSH properly before you dive head-first into trying to run your own home server!
Can I familiarize myself with Linux without having to install it on my PC?
Absolutely! Every Linux distro mentioned here will run a live version of itself on a bootable USB thumb drive (which is the medium you should be using to install distros anyway). This lets you "try it before you install."
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