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For better or worse, there’s no one “Linux”. Instead, there are loads of Linux distributions that all run the Linux kernel. However, they all offer different features, so it’s still important to pick the right distribution as your computer is supposed to work the way you want it to.

This guide is all about how to pick the right distribution, and how to test them before you actually commit to using it. This is arguably one of the most difficult steps in getting into Linux, so the aim here is to save as much time as possible by picking smartly and avoiding regrets.

Picking a Desktop Environment

First off, before you even begin to decide on a Linux distribution, you should first decide on a desktop environment as it’s what you’ll be interacting with most of the time. Choosing a desktop environment first can also help you narrow down your distribution choices as they usually pick a “default” desktop environment and may or may not provide spins that use the same base but with a different desktop environment.

The most popular desktop environments are as follows:

gnome_extensions_intro
GNOME GNOME 3 Beta - Welcome To Your New Linux Desktop GNOME 3 Beta - Welcome To Your New Linux Desktop Read More : The most popular desktop environment that has created a new way to use your computer. It’s worth checking out if you’ve used Linux before, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner.

kde5_desktop
KDE The New KDE Plasma 5 Desktop Is Gorgeous -- Here's How To Try It The New KDE Plasma 5 Desktop Is Gorgeous -- Here's How To Try It While the KDE Frameworks is considered to be stable, not all things KDE have been modernized. However, you can use other methods to try out KDE 5 until it's widely available. Read More : It looks quite similar to Windows, it’s highly customizable, and it looks fantastic. But it’s a bit heavy on system resources, at least compared to other Linux desktop environments. Not recommended for netbooks but it should run fine on decent laptops and desktops.

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xfce
Xfce XFCE: Your Lightweight, Speedy, Fully-Fledged Linux Desktop XFCE: Your Lightweight, Speedy, Fully-Fledged Linux Desktop As far as Linux goes, customization is king. Not only that, but the customization options are so great it might make your head spin. I have previously mentioned the differences between the major desktop environments... Read More : Looks more similar to the older GNOME desktop (which was more like Windows), and runs on less system resources while still looking pretty good.

lxde_lubuntu_desktop
LXDE Using An Old Computer? Give It New Life With LXDE Using An Old Computer? Give It New Life With LXDE As Linux is arguably the most customizeable operating system between it, Windows, and Mac OS X; there's plenty of room to change just about whatever you please. Proper customizing can potentially lead to massive performance... Read More : A simple desktop environment that looks similar to Windows 95/98 (although a bit prettier) and runs on very few system resources. This is a great option for low-powered devices.

mate_desktop
MATE A Review Of MATE - Is It A True Gnome 2 Replica? [Linux] A Review Of MATE - Is It A True Gnome 2 Replica? [Linux] The world of Linux desktop environments has dramatically changed since then. Gnome 3 was born, Gnome 2 was essentially thrown to the side, Gnome 3 was forked to create Cinnamon, and so on. However, Gnome... Read More : A fork of the older GNOME desktop so that people who preferred to use it could use an actively supported variant. Again, it has a lot of similarities with Windows.

linuxmint_qiana_desktop
Cinnamon Gnome-Based Desktop Environments Explained: MATE vs. Gnome Shell vs. Unity vs. Cinnamon Gnome-Based Desktop Environments Explained: MATE vs. Gnome Shell vs. Unity vs. Cinnamon Ever since Gnome went ahead with their Gnome Shell idea, the Linux community has been at a frenzy to find a new desktop environment that is right for them. A majority of users used Gnome... Read More : Also looks more like Windows but it’s based on newer GNOME technologies, unlike MATE which just continues the old GNOME code.

ubuntu1
Unity Ubuntu 11.04 Unity - A Big Leap Forward For Linux Ubuntu 11.04 Unity - A Big Leap Forward For Linux It's here. The newest version of Ubuntu sports an entirely new user interface: Unity. It also includes a much-improved Software Center, alongside the usual updates for the thousands of free programs Ubuntu offers. Canonical decided... Read More : The default desktop in Ubuntu, which has a lot of similarities with Mac OS X including a global menu bar and a dock-like panel (that’s stuck on the left side, permanently).

If you’re not sure right away which one you’d be most interested in, there’s a distribution called Hybryde Linux. It isn’t meant to be installed on a computer but rather it offers a way to test out all of the common desktop environments Use 11 Desktop Environments At Once with Hybryde Fusion (Because You Can) Use 11 Desktop Environments At Once with Hybryde Fusion (Because You Can) Read More in a live environment. Hybryde makes it easy to switch between various desktop environments without having to restart your computer every time or install a bunch of packages.

Picking a Distribution

Assuming that you’ve picked one of those desktop environments, you can then narrow down your choices to distributions which offer your chosen desktop environment. To help you out, some of the most popular distributions are:

ubuntu1
Ubuntu Why Windows XP Users Should Switch To Ubuntu 14.04 LTS "Trusty Tahr" Why Windows XP Users Should Switch To Ubuntu 14.04 LTS "Trusty Tahr" If you're still trying to dump Windows XP but haven't found an alternative yet, Ubuntu 14.04 is a great choice. Read More : The most popular distribution, built upon the solid Debian distribution, and it has the most software via its repositories and PPAs. The default desktop environment is Unity, but there are spins for just about any other desktop environment. I recommend Ubuntu the most to Mac OS X users.

linuxmint_qiana_desktop
Linux Mint Is Linux Mint 17 "Qiana" The Ubuntu Killer? Is Linux Mint 17 "Qiana" The Ubuntu Killer? The latest version of Linux Mint, the 17th release codenamed "Qiana", is out! It's a great alternative for people leaving Windows as well as those who just don't quite like Ubuntu. Read More : Uses Ubuntu LTS releases as its base, and is the most popular distribution for Cinnamon and MATE. Because it’s based on Ubuntu, there’s also a lot of software readily available. I recommend Linux Mint (with Cinnamon, but MATE works too) to Windows users.

fedora21-desktop
Fedora 5 Brilliant Reasons To Look Forward To Fedora 21 5 Brilliant Reasons To Look Forward To Fedora 21 Fedora is known for being a cutting-edge distribution, so there will be a lot of interesting software and technologies that you'll get to use in December. Read More : Has its own base, meaning that it uses a different package manager and has its own repositories. But it’s a very up-to-date distribution and promotes using only open-source software (although it’s still possible to install proprietary software if available). Its default desktop environment is GNOME but there are plenty of spins available.

opensuse131_desktop
openSUSE openSUSE 13.1: A Solid Linux Release With Long Term Support openSUSE 13.1: A Solid Linux Release With Long Term Support Ubuntu and Fedora aren't the only major Linux distributions out there: there's also openSUSE. Let's take a look at what makes openSUSE 13.1 so great. Read More : Uses similar technologies as Fedora, but slightly older and therefore more stable. The default desktop environment is KDE, with GNOME as an alternative installation option and other desktop environments after installation.

arch_downloading
Arch Linux Arch Linux: Letting You Build Your Linux System From Scratch Arch Linux: Letting You Build Your Linux System From Scratch For Linux power users, it's highly desirable to be able to completely customize your system. Sometimes, that can be best achieved from the start -- by piecing together the components that you'd like to include... Read More : Follows the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) which means that there’s nothing on the system you don’t use. But that means you have to install every package yourself, and setting up an Arch installation can take time. It’s very up-to-date yet stable, and it has no defaults — you install whatever you want on it. I wouldn’t recommend Arch to beginners unless you absolutely want to dive right in.

gentoo_desktop
Gentoo Gentoo: A Linux Distribution Where You Compile Your Own Optimized Software Gentoo: A Linux Distribution Where You Compile Your Own Optimized Software The sheer number of different ways in which Linux can be run is astounding, as there are plenty of choices to go around. While there are plenty of distributions which rely on either the .deb... Read More : A distribution that is all about compiling software yourself (although it’s not as hardcore as it used to be). Gentoo and Arch Linux are similar in that you have to build your system yourself, but Arch has precompiled packages while Gentoo doesn’t (except for extremely common software). Beginners should stay away!

Of course, there are plenty of other distributions that are probably worth mentioning, but because of the sheer number I have to keep it down to the most popular ones.

Try Before You “Buy”

VirtualBox Settings Overview
Now that you’ve hopefully picked a desktop environment and a distribution, you should try to test it out before you actually commit to any actual installation. Go to your distribution’s site and download the latest stable ISO. Next, go grab VirtualBox and install it.

Now, follow the instructions How To Use VirtualBoxes Free Images To Test & Run Open Source Operating Systems [Linux] How To Use VirtualBoxes Free Images To Test & Run Open Source Operating Systems [Linux] Quickly try out a wide variety of open source operating systems, some you're familiar with and some you aren't. You can start browsing now at Virtualboxes, a website that takes almost all the work out... Read More to create a virtual machine in VirtualBox and then run your distribution on it. In short, you’ll need to create the new virtual machine (give it the same name as the distro you’re wanting to use, and all defaults should be fine) and then mount the ISO file to the virtual machine’s “CD drive”. Then, you can either just run the live environment in the virtual machine, or you can install the distribution to your virtual machine’s hard drive (which is nothing more than a file on your actual computer).

Alternatively, you can also skip VirtualBox altogether and just write the ISO image to a USB drive and then boot off of it into the live environment. Any installations here will be on your actual computer, so beware.

Distros Make or Break Your Experience

If I haven’t already stressed it enough, it’s important to pick the right Linux distribution for what you want or need out of your computer. And if you feel like you’re constantly switching between distros, that is normal for some people because their wants and needs change just as often. But if you use a distro that isn’t meeting your expectations, you’re going to have a bad time.

What tricks do you use to pick a distribution? Do you tend to stay with a certain distribution but switch desktop environments, vice versa, or neither? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credits: Businessman is thinking Via Shutterstock

  1. oscar
    November 16, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    nice post but where is debian?

  2. buttholesurfar
    November 29, 2015 at 7:28 pm

    who farted on the dog? Remember eat Lightning and Crap Thunder

  3. Billyboy47
    November 14, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    I use ChaletOS, for me it is the best, Elementary ws good but find ChaletOS better.

  4. Jim Traianos
    August 28, 2015 at 9:55 am

    I have conflicting views. I like both Xfce and Plasma 5 the two desktops that are the least likely to find at the same distro. Also I'm unable to find many distributions with Plasma 5 with the worst being linux mint and their stability obsessiness. As for what distro I would prefer, I would take anything with pacman on it.

  5. Bharadwaj Raju
    August 5, 2015 at 10:36 am

    What's that desktop wallpaper in the Fedora screenshot? I'd like a link, please.

  6. Kelly
    March 29, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    Is there an EDU distro?

    I'm a rookie! Today is the first time I've ever installed Linux on anything, and I'm happy to say mint/cinnamon installed without a hitch on my test box :) Now ...

    Thanks for all this info, to you and your commenters :)

    I have more than 10, older than 4 year old lenovo desktops getting ready to go to a school in Fiji that has nothing - sometimes no power and likely not much internet, if any.

    Any and all recommendations for a quick and easy install that will give the students and the teachers - some of which may have never seen a computer - something they can use to increase learning, without having to learn about computers. For example - the terminal is not something they're going to *need*, but there are probably a couple of students that may muck around with it (and maybe build a new dist one day :o )

    I was pretty impressed with the suite that came with mint, but you may know something more suited to schools, and if you do I want to hear it please ...
    Thinking about:
    * 5 year olds: think tux paint, starfall, rainforest maths, 2 of those suggestions need internet which they don't have ...
    * 8 year olds: video recording & editing, writing, photographing their artwork and editing it, blogging in a world with limited internet
    * 10 year olds: everything I've said times 100, and scratch or similar (locally installed)
    * 12 year olds - somewhere to write, explore, experiment
    * 14 year olds - consumers or creators?
    * all ages - getting connected in a place where connections are limited
    and so it goes ... These kids and their teachers haven't had computers before so if everything just worked when they plug them in and turn them on that would be great. Its all sounding very 'Sugata Mitra' ... If there's a distro suited to that - I'd love to hear about it - huge thanks for anything you suggest to support this small project :)

    • john
      April 5, 2015 at 8:10 am

      you need tahrpup, a tiny linux that shares ubuntu kernel and repo, use puppy pakage manager to get edubuntu learning game suites like G compris. build the distro from inside the OS and save back to disc. easy, it also has a one click install software repo of its own on the desktop, with librecad,gimp, blender, mixx, lmms, etc. for older kids. .runs inside 130mb of ram, loaded from cd or usb, no hard drive required. lighter, faster and more versatile and user friendly than those above.

    • Ben Doidge
      June 8, 2015 at 4:37 pm

      Install Lubuntu 14.04 with and unencrypted home folder and the lvm option clicked on. It's the most lightweight of the Ubuntu flavors, so you can install the Ubuntu Software Center without any hassle. Get that from the Lubuntu Software Center. Once you have Ubuntu Software Center, use it to add all LibreOffice packages and the Edubuntu stuff.

      Add Timeshift via the command line and make a snapshot for backup (this program is like restore points in Windows and it comes in handy). These are the commands to install Timeshift, and this is the only time you need to use the terminal:

      sudo apt-add-repository -y ppa:teejee2008/ppa
      sudo apt-get update
      sudo apt-get install timeshift

      Just copy and paste them in there and the password when prompted of course. Here is the link for that program: http://www.teejeetech.in/p/timeshift.html

      That's an easy install of a lightweight Ubuntu flavor. My 2005 Dell ran like a top when I installed it. It's Ubuntu with a traditional desktop that doesn't use much in the way of resources. There's a lot of support in Ubuntu forums and it's very easy to use. And USC is the best software center IMO.

      To summarize: Install with LVM. Update. Install USC. Add the Edubuntu stuff. (I'd also add LibreOffice and get Google Chrome instead of Firefox.) Timeshift for backup.

      Might want to change the wallpaper too. It's not pretty out of the box.

      Your installs should take about a half hour each.

    • Paul Andrew Anderson
      April 30, 2016 at 2:15 am

      Google "Chromebooks in schools" (set Search Tools to "Past Year") and then look thru those. Awesome stories! I know this is a year-old question, but the Internet is timeless; someone else will come across this, seeking an answer to the same question.

  7. lp
    March 9, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    Precise Puppy can run the whole OS from Ram - lightning fast!

  8. Colonel Angus
    March 8, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    Netrunner is a very nice distro, as well.

  9. Riley Mullins
    March 8, 2015 at 2:10 am

    I went with LXDE on a Dell Latitude D620 that a client was going to toss out. Bought the internal Bluetooth card ($5) and a battery ($35), then installed an 80GB Crucial SSD that I had that was doing nothing and maxed out the RAM. This setup, boots up to the desktop in under 4 seconds.

  10. Kenneth DeVries
    March 7, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    I have tried a LOT of distros, and ultimately came back to Xubuntu. I refurbish and rebuild laptops at Free Geek here in Portland OR, and we install Mint because it is similar enough to Windows that new users don't have much of a learning curve, but by direct comparison I still take Xubuntu. It's very stable and flexible, it updates frequently - sometimes daily, and the killer feature for me is its outstanding right-click menu, which gives you everything you would get from clicking the menu button in the corner of Mint or Windows - direct access to all applications and settings with one click on the desktop. When I right-click in Mint I can create a new folder. I use Cairo-dock which has the option of putting Mac-style popup docks on three sides of the window and a simple Conky desktop calendar and clock. There are also some very useful keystroke application launchers like Launchy, which can reduce reliance on the mouse, for those of us on the brink of carpal tunnel syndrome. In general Xubuntu is more Mac than Windows, but with the added Linux functionality of multiple workspaces - as many as you want. For people who don't fiddle much with their system, when transitioning from Windows, Mint is probably the best, but from Mac I suggest one of the buntus.

    • Kenneth DeVries
      March 7, 2015 at 5:40 pm

      I also run the same setup on a Dell Inspiron Mini, which hardly has any brains at all. It runs noticeably slower - things take a couple of seconds instead of happening instantly, and nobody supports that model's quirky graphics card any more, but otherwise it's a fully functional system that was completely crippled by ever-expanding Windows updates.

  11. Von Adam Martinez
    March 7, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    I have Windows and Linux Mint on my desktop(dual boot). I only use windows whenever I got to use my desktop after lending it to my girl friend.

  12. Dan
    March 6, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    When in doubt, use LinuxMint MATE. It is drop-dead easy. Once you've had your taste of Linux (including the use of the Terminal and editing oddly located configuration files) then you can venture out to the other distros.

    I've tried ElementaryOS and it also feels simple-to-use. It's like a child's OS that mimics OSX's interface.

  13. Simen B
    March 6, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    For trying out distros from USB, I'd recommend a Windows app called YUMI. It let's you load any number of distros onto the same USB stick, so you don't have to go through the whole reformat+write process all the time. (I think the site is called pemdrivelinux.com, but I'm not 100% sure)

    I'm currently on Ubuntu/Unity, but I'm considering to make the jump over to Fedora. Also, I've always wanted to try setting up Arch, but I think I'll keep that project in a VM for … well, obvious reasons.

    • Doc
      March 8, 2015 at 4:40 am

      The download is at http://www.pendrivelinux.com/yumi-multiboot-usb-creator/
      - off by 1 character. :)

    • Doc
      March 8, 2015 at 4:44 am

      I heartily recommend redoing any old Windows XP systems that are too slow for Windows Vista/7 with one of the lightweight Linux systems like Mint or Lubuntu - not only will you make your system feel fast and responsive again, you're not leaving your system vulnerable to viruses and attacks by running a system that's not being security-patched any more.
      It's a win-win - you get to keep using your system, and we're not having another compromised machine sending out spam and viruses to us.

  14. kt
    March 6, 2015 at 4:20 pm

    Great article and I agree with everything you said. You could have added pclinuxos to the list, because it's a rolling release and has mate, kde, and cinnamon, you have a lot of flexibility. Switching from mint to pclinuxos takes a little homework, mainly going from .deb to .rpm packages.

  15. Lamees
    March 6, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    I thought you choose a ditro first then change the desktop environment, right?!

    • Doc
      March 8, 2015 at 4:39 am

      Most common combinations of distro and desktop environment can be found as a distro - Linux Mint, for example, is a combination of Ubuntu and Cinnamon/MATE. Xubuntu is Ubuntu with XFCE desktop manager.
      You can always do things yourself - install Ubuntu then install Cinnamon, then switch desktop managers - but then you wouldn't have Mint's pre-installed (non-free) codecs, which can be considered a plus by some.

    • Danny Stieben
      March 31, 2015 at 11:10 pm

      You can, but if you have multiple desktop environments installed on your system you'll see the all of the specific programs and settings for each one -- they don't hide if you use the other DE. It's much cleaner and simpler to do it this way, but of course at the end of the day it's always your choice.

  16. Lamees
    March 6, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    Linux newbie here, tried a virtual machine first then did a clean Ubuntu installation. Using an old pc so changed a few desktop environments because unity was too slow. Wait, xubuntu is a desktop environment or a distro? Currently using xfce for its lightness.
    love finding problems and learning to fix them myself.

    • Tondar
      March 7, 2015 at 11:34 pm

      xubuntu is a distrospin from ubuntu. It's basically ubuntu with xfce as default desktop environment.

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