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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:

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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: 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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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