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: 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.
KDE: 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.
Xfce: 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: 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: 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.
Cinnamon: Also looks more like Windows but it’s based on newer GNOME technologies, unlike MATE which just continues the old GNOME code.
Unity: 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 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:
Ubuntu: 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.
Linux Mint: 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.
Fedora: 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.
openSUSE: 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 Linux: 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: 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”
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 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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