Distro Indecision: A Cheat’s Guide to Choosing a Linux Distribution

Danny Stieben 06-03-2015

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 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.

KDE 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.


Xfce 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 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 A Review of MATE: Is It a True GNOME 2 Replica for 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.

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.


Unity 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) 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:

Ubuntu 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.


Linux Mint 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.

Fedora 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.

openSUSE 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 Linux 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 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] 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

Related topics: Linux Desktop Environment, Linux Distro, Linux Mint, Ubuntu.

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  1. Spanky
    February 4, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    Let me make this simple:

    If you are not technical get a friend or contractor that is.

    Given good hardware that is not that old and does not have windows only crap devices in it...

    1. Start with Linux Mint and the MATE version. Install it. Use it a while.

    2. Get Debian stable and NOT Debian "testing". Testing is not the way to get the newest software. It is for reporting bugs no matter how stable it is sometimes. Yes the Debian way is harder the FIRST time and you must pick your parts; but now you can pick them similar to Linux Mint's with Mates fine work. You will have to simple set things to how you want them.

    3. Debian stable have automatic SECURITY upgrades like none other. Do upgrades regularly and this can be automatic.

    4. The way you handle needing a newer version is to get just a couple form Debian stable BACK-PORTS. Such as Firfox and Libre Office for BACK-PORTS. Once you do this everything upgrade the the best versions WHEN AND AS IT'S READY. This is a stable as you get and that means the least maintenance time after setup once.

    5. All this is for smooth longevity and scalability should you need multiple systems. Scalability means you have one distro, one method, one set of packages (can vary per workstation need, I'm mainly talking about the base foundational core OS, UI and related base) across disparate hardware levels for more time saved and the fewest BUGS managing them. The stable version does not force a better reinstall periodically. The smooth tier version runs for about 2 years. Then and sometimes more importantly its the only one that can be upgraded to the new stable in place and work very well. Even then you can hold off 3 to 6 months and avoid practically any issues unless you hardware is extremely ancient and should be phased out and device/system upgraded.

    6. Thing about Debian is it may piss you off on your very first install; but then you get why it is that way and it's simple for technical folks the second time. Mint is like fast food and Debian stable is like the grocer store. It's for cooks.

    7. Window similar UI element is not "borrowing" from Windows. Windows did not invent them. Some are afraid people can't understand GNU/Linux is not Windows. But I have no problem optionally making it look like Windows (whichever version) and have screen element placement and functions exactly where YOU want them. I don't even care if you want the same bootleg icons, or Apples. You can mix and do whatever you want! You should. I think Mate (and others are fine) allows maximal interface choice AND run lean not bloated. It has more legacy which in this case means robustness and stability longer worked on. Mainly Mate has all the little matching OS/UI helper apps; that stay the heck out of your way and are an absolute requirement. I personally prefer the "Applications/Places/System" menu buttons, (and one bottom panel optionally) as you really get used to those fast. There not a lot of user interface acclimation to do when new users are coming from Windows. People already know.

    In conclusion the Debian packages and management system has no rival. This is 'pure' Debian. Meaning your get the stable security upgrades before anything. All your critical programs are already compiled for you in the Debian system and not Ubuntu packaging. There's more stuff. New programs start here first. You never have to compile; but it's easy to do; for any custom or unpopular needs. It the very heart of Linux and just works. Depending on your choice combination. I suggest ONLY installing what you need on Debian stable and trying out many distros on another install. This is the one to depend upon.

  2. Adrien H.
    December 18, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    I'm still hesitant on what to choose. I've used a lot Fedora and Ubuntu as the first was installed on my work computer and the second was advised to me as a simple to use distro (7 year ago). Now I've encountered severe problems with the last Ubuntu release (why did I have to jump on it... Damn me) and decided it was the time to take a look elsewhere.

    I've installed Debian with KDE but I'm not sure that was the best choice. I thought it would be a good choice because I'm proficient with the command line (I always prefer console tools over graphical counterparts) and doesn't have a pronounced taste for last features but it looks a bit too naked out of the box and I don't feel like spending too much time setting it up. Or maybe it doesn't need too much effort to have something suitable to my tastes ?

    My main use is software development using IDE's (Netbeans, Android Studio, PHPStorm, Apache, MySQL, PHPMyAdmin, a console (XTerm) and a console text editor (neovim)).

    What distro would you recommand to someone having a good experience with Linux, bash, console tools but doesn't want to spend too much time setting it up?

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

    nice post but where is debian?

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

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

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

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

  6. Anonymous
    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.

  7. Anonymous
    August 5, 2015 at 10:36 am

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

    • Dee
      March 22, 2019 at 12:00 am

      Try a “reverse image search.” Take a screenshot or download the image, upload it to and find its source.

  8. 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.

    • Anonymous
      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:

      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.

    • Anonymous
      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.

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

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

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

    Netrunner is a very nice distro, as well.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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, 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
      - 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.