Now that you know what makes a Linux distribution, you may be wondering where to start looking. DistroWatch is an incredible resource for those looking to branch out, but again, there are hundreds of distros out there, and it can be pretty overwhelming. While we highly recommend exploring beyond our paltry list below, here are a few distributions that are incredibly popular, and are great starting points for any search. Note that most distributions have variations that use different desktop environments, but we’ll focus on the default environments for each here.
If you’ve tried Linux before—and again, if you’re reading this, you probably have—there’s a good chance you’ve tried Ubuntu. The original aim of Ubuntu was to make Linux easier for the average user, and it did a pretty good job—it’s a great beginner’s distribution. It’s fairly simple to use, updates every six months, and now contains its own Unity interface, which is specific to Ubuntu, featuring things like a dock instead of a taskbar, an App Store-like interface for its package manager, a dashboard for easy searching of the OS, and more. Some people like it, lots of people hate it, but you can always bring back the classic GNOME interface, if you so choose. Ubuntu comes with a pretty standard set of apps, including Firefox, Thunderbird, Empathy for instant messaging, Transmission for downloading torrents, and more. It also has an incredibly large and helpful community, as well as great hardware support, so if you’re looking for something as hassle-free as possible, Ubuntu isn’t a bad place to start. Its popularity also means that it has a ton of programs available in the repositories, or online as packaged DEB files for one-click installations. Rarely will you have to build a program from source.
Linux Mint is actually based off Ubuntu, but we thought to include it here because it’s become even more popular with Ubuntu’s shift toward the unpopular Unity interface. Mint aims to be as easy as possible for users unfamiliar with Linux: the installation is pain-free, the menus are familiar and easy to use, and unlike other distros, it doesn’t commit itself to providing only free and open source software—that is, it comes with things like Adobe Flash, MP3 support, and some proprietary hardware drivers preinstalled. In other distros, you usually have to download these separately. Its set of preinstalled apps is very similar to Ubuntu’s (with a notable exception; Mint preinstalls Pidgin for instant messaging instead of Empathy—a choice we agree with), and because it uses the same package management system as Ubuntu, you have a very wide range of programs available in the repositories or as DEB files. It is also completely community-driven, which means you have a pretty good source of support when you need help. If you’ve never used Linux before, we highly recommend Mint as your first distro.
Fedora aims to be a bit more on the cutting edge of all its software. Updates come out every six months, just like Ubuntu and Mint, but they aren’t supported for very long. It’s expected that users update regularly and as soon as possible. Programs like Firefox will be updated as soon as Mozilla releases an update, unlike Ubuntu, which will usually wait to make Ubuntu-specific changes to the code and release things later on. This can result in a bit more instability, but is great for those that always want the latest and greatest software on their system. It also updated to the GNOME 3 Shell very quickly, and is the most popular Linux distribution currently using it. Fedora uses the somewhat slower but easier to use Yum package manager, instead of Ubuntu and Mint’s APT, and while it doesn’t have quite the software availability that the others do, you can still find most of what you need in the repositories or online in a single-click installer. Fedora also has great security and enterprise features, if you’re looking to use Linux in a more professional environment. Fedora is definitely better for serious Linux users rather than tinkerers and hobbyists.
Debian, in many ways, is the opposite of Fedora. Its goal is to be as stable and bug-free as possible, which it does very well—but it means that your system is rarely up-to-date with the latest versions of software. New releases come out every 1 to 3 years, and the development community can be a bit harsh for those uninitiated. However, if you’re looking for something as stable as a rock, and don’t care about always having the latest version of a piece of software, Debian is for you. Debian also uses the same package management structure as Ubutnu and Mint, so it has more programs available than you can shake a stick at—both in the repositories and online as DEB files. It also supports many processor architectures, which is great if you have a particularly old or offbeat build.
OpenSUSE is a general-purpose Linux distribution that, while it has a bit of drama behind it concerning its parent company, has a very helpful community. Its main draw over other distributions is its level of configuration. KDE is the default desktop (which in my experience is one of the most easily configurable), though it lets you choose between KDE, GNOME, LXDE and XFCE during the installation, which is pretty cool. It also has a very nicely done system administration utility and package manager, known as YaST, as well as great documentation and (as previously stated) a good community behind it. Its worth noting, however, that KDE and OpenSUSE can be a bit more resource-heavy than other distros, so you’ll want to make sure you have resources to spare before choosing it. This is not an ideal distribution for your netbook. If you’re one of those people that likes having things just so, OpenSUSE is a good distro to try, since it gives you a lot of configuration options without the need to delve into the command line.
Arch Linux is special. Arch doesn’t have very many of its own characteristics, since when you install it you’re installing it from scratch—really from scratch. All you have when you install it is a command line, from which you build up your desktop environment, drivers, preferred applications, and more. Essentially, you’re creating your own super customized distro. It can be as minimal or as feature-heavy as you want, and while it takes a lot of work, the end result is fantastic (plus you’ll learn a ton about how Linux works in the process). The great thing about Arch is that if anything ever goes wrong, you’ll probably know why, because you’re forced to deal with these things at a low level. This is especially good considering Arch’s community doesn’t have the reputation of being super helpful to newbies (though I’ve found them to be more than adequate).
Arch uses the incredibly easy and powerful Pacman package manager, and is a rolling release, which means there are no “official” releases—you’re always installing the latest version of whatever packages are included, which makes it great for those on the super bleeding edge. Arch also contains the Arch User Repository (AUR), one of my favorite things in the entire Linux ecosystem. It essentially allows the community to create easily installable versions of any program, so even if it isn’t in the official Arch repos, you can use an AUR helper to install all those programs as if they were normal packages in the repositories.