A guide to the best Linux distributions for beginners. There are lots of versions of Linux available, known as “Distributions.” Each has a different ethos and approach. Here are the five most popular distributions available and where you can get them.
Ubuntu is one of the most prolific Linux distributions and the one we suggest beginners use. “Ubuntu” is an ancient African word meaning “humanity to others.” The Ubuntu distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the software world. It’s a comprehensive distro, with everything you need to get going. It comes with an office suite, web browser, email and media apps and an app store.
The interface, known as “Unity” is reminiscent of macOS, with a Launcher on the side used to open and switch between programs, as well as the Dash for searching and new HUD interface which augments the traditional menu. You can try out Ubuntu without installing it, by running it directly from a DVD or USB Flash Drive. It’s developed in the UK by Canonical, which generates money through tech support. So while it’s free to install, Ubuntu is professionally funded.
Not everybody is a fan and many Linux users find it a bit too colourful and feature rich. We think it’s the best place for beginners to start though and a friendly way to get up-and-running with Linux.
Linux Mint began back in 2006 and was based on Ubuntu but it took a different direction. It was developed as an alternative to Ubuntu after that started to incorporate the slick interface it has today. The main reason people use Mint is because it offers different desktop options upon installation. The most popular is Cinnamon but MATE, KDE, and Xfce are also options. Cinnamon is more similar to the Windows interface, which makes Mint with Cinnamon a popular option for those migrating to Linux from Windows.
While you can install different desktop environments on Ubuntu (or any Linux system), it’s easier to swap out desktop environments in Mint than Ubuntu. Another interesting touch is that Mint includes proprietary non-Open Source software, which most Linux installations avoid. While questionable in the community, it does give you software like VLC, a powerful video player, built-in rather than having to install it afterwards.
Most Linux distributions fall into two camps: you have ones with the latest features and technology like Ubuntu and Mint and those with few new features but rock solid reliability, like Debian.
Meanwhile openSUSE attempts to cover both bases. OpenSUSE Leap is the rock solid system. It’s developed openly by a community along with SUSE employees, who develop an enterprise-level operating system: SUSE; which powers the London Stock Exchange amongst other things. It is designed for mission critical environments where “there is no scope for instability”.
If you find all that too sensible, openSUSE Tumbleweed is a rolling release with all the latest features and the occasional crash. openSUSE is a highly respected Linux distribution and many of its core contributors work on the Linux Kernel, LibreOffice, Gnome and other key Linux areas. In short: openSUSE is where you’ll find the pros hanging out.
Debian is one of longest running Linux distributions and forms the basis of many other versions of Linux, including Ubuntu. So why install Ubuntu, when you can go for Debian? Many users do exactly that but it’s not ideal for beginners.
Ubuntu and Mint both offer an easier installation path and come with software packages that’ll help you get started. Debian on the other hand, is a much more bare bones affair. Debian is committed to free software and its repositories contain over 50,000 apps to install. You can install multiple different Desktop environments although it doesn’t support Unity.
In many ways Debian and Ubuntu are complete opposites. Ubuntu is for beginners while Debian is for total experts. With this in mind, we don’t expect, or encourage, you to start with Debian. Instead you should kick off with Ubuntu, then try out Mint and then work with Debian or other distributions.
Fedora is sponsored by Red Hat, one of the bigger names in Linux development. It has an estimated 1.2 million users, and quite a bit of kudos because Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel, uses Fedora on all of his computers.
While openSUSE and Debian are rock solid, Fedora is a bit more flyby-your-pants system with a focus on introducing new technology early and often. Consequently each release has a relatively short lifespan, with support between each version lasting around a year. Many of the features introduced in Fedora roll out to Ubuntu and other distros down the line. A good example is Gnome Software, which is replacing Ubuntu Software Centre in Ubuntu 16.04.
To Fedora users, other Linux distributions just feel like old versions of their software. Mind you, Fedora users pay with a lack of LTS (Long Term Support) and a lack of reliability. Using Fedora often feels like a permanent repair job, there’s always something going wrong.
Get more great guides like this in The Complete Linux Manual Vol 30!