Linux

Linux basics: Picking a distribution

The first thing you have to decide when thinking about the switch to Linux is which distribution to choose. In this series of Linux Basics, we'll start with resources to help you make that initial choice.
Note: A TechRepublic member wrote in and said he'd like to find a single place to find Linux tips and resources for beginners, rather than being overwhelmed by the scattered resources on the Web. Times being what they are, there is likely to be a renewed interest in Linux and open source products as a lower-cost alternative to commercial software. I'm going to start compiling these beginning-level tips and resources, and put them in one of our "Special Reports" pages called "Linux Basics," which you can see linked at the top of this post. Anything we post of particular interest to beginners will be tagged to display on this page. I'll also be tagging some older content that is appropriate for beginners so that it will be easier to find. You can subscribe to the Special Report for updates to Linux Basics so that you don't miss anything.

Choosing a distribution

This seems like a logical place to start for beginners who might be confused about all the different types of Linux, not to mention all the weird names. Each distribution has its own set of basic applications and a look and feel of its own, but for the purposes of beginners who are looking for the same things that they get with Microsoft, for example, most major distributions include an office suite, e-mail, and Web browsing applications. Jack Wallen has broken down these considerations in his post, "10 things to consider when choosing a Linux distribution."

Of course, Ubuntu has broken out as one of the most popular distributions with a strong community and good support. For that reason, it should be high on your list. The nice thing about Linux is that if you decide you want to try something else...you don't have to plunk down a bunch of cash; you just have to go download something else and learn about it. Here are some recent reviews of some of the major contenders:

About

Selena has been at TechRepublic since 2002. She is currently a Senior Editor with a background in technical writing, editing, and research. She edits Data Center, Linux and Open Source, Apple in the Enterprise, The Enterprise Cloud, Web Designer, and...

18 comments
The Scummy One
The Scummy One

A good place to start is at distrowatch.com Then go to reallylinux.com Distrowatch can help find the right distro for the user, reallylinux can help with getting familiar with Linux. For a beginner to Linux, I liked PCLinuxOS and think it was the easiest to start with when I was looking around a few years ago. Currently I have several distros going, SUSE, Mandriva and of course PCLOS :D PCLOS is still a favorite as well

todd_dsm
todd_dsm

It always bothers me, on some level, when I see an article like this that only includes the E-Z installs. Typically I like to promote the real OS's. Debian is, of course, one of those. Since the title of this article is "Picking a distribution" and not, "How to skate by" it seems that there are other options as well. My 2 bits: Slackware. Why? Standardization. It's simple, you can choose 'A Way': Ubuntu, Mandriva, or one of the many others that 'simplify' your existence with Linux. OR, you can choose 'THE Way': a standardized OS layout. Rationale? If we were to compare just 2 OS's to the UNIX System V Release IV, say Slackware and Ubuntu, we would see many differences; fewer differences with Slackware, more with Ubuntu. In fact, taking a deeper look into Ubuntu in comparison to UNIX System V Release IV would cause an individual to conclude that they are 2 completely separate animals that bear few resemblances. Slackware in the same comparison would look very similar, with exception to where Linux has gone, via steering committee, with the LSB (Linux Standards Base). But, the LSB is still pursuant to standardization ? yes but, as long as it's standard, peace will reign. Why does this matter? Many years ago, in a place far, far away, RFCs were defined as a guide map for the rest of the world to have a single encyclopedic reference point for anything that needed implementation. Many or these RFCs were defined during the reign of UNIX System V Release IV. And, we've all been through a few RFCs. Knowing that non-compliance with an RFC will make life miserable is a simple truth of this game. As RFCs should, and most of the time, ARE system agnostic, sometimes they are not. And this, more than anything else, breads fear in the heart of the newbie - having to decide between his (or her) OS vendor's documentation and the RFC. I know because I was a newbie and, sometimes I still am :) The greatest hurdle for we new folk to manage (starting out) is the difference in distributions' locations for where a file MIGHT be; editing that file is its own problem. We, as beginners, should never have to choose between the documentation of our OS's and any other documentation. The only answer is standardization. Slackware brought me closer to that and simplified my life, and made me a much happier newbie. I hope it can do the same for someone else- Cheers all :-P

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

I took the ?Radically Simple? route, PCLinuxOS. The package manager is what sold me, just find what I want, download and install. It would be nice to see something on GTK+ development, basically on the rules of what goes where.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Sometimes it's easier to get your feet wet with a less challenging distribution. Maybe you were able to start riding a bike without training wheels, but you were an exception. Right or wrong, many beginners place more importance on ease of use than on conformity to standards. If they can't make it work pretty quickly and get a feeling of accomplishment, work, they're not going to bother with more advanced distros.

gak
gak

There are 2 things that Linux newbies must know but normally do not. Thus, I guess both should be retold in each and every article like this. 1. All Linux distributions are the same OS with the same ability to support hardware and run applications. 2. There are 2 kinds of distributions: community based and offered. Users for a community distro are, at least potentially, its developers. Thus, Debian and Slackware are very close to what Debian and Slackware users think is best for them. So, if somebody disagrees, he or she either has a new brilliant idea or should find another distro to feel at home. "Offered" distributions like Ubuntu is what the developers think is good for users. Thus, its users, even when getting free offers, are customers with all usual advantages (like the right to cry loud) and disadvantages (think Microsoft). And a less important thing that is still worth retelling everywhere. 3. If a newbie is intended to get the most out of Linux, the chances to pick the right distro from the first try are low. Thus the choice is not so critical up to being irrelevant.

jck
jck

Kubuntu... But, that new KDE 4.01...well...I don't like it as much. But as for installing and setting up and using the package manager...it'd be a bit cryptic for a normal person maybe to weed through...but, Kubuntu has always been a breeze for me. I know Jaqui wants to choke me now. :^0

joelphil
joelphil

Download Fedora LiveCD and boot under windows, if you like what you see, install the distro. Very easy to install and detected my older laptops hardware and I had great out of the box experience with the builtin WIFI of the laptop. the package installer is great and you have the option to YUM on the CLI. GRUB is the bootloader and I have 2 other partitions on my laptop and I'm running 2 other Windows OSes along with Fedora 10. Good luck in your adventure.

undefined
undefined

i've never seen anything specific to gtk, but there are human interface guidelines for gnome and i've seen gtk authors use them. http://library.gnome.org/devel/hig-book/ (my above implied distinction between gnome and gtk is some what arbitrary as gnome is a superset of gtk, but i have seen non-gnome-gtk-only application authors apply gnome hig.)

Jaqui
Jaqui

put them wherever you want to build the user interface look you want. that's it. I know, the GTK docs are lacking, a common problem to all Free Libre Open Source Software.

todd_dsm
todd_dsm

I hear what you're saying. I've taken the same first few steps that everyone else had taken before me. What I didn't realize, at the time, was that I was making larger decisions than I was aware of. I would like a better experience my self. I can't tell you how many half hour projects I've taken that have gone on for weeks, and, strangely enough, how many larger projects that were finished in about 15 minutes. It's maddening how many directions the universe can swing you. Anyways, Slackware has just entered v12. I can tell you that the interface, in whatever form you choose, is slick. As for package management, it's just that - management. The only thing that will cure the misunderstandings is reading and talking to someone in a position to help. Avoiding that part of the experience/job will only cause frustration. PS: he who reads more, AND can execute, is usually worth more ;-) Money should be a good motivator if knowlege is not. To wrap, when you are starting out, it's good to be aware of those larger concepts, even if you choose not to factor them in. But, in any case, all distro's have the same flashy UI's that anyone can install. The question is, how long are you going to ride them. Once you've outgrown Ubuntu and you want to really dig in, you could be so invested in the format that it's difficult to change. Don't get me wrong, I dig Ubuntu. But, eventually standardization will emerge as one of the more important concepts in your life. This will happen the first time you port 200 of your 'can't live without' shell scripts from one platform to another. At that point, you will say 1 of 2 things: 1) God, this is going to be a lot of work. or 2) I'm glad someone pointed that out. Here's another way to put it: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/opensource/?p=362

Ed Woychowsky
Ed Woychowsky

I have a tendency to mess-up the containers. Mostly because they're needed to hold the individual objects.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I tend to use "Linux based OS" suggesting that there are more than one OS based on the Linux kernel; using OS in the sense of a full distribution not just the software/hardware bridging component. I also tend to specify brand names; It's not Linux, it's Debian Linux. (Not sure if you meant I was adding to the problem by pointing it out or what with that title.)

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

When I open a chassis I'm dealing with a fairly inflexible object that is uneasily duplicated. With software, I'm dealing with a disposible flexible item easily replaces in most cases. Don't like how one distribution chassis looks inside the case, toss it and try another. The spent resources answer for themselves. Volunteer recreation resulting in one's own machine being better. Companies supporting development for whatever specific program they find important. The competition between different solutions to the same problem and the darwinism of solutions overtaken by something else. In terms of reinventing the wheel, being able to take someone's base code and add your own special need to it is the very basis of open source. The developer's who select the GPL or any other license do so because those rules are what the developer wants to apply. It's not an accident that Linux is GPLv2 any more than anything under it or BSD, Apache, MIT and so on. Forking is frowned upon where building on previous work rather than reinventing the wheel is the premoted norm. Some standardisation wouldn't hurt but many different distributions are essential for further development and competition. Mandriva wants to include "service" where Debian just goes directly to /etc/init.d/ then no worries. One can always go BSDs where the big differences are in the kernel rather than distribution wrapped around it.

todd_dsm
todd_dsm

The original suggestion was regarding lack of propper scope during the decision making proces when selecting a new distro. I did make a wide digression but... The kernel is not the issue. === sorry, new at this too ;)

seanferd
seanferd

if distros would conform to a standard directory structure.

Jaqui
Jaqui

if you are talking about the os, use GNU/Linux or Linux/GNU or GNU-Linux or Linux-GNU only use Linux alone when specifically talking about the kernel.

todd_dsm
todd_dsm

At the same time, however, we've all broken into a box and thought: "How many different ATX cases do we need?!?!?!?!" The upside is that technical creativity is achieved via problem resolution. The down side is the constant re-inventing of the wheel in a myriad of direction. The over-all outcome is vast diversity - with a cost: time, money (buget dollars) and effort. All to be quelled with a unified vision. Just imagine how much the support forum answers could be reduced if one answer fit 20 different distro's. I believe that we could not only have direction but vector as well. On a standardized build, you could plop whatever UI and logos you wanted to on it and it would all work the same. I should really get some work done around here! T out-

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Linux is only one part of a greater OS distribution. Slackware is not nor meant to be, Debian any more than it's mean to be LFS. They happen to use the same OS kernel but the collection of similar lego pieces stacked on top have different goals. I think the fact that there are so many distributions from purely general to highly specified is one of the most important attributes. Ubuntu helps new users transition but has traits I can't live with. At the same time, Gentoo and LFS are a little hard core for my interests so that extreme is not for me either. Both extremes fit a set of goals though.