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The Linux distribution guide

fn230
  • 52 months ago

Hi! Some people want to get into Linux. Linux (or more properly GNU/Linux) is a catch-all term that refers to a family of operating systems derived from the Linux kernel and the GNU OS libraries. These operating systems - called Linux distributions, or distros for short - are basically compatible with each another and share much of their software. However, they are also geared towards different use cases, so performance and user-friendliness depends on the distro you choose. This guide attempts to describe some of the more notable distros (not everything will be covered here). But before I go into that...

Desktop environments

There are a large number of different desktop environments (or DEs) for Linux. One analogy is launchers on Android. Another analogy is, imagine that you could give Windows the look of OS X. It's still Windows and all your programs run normally, but now you have a dock and a menubar on top instead of a Start menu and a taskbar. For beginners, this may be one of the most important deciding factors in choosing a Linux distro. These environments will be described in their usual, stock configurations. Linux distros are very customizable, so you can easily change the DE at any time if you don't like it. Here are some of the common ones:

  • KDE (short for K Desktop Environment) resembles Windows 7/10. This heavyweight DE has higher system requirements than the others, but is rich with features. It's recommended for power users who like desktop customizations. Distributions that use KDE are not good for older computers, but are quite happy running on relatively recent hardware (at least 1-2 GB of RAM).
  • Xfce is a middleweight DE with an unassuming look (Windows XP-like), but it sports enough features to keep most people happy. It could be argued that it's the most balanced desktop. Xfce distributions are best suited for machines with at least Pentium 4 CPUs and at least 512 MB of RAM.
  • MATE is based on the defunct GNOME 2, and is pretty similar to Xfce. If you need a middleweight environment, pick whichever one you prefer.
  • LXDE and its relative LXQt are lightweight desktops that resemble Windows 95/98/XP. They're quite barebones, and are best suited for older computers (Pentium 4 or earlier with less than 1 GB of RAM). Newer computers can also run them to achieve higher performance.
  • GNOME 3 is a desktop with an unusual design paradigm that makes it more suitable for touchscreens. It's quite divisive; some people love it, some people love to hate it. It falls between KDE and Xfce as far as hardware requirements go.
  • Cinnamon is derived from GNOME 3. It eschews its parent desktop's strangeness in favor of a friendly, Windows 7-like interface, while still retaining the technical advances that GNOME 3 made over GNOME 2.
  • Openbox is technically not a desktop environment; it's just a program that handles window management. However, it can be run on its own like a desktop environment, so it's listed here. It's extremely lightweight and thus suited for the most resource-strapped computers. Similar programs include JWM and awesome.

Ubuntu and its derivatives

Recommended use cases: Linux newbies, ease of use, relatively recent hardware

Ubuntu, developed by Canonical, is the most popular of the Linux distributions. It's user-friendly with an intuitive installation process, sports good out-of-the-box hardware support, and has a great community backing it, which makes it a prime choice for beginners. It also boasts a wealth of third-party repositories to supplement its already solid base of software. Ubuntu has two sets of releases - a regular 6-month release supported for 9 months, and a Long Term Support (LTS) release that comes out in April every even-numbered year and gets software updates for 5 years. The LTS releases are the ones recommended for most people; the regular releases are more likely to contain bugs, and are generally recommended only if you're feeling more adventurous. Ubuntu's good attributes do come at a certain cost - to achieve its great user-friendliness, it sacrifices a certain amount of performance (and occasionally even stability) when compared to some other Linux distributions. It's also not terribly cutting edge as a result.

There are a few official derivatives of Ubuntu and a number of unofficial ones as well; some notable ones are listed here:

  • Ubuntu proper uses the Unity desktop, which somewhat resembles the Mac OS X desktop. It's Canonical's flagship environment, and is unique to Ubuntu and its derivatives. There are also official preconfigured KDE, Xfce, LXDE, GNOME 3, and MATE variants, respectively called Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Ubuntu GNOME, and Ubuntu MATE. Lubuntu in particular is more suitable for older machines, though it's not the best for them.
  • KDE Neon is based on Kubuntu, but uses the very latest KDE version, making it great for people who want the latest and greatest that KDE has to offer.
  • elementary OS is an Ubuntu derivative with its own homegrown Pantheon desktop environment. It's even more OS X like than Ubuntu's Unity, and is a good choice for the non-tech-savvy due to its great simplicity.
  • Peppermint OS is based on Lubuntu and focuses heavily on Web applications.
  • LXLE is based on Lubuntu, but provides extra tweaks that aim to make its desktop friendlier than the stock LXDE environment.

Linux Mint

Recommended use cases: Linux newbies, ease of use, relatively recent hardware

This is a derivative of the Ubuntu LTS releases that has taken its own direction. It primarily uses either the MATE desktop or its own homegrown Cinnamon environment, which is very similar in appearance to Windows 7. It also has different default software choices and an overhauled software package manager that aims to be even friendlier than Ubuntu's. Accordingly, Mint is an easy distribution for beginners to pick up and use, but also inherits some of the weaker points of Ubuntu as well. Since it's a derivative of Ubuntu, its releases tend to come about a month or so after the latest Ubuntu release. Mint's greatest stumbling block may be its update system, which tends to advise holding off on security updates to prioritize stability. Probably bad practice.

Debian and its derivatives

Recommended use cases: Beginner to advanced users, high stability, decent usability, configurable for older machines

The parent operating system of Ubuntu and Mint, Debian is one of the oldest surviving distros. It is renowned for its great stability and good level of performance, and while it hasn't historically been very user-friendly, that has changed recently. Today, Debian is a very good beginner to intermediate operating system. Like Ubuntu, it has excellent software support, and although its hardware support is a bit worse out of the box, it's easy to install the extra drivers. Debian has a few branches - unstable, testing, and stable. Unstable and testing are essentially the alpha and beta stages for Debian, and are only recommended for intermediate to advanced users. Stable is thus recommended for most users, but it has one big problem - Debian focuses on stability so much that by the time a stable version is released (once every two years), it often uses outdated software compared to other Linux distributions.

Debian has a number of official variants and some unofficial derivatives that are 100% compatible with it; some notable ones are listed here (Ubuntu is too heavily derived and thus not totally compatible with Debian):

  • Like Ubuntu, Debian has GNOME 3, KDE, Xfce, and LXDE variants preconfigured. It also offers other DEs in its software repositories.
  • antiX is a very lightweight Debian derivative that's well-suited for older computers, able to run on hardware as old as a Pentium II and 1=28 MB of RAM.
  • MX Linux is an Xfce-based distribution based on Debian stable and antiX, with some backported software that includes a more recent Linux kernel version.
  • SteamOS is a derivative of Debian with performance optimizations for gaming and built-in access to Steam's growing library of Linux games.
  • Raspbian is optimized for the Raspberry Pi platform specifically, and is the recommended OS for that system.
  • SparkyLinux is based on testing and is suitable for intermediate users. Due to the higher breakages from Debian testing, it's not recommended for beginners.
  • Kali is a specialist distribution geared towards security penetration testing.

Fedora, Red Hat, and derivatives

Recommended use cases: Intermediate to advanced users, power users, early adopters, troubleshooters

Fedora is one of the big names in Linux, and deservingly so. It's backed by Red Hat, maker of the eponymous Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), which is a commercial Linux distribution used for workstations, servers, and top-end supercomputers. Fedora itself serves as a more desktop-friendly platform than RHEL, and also as a testbed for it. This makes Fedora one of the most cutting-edge Linux distros, always eager to adopt the latest and newest software technologies, so it's a great choice for early adopters and adventurous power users. However, this headlong rush has a cost, as Fedora also tends to be less stable than other distros, making it a poor system for those looking to install and forget. In this respect, it can be considered the antithesis of stable, conservative Debian. New releases of Fedora are produced once every 6 months and are supported for just over a year.

The Fedora/RHEL family has a number of official and unofficial derivatives, and a few major lineages that diverged quite significantly. Some notable ones are listed here.

  • Fedora has preconfigured GNOME 3, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, Cinnamon, and MATE variants, with other desktops available in the repositories. RHEL uses predominantly GNOME 3.
  • Korora is a Fedora derivative geared more towards beginners, with more software and some extra repositories preconfigured for ease of use. Like Fedora, it has preconfigured GNOME 3, KDE, Xfce, Cinnamon, and MATE variants. No LXDE variant, but you can always install LXDE if you want.
  • SUSE is derived from a different distribution called Slackware, but it inherited a number of technologies from the Red Hat line. It provides a powerful centralized control panel and useful tools for administration and enterprise usage. Members of this lineage include openSUSE, a desktop-oriented platform, and SLES, which runs on some of the world's most powerful supercomputers.
  • Mandriva is a now-defunct distribution that diverged from Red Hat some years ago, and spawned some notable offspring including Mageia and PCLinuxOS. While Mandriva itself had some enterprise leanings, its descendants tend to be desktop-oriented platforms focused on stability and ease of use.
  • CentOS is a freely-available (as in monetary cost) derivative of RHEL without the paid technical support. Due to the RHEL base, it boasts enterprise-grade stability, but tends to have somewhat outdated software. It's not a great desktop OS since its software tends to be business-oriented.

Arch

Recommended use cases: Advanced power users, customization addicts, those seeking to gain in-depth understanding of how Linux works

If your stereotype of Linux users is that they're super hacker geeks, then Arch is one of the most stereotypical Linux distros. It provides virtually no automatic configuration whatsoever, requiring the user to delve deeply into the operating system and set up everything manually. This takes great knowledge of both Linux and your computer hardware, which makes Arch a notoriously difficult Linux distribution to use. For advanced power users, however, this may be the ultimate dream - a proper Arch installation is extremely fast and well-optimized, because you set it up exactly how you wanted it, with no useless cruft to bog the system down. This is therefore also the operating system for you if you want the best speed, the best battery life, and so on. Arch is no slouch when it comes to software and community support either, with an enthusiastic following of users and a wealth of third-party repositories that rivals even that of Ubuntu. Arch has no distinct versions or releases - instead, its core software components receive continuous updates over time, an approach known as "rolling release."

  • Arch itself does not offer any preconfigured desktops. Instead, it gives you a barebones image which you can use to set one up.
  • Manjaro and Antergos both aim to be beginner distributions that combine user-friendliness with many of the benefits that Arch has to offer.

Slackware

Recommended use cases: Intermediate to advanced users, those seeking to gain in-depth understanding of how Linux works

Slackware is one of the oldest surviving Linux families. Its objective is to be simplistic and Unix-like, keeping configuration in text files as much as possible, and adhering to upstream code as much as it can. This makes Slackware a fairly difficult Linux distribution, being more suited towards those who appreciate its technical simplicity and a real learning experience.

Gentoo

Recommended use cases: Advanced power users, customization addicts, those seeking to gain in-depth understanding of how Linux works

Take the manual configuration of Arch, turn it up to eleven, and you get Gentoo. This operating system requires that in addition to manually setting everything up, you also compile everything from source to optimize it for your specific hardware architecture. Gentoo's appeal is therefore essentially limited to the most hardcore, performance-oriented power users.

  • Sabayon is a Gentoo-based Linux distribution geared towards user-friendliness, which makes it similar to Manjaro and Antergos in that it's a cutting-edge beginner's distribution.

Puppy Linux

Recommended use cases: Old desktop hardware

A very lightweight Linux distribution suitable for old computers, yet remaining reasonably well-featured and not being too unfriendly. Puppy Linux is good for machines with things like less than 512 MB of RAM and Pentium III CPUs. It has a few variants; all generally use DEs that resemble early Windows in appearance. Since it's a smaller distribution with less backing, Puppy has somewhat less software support than the bigger names, but it is definitely a good choice for that ancient Windows 98 computer you have sitting in your closet.

Tiny Core

Recommended use cases: Very old hardware, mini servers

An extremely minimal distribution that somehow managed to cram a GUI into its diminutive <20 MB image. Tiny Core Linux is certainly not the most capable distribution, but it's great for things like ancient computers, mini servers, and computer appliances.

Comments

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

Mandriva.... the one I always returned to... RIP old friend... Never settled on a new distro as a main goto since as they all lack in too many ways...

it did everything Ubuntu was supposed to be the best at, even better.... best desktop and beginner to power user distro ever.

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

Try Mageia yet? Its development team includes most of the old Mandriva devs.

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

I poked at it... not my thing. PCLinuxOS just plain sucked... that one felt like a rebranding of SimplyMEPIS...

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

I understand.

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

Ooo.. Nice guide. And the formatting is quite good.

So, how much more difficult/demanding is Kubuntu vs Ubuntu? I tried a bit of Ubuntu last week and let's just say the Mac OS X layout... well, I'm not a fan. I hope that, when you say "resembles Win 7/10", you're also including the "look like XP" options?

  • 52 months ago
  • 2 points

No, Kubuntu and its KDE environment don't look really so much like XP, but you can set it up to be more like that if you want. When I referred to it as "demanding," I meant that it has higher system requirements. As elvenson stated, it's exactly the same platform as Ubuntu with a different desktop, and you can always change the desktop later on.

An analogy would be if you installed a third-party interface on Windows that makes it look like OS X. Your EXE files and Windows programs and stuff all work exactly the same way they do as usual, but it looks different and may be easier or harder for you depending. Similarly, Ubuntu and its official derivatives are not strictly easier or harder to use compared to one another, it's a matter of preference.

If you want something more XP-like appearance and performance wise out of the box, Lubuntu or Xubuntu is probably a better bet.

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

they are the same except that one focuses on a different primary interface and applications than the other... either can be customized to have everything the other does through the package manager... Kubuntu you may find a much nicer alternative to Ubuntu... KDE has gone through so many changes over the decades but is still the primary environment of many big distros for a reason... it is highly effective, and NOT trying to look like mac lol.

If Ubuntu is still installed, just install the KDE and XFCE desktop environments to it for 2 awesome alternate interfaces you may like better than that Unity bs. (I also hated it when it first came out... Gnome was much better in my view). You can install many desktop environments and window managers and use them at will on a single Linux install, so you can try a bunch of stuff out and then if you want a whole experience based tightly on the one you like most, then install a distro that focuses on it and go from there.

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

According to Wikipedia, SUSE was based on Slackware.

Other than that, nice list.

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

I'm aware of that, but it adopted Red Hat's packaging system, so I lumped it here.

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

MX-15 does look appealing. Considered adding PC-BSD to the list?

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

Well, it's not a Linux distribution, and I don't have any experience with BSD to be honest. :/

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

Nice write up. Very thorough.

edit I only disagree with breaking apart the distributions against their different desktop environments: all Debian based feel like Debian. All RHEL based, feel Red Hat, etc. etc.

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

It's true that not all Debian-based feel like Debian, etc., but the package management, software versions, and stability and performance characteristics are all still the same.

  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

I would also add that Arch and Gentoo are good if you are willing to learn how to get the most performance and/or battery life out of your machines. Do not forget to add Window Managers as listed here: https://wiki.archlinux.org/index.php/window_manager

  • 52 months ago
  • 2 points

Done. Standalone window managers aren't as common as complete desktop environments, so I didn't think it was worth mentioning them at first.

[comment deleted by staff]
  • 52 months ago
  • 1 point

Glad you find it useful. :)

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