Chapter 3: Choosing a Linux Distribution

With so many Linux distributions, it can be hard to choose
With so many Linux distributions, it can be hard to choose, so we help you select one that’s right for you.

As described in the first chapter, we discovered that Linux was a flavour of the UNIX family of operating systems. This chapter talks about what types of Linux are available in the market today. These flavours are called distributions and all have their own merits and disadvantages. We will cover the most popular distributions in this chapter.

What Exactly is a Linux Distribution?

If you ever read the IT press, you may have heard of the larger Linux company names such as Red Hat (RHEL/CentOS/Fedora), Canonical (Ubuntu) and SuSE. There are literally thousands of other smaller companies and organisations that also make Linux distributions. Examples of which can be seen on websites like distrowatch.

These are all companies or organisations that have created their own ‘distributions’ or flavours of Linux, there are distributions to cater to everyone’s needs. Probably too many distributions! In the Ultimate Linux Newbie Guide we will keep it simple by basing it only on the most popular distributions.

In any distribution, the fundamentals stay the same:

  • There is always a Linux Kernel. This is the core component of the Linux operating system which Linus Torvalds wrote back in 1991 (It’s got thousands of contributors now!). The kernel is the interface between the hardware on your computer (keyboards, mice, displays, etc) and the software.
  • The default GNU software (tools like bash – ls, rm, etc). These are mainly command-line based utilities which make a core (but critical) part of any UNIX system. Think of it as if the kernel is the bus between the hardware and the software, think of these like the tool-kit you need to keep the bus on the road!
  • General software to be expected of a desktop Linux distribution. Usually this would include software such as text editors, web browser, email client and probably a word processor or office suite, etc.

What differs from distribution to distribution?

  • General software: (Office Apps, Prog. Languages, Games, Graphics software, etc). Some distributions are built to be lightweight and deliberately don’t ship with much software. Some are quite the opposite. It all depends upon what you need as a user. Most of the time you can install more software very easily if it isn’t pre-bundled (more on this in a later chapter)

“Some distributions are built with older computers in mind, such as Lubuntu (left) and Bodhi Linux (right). The quantity and quality of the software pre-bundled can be varied. This is often because corners have been cut to ensure the desktop experience runs smoothly on PCs that have as little as 512MB RAM and a 700MHz CPU. That’s less than the minimum requirements for Windows 7!”

  • Cost – whether you pay nothing, a little, or a lot for a distribution depends on what you need from it and the business model the distributor works to. For example, Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and SuSE are both commercial Linux distributions which have business level support contracts. They offer telephone hotlines and round-the-clock service level based support for businesses that rely on their Linux systems right up to mission-critical needs. Note however, that just because you have paid for the software, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better. You are paying for licensing, documentation, salaried staff, end-user feature enhancements and telephone support and other matters of that nature
  • Quality of software – (buggy or not buggy software, latest versions of software)
  • Documentation and Manuals – (Quality of, Lack of, Quantity of)
  • Installation Software – Distributions often use different methods of ‘packaging up’ their software. For Red Hat based systems like RHEL, CentOS, Fedora and SuSE, this is the RPM standard (used by tools such as YUM and DNF). Debian based systems like Ubuntu and Linux Mint use one called APT. Effectively, this is mostly irrelevant these days, however they still work in slightly nuanced ways
  • Current – Some distributions go months or even years without being updated. They might consider the release ‘stable’ and therefore don’t provide an update unless it’s a major security fix, or until they are good and ready to update. Some distributions, generally the more niche ones also wind up and shut down.
  • Support – Many of the more common distro’s have well established community support on web forums or chat channels). Some of them also offer a free Linux installation and software, but you can also opt-in for a support contract (Ubuntu offers this)
  • Ease of Use – How easy it is to use overall.

So in summary, whatever distribution you choose you may get a better range of options with distribution X over distribution Y. However Y may suit your specific needs more than X in some cases. The choice is for you to decide. As Linux is almost always free to download, it lends itself to be evaluated until you find just the one you are looking for.

Trying Linux before you install it

There are two main ways you can evaluate Linux before you commit to putting it on your machine permanently. One is to use virtualisation software like ‘Virtualbox’, or to use a ‘Live distribution’ on a USB stick or CD. You might ask why you’d want to ever install Linux fully onto your computer if you can simply use these methods to run them alongside your computer. The main reason is the performance overhead makes using them feel like you are running a sluggish machine. The methods of how to evaluate Linux are described below.

Virtualbox and other virtualisation software

If you have a reasonably powerful computer, you can install a piece of free software called ‘VirtualBox‘. This software allows you to run Linux (or any other operating system) inside your normal computer (Windows or Mac). It’s not great for everyday use due to its performance (you are running an operating system inside an operating system), but it does serve as a great springboard for you to evaluate the perfect distribution for your needs because you are effectively evaluating the entire system as if it was fully installed.

Here you can see Virtualbox running on a mac. You can see that Ubuntu is running inside the window to the right hand side.

‘Live’ distributions

Live distributions can be downloaded and ‘burnt’ to a USB stick or CD. Even the ‘full fat’ Linux distributions like Ubuntu will offer you to select from ‘Install Linux’ or ‘Try Linux’ when you start them up. You usually get most of the main functionality of the distribution so you can really evaluate if the distribution is for you before you choose to install it for real. See Chapter 5 on how to put Linux on a USB stick.

Linux may be free, but can’t you also buy Linux? Why would I do that if I can get it for free?

Buying Linux can provide benefits that downloaded versions do not provide, such as:

  • Physical manuals (SuSE & Red Hat Enterprise Linux are particularly good) to help you out when you need a ‘covers-all’ reference
  • Vendor support for a particular period of time
  • Distributions like Red-Hat Enterprise give corporations a guaranteed support Service Level Response
  • Sometimes you may get more software than with other distributions (eg extra DVDs instead of downloads)
  • Commercial software titles can be included (as it is non-free), these can include copyrighted or patented technologies such as DVD and MP3 players, as well as commercial software like Adobe Flash Player and so forth.

What Linux Distribution should I choose?

Choosing a Linux distribution is a personal thing. It greatly depends on what you want to do with it.

This is a short collection of some of the more popular distributions out there. For more in-depth information on the differences between each ‘distro’, we would recommend visiting distrowatch.com

Here is an example of just some of the more popular Linux vendors today:

Ubuntu and Linux Mint

Suitable for: Beginner to Advanced/Server

Ubuntu is one of the most popular Linux Distributions today. It is built on a Debian core, but has a more regular release cycle. It is arguably more polished than Debian, is easier to use and has major financial backing. Ubuntu is a completely free distro, therefore copyrighted materials such as DVD & MP3 playing ‘codecs’ do not come as standard with Ubuntu, you must download and install it separately, but can be done easily. Due to Ubuntu’s prevalence and ease of use, I have based the later chapters on installing and using Ubuntu.

Canonical, the company that make and back Ubuntu, also offer enterprise level support for Ubuntu. There are three main versions, Desktop, Server and Core. However, there are lots of other ‘spins’ available such as ‘Edubuntu’, made specifically with primary and secondary education in mind and Kubuntu (KDE version), Lubuntu (a lightweight version). In addition to the official spins, there are over 40 third-party versions in circulation today!

Ubuntu is released twice a year (in April and October). Every two years a ‘Long Term Support’ release is provided in the April release. These offer five years support at no extra cost. This includes security patches and bugfixes. Normal ‘intermediary’ releases offer 9 month support, but upgrading from one release to the next is an easy process.

If you don’t like the look and feel of the Ubuntu desktop, Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, it is made for beginners and still offers a GNOME, KDE and ‘Cinnamon’ version. Linux Mint works very similarly to Ubuntu.

Fedora/Red Hat/CentOS

Suitable for: Beginner to Advanced/Server

The company Red Hat was founded around 1993. They have become arguably the most commercially successful Linux based company in the world and are now owned by IBM.

Red Hat Linux had nine major (free) releases until Red Hat decided to take a more corporate approach to Linux in 2003. They then created Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). This product is used by businesses around the world and is a fully supported, commercial Linux distribution. Most users of RHEL use it as a server operating system, rather than a desktop one.

CentOS is the free version of RHEL and it is said to be ‘binary compatible’ (meaning it has the exact same software). A lot of businesses use CentOS if they don’t need the commercial support or backing from Red Hat.

When Red Hat moved to a more corporate model in 2003, it also released Fedora. Fedora is Red Hat’s cutting edge, completely free desktop Linux distribution. It uses the GNOME desktop by default, however just like Ubuntu, there are many ‘spins’ on this and a dizzying number of different Fedora versions exist to be downloaded. As Fedora is bleeding-edge, it can also suffer from less stability than their enterprise-grade counterparts as well as other distributions like Debian or Ubuntu LTS releases. I also find that all of the Red Hat system installers are counter-intuitive and needs a good user experience person to give it a once over!

“Fedora has a reputation for focusing on innovation, integrating new technologies early on and working closely with upstream Linux communities.”

distrowatch.com

Elementary OS / Solus / Zorin

Suitable for: Beginner to Intermediate

elementary OS is an Ubuntu-based desktop distribution. I really like it because it’s incredibly intuitive for a new user coming from another system (especially from macOS!). Some of its more interesting features include a custom desktop environment called Pantheon which takes cues from the look and feel of macOS. It has many custom apps including Photos, Music, Videos, Calendar, Terminal, Files, and more. It has swapped out some of the standard apps. For example, Firefox has been swapped out for the Epiphany web browser and the email app has been changed for a customised email app based on Geary, much of this is done for aesthetic reasons; if you want Firefox or Thunderbird, for example, you can simply install them through the Software Centre.

If you like distros which have a common look and feel to Windows or Mac, or perhaps just something with a really polished, but familiar look and feel, also be sure to check out Zorin, Solus, and Deepin. These distributions are highly customised to give experiences unlike other distributions. For example, Solus has its own window manager called Budgie, and it was built completely from scratch, not derived from Ubuntu or Fedora.

elementaryOS certainly brings the eye candy. It feels reminiscent of macOS.

OpenSuSE

OpenSuSE Linux logo

Suitable for: Beginner to Advanced/Developer

SuSE was once an independent German Linux distribution, which later was purchased by Novell, who were acquired by Micro Focus. They have since been acquired and sold a number of times and have a net worth of over $USD 2.5 billion.

Like RedHat, SuSE split its distribution models into a fully enterprise version. SuSE is an excellent all-rounder which is geared up for the Enterprise which includes support and has corporate partnerships with companies such as SAP. The corporate model isn’t the only thing SuSE shares with Red Hat, SuSE was originally based on Red Hat Linux and therefore shares the same RPM based package management system, but over the years it has changed itself enough to make it clearly a distribution in its own right. It’s YAST configuration management system makes configuration of services a breeze.

The completely free version of SuSE is called OpenSuSE. OpenSuSE has a lot of interesting features including a ‘bleeding-edge’ software package system called Tumbleweed. There are a lot of Developer tools baked in too, openQA is built for automated software testing, while Kiwi creates Linux images for deployment on real hardware. OpenSUSE uses the KDE desktop by default.

If you are a developer, definitely give OpenSuSE a try, however I have found recent versions to be buggy and the installation process a bit harder than it should be.

Arch Linux, Manjaro and Slackware

Arch Linux Logo

Suitable for: Advanced to Server Users

Arch Linux, unlike most, is not derived from a parent Linux distribution like Red Hat or Debian. It stands alone and is revered by geeks for being a blazing fast distro because it is based on a simple (yet solid) base. Everything else can be added through its pacman packaging system.

Manjaro is a separate distribution that has an Arch based core. It claims to be a user-friendly and desktop based distribution. Both Arch and Manjaro run on a rolling-release mechanism, meaning as long as you keep the system updated, you are always running the very latest version of the distro; there is no need to download the newest version from the website every time a new release comes out.

It’s also worthy to mention Slackware here too. Slackware was probably the first real Linux distribution, starting back in 1993! Similarly to Arch and Manjaro, it uses .tar.gz packages rather than more popular APT or YUM systems. If you fall into the more advanced camp, but don’t like the sound of compiling everything, perhaps Arch or Mandriva is for you, as it still offers similar levels of customisation as Slackware.

If you are starting out with Linux, then I believe that Arch, Manjaro and Slackware are probably not the best choice. Once you get into Linux, you may want something that is at the bleeding edge and is very fast. You might find yourself a fan of tweaking ‘all the things’ like a car enthusiast might.

Debian

Suitable for: Intermediate to Advanced Users

Debian Logo

Debian is the grandaddy Linux distro of so many offshoots, including Ubuntu. It was originally released in September 1993. The early distinctions that Debian had over Red Hat based systems was that it had a massive (~50,000 software package library) and secondly that it has an auto-dependency software packaging system called apt. This meant that rather than having to download loads of application packages individually, you could simply tell Debian what app you wanted and it would down the rest for you automatically. It took Red Hat etc a long time to get up to pace with this! . Traditionally known for being further behind than some other distros in terms of having the most up to date packages, it offsets by this by having good stability as the main packages are well tested.

Tux tip!

Note: If a distribution is at release 10 (ie: Slackware), but another distribution is only at 4.1 (ie: Debian), this does not indicate that Debian is an old version of Linux. The release numbers are only an indicator of how many releases that particular vendor has made. For example it is quite likely that Debian 4.1 and Slackware 10 share the same major kernel version and many similar software titles.

Check out The DistroWatch Linux distribution popularity rank (Page Hit Ranking) for a good idea on what’s hot in the world of Linux Distributions right now, it’s updated daily!

What’s next?

If you think you may have found the right distribution for you and you are ready to start preparing to install Linux on your computer, then move forward to Chapter 4

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  1. After being forced to download Microsoft 10 last year and the debacle of the data collection by Microsoft I downloaded Linux Mint Cinnamon 17.1 and found the new Distro to do everything that a PC user needed to do, I am a PC user and do not need or want to know how the distro/os works I just need something that works out of the box and that is exactly what I got. Mint is easy to use there is plenty of help out there if you need it and it comes with thousands of apps if you need them. I have updated to Mint Cinnamon 18 64 bit which was a easy and if I can run Linux Mint Cinnamon any home user with no technical skill can. As far as gaming is concerned there are plenty of games on Steam which you can access with Mint. I will never return to Microsoft as the expense of the Operating System and all the add-on software is exorbitant but do give a donation to the publishers of Mint as that helps to pay for development of the software. I cannot wait for Cinnamon 18.1 to be released in December and see what is new.

  2. I too have been most annoyed by Windows 10 and began looking for an alternative. After a lot of looking and reading I became intrigued with Mint. Installed 18 and now run 18.2 and as soon as possible will get 18.3. I Love It. As a long time XP user it is intuitive, comfortable and quite customizable. I will never return to Microsoft after going from Dos 3.2 to Win 10. Thank you Linus!