Choosing a Linux distribution

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One of the first questions that you probably have about Linux is "What distribution do I use?" Indeed, this is one of the most frequently asked questions on our forums.

Some of the possible answers to this question are:

  • Use the distribution that the Linux guru next door uses, so if you have any problems you can ask him or her for help
  • Use vmware and create virtual machines to try out what distro you like best
  • Distro comparison - Which distribution provides what advantages
  • take this test
  • take that test

Introductory and general purpose

What distro for just trying Linux out?

If you do not want to skip other operating systems, you can try out Linux by

What distro for a total newbie?

Consider booting a Live CD, then installing that version to your hard drive & dual booting with your existing system. (Always back-up your data first!)

If you are very new to the Linux world and have no interest in learning a lot of technical details just to get it running, you may want to go with dual booting with your existing system. Obtain one of the recent mainstream distributions such as Linspire, Mandriva, Fedora (non-commercial Red Hat), SuSE or Ubuntu. If you can spare the money, it may be worth your while to purchase a commercial version, since you may get tech support from the vendor. If you just want to get your feet wet with a GNU/Linux distro it is advisable to stay away from the latest development version Alpha, Beta or Release Candidate (RC). Downloading a stable release version and burning an ISO image with an optical drive is fairly easy but may be more time-consuming. Some distros (Ubuntu {Kubuntu-tailored for laptops} may send free install media if requested. Donations (PayPal etc) are always appreciated to help defray costs

What distro for the power user?

If you consider yourself a power user, and would like to learn a lot of technical details about Linux as you are installing and using it, you would be well served to try out one of the more do-it-yourself distributions. Gentoo, Arch_Linux, Debian and Slackware might be among your choices here. If you are already an experienced Linux user and really want to get your hands dirty, there is Linux From Scratch, which is not really a distribution so much as a set of instructions for building your own distribution (though this isn't recommended unless you already know what you are doing).

Special purpose

What distribution for a server

Debian, Red Hat, and Slackware make good choices for servers. Debian's security policy and strict packaging rules make it an attractive choice for a non-commercial solution. All security fixes are backported ensuring that the production environment remains the same and breakage will not occur. Slackware's up-to-date packages facilitate security, and its transparent system administration makes customization easy. Red Hat's support packages for its Advanced Server line make it attractive for commercial solutions.

What distro for an old computer?

There are a number of minimalistic distributions, such as VectorLinux designed for computers without much hard drive space or CPU speed. It's quite possible to install Linux on an early 386 with 2 to 4 megabytes of RAM, though if you hope to install a GUI you may need a bit more memory or CPU; a 486 with 8MB RAM is probably the lowest you can go with XFree86. For acting as a firewall, e-mail client, or basic machine for text editing and scripting, this might be the way to go. However, distributions like Vector and Peanut, while minimal, are not "micro" - they still require 100+ MB hard drives and really need a 586 or fast 486. For even smaller distributions that may run in under 100MB (or even from floppy) on a 386/486, distros like Damn Small Linux may be suitable.

What distro for games?

Any distribution will be just about as good as another in this area. Something that will likely help more than using any specific distibution, is using a lighter Desktop environment like XFCE.

Gentoo has a modified kernel and other elements that may make it a good gaming platform. (Note: This distribution is generally for more experienced users.)

Windows/UNIX-Oriented Distro Spectrum

If you are a newbie, you will naturally look for a distro that has the look and feel of Windows. On the other hand, if you prefer manual configuration, you will look at a more UNIX-like solution. This spectrum should help you figure out where major distros stand out-of-the-box:

Windows -> Linspire, Xandros -> Fedora, Mandriva, SuSe, Mepis, Ubuntu -> Debian -> Arch, Gentoo, Slackware -> BSD (Open, Free, Net, DragonFly), Solaris -> pure UNIX (Unixware, HP-UX, 4.4BSD).

This spectrum is purely based on the ease of installation and amount of shell usage. It does not have anything to do with quality. FreeBSD installs are about as easy as arch, so even that won't trouble you.

See also