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 them 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

  • installing linux onto a VMware virtual machine - you do not even need to reboot your computer to start with Linux.
  • dual-booting which means installing Linux with Windows on the same computer.
  • installing Linux to a USB disk and boothing from that USB flash drive.
  • Live CD distributions (also live DVD, live disc) like Knoppix, Ubuntu or Linux Mint that boot from DVD-ROM without you having to install Linux. However, such distributions tend to run more slowly than a fully-installed Linux. Many Live CD distributions can be installed to the hard drive if you choose so.
  • Use Distrotest.net to use most of the distributions online.
  • On Windows, use Windows Subsystem for Linux WSL to use Linux in a Windows environment without virtualization. This method offers command line utilities only.

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!)

You can use Ubuntu or Linux Mint. The latter is much easier, is one of the most user-friendly distributions and saves you a lot of effort.

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 Ubuntu (or Linux Mint), Fedora (non-commercial Red Hat), Freespire or Manjaro, openSUSE. If you can spare the money, it may be worth your while to purchase a commercial version such as Linspire, ElementaryOS or ZorinOS 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) 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).

32-bit or 64-bit?

If you are using a computer that is older than 2007 you have to choose the 32-bit version of the distro you want to install or try. 32-bit distros are also known as x86 or i386. Otherwise, you should use the 64-bit version of the distro whish is also known as x86_64 or x64 . Currently, Debian and Debian-based distros such AntiX Linux, MX Linux or Q4OS offer excellent compatibility with x86 processors.

to check if your processor is compatible with 64-bit distros on Windows, right click on "My Computer" icon the choose "Properties" the look under the "System" title. You will find an entry called "processor" and another one called "System type".

As a general rule, if the memory (RAM) is less than 2 GB you cannot install a 64-bit or x86_64 version of the desired distro.

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 may be suitable.Tiny Core Linux is another option. Slitaz is fast and has small footprint.

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.

Ubuntu is the best distro for games and it has full support for Steam and GOG.com games.

See Games

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, Freespire -> Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Manjaro, Fedora, openMandriva, PCLinuxOS, Mageia, openSUSE -> 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