Return to Level1Techs.com

So you're looking for a Linux Distro?

guide
tutorial
megaguide
#1

Given the recent influx of threads requesting advice on a distro, I thought I’d write some advice here in a sort of how-to/guide. Anyways, on to the guide:


So you’re new huh?

Welcome! You’re in for a wild ride.

The first thing most curious newbies ask is “which distro should I choose?” or “what’s a distro?”, so let’s address the second, before we address the first.

What is a Distribution?

The OS we know as Linux is, in fact, not just Linux. Linux is actually just the kernel. There are hundreds, if not thousands of small tools that run on top of the kernel that provide a complete desktop experience for an end user. This is due to something known as Unix philosophy. Without going into too much detail, Unix philosophy states the following: A software tool should do one task and do it well. This means that, yes, there is a bit of work that needs to be duplicated, but we get, overall, a better component.

Of course, this provides a big hurdle for users. How could I possibly install and configure thousands of packages in a reasonable amount of time? That’s where Distributions come in. Linux Distributions came about as a way to share the outcome of the work that goes into building a stable Desktop experience. A group of people got together and started packaging tools and providing them in an organized manner. They then built tools called package managers, to help get a handle on the hundreds of installed packages in a system. All this goes into what’s known today as a Distribution.


Which distribution should I choose?

This is a hard question to answer. Each person has different preferences and needs, and not all distributions are created equal. Different distributions cater to different user preferences. In this section, I’ll provide some questions and resources to help you find a distro that’s right for you.

First, let’s talk about stability. You obviously want to choose a Distro that provides stability. What defines stability though? That can sometimes be hard to measure.

I would consider the following to be hallmarks of stability. That said, your distro of choice doesn’t need to meet all of these requirements:

Sizeable user-base

Having a large userbase will help keep a fresh supply of developers and experienced users to support the project.

Age

A new distro is always welcome, but if it’s peace of mind you’re looking for, the old guard is sometimes a safer bet. You know the developers, who have already committed a decade of their life to this, are probably in it for the long haul.

Stability in leadership

Any distro that has a unified mission statement and a consistent goal can be considered stable. If there is a lot of leadership turnover or a fluctuating mission, these can be signs of instability. Why? Because leadership turnover indicates bigger problems with the project. Leaders are not quitters, so when one leaves, that signals something is wrong.

I’m sure there are more marks I’m missing, so please feel free to make suggestions below.


Let’s look at a few examples

I’m going to give a short overview of each “mainstream” Linux Distro. At the end of each distro’s section, I’ll give it a score.

Arch

Arch is a bleeding-edge, rolling release distro. It takes a hands-off approach at opinionated defaults and pre-installed packages. This means that when you install it, it doesn’t come with much. Additionally, there is no official installer. You have to manually configure your system by partitioning your storage, installing the base packages, configuring users and installing the bootloader.

An Arch install is not for the feint of heart. While it’s not the most time consuming or difficult installation experience that’s made it on this list, it’s definitely not a graceful first experience for new users.

Arch has targeted a “power users” audience who know a lot about the Linux ecosystem and know what they want on their systems.

The best thing about arch is probably the ArchWiki, which provides good top-level documentation for nearly every program available in the official repositories.

Arch was created in (check date), and given the fairly large community of tech-savvy users, we can expect it to remain a staple of the Linux ecosystem for years to come.

Kernel or modules include proprietary blobs for hardware enablement

Scoring Category score Max
Beginner Friendliness 2 10
Overall User Friendliness 6 10
Help Resources 10 10
Opinionated 7 10
Community Size 6 10
Elegance 1 10
Age 4 5
Lightweight 8 10
Stability 7 10
Overall Score 51 85

CentOS

CentOS is the community-maintained distribution that aims to be binary compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. As such, it’s a bit more “stable” and “stale” meaning users running this distro won’t receive new versions quite as quickly as other distributions.

Kernel or modules include proprietary blobs for hardware enablement

Scoring Category score Max
Beginner Friendliness 5 10
Overall User Friendliness 7 10
Help Resources 6 10
Opinionated 2 10
Community Size 8 10
Elegance 4 10
Age 5 5
Lightweight 3 10
Stability 10 10
Overall Score 52 85

Debian

Debian is the grandfather of many of the distributions on this list. First released in September of 1993, Debian is the oldest distribution that made the list.

Debian is a stable, lumbering, beast of an operating system. You choose Debian because you want something that just works, has painless upgrades and is supported for the next decade.

Debian has an easy to use and user-friendly install experience and is a staple of the Linux ecosystem.

Debian is never a bad choice.

Scoring Category score Max
Beginner Friendliness 6 10
Overall User Friendliness 6 10
Help Resources 8 10
Opinionated 7 10
Community Size 8 10
Elegance 5 10
Age 6 5
Lightweight 4 10
Stability 9 10
Overall Score 59 85

Elementary

Elementary is a fork of Ubuntu that aims for peak elegance and user-friendliness. This distribution has spent a long time honing its craft and its done a good job at it.

It uses its home-grown Pantheon desktop environment and strives for a somewhat Mac-like feel to the desktop.

Elementary was forked from Ubuntu a few years ago, and we can see from the development history that Elementary has good leadership and a consistent mission statement.

Kernel or modules include proprietary blobs for hardware enablement

Scoring Category score Max
Beginner Friendliness 9 10
Overall User Friendliness 8 10
Help Resources 7 10
Opinionated 4 10
Community Size 7 10
Elegance 10 10
Age 2 5
Lightweight 5 10
Stability 8 10
Overall Score 60 85

Fedora

Fedora is the RedHat Testing project. However, that doesn’t make it unstable. RedHat intends Fedora to be a stable, up-to-date, fully-featured desktop environment. Fedora has a number of “spins” that feature different desktop environments, and is mostly compatible with RedHat and CentOS.

Kernel or modules include proprietary blobs for hardware enablement

Scoring Category score Max
Beginner Friendliness 6 10
Overall User Friendliness 7 10
Help Resources 7 10
Opinionated 6 10
Community Size 8 10
Elegance 6 10
Age 5 5
Lightweight 6 10
Stability 9 10
Overall Score 60 85

Gentoo

Gentoo is one of the oldest distros on this list, with the initial release in 2000 and has a lot of similarities to Arch. (Gentoo and Arch users are screaming at the page right now) Gentoo is a minimalist distribution which prioritizes user choice and makes use of the unique portage package manager that draws inspiration from BSD’s ports system.

Gentoo can be a very highly-optimized distribution, because you have the option to compile every package you install on your system from source. While this can be time (and CPU) consuming, it does provide significant benefits to both user preferences and system optimization.

Scoring Category score Max
Beginner Friendliness 0 10
Overall User Friendliness 5 10
Help Resources 8 10
Opinionated 9 10
Community Size 5 10
Elegance 6 10
Age 5 5
Lightweight 7 10
Stability 8 10
Overall Score 53 85

Manjaro

Manjaro started off as a fork of Arch, in 2011, but separated as the project grew in audience and scope.

Manjaro aims to provide the same level of user choice, in a more user-friendly package. Unlike Arch, manjaro includes an installer for many different choices of desktop environment and os configuration.

Kernel or modules include proprietary blobs for hardware enablement

Scoring Category score Max
Beginner Friendliness 4 10
Overall User Friendliness 7 10
Help Resources 8 10
Opinionated 4 10
Community Size 6 10
Elegance 6 10
Age 3 5
Lightweight 6 10
Stability 6 10
Overall Score 50 85

Mint

Linux Mint, or just Mint, is a distribution that was forked from Ubuntu and Debian. It originated in 2006 as a fork of Ubuntu and expanded from there as it gained traction.

Linux Mint provdes a number of different officially supported desktop environments based on different LiveCDs, giving the user a lot of choice.

Being based off Ubuntu or Debian (depending the edition) allows the user access to a giant selection of packages that are compatible with their OS.

Kernel or modules include proprietary blobs for hardware enablement

Scoring Category score Max
Beginner Friendliness 6 10
Overall User Friendliness 7 10
Help Resources 8 10
Opinionated 6 10
Community Size 7 10
Elegance 5 10
Age 4 5
Lightweight 5 10
Stability 8 10
Overall Score 56 85

RedHat

RedHat is the Big Swinging Dick of the enterprise world. RedHat somehow managed to build a company off of selling a free operating system.

It’s an extremely solid distro and nothing can really compare to it in terms of stability or support.

RedHat has been around since 1995 and has been ruling the enterprise space ever since.

It’s probably not the best option for a new user due to the maintenance cost (licensing fees), but it’s an option.

Kernel or modules include proprietary blobs for hardware enablement

Scoring Category score Max
Beginner Friendliness 5 10
Overall User Friendliness 7 10
Help Resources 10 10
Opinionated 4 10
Community Size 10 10
Elegance 4 10
Age 5 5
Lightweight 4 10
Stability 8 10
Overall Score 57 85

SUSE

SUSE Linux is another enterprise distribution. It’s the Android to iOS, the HP to Dell, the Dodge to Ford.

SUSE is known for it’s YaST configuration tool, which is second to none in terms of functionality and reliability.

Kernel or modules include proprietary blobs for hardware enablement

Scoring Category score Max
Beginner Friendliness 6 10
Overall User Friendliness 6 10
Help Resources 8 10
Opinionated 4 10
Community Size 4 10
Elegance 4 10
Age 5 5
Lightweight 6 10
Stability 8 10
Overall Score 51 85

Solus

Solus is a relative newcomer to the Linux space, with it’s first release in December of 2015. Solus has been the subject of much fanfare ever since it’s first release. Solus built a fast, beautiful and lightweight desktop OS, from the ground up.

However, Solus has seen a recent shakeup with the sudden exodus of it’s primary developer and visionary, and the subsequent loss of many of their backend infrastructure. Solus has recovered quickly, but the recent shakeup has left many questioning the project’s solvency.

Solus is, without a doubt, an excellent project, bringing new levels of performance to Linux by implementing Heavy optimizations in many core packages, to eek out every last bit of performance possible.

Kernel or modules include proprietary blobs for hardware enablement

Scoring Category score Max
Beginner Friendliness 7 10
Overall User Friendliness 6 10
Help Resources 4 10
Opinionated 1 10
Community Size 3 10
Elegance 9 10
Age 1 5
Lightweight 7 10
Stability 3 10
Overall Score 42 85

Ubuntu

Ubuntu is another staple of the Linux ecosystem. Ubuntu was launched in 2004, based off of Debian.

Ubuntu is a generally solid distro that provides the user with a giant package ecossytem and a large support community.

Kernel or modules include proprietary blobs for hardware enablement

Scoring Category score Max
Beginner Friendliness 7 10
Overall User Friendliness 7 10
Help Resources 9 10
Opinionated 5 10
Community Size 9 10
Elegance 5 10
Age 4 5
Lightweight 5 10
Stability 8 10
Overall Score 59 85

Where to go from here?

Use the resources above to choose a distro, make the LiveUSB and get after it!

The Level1 Forum is here to help you. If you have a minor question, the Small Linux Problem Thread is probably the best place to post. If you have a larger issue, an individual thread with the #helpdesk tag is the best way to go.

If you’re up for more reading, check out @wolfleben’s Linux Distro Guide


META

TODO

  • :x: Evaluate and Add Mx Linux
  • :x: Evaluate and Add Clear Linux
  • :x: Evaluate and Add LXLE
  • :x: Evaluate and Add Linux Lite
  • :x: Evaluate and Add Deepin
  • :x: Evaluate and Add Netrunner
  • :x: Add descriptive sections to explain stability, age, purposes, lightweightness, etc…
  • :x: Evaluate adding a “respects your freedom” judgement parameter.
  • :ballot_box_with_check: : add a “ships with proprietary blobs” flag.

Changelog

3/27/19 - Initial Release

First public release, initial structure, enough details to get people going.

3/27/19 - Add Link to Linux Distro Guide

5/24/19 - Work through a couple of todos.

28 Likes

Picking a distro for my Intel nuc
Server build, in progress, help with OS
pinned #2
0 Likes

#3

What do you mean by this?

Is that necessary if you’ve reviewed ubuntu?

Maybe have a distinct section on OpenSUSE Tumbleweed outside of SUSE, similar to how Fedora and CentOS are distinct.

0 Likes

#4

Good question. I wanted to review Mate separately because it’s got a focus on being lightweight and newbie friendly.

Will do.

I was going to add a blurb tomorrow for this, but essentially, this meant how likely the distro maintainers are to make decisions that close doors for user choice.

Higher score means there’s more user choice. I should probably change it to user choice or user freedom, but I think user freedom would confuse people about it being more libre.

0 Likes

#5

Maybe that be more at home in a DE focused guide?

What method do you use to arrive at that conclusion?

0 Likes

#6

Maybe.

I looked at the way etc is configured, in some instances, and what tools they’re using for core system components and what tools they package with the system, etc…

Like Arch, for example, if you install base, it’s just enough to get a basic system with a shell, text editor and package manager. ranks high in user choice.

Fedora, ships with Gnome, so that means systemd is required. also runs wayland by default, so that means some software packages don’t quite work properly. Low in user choice.

1 Like

#7

It seems to me that by that logic Gentoo would be higher in user freedom, as they force nothing on the user at all.
When it comes to init, device manager, and session tracker; the user is the one who makes the call on all of these.

User choice or system flexibility would maybe be better names for the category.

2 Likes

#8

Community friendliness score would be nice.

0 Likes

#9

You’re right on both counts. I’ve updated it to a 9/10.

2 Likes

#10

Okay, can you suggest some judgement criteria? I’m not sure how we’d judge it.

1 Like

#11

I don’t really like the idea of this, since everyone will have had differing experiences

0 Likes

#12

But in general

0 Likes

#13

I’m not trying to bitch, I think this is a cool idea, but how did mint get a lower beginner friendliness than ubuntu?

I like the scoring idea because a lot of times people want to know where to start but the information given to them is often overwhelming or they don’t understand why someone is recommending something.

1 Like

#14

I’ve had a rough time with arch people in the past, but I don’t want to hold that against arch itself

0 Likes

#15

I think user freedom would confuse people about it being more libre.

Personally, I consider that a part of user choice, not in contrast to it. Part of the reason I like Gentoo and Debian so much is because they have those capabilities baked in.

Debian at the repo level, Gentoo at the USE flag level.

If you want to avoid confusion on that, it wouldn’t hurt to make libre-friendly an explicit category.

Like Arch, for example […] Fedora, ships with Gnome, so that means systemd is required.

I’m not going on a systemd rant here, but I think your assement criteria are flawed there. Systemd is part of arch-base, init-freedom projects within Arch have died, and the developers have expressed that they have no interest in changing that.

Also, Fedora has multiple spins with different desktop environments. All of them use systemd (just as all officially supported Arch systems do).

With the possible exception of pointing out distros that explicitly support init-freedom, I think systemd should be ignored. Distros that don’t expect it are in the minority, and I think it should be considered a feature of those distros, rather than a hit against user freedom.

And I say that as someone who hates that systemd has become the norm. My hunch is that people who have strong opinions on systemd’s presense in a distro aren’t shopping around for generic distros in the first place.

It’s useful info, but not so useful it should skew the normalization of the rest of them, I think.

1 Like

#16

Good point.

I was trying to keep it to more objective things that can be quantified in numbers. like age. you can look at wikipedia to get the first stable release date. Community size. Just look at forum/distrowatch stats.

1 Like

#17

Slackware: 7/5

2 Likes

#18

That’s a fair question. I rated mint lower because of the history it’s had with having fucked up packages. That ruins the beginner-friendliness to me. When apt locks because there’s a problem that you need to do advanced stuff with dpkg for, it’s not beginner friendly. Notice that there is only a difference of one.

That’s why I did this. I wanted people to just be able to compare numbers.

And I tried to be as objective as possible.

I agree. I just ranked user friendliness on a scale of “how hard does it fight you, regardless of libre or not”

I think we could add a Respects Your Freedom score.

Oh, my bad. I guess that’s down to Gentoo now, huh. :confused:

Okay, that’s fair. I haven’t really followed the systemd war, I just looked at it after the initial hiccups and found that I don’t notice any more difficulties with it.

I think that’s an excellent point. I’ll have to rejigger that entire category when I get some time.


I want to make it clear that I put this together very quickly, so any suggestions for edits and improvements will be evaluated and implemented as needed. I’m not perfect, but I strive to make these projects as close to that as possible.

1 Like

#19

Basically, yeah.

0 Likes

#20

I can’t say I’ve run into this personally. I’ve had more problems with Ubuntu as of late… But I am a sample size of 1. I trust that you know more than I do about it.

I give this wiki a perfect score of 5/7

1 Like