While not quite as simple to install as some of the other distributions on the list, openSUSE is quite user friendly. This distribution includes YaST (Yet another Setup Tool) to make installing applications a breeze. The user interface also gets a boost from Slab, a polished Windows Vista-like start menu. openSUSE puts an emphasis on hardware support and ease of use, making typically troublesome tasks like setting up a multi-monitor system less awkward. OpenSUSE is also part of the SMOLT driver project—when you install it, you can opt in to participate in a hardware survey to help continue the growth of Linux and foster support for new hardware.
Ubuntu / Debian / Linux Mint
Purists might complain that we’ve opted to group Ubuntu, Debian, and Linux Mint together, but compared to the other top nominees, they have more in common than not. Ubuntu is based on Debian, and Linux Mint in turn on Ubuntu. That said, they have distinctive appeals. Ubuntu currently has the largest share of the Linux user base, thanks in large part to a user-friendly installation, a desktop designed to accomodate first-timers, and a rigorous new released schedule. Ubuntu also comes bundled with an extensive set of open-source software to cover the needs of first-time switchers, but also includes only truly free software in its default installation, winning fans on both sides of the open-source aisle. Debian may not come pre-packed with as many applications, but users can easily retrieve over 25,000 applications from Debian, third-party repositories, and sites like GetDeb.net. Linux Mint shares much of its lineage with Ubuntu, but aims for a clean, green-themed, mostly new look. The distribution has a strong focus on immediate functionality, with a larger driver set included at first installation. It also includes Mint Tools, a set of configuration apps and wizards that strive to make configuring and managing Linux as painless as possible.
If you’re looking for an influential endorsement for a Linux distribution, you won’t find one much better than being the distribution of choice for Linus Torvalds, the father of Linux. Fedora came into being in 2003 as a spin-off of Red Hat Linux’s free personal distribution, when the latter was discontinued. Although technically a younger distribution, it’s a seasoned and solid Linux release with a strong corporate backing and user following. Fedora comes in a variety of “spins,” tailored with different apps and functionality, so you can get more of what you want without having to hunt it all down.
Arch Linux is a lightweight Linux distribution which strives to “Keep It Simple”. It’s definitely not a Linux distribution for novices, as it installs with just a bash command prompt and no GUI desktop—the screenshot here shows Arch Linux with a basic KDE desktop installed. You get a pretty lean, spartan system at first, but it can be quickly built onto using the Pacman package manager. There’s an extensive list comparing Arch to other distributions in the distro’s wiki, and it’s definitely worth a look if you’re trying to decide whether Arch is for you.
Gentoo Linux starts you off with even less than Arch, as you essentially build your system from scratch during the initial install. Sure, you can download a totally pre-packed version and even a live CD, but the traditional way to install Gentoo is to compile a unique configuration specific to your hardware and software needs right from the start. There are tons of choices and options during installation, but they’re pretty clearly explained. Some readers noted that, although they started with other distributions of Linux, it wasn’t until they started using Gentoo that they really got their hands dirty and learned how Linux really runs.
If you have something to add, sound off in the comments below to share your Linux experience.