Getting Started With Linux: Pick The Right Linux Flavour For You

If you've decided to give Linux a go, maybe for the second time, it's time to pick out a system and at least load it onto a "live" USB stick. If you're new to the Linux world, here are the distributions we recommend trying out.

Note: We could publish our own Wikipedia about all the different distributions, or "flavours" in our headline speak, of Linux out there. Instead, we're going to simply make a pitch for four different systems Lifehacker editors have been known to use. You can try out all of them (except Arch, perhaps) from a live CD or USB image you can download from each of their sites. Generally, if you're running a Windows or Mac system, you can right-click on the ISO file downloaded, choose to burn it to disc, and insert that disc before your system next reboots.

Ubuntu: The Go-To Option For Most

Ubuntu is a lot younger, and different, than a lot of Linux disributions. It was founded by a man with a good chunk of money and a dream of making a kind of mainstream Linux: a distribution of, as the tag goes, "Linux for Humans". There are Linux flavours that are lighter on resources, or easier for beginners, or more robust in certain aspects. But Ubuntu is where you can find a distribution designed for usability, supported by a huge community of enthusiasts, and moving forward at a pretty rapid clip.

Because of all that community support and attention, it's where we recommend newcomers start off with Linux. It's the best shot you've got at 100 per cent hardware support, and it's honestly the most Google-able distribution when you want to learn or tweak something.

There are also a host of Ubuntu "variations" you can turn to, if you like Ubuntu's core product but want to try a KDE desktop (Kubuntu), the lower-spec-friendly XFCE (Xubuntu), a flavour-specific to your tiny little computer (Netbook Edition), or many other options.

Linux Mint: Even More Beginner-Friendly

Linux Mint owes more than a little of its core software, and inspiration, to Ubuntu, but it's a successful branch into a more cohesive, and even more beginner-friendly realm. All the stuff you'd expect to find on an OS, like MP3, DVD, and Flash, are included by default, the menu is more Start-like, and the system has a cohesive feel and a lot of smart choices made for newcomers. Blogger Jeff Hoogland makes a richer case for Mint over Ubuntu, and his points are good ones. Mint is a good pick for those tired of playing around with text files (though you're still able to do that, of course).

Fedora: The Solid Alternative

Fedora is the personal desktop offshoot of enterprise Linux firm Red Hat. The team puts out a robust operating system that updates regularly, they incorporate cutting-edge Linux developments at a rapid pace, and they support a variety of hardware, even extending an olive branch to PowerPC users. Using Fedora doesn't feel entirely different from Ubuntu, but one main difference comes in the package installer — the app you use to quickly install apps from the distribution's own servers. Overall, it's a good pick, and really a matter of preference.

Arch Linux: The Starting-from-Scratch Project

Don't try to set up Arch Linux during a lunch break. Do dig into Arch Linux if you want to learn way more about Linux, get a system at just the right size and configuration for your needs, and want a crash course in how to tweak a Linux system for better performance.

Want some detailed guidance on the process? Whitson already showed us a step-by-step Arch installation, ending up with a system he's still digging into today.

As noted, we couldn't possibly cover all the distributions out there, or even give full due to some of the more popular varieties: openSUSE, Debian, Sabayon, and the adorable and teeny-tiny Puppy. No slight intended, but we just don't have as much experience with them. If you think a particular distribution is very friendly to beginners, whether yourself or another first-timer you know, give us the scoop on it in the comments.


Comments

    I love ubuntu, unfortunately i have too many things relying on windows i cannot switch my main over *Sad face*

    I have a dual boot Ubuntu 10.10 x64 (primary) and Windows 7 x64 laptop, and I absolutely love Ubuntu. I do around 99% of my work in linux, and I have VirtualBox set up with a Windows 7 (32 bit) VM for my MS Office apps.

    OpenOffice doesn't really play nicely - it does an OK job at MS Office documents, but can destroy a document's style, hence my reliance on my Windows virtual machine.

    I know Ubuntu is sometimes classified as a soft-core linux distro, but you can't really go past their driver support, community and just the simplicity of everything. Go Ubuntu!

    Michael, Ubuntu is dumping OpenOffice and turning to LibreOffice, and I am using it already: it really is an improvement, with a 100% compatibility to MS Word docs and dealing waaaay much better with XLS files than OpenOffice did.

    As for other Linux flavours, my laptop dual boots Ubuntu and Mandriva, and I really can't understand why every major Linux site or magazine kind of forgets Mandriva. It is quite user-friendly although it needs a bit more work to make it as fully prepared as Ubuntu.

      I couldn't agree more with you about Mandriva. When i started to use Linux I was directed at Ubuntu as probably most of us new to Linux. But then I started to discover Linux more and found out about Mandriva. Not only is it more user friendly (the control panel/control center) they have is absolutely brilliant and the desktop (KDE) also looks much better and is much more modern in functions.

        I couldn't agree more about Mandrake/Mandriva...
        I'm running Mint at the moment, I have no idea why people think it's anything 'good' at all. I don't think I've used a worse distro in the past 10+ years, even the old Suse and Redhat version of yesteryear where better.
        They may have taken a bit more fiddling, but they weren't broken and buggy as hell and none-standard.

    No one ever recommends Debian any more.

    Nonsense. Arch is far to extreme, and the number of packages that are wonky is higher, and AUR is a minefield.
    It's an awesome set of ideas, but between the poor execution of anything outside the base system and the "works for me" community, I would never recommend it as anything but a third/fourth distro to try.

    Debian has a Live image, with an installer, and it's got nearly every package Ubuntu has, and actually gets bug fixes, instead of weird hacks that'll never make it upstream.

      ...nearly every package Ubuntu has, except the important ones.

      The development team of my company switched from Debian to Ubuntu 6 years ago because of Debian's shift to an overly exclusive no-BLOB policy regarding software and drivers. This meant the closed source, but still freely available, firmwares for proprietary serial and Bluetooth devices, not to mention accelerated video drivers for ATI and nVidia video cards, were no longer easy to install and use.

      Despite having gained a "for dummies" reputation in recent years, at the time, Ubuntu suited our need for a Linux platform that was easy to install and maintain, letting us focus on software development using the tools we needed.

    I want to get familiar with the command line in linux for uni (they're using Fedora) but I'd like to install Ubuntu. Are the commands different for each distro or would the commands in Ubuntu be the same as in Fedora?
    I'm a linux virgin as you might have noticed.

      Standard commands for command line don't vary between distros, so there shouldn't be any drama switching.

      While this is mostly true, the one thing to look out for is how packages (programs) are installed and managed. I don't have much experience with Fedora, but I know it uses the Yum package manager, while Ubuntu uses Aptitude. Some Google searches will help you learn how to use both and the key differences.

      I was in your situation about a year ago, diving into the Linux shell is fun! Good luck to you. :)

    I have a old mac book pro that a friend was going to throw out. I took it re installed ios and then triple booted windows 7 and Ubuntu. Mostly using Linux for the speed and safety. I even have Ubuntu running on my Toshiba Thrive via Linux Installer.

Join the discussion!