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.