How do I pick a Linux distribution?

Continuing the discussion from Switching to Linux. How and when to do that:

If you’re looking to potentially dip your toes into the Antarctic waters of Linux, but feel like there are way too many options to choose from, I hope this guide can reduce the complexity for you and give you tips for picking a distro rather than just telling you what to use.

TL;DR: There’s like only four main distros. Everything else is like a remix of one one of those four that people make based on personal preference or ease of use.

Disclaimer: I know I’m oversimplifying.


Why are there so many distros?

First, let’s get a lay of the land. While there are all kind of Linux distros, for the most part they’re all derived from only a handful of mainline distros. Also, many of the features and applications that exist in one distro can be set up in another.

The main four distros you need to know to have perspective are Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, and Arch. Debian, Fedora, and Arch are basically the mainline distros and you will find that most distros you come across will be derived from these. Ubuntu is similarly as popular as these others, but it is derived from Debian.

One distro being “derived” or “based” on another means that the people maintaining that distro are taking the majority of what makes up another distro and making changes or additions on top of that. In the case of Ubuntu, Canonical (the company that maintains Ubuntu) takes Debian and makes it more user-friendly through back-end and user-facing changes. Ubuntu itself is a popular base for other distros to use, such as Pop!_OS and Linux Mint.

As you look for a distro to use, you will find that most of them are based on one of these four distros. With that you can begin to expect certain similarities between them. For example, Debian can use the .deb package format, and so do Ubuntu, Pop!_OS, and Linux Mint because they’re all ultimately derived from Debian. Likewise, all Arch-based distros will likely use the pacman package manager (Manjaro is one exception - it uses pamac).

Almost every other distro you come across will fall nicely into one of these four buckets, but there are some exceptions like openSUSE, Gentoo, and Slackware. If you are new to Linux, it is unlikely you will be recommended to check out any of these or their derivatives.

So what should I look for in a distro?

Hopefully now you see that most Linux distros aren’t actually so different from each other. They’re all like cousins. So what are the main things that set them apart? Basically it’s the apps that come preinstalled, the look and feel, and how much technical knowledge you’re expected to have in the setup process and usage.

Applications

Many user-friendly distros will come with applications preinstalled, but just because they’re not there at the start doesn’t mean you can’t just download what you need. There are many ways to find and download those applications, so for the most part don’t constrain yourself just based on what’s preinstalled. It’s like choosing a Samsung Galaxy or a Google Pixel based on what comes on the phone.

Look and feel

Are you running Windows and don’t like change? Look for a distro that looks like Windows. Are you running a Mac and don’t like change? Find something that feels like macOS. There are many options that can range from being very familiar to very new. I literally recommend to watch some reviews of the distros you’re interested in on YouTube and see what’s out there. You’re shopping around, baby. Have fun with it!

Technical expectations

This is the other side of the coin to ‘look and feel.’ If you’re still new to Linux, I don’t recommend you use something that will have you use commands and such on a regular basis. Some distros, like Arch itself, basically look like hacking to the average person. Others, like Fedora, just require you to follow a few prompts.

When you’re doing that research to pick what kind of distro you want, pay attention to what they say about using the command line or terminal. If it looks easy enough for you, go for it. If it looks scary, go for something that uses that as little as possible if at all.

Pay attention as well to what they say after you’ve installed the distro. For many options, the actual installation will be the most techy you will get because it requires getting into the BIOS and looking at some terminal looking things. Once you’ve installed it, you might go months without running a command unless you need to troubleshoot something. Some distros are more user-friendly in this regard and some are not by design. Just something else to keep an eye on.

Any other tips you got?

YouTube is your best friend. Look up “linux distros for beginners” and watch some of those to see what multiple people recommend are good starting options.

From there, pick the ones that you like the most and watch reviews for them to learn more about what they’re like.

If you’ve narrowed it down to one or a few you want to try, look up videos on how to install those distros. More than likely the same people who gave you beginner friendly recommendations at the start also made step-by-step installation guides for each of those.

If you’ve found a distro you like and that doesn’t have a scary installation, I would watch the installation video once or twice more just to be more familiar with what to do once you actually commit.

The last thing before actually installing the distro is to use the live mode that it likely comes with and check your hardware compatibility. Everything will probably work if you’re using a popular, user-friendly distro because this is the kind of thing they want to make sure works out of the box. If for whatever reason something critical doesn’t work and you can’t troubleshoot it, you may need to go with the next distro on your list. Things to look out for include wifi, monitors, and peripherals like keyboard and mouse.

Gamer Tip: Watch for GPU compatibility specifically. Nvidia has a reputation for not playing nicely with Linux, but some distros like Pop!_OS do a good job of baking that in.

Alright, out with it, what do you recommend?

Aw shucks, you really wanna know? Ok, I recommend Fedora or Pop!_OS. I’ve only been using Linux for about 4 months and those two are the only ones I’ve actually run. Fedora is strong for all the reasons Techlore said. Pop!_OS is in a similar boat but with the added advantage of being based on Ubuntu, meaning that a lot of the documentation you’ll find for Ubuntu will also work for Pop!_OS. Also, both have friendly communities if you have questions!


At this point, you’ve settled on a distro to use, hooray! There are other considerations to make about how to actually install Linux, what the ecosystem is like, what kinds of apps are supported and whatnot, but I leave that to the post that inspired this one on switching to Linux and other resources you find online and on YouTube. :wink:

2 Likes

One tip about look and feel of Linux distros: they usually come with different Grafical user Interfaces.
The two recommendations Fedora and Pop!_OS come normally with a MacOS like User Interface (GNOME)
If you want to something more Windows like, they also have other options :slight_smile:
Fedora for example also offers so called spins, thats basically Fedora but with a different User interface.
The KDE spin of Fedora has a more Windows like User interface :slight_smile: with Pop os I think you need to install the alternative User interface after the OS is installed.

KDE and GNOME are the two biggest Desktop Environments for Linux :slight_smile: one is more Windows like while the other more MacOS like.

Before anyone switched to Linux the most important question I always ask before anything else:
Do you have any Windows Only Programs that you absolutely need because of Work/School/Uni.

If you are gaming and want to switch to Linux I can recommend you the Gaming on Linux website.

2 Likes

Ahem, what about Gentoo?? :smirk:

Actually though I’m a Debian user. Fedora does look really nice and I would be tempted to switch to it except for the fact that I’m just comfortable with debian based distros now after having using them for a couple years. Fedora also has the benefit that for a non-technical person you don’t have to figure out how to disable secure boot like you have to for so many other distros.

I would say that if someone has an nvidia gpu and are switching to Linux for the first time Pop!_OS is a great choice by just handling that aspect for you. But if you’ve been following open source news nvidia is making moves towards making their drivers open source at least for the latest generation and future cards.

Honestly though above looking at distros I think the more important thing to figure out what desktop environment you would want to use, since that is what you will be interacting with more than anything. Then pick based on that. (some distros like Fedora and Manjaro even offer different ones right from base installation) The main ones being Gnome, KDE Plasma, XFCE, and Cinnamon (no actual proper link for that one so just linking to Linux Mint where it is default.) I myself am a Gnome fan but take a look around and see what you like.

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Good catch on the bias in my recommendations! Here is the KDE spin of Fedora for anyone who may want to check it out and would prefer a more Windows-like experience.