Getting Started in the Land of Linux Distros
"I think this actually asks the wrong question," asserted blogger Chris Travers, who works on the LedgerSMB project. "While there are two distros I would recommend -- Fedora and Debian -- I think we pay too much attention to which distro we'd recommend to a beginner and not nearly enough attention to supporting the beginner through learning the new system."
Dec 30, 2013 5:00 AM PT
This story was originally published on Oct. 14, 2013, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.
Well it was a relatively quiet week here in the Linux blogosphere, where all the code is strong and the UIs good-looking.
When times are good, where do most Linux bloggers' thoughts turn? That's right: polls. There's nothing like a good Linux poll to make a good life even better.
'Always That Niggling Question'
"We often introduce new people to Linux, and there's always that niggling question, what distro to start someone on," began the ever-insightful crew over at TuxRadar. "Not so long ago, the answer seemed obvious: Ubuntu. However that's falling from grace at the moment."
So, "what's the best distro for beginners?" was the team's question in a recent Open Ballot poll.
Down at the blogosphere's seedy Punchy Penguin Saloon, FOSS fans have taken great delight in sharing their thoughts.
'Fedora or openSUSE for Some'
"Since Unity, I've been suggesting Mint for beginners," began consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack, for example.
Similarly, "there was a time a few years ago when I would have given one single answer: Ubuntu," offered Google+ blogger Brett Legree. "However, I would not automatically suggest Ubuntu today.
"I would actually spend a bit of time with the potential new user and ask a variety of questions, to gauge the person's level of technical expertise, willingness/desire to learn (and read manuals!), desired outcomes and usage patterns, and type of hardware being used," Legree explained.
"Ubuntu might end up being the final choice, but I might also be as likely to suggest Fedora or openSUSE for some kinds of people, or Debian, Slackware, Arch or Gentoo for other people," he added. "Perhaps Linux might not actually be what the person needs at all, and I might suggest FreeBSD or OpenBSD or one of the other BSDs.
"There are many different distros, and every computer user is unique, with different skills, hardware, and desired outcomes," he concluded.
'Easy to Pick Up and Use'
On the other hand: "I know that Ubuntu isn't the 'cool' distro anymore, but for a beginner's system, I still have to go with it," opined Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone.
"It's always tempting to go with a distro that closely mimics that OTHER OS, but I think that one of the biggest problems people have with Linux is that they expect it to BE Windows," Stone explained. "An interface that differs from Redmond's offering helps to reinforce the idea that they're not in Kansas anymore (and that is a very good thing).
"Ubuntu offers an environment that is sufficiently different than Windows but still easy to pick up and use," he concluded.
'The Universal Operating System'
Blogger Robert Pogson took a different view.
"Obviously the answer is Debian GNU/Linux," Pogson told Linux Girl. 'It has all the flexibility and performance ~37000 packages of Free Software will allow and none of the baggage top-down management incurs in other distros controlled by tyrants, benevolent or not.
"With Debian GNU/Linux, a newbie can be running smoothly on Day One and still have room to grow physically and spiritually for decades," he added.
"Other distros have the 'vision' of some tyrant or small group of tyrants which may fill some niche or other," Pogson explained. "Debian GNU/Linux on the other hand is the 'universal operating system' because that was the goal from the beginning and the diversity of the organization makes that happen. Further, Debian is entirely committed to Free Software which empowers the user, not the distributor."
'My Bread and Butter'
Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol, a contributor to the PCLinuxOS project, had yet a different view.
"Oh, well, I'm biased," Ebersol began: "The best newbie distro is PCLinuxOS, hands down."
Of course, "I've been using it since 2009," he said. "It's my bread and butter.
"Then again, it's a very personal matter," Ebersol admitted. "Some may have had terrible experiences with this or that other distro. So, my vote is PCLOS, but, use what you like better."
'I Would Recommend Ubuntu'
Indeed, "this is trickier than it may first seem," observed Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien. "The question is whether we mean someone who is experience with computers, just new to Linux, or whether we mean someone with very little computer knowledge.
"For someone with a lot of Windows experience who wants to try Linux I would look for a KDE distro, and right now openSUSE looks to me like the most polished KDE distro," O'Brien suggested. "I think KDE works a lot like Windows and looks a lot like Windows, so it make for an easy transfer of knowledge from one domain to another."
For someone with minimal computer experience, on the other hand, "I would recommend Ubuntu," he added. "I know a lot of Linux folks have turned against Ubuntu of late, but I think that is because it is different from what they are used to. I think for someone with no preconceptions of how a computer should works, Ubuntu with the Unity desktop is an excellent experience."
'What Is a Beginner?'
It is a difficult question, Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. agreed.
"What is a beginner?" he mused. "If it is a person with the will to learn, any GNU/Linux distribution is usable and the person can learn how to do things in a couple of days. If it is someone coming from MacOS or m$Windows, perhaps some distributions with a desktop environment 'less different' is the best."
Gonzalo Velasco C.'s own suggestions? "I would recommend: first, a distro with KDE or Xfce, also LXDE and Cinnamon since a proper menu is the easiest way to find applications; some dock is pretty, but not mandatory," he explained. "Second, a distro with a good and easy application to install / uninstall packages; and third, an update manager easy to handle."
'Provide Personable Support'
"I think this actually asks the wrong question," Travers asserted. "While there are two distros I would recommend (Fedora and Debian) because they develop long-term skills useful in the Linux world (Fedora as a gateway to Red Hat, Debian as a large ecosystem in itself), I think we pay too much attention to which distro we'd recommend to a beginner and not nearly enough attention to supporting the beginner through learning the new system.
"Setting everything up so that beginners can start getting work done right away and feel comfortable exploring the system is key," he explained. "This can be done using any desktop environment, any distro, etc., but it takes listening to the beginner, helping them take the first steps and supporting them through the transition."
Linux "is not yet (and may never be) at the point where we can just recommend a distro and forget about the beginner," Travers concluded. "What we can, and must, do is provide personable support to help people become productive on the new system."
'Fedora or Ubuntu GNOME'
Last but not least, Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor, also focused on the bigger picture.
"The only thing that has stagnated worse than Microsoft is the desktop Linux distro," Lim told Linux Girl. "Linux distributions have improved immensely under the hood, but the most common desktop environments either took their inspiration from Windows 95 or the Mac OS UI.
"Start menus are relics from the past," Lim went on. "Apps like LibreOffice are alien territory for iOS and Android users. Steer them to the favorite distributions of the Linux die-hard, and it will like taking them to a trip back in time (and straight to the nearest Apple store)."
The one silver lining in the situation is "the much-derided GNOME 3 shell," Lim said. "It is the only forward-looking Linux desktop. GNOME 3's app launcher will be familiar to the Android set and the multitasking interface follows current trends."
So, Lim's distro suggestion for beginners?
"Based on these considerations, I am inclined to go with Fedora 19 or Ubuntu GNOME 13.10," he concluded. "Really, for the Linux desktop and its app ecosystem, it is time to move forward or die."