This story was originally published on Oct. 23, 2009, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.
With more than 200 Linux distributions currently listed at Linux Online, it’s perhaps an understatement to say that newcomers to the field face a broad array of choices.
In addition to considering their own goals for Linux, however, potential users may also need to take other factors into account.
Hardware considerations are often foremost among them.
“If you plan to run Linux on the sparc64 architecture,” for instance, “I think there’s only a small handful of distros that even support it, including Debian, Gentoo and Ubuntu,” Michael Stutz, author of the Linux Cookbook, told LinuxInsider. “So that narrows it from the beginning.”
For resource-limited desktop systems, “I’d consider a distro like XUbuntu, Debian XFCE edition or Zenwalk,” suggested William von Hagen, author of Linux and open source books such as The Ubuntu Bible and The Definitive Guide to GCC. “These all use the XFCE desktop environment, which is lighter-weight than GNOME [or] KDE but still quite powerful.”
For older laptops, von Hagen recommends distros like Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux.
“Puppy is very cool, but its desktop and applications are very different than anything you’ll see elsewhere,” he noted.
Getting Better All the Time
For netbooks, “I’d go with a netbook version of one of the standard desktop distribs,” von Hagen told LinuxInsider. “The best-known are Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR), which I use and really like on my netbook; Easy Peasy, another Ubuntu-based distro; and eeebuntu, which is customized for the Asus EeePC, but should work fine on similar systems.”
Some Linux versions, such as Puppy Linux and Xubuntu, “are designed to run on older processors and less memory, so this may be a good starting point,” 451 Group analyst Jay Lyman noted.
“A more modern machine means you have greater choice in matching a distribution to your hardware, and hardware support — including printers, cameras, etc. — has vastly improved at the kernel level, but this is another place to pick among different distributions,” Lyman told LinuxInsider.
Keep It Simple
“If you have a media card reader, remote control or other hardware functionality, you may want to research which distributions of Linux have worked and which haven’t,” he added. “It may require some tweaking, so look for the easiest, repeated tweaks.”
Whether a computer has a CD drive, meanwhile, can also make a difference, since those without — such as some netbooks — “require more effort to get going,” Eric Foster-Johnson, author and coauthor of more than 20 books, including Beginning Shell Scripting and the Red Hat RPM Guide, told LinuxInsider.
Users who already have Linux at work may want to make their own desktop choices accordingly.
What’s at Work?
For instance, “if a person has Linux at work, commonly as a server, I’d suggestFedora, since — at least in the U.S. — the work Linux will likely be Red Hat or a variant such as CentOS,” Foster-Johnson said.
Similarly, “if you’re using Red Hat at work, you might want to use CentOS to work in an identical environment, or use Fedora for a glimpse of the future,” von Hagen suggested.
On the other hand, “if you’re using SUSE, then OpenSUSE is probably a good selection,” he noted. “If you’re already familiar with GNOME, you probably want to choose between Debian, Fedora, OpenSUSE or Ubuntu.”
Just One Glitch
Then, too, there’s installation to consider.
“Even though most Linux distributions are very easy to install, all it takes is one glitch to frustrate an inexperienced user,” noted Carla Schroder, managing editor for Linux Today and LinuxPlanet and author of books including the Linux Cookbook and the Linux Networking Cookbook.
Some installation tasks, such as partitioning a hard drive, are not easy for newcomers, she noted.
“These days, I recommend that a new Linux user look for a good preinstalled Linux — System76, Zareason and Dell all offer a good range of netbooks, laptops, PCs and servers for competitive prices,” Schroder told LinuxInsider. “Then they can start using it immediately and get familiar with it.”
Clickin’ and Cussin’
For those not ready to buy a new PC, “most distributions have an automatic partitioning option during installation: Just pop in the disk and in 30 minutes or less, you have a working system,” Schroder said.
Despite the popularity of LiveCD Linuxes, “I think that live USB Linuxes give a better experience,” Schroder added. “They’re as fast as a hard-drive install and very portable. Users often don’t even have to mess with BIOS settings to enable USB boot — usually there is an option key, like F11 or F12, that brings up a menu for selecting the boot device.”
Finally, “I know that actually reading documentation is unpopular in this click-and-cuss era, but Ubuntu For Non-Geeks, 3rd Edition is my first choice for a great book for beginners,” Schroder said. “Get the book, get Ubuntu, and avoid a lot of frustration.”
Even so: “As a quick comparison, it took four times as long to get Windows Vista to create restore DVDs for a new PC than it did to install Linux on the same PC,” Foster-Johnson noted.
Your Geek Friend
Finally, another important consideration when choosing a Linux distro is support — and for that, friends and the community are bound to play a key role.
“If a newcomer has a friend that uses a particular distribution, I’d recommend that one — since the newcomer is more likely to get support that way,” Foster-Johnson suggested.
Then, of course, there’s the community.
“From the fanboy — flamethrower at the ready — to the wise sage passing on the ancient lore of the hackers, Linux is all about people,” Debian GNU /Linux developer Jaldhar Vyas told LinuxInsider. “Sure, there’s some nice software too, but our true killer app is our community.”
Newcomers should be sure to “observe it in its natural habitat: forums, IRC channels and wikis,” Vyas stressed. “Learn from it — and be sure to pass on what you’ve learned to those who are even bigger newbies than you.”
Each distro has a slightly different culture, he added: “Some cater to the business crowd, some have a more technical clientele, some are very political. Their communities reflect all this.”
Your Comfort Level
So, when choosing a distro, “ask yourself how comfortable you are with its ethos and its community,” Vyas suggested. “Does it give you the kind of support that you feel you need?
“In my experience, these factors have a bigger impact on whether novices stick with a distro — or with Linux altogether — than the particular versions of software packages they contain,” he said.
Of course, in the end, there are always more distros at the ready, should a user decide to try something else.
“Linux is flexible, and applications and even actual distributions are more easily UNinstalled,” 451 Group’s Lyman pointed out. “So, if a user doesn’t much care for one version, there are plenty of others to try.”