The first rule of choosing a desktop Linux distribution: User, know thyself

There are literally hundreds of Linux desktop distributions. Here's how to find one that's right for you.

By , ITworld |  Operating Systems, Fedora, Linux

too many penguins

So many penguins, so little time

Image credit: flickr/fDocAC

On a regular basis I use five different Linux different distributions. Over the decades, I've used pretty every much every major Linux distribution out there... and I haven't even touched more than 10% of all available Linux distributions.

If I, who've made something of a career of tracking Linux, can't keep up with all the distros how can you?

Honestly, you can't. No one can.

So how can you find the right Linux for you? This handy, dandy guide will help.

But before I dive into the distributions, let me kill a few myths. First, Linux is not hard to use. You don't need to know how to use cryptic shell commands or be a programmer to use desktop Linux. Anyone, and I mean anyone, can use it.

There are also lots of applications and games you can run on Linux. True, you can't run all of your Windows applications. Although, as it happens, thanks to Wine and Crossover you can run some popular Windows programs on Linux.

But you may find that you don't even need those Windows apps. Linux supports many free applications that can take the place of some of your favorite commercial applications. These include LibreOffice or OpenOffice for Microsoft Office; Evolution for Outlook; and GnuCash for QuickBooks.

And, yes, there are many games for Linux as well. Some are native games and some are based on Steam. Many popular Windows games, such as Guild Wars and World of Warcraft, can also be played on Linux with the aforementioned Wine and Crossover.

That said, here is my list of the best Linux distributions based on how you plan to use it.

1. Just get out of my way and let me at the Web.

Let's say you do pretty much everything you want on the Web. You write with Google Docs, you use Mint for your personal finances, and Gmail for your e-mail. If that's you, then what you want to use is Google's Chrome OS.

Although almost none of its users can tell it, Chrome OS, the operating system behind the popular Chromebook, is based on Gentoo Linux. But then again, that's the point of Chrome OS. It's the operating system that's meant to be invisible.

While you can pry open a Linux shell interface on Chrome OS if you really want to, you'll never need to get to it. Chrome OS uses Google's Chrome Web browser for its interface. And everyone knows how to use a Web browser. Right? Of course, right!

2. I need a real computer but I don't want to learn Linux's nuts and bolts.

If that's you, then Ubuntu is for you. Many old Linux hands don't care for Ubuntu because they find its Unity interface to be shockingly different from the old GNOME 2.x interface.

In addition, they don't like the way Unity gets in the way of directly accessing the system. Fair enough, Unity is not for the experienced Linux expert. But for someone who wants a simple-to-use interface that can quickly master (about 90% of the population), Unity is great.

How easy is Ubuntu with Unity? I got my 79-year old mother-in-law on Ubuntu and we don't even speak the same language. So much for Linux being hard to use.

Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company, also plans on moving Unity to its forthcoming smartphones and tablets. That's because Unity was designed from the start to be a universal interface for PCs and touch devices. Unlike other such attempts, Unity actually works. That's in no small part because Ubuntu has been polishing Unity for several years now.

So, if you want a Linux that a full Linux distribution with the easiest possible learning curve I highly recommend the latest version of Ubuntu.

3. I'm considering switching to Linux from Windows.

Even the most hardcore Windows fans are finally beginning to crack and admit that Windows 8 has been a flop and while Windows 8.1 looks better, it doesn't look that much better. What's a Windows XP or 7 user to do? He or she should turn to Linux Mint. In particular, the version using the Cinnamon interface.

Unlike Chrome OS and Ubuntu Unity, Mint with Cinnamon sticks with the Windows, Icons, Menus, and Pointer (WIMP) interface you've grown to know know and love from years of traditional desktops. It's not a one-to-one match with the XP or Windows 7 Aero interface, but Windows users will find Cinnamon much more familiar than Windows 8's Metro.

Linux users who loved the GNOME 2.x style interface will also love Cinnamon. Another worthwhile alternative for people who are found of GNOME 2.x, and which is also integrated into Mint, is MATE. While Cinnamon rests on the foundation of the GNOME 3.x desktop, MATE is an outright GNOME 2.x fork.

Mint, unlike many distributions, also comes with easy access to proprietary software. Some Linux users hate such programs and hardware drivers, but I've found that in practice they make Linux easier to use.

Personally, I really like Mint with Cinnamon. It's not perfect, but it's about as close as a Linux desktop gets in my experience. While I use lots of Linux distributions, Mint is my current favorite.

4. I want Linux, the pure, hard stuff, no chaser.

I hear you. Then the distribution you want, and the first choice of Linus Torvalds and most Linux kernel developers, is Red Hat's community distribution Fedora.

Fedora is cutting edge Linux so you need to be a little careful lest you nick yourself with it. More so than any of the other distributions this one is meant for expert users. That's not to say it's hard to use, although I do confess that I dislike its default desktop, GNOME 3.8. You can, however, also use the MATE or KDE 4.10 desktops.

Fedora includes many of the newest versions of Linux and open-source programs -- for example, the latest major GCC, Ruby, and PHP releases. It also now includes the MariaDB as its default database management system (DBMS) instead of MySQL. Eventually, Red Hat is expected to move its enterprise server standard DBMS to MariaDB as well. This is one reason why so many programmers like it. Fedora is ready for serious developers.

You don't need to dream in C++ to use Fedora. It also works well for experienced Linux users. But, if you're just coming to Linux, I'd start somewhere else.

5. Yes, I want real Linux, but I want it with KDE, not GNOME, thank you very kindly.

Here I think you have several good choices. These are: PCLinuxOS, Kubuntu and openSUSE. Of this trio, I prefer openSUSE, but they're all worth taking for a test drive.

While I had no fondness for the KDE 4.x interface at first, over the years its developers have improved it and I rather like it now.

In my experience, PCLinuxOS is just a good, solid independent distribution. It's backed by a passionate user community who take the time to help their users.

Kubuntu, just like the name hints at, is the official KDE on Ubuntu desktop. That sounds great, and it is good, but Canonical dropped active support for Kubuntu in early 2012. The distribution has since picked up support from a company named Blue Systems, but it's still as tightly integrated into the Ubuntu world as it once was.

OpenSUSE, like Fedora, has the backing of a major Linux company, SUSE. This is a very solid, reliable Linux distribution. If you want a top Linux you can count on, and that's not quite so much on the bleeding, leading edge as Fedora, openSUSE is an excellent choice.

Still not sure? Just download them and try them. All of them are free, all of them, except Chrome OS, can be installed from a CD, DVD, or USB-stick. What works for me may not work for you, but with these choices I'm pretty darn sure you'll find one that works well for you.

Good luck and happy computing!

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