Credit: Eduardo Quagliato via Flickr/ Creative Commons
Dabbling for the first time in Linux starts with choosing a Linux distribution. A typical "Linux" system is built up of software from many different open-source projects, including the Linux kernel. Linux distributions--or "distros"--are the projects that package all this software into an easily installable, usable operating system.
Trying a Linux distribution is extremely easy. You just need to copy it to a USB drive and reboot your computer. You don't need to install anything or tamper with your current system at all. (If you have a Windows 8 computer, you may need to disable Secure Boot before you can boot a Linux system.)
Ubuntu is a great place to start
Ubuntu is probably the most widely recommended Linux distribution for new users, and for good reason. This Linux distribution provides an easy, simple installer and a fairly user-friendly desktop in Unity. Unity differs a little from a traditional Windows desktop, but it shouldn't be too hard to wrap your head around.
This Linux distribution isn't as ideological about free software as some distros are. With just a single click during the install process, you can have Ubuntu automatically install the Flash plug-in and various codecs. After the installation, there's a single "Additional Drivers" tool that tells you exactly which closed-source hardware drivers are necessary for getting your hardware work properly and lets you install them with a click or two. This additional software is a hassle to get on some other Linux distributions, and installing it isn't always officially supported.
Go with the "long term service"--or LTS--release and you'll have an Ubuntu system that's supported with security updates for five solid years. These LTS releases also receive hardware support upgrades and some other significant software updates, allowing you to install Linux once and use your system for years. You don't have to upgrade to a new version every single year to stay current, as you would if you were using a faster-moving Linux distro like Fedora.
Ubuntu's popularity means there is a huge amount of software available for it in its software repositories and even in PPAs, if you end up needing something more bleeding-edge. There's also a huge amount of documentation available online, so if you run into a problem, you can probably perform a web search and find someone else who's already had and solved the same issue.
Linux Mint is very popular, too
There's no denying Linux Mint's popularity. Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, so you get the same Ubuntu base system, but it's also its own project. Ubuntu seems more popular in the wild, but Linux Mint often feels more popular among vocal Linux desktop users online.
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