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The best Linux distributions for beginners

Chris Hoffman | July 16, 2015
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.

Linux Mint is focused on the traditional desktop. Both its Cinnamon and MATE desktops are more traditional interfaces that will probably be a bit more familiar to users leaving Windows than Ubuntu would. Linux Mint is also relentlessly focused on improving the desktop of today, while the Ubuntu project is working on a smartphone operating system, creating new software package formats, and entirely rewriting the Unity desktop for phone-PC convergence.

Give Linux Mint a try if you find Linux appealing but you're not a fan of Ubuntu's Unity desktop. Luckily, it's easy to try both Ubuntu and Linux Mint without installing anything on your computer.

Lubuntu can give older computers new life

If you have a significantly older computer with less RAM and a slower CPU, you may want to skip the main Ubuntu desktop and use something more lightweight. Lubuntu is an Ubuntu base system with the Lxde desktop, which is much more lightweight. Lubuntu inherits all of Ubuntu's perks--it just has a different desktop environment.

The Lubuntu project says Lubuntu should run fairly well with 512MB of RAM, though you'll want 1GB for more demanding, modern websites. Ubuntu with the Unity desktop would likely struggle with such a low amount of available memory.

Lubuntu isn't the only version of Ubuntu with a different desktop you can try. Ubuntu offers a number of other "flavors," too.

But what about Fedora, Debian, Arch, and others?

There are many other Linux distros out there--hundreds, actually. Here are a few you may have already heard of. These are all great Linux distros, but they aren't the best place for most new users to start for one reason or another.

Fedora is popular, and it's a great project. Unlike many other Linux distributions, Fedora works with a lot of "upstream" projects and doesn't excessively customize them. The Fedora project is a platform for all the latest technologies going on in Linux-land and helps push the entire Linux ecosystem forward.

However, common software like multimedia codecs and closed-source hardware drivers aren't supported on Fedora, which has a laser-like focus on free software. You'll have to get this unapproved software from a third-party, which can be very daunting for a new user. Fedora is also very fast-moving, with every release of Fedora supported for only 13 months. You'll have to upgrade to new versions of this Linux distro much more often to continue getting security updates.

Debian is solid and stable--it actually forms the basis for much of the software that ends up in Ubuntu. It's been said that Ubuntu's biggest accomplishment was taking the Debian system and building on it to make a more user-friendly system. Debian de-emphasizes proprietary software and doesn't provide an easy tool to install the closed-source hardware drivers you may want or need. Debian is an excellent project, but Ubuntu is faster-moving and more focused on providing a polished desktop experience.


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