So you have decided to give the Linux operating system a try. You have heard it is a good stable operating system with lots of free software and you are ready to give it a shot. It is downloadable for free, so you get on the net and search for a copy, and you are in for a shock. Because there isn’t one “Linux”, there are many. Now you feel like a deer in the headlights. You want to make a wise choice, but have no idea where to start. Unfortunately, this is where a lot new Linux users give up. It is just too confusing.
The many versions of Linux are often referred to as “flavors” or distributions. Imagine yourself in an ice cream shop displaying 30+ flavors. They all look delicious, but it’s hard to pick one and try it. You may find yourself confused by the many choices but you can be sure you will leave with something delicious. Picking a Linux flavor should be viewed in the same way.
As with ice cream lovers, Linux users have their favorites, so you will hear people profess which is the “best”. Of course, the best is the one that you conclude, will fit your needs. That might not be the first one you try. According to linuxquestions.org there are currently 481 distributions, but you don’t need to consider every one. The same source lists these distributions as “popular”: Ubuntu, Fedora, Linux Mint, OpenSUSE, PCLinuxOS, Debian, Mageia, Slackware, CentOS, Puppy, Arch. Personally I have only tried about five of these and I have been a Linux user for more than 20 years. Today, I mostly use Fedora.
Many of these also have derivatives that are made for special purpose uses. For example, Fedora lists special releases for Astronomy, Comp Neuro, Design Suite, Games, Jam, Python Classroom, Security Lab, Robotics Suite. All of these are still Fedora, but the installation includes a large quantity of programs for the specific purpose. Often a particular set of uses can spawn a whole new distribution with a new name. If you have a special interest, you can still install the general one (Workstation) and update later.
Very likely one of these systems will suit you. Even within these there are subtypes and “windows treatments” to customize your operating system. Gnome, Xfce, LXDE, and so on are different windows treatments available in all of the Linux flavors. Some try to look like MS windows, some try to look like a Mac. Some try to be original, light weight, graphically awesome. But that is best left for another article. You are running Linux no matter which of those you choose. If you don’t like the one you choose, you can try another without losing anything. You also need to know that some of these distributions are related, so that can help simplify your choice.
Ubuntu, Linux Mint are derivatives of Debian. Both are attempts to make Debian more user friendly. Either might be a good choice to get familiar with Linux.
RedHat is a commercial version of Linux and CentOS and Fedora are relatives to it (but are free). Fedora is the proving ground (read: bug killer) for Redhat, and CentOS tries to be a more stable version that updates slowly. Fedora has a new version every 6 months and is always quite up- to- date in its software. That means it may be a bit less stable, as bugs will occasionally appear.
Slackware is for users who like to deal with the nuts and bolts of the system and requires much familiarity with the operating system, and would likely be frustrating for a new user.
OpenSUSE has two versions, one is a regular release and the other a rolling release which never has a “new version” – it just continuously updates so that you always have a current version and do not have to upgrade. It is a very complete system with a ton of software, and might be something to look at when you are more familiar with Linux.
Puppy is designed to be a small lightweight system with flavors optimized for older computers and newer computers. It can be something to consider if you have an old computer with limited speed and memory and want to revive its usefulness.
PCLinuxOS is an OS for 64 bit computers. It is a rolling release OS and emphasizes desktop computing for the home or small business.
These last couple I have never tried, so this information is from the net.
Mageia is a user-friendly modern community-made Linux distribution with Xfce, KDE Plasma and GNOME editions. It operates on a 9-month release cycle with 18 months of support for each release. Thus, you will have to upgrade once a year at minimum.
Arch Linux is a Linux distribution for computers with x86-64 bit processors. Arch Linux adheres to five principles: simplicity, modernity, pragmatism, user centrality, and versatility. In practice, this means the project attempts to have minimal distribution-specific changes, minimal breakage with updates, pragmatic over ideological design choices and user-friendliness.
Unlike MS Windows, which has a 32 bit and 64 bit version, but looks pretty much the same over all of the computers that run it, Linux has many choices to suit particular users. To get started, pick one of the versions that touts user friendliness and install it and begin to use it. Know that most of what you learn will be applicable to any of the flavors.
As a final tip, here is something that works for me. I have several old 64 bit Dell Latitude laptops. Their hard drives are removed easily by removing two screws, and disk caddies are available for several bucks on eBay. (I am sure other brands are similar.) For these laptops, I keep several hard drives with different operating systems on them and can go easily from MS-windows, Fedora, Ubuntu, etc simply by swapping hard drives. That can be very useful for comparing installations of these various flavors without losing what you already have. A 60 GB solid state drive costs about $20 on ebay and is entirely suitable for installing a Linux system for testing.
Good luck to all you new Linux users. Like everything worthwhile, there will be a learning curve. Linux has many online forums to help you. Each flavor has an online forum for questions. Linuxquestions.org has information on many distributions, and a forum for each. After an introduction, you may find yourself eager to try the many different flavors the Linux ice cream store has to offer.