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Which Distro Is Best for Beginners?

Well it was a relatively quiet week here in the Linux blogosphere, where all the code is strong and the UIs good-looking.

Yes, we had the good news about Tor and its NSA resistance, and yes, the Unu three-way gaming device and the Lenovo Android laptop both generated some excitement of their own.

Linux Girl

Truth be told, though, Linux fans have been overloaded with good news lately, what with the Valve excitement and even Intel’s Arduino adventure.

When times are good, where do most Linux bloggers’ thoughts turn? That’s right: polls. There’s nothing like a good Linux poll to make a good life even better.’Falling from Grace'”We often introduce new people to Linux, and there’s always that niggling question, what distro to start someone on,” began the ever-insightful crew over at TuxRadar. “Not so long ago, the answer seemed obvious: Ubuntu. However that’s falling from grace at the moment.”

So, “what’s the best distro for beginners?” was the team’s question in a recent Open Ballot poll.

Down at the blogosphere’s seedy Punchy Penguin Saloon, FOSS fans have taken great delight in sharing their thoughts.’I’ve Been Suggesting Mint'”Since Unity, I’ve been suggesting Mint for beginners,” began consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack, for example.

Similarly, “there was a time a few years ago when I would have given one single answer: Ubuntu,” offered Google+ blogger Brett Legree. “However, I would not automatically suggest Ubuntu today.

“I would actually spend a bit of time with the potential new user and ask a variety of questions, to gauge the person’s level of technical expertise, willingness/desire to learn (and read manuals!), desired outcomes and usage patterns, and type of hardware being used,” Legree explained.

“Ubuntu might end up being the final choice, but I might also be as likely to suggest Fedora or openSUSE for some kinds of people, or Debian, Slackware, Arch or Gentoo for other people,” he added. “Perhaps Linux might not actually be what the person needs at all, and I might suggest FreeBSD or OpenBSD or one of the other BSDs.

“There are many different distros, and every computer user is unique, with different skills, hardware, and desired outcomes,” he concluded.

‘I Still Have to Go With Ubuntu’

On the other hand: “I know that Ubuntu isn’t the ‘cool’ distro anymore, but for a beginner’s system, I still have to go with it,” opined Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone.

“It’s always tempting to go with a distro that closely mimics that OTHER OS, but I think that one of the biggest problems people have with Linux is that they expect it to BE Windows,” Stone explained. “An interface that differs from Redmond’s offering helps to reinforce the idea that they’re not in Kansas anymore (and that is a very good thing).

“Ubuntu offers an environment that is sufficiently different than Windows but still easy to pick up and use,” he concluded.

‘The Answer Is Debian’

Blogger Robert Pogson took a different view.

“Obviously the answer is Debian GNU/Linux,” Pogson told Linux Girl. ‘It has all the flexibility and performance ~37000 packages of Free Software will allow and none of the baggage top-down management incurs in other distros controlled by tyrants, benevolent or not.

“With Debian GNU/Linux, a newbie can be running smoothly on Day One and still have room to grow physically and spiritually for decades,” he added.

“Other distros have the ‘vision’ of some tyrant or small group of tyrants which may fill some niche or other,” Pogson explained. “Debian GNU/Linux on the other hand is the ‘universal operating system’ because that was the goal from the beginning and the diversity of the organization makes that happen. Further, Debian is entirely committed to Free Software which empowers the user, not the distributor.”

‘My Vote Is PCLinuxOS’

Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol, a contributor to the PCLinuxOS project, had yet a different view.

“Oh, well, I’m biased,” Ebersol began: “The best newbie distro is PCLinuxOS, hands down.”

Of course, “I’ve been using it since 2009,” he said. “It’s my bread and butter.

“Then again, it’s a very personal matter,” Ebersol admitted. “Some may have had terrible experiences with this or that other distro. So, my vote is PCLOS, but, use what you like better.”

‘I Would Look for a KDE Distro’

Indeed, “this is trickier than it may first seem,” observed Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien. “The question is whether we mean someone who is experience with computers, just new to Linux, or whether we mean someone with very little computer knowledge.

“For someone with a lot of Windows experience who wants to try Linux I would look for a KDE distro, and right now openSUSE looks to me like the most polished KDE distro,” O’Brien suggested. “I think KDE works a lot like Windows and looks a lot like Windows, so it make for an easy transfer of knowledge from one domain to another.”

For someone with minimal computer experience, on the other hand, “I would recommend Ubuntu,” he added. “I know a lot of Linux folks have turned against Ubuntu of late, but I think that is because it is different from what they are used to. I think for someone with no preconceptions of how a computer should works, Ubuntu with the Unity desktop is an excellent experience.”

‘A Distro With KDE or Xfce’

It is a difficult question, Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. agreed.

“What is a beginner?” he mused. “If it is a person with the will to learn, any GNU/Linux distribution is usable and the person can learn how to do things in a couple of days. If it is someone coming from MacOS or m$Windows, perhaps some distributions with a desktop environment ‘less different’ is the best.”

Gonzalo Velasco C.’s own suggestions? “I would recommend: first, a distro with KDE or Xfce, also LXDE and Cinnamon since a proper menu is the easiest way to find applications; some dock is pretty, but not mandatory,” he explained. “Second, a distro with a good and easy application to install / uninstall packages; and third,an update manager easy to handle.”

‘This Asks the Wrong Question’

Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, had a different take.

“I think this actually asks the wrong question,” Travers asserted. “While there are two distros I would recommend (Fedora and Debian) because they develop long-term skills useful in the Linux world (Fedora as a gateway to Red Hat, Debian as a large ecosystem in itself), I think we pay too much attention to which distro we’d recommend to a beginner and not nearly enough attention to supporting the beginner through learning the new system.

“Setting everything up so that beginners can start getting work done right away and feel comfortable exploring the system is key,” he explained. “This can be done using any desktop environment, any distro, etc., but it takes listening to the beginner, helping them take the first steps and supporting them through the transition.”

Linux “is not yet (and may never be) at the point where we can just recommend a distro and forget about the beginner,” Travers concluded. “What we can, and must, do is provide personable support to help people become productive on the new system.”

‘Time to Move Forward or Die’

Last but not least, Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor, also focused on the bigger picture.

“The only thing that has stagnated worse than Microsoft is the desktop Linux distro,” Lim told Linux Girl. “Linux distributions have improved immensely under the hood, but the most common desktop environments either took their inspiration from Windows 95 or the Mac OS UI.

“Start menus are relics from the past,” Lim went on. “Apps like LibreOffice are alien territory for iOS and Android users. Steer them to the favorite distributions of the Linux die-hard, and it will like taking them to a trip back in time (and straight to the nearest Apple store).”

The one silver lining in the situation is “the much-derided GNOME 3 shell,” Lim said. “It is the only forward-looking Linux desktop. GNOME 3’s app launcher will be familiar to the Android set and the multitasking interface follows current trends.”

So, Lim’s distro suggestion for beginners?

“Based on these considerations, I am inclined to go with Fedora 19 or Ubuntu GNOME 13.10,” he concluded. “Really, for the Linux desktop and its app ecosystem, it is time to move forward or die.”

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered ECT News Editor by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

10 Comments

  • Definitely Arch is the best distro for beginners. It gives you familiar feelings like windows. Install drivers, adding themes, etc, to your system. Even setting up a wireless is not easy task. The reason why you need an expert to install your system. Feels like Windows doesn’t it?

  • The real question one should ask how much are you
    willing to search and study and are willing to learn. The documentation is already there on line for even the most difficult questions concerning the use of linux. Many are able to maintain the most advanced systems simply by using the resources that are already in place. First you must ascertain just exactly how motivated one is to take advantage
    of the resources that exist and then make your recommendation….absolutely.

  • I just don’t get Mr Lim’s suggestion of EITHER Fedora19 OR Ubuntu for a beginner. Fedora touts itself as for experts or developers, and Ubuntu is for neither.

    Mayank Sharma, in issue 175 of Linux Format does a side-by-side comparison of Fedora19 and Korora19. Because K19 comes with absolutely EVERYTHING ANYONE WOULD EVER NEED, including applications, great documentation and ease-of-use, while F19 is exactly what everyone expects from Fedora, Korora gets an 8/10, while Fedora earns a 6/10.

    As Mayank puts it, if one has really high-speed internet and several hours to spare, one can turn Fedora19 into Korora19. Or, alternatively, one could simply download Korora 19 and be done with it.

    I’m a big fan of Linux Mint, and would still recommend it to a newcomer (the KDE version has a really outstanding netbook/notebook Desktop), but I think I’ll give Korora19 a (pun intended) spin. Mr Sharma’s review is that compelling.

    LXF175 has a sidebar comparing Fedora, OpenSUSE, and Mageia.
    It does NOT (surprise!) compare Fedora to Ubuntu.

    I AM at a complete loss as to why one of your ‘experts’ would.

  • Xubuntu with kwin widows manager and Whisker menu or Linux Lite XFC or Solidx. You can get these to behaive just like Win 7. Especially with kwin installed and they’re lite enough to run on most old systems.

    Linux should be jumoing all over the Discontinuance of XP That’s where the nect potential growth will come from on the Desktop.

    But I understand and respect, in fact love, that Linux is not generally a commercial operation by it’s nature.

    But they’re my thoughts. As Screwy as some may think them to be 🙂 But then that’s Linux. Freedom 🙂

  • Unfortunately, we are at a strange time with desktop environments. Gnome 3 is changing the UI considerably, and helping people use GNU/Linux from Windows is tough because of this radical UI change. It was easy with Gnome 2, but it is not easy with Gnome 3. KDE is decent and XFCE as well. Gnome 3 classic looks like it may bridge this gap though, so I hope that is the road that we can take. That aside, most mainstream distributions are excellent and easy to use. Let’s help more get away from the pain of proprietary software and get them on these distributions! There’s no looking back.

  • There is no right Distro for beginners. I always ask what the persons level of competence is with Windows. Why do I have all those tool bars? Or a power user looking for more control? Also what hardware will you be running Linux on? An old XP from 2002 with 256 MB of memory and 1.6GHZ single core processor and 30 gig hard drive? Or a quad core 250 gig hard drive?

    That said I always see some Linux joker telling them to try Slackware to start. That will send them back to Windows.

    I started with Zorin. It is familiar, but breaks to often. I then went to Solus. Great newbie Distro, but changing from Debian based to an independent Distro. I AM now trying Point. I find Debian stable and like a traditional desktop.

    As much as I like Debian, it is not for newbies. Try to find a Distro with both free and non-free software. Debian is great, but a newbie will not know how to set up wireless and add non free codecs and such.

    A few minutes talking with the newbie can be the difference between a Linux convert and someone running back to Windoze.

  • For me it would depend on the user i was advocating too, if it was my grandmother or someone who just wanted a browser for facebook and youstare etc, then i would most prolly recommend Linux Mint, if however it was say a friend who was a windows power user and knew a DIMM from a SODIMM and actually wanted to learn linux id prolly recommend arch or Gentoo something of that ilk, simply because they do not hide the command line away from you and actually urge you to use it. Sure there will be a learning curve but its really not that much of a sharp bend. My reasoning is this ‘using a distro like Gentoo, Arch LFS etc for 6 months will learn this user more about linux than 5 years use of a mintbuntu type distro’. For the record i applaud anyone & everyone who contributes to linux in any shape or form, im certainly not flaming or fanboying its just how i see it. We are the people !

  • I was soooo glad when I read "…last but not least…". It meant I didn’t have to be subjected to–and endure the agony of–the opinion of someone who never has one, no matter that he knows absolutely anything.

    My vote: Linux Mint.

    It’s easy to use, very intuitive, has a hard-working, caring, chief-executive (‘lead-developer’, he calls himself), and everything Clem Lefebvre does revolves around his users.

    Mint has only one teensy negative: it’s built on Ubuntu. I uderstand that Clem, along with the rest of the entire world, has gotten fed up with Mark Shuttleworth’s brainworms, and has a long-term stable base planned for Mint.

    Until then, be assured that Clem will fix all the indignities of Ubuntu which Shuttleworth foists on the world every six months, the result being one outstanding Linus distro.

    By the way, you do KNOW, don’t you, that Shuttleworth DOES NOT want Ubuntu referred to as ‘Linux’?

    Go ask HIM.

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