So, you’ve either decided to take the plunge, escape the abusive world of Windows or dump your OS X for something that is fully customizeable, gives you tons of options, costs nothing, and allows you to act really superior to your friends, eh? Then welcome to club Linux. Now it’s time to get you outfitted with the right version of Linux (called distros or distributions) to suit your needs.
Keep in mind, these are just your jumping off points, meant to give you the easiest method of ingress to Linux. We suggest you try a lot of distros and see what tickles your fancy. If you want instructions on how to try various choices, this guide from Instructables is one of our favorites.
This is always the first question that anyone asks whenever we suggest they make the move to Linux rather than grinding away on the Windows or Mac OS treadmill. What does Linux offer that others don’t? In a word: variety. Linux is more secure, more customizeable, and more independent than any other operating system. You have better control over your computer and aren’t being abused by the dubious “features” that larger OS’s foist upon you. Linux isn’t guarded by security watchdogs that tell you how to use your machine, and isn’t going to spy on you the way Windows 10 does.
Why You Should Be Picky
Linux isn’t like Windows. It doesn’t try to tell you that there’s one size that fits all, because there isn’t. Maybe you’re running an older or less expensive computer and need something lightweight that does its job without using up resources. Maybe you need something immense and powerful, or something that’s super user-friendly. The beauty of Linux is all these options and many, many more are out there just waiting for you to try them. By picking the right one for you, you’re going to make your experience that much better. Just like finding the perfect new toy or the ideal car that just works for you, a Linux distro should be as personal as your romantic partner.
How to Pick
The only way to decide if you like a particular distro is to test drive it. That’s what it boils down to. We can point you in the right direction, but only by shopping around can you find the right path for you and your computer. Sadly, this can mean a lot of time spent down the distro rabbit hole, but you’ll quickly find it as much fun as doing flavor tests on ice cream (or fat free, dairy free, gluten free sorbet, if you’re more inclined that way).
We’ll get you started, but only by trying on the possibilities out there can you find what feels best. For a good breakdown of each, DistroWatch has some in-depth analysis that can help you. For a quicker, more targeted look, read on.
For The Windows Devotee
It’s you that we are trying to free from the Windows enslavement. If you’re sick of being abused by Microsoft, then welcome home, sisters and brothers. We were once like you, and we found freedom. Do not despair, there is hope.
If you’ve cut your teeth in the graphic interface world of Windows, Linux can feel very alien. While old versions of Linux were inaccessible, there’s plenty in the new batch that will help you along.
Mint – This is the best entry port for most Windows users since it offers a pretty traditional desktop with all the menus you’re used to and no real odd tricks or strange commands. It’s extremely user-friendly with easy installation, easy search features, and everything is clearly labeled. We strongly suggest you start here. The MATE and Cinnamon desktops are going to feel like home, stuff is easy to find, and you won’t need to go digging into your terminal to get things done. Plus, there’s a lot of software that you won’t find on some of the bigger distros that make life a lot easier.
For Mac Transplants
While it’s rare for anyone to dump their beloved Apple OS, there’s a few people who do it, and if you’re among them, you’re going to want something that feels a little more like OS X. For you, we suggest:
Ubuntu – This is going to be a little strange at first, since the desktop is going to be partly old and partly new. It uses a fairly accessible system that isn’t dissimilar from the way Apple arranges their desktops and interfaces with programs. A customizeable program bar on the side of the GNOME desktop lets you get to the stuff you use the most. A huge repository of software allows you to get up and running quickly; and an easy scanning system gets the drivers you need right off the bat for a painless transition.
Deepin – Made to even look a bit like OS X, it’s as fun and friendly as those old Macs that look like gumdrops.
PinGuyOS – Your “Welcome to Linux” tutor and friend, this is an out-of-the-box easy distro.
For Simple and Stable
One of the things to note about some of the newer Linux distros is they might have cutting edge software, but it’s going to be a little buggy. If you choose an LTS distro (Long Term Service) then it’s more likely to not have any issues, but will still give you a few problems here and there. The best way to get an OS that doesn’t have too many little quirks or surprises is to go with something that’s a little older. It’s going to be simpler, more stable, and not cause as many problems. The trade-off is that it isn’t going to be as red hot or experimental, which makes it slightly less fun.
openSUSE – With openSUSE, you’re getting an OS that is based on older, tried-and-true software that isn’t cutting edge, but is nice and safe. All your menus are going to be where you expect them to be, accessing your desktop is easy, and it’s going to generally feel like a slightly dated version of Windows, say maybe one of the more basic Home Editions of Windows 7. No pomp, no circumstance, no flash, but lots of substance and quiet reliability.
Ubuntu Mate – Actually a fairly new addition to the Ubuntu family, MATE capitalizes on more than a decade of Ubuntu research and comes pre-loaded with all the software you could want.
ElementaryOS – Go ahead and give it a whirl, Watson. As the name implies, it’s elementary.
For Configuration Junkies
Some people like to get artistic with their machines and really make everything feel personalized. If you get your kicks making everything look sexy, and like cutting edge software that gives you a load of options and lets you live on the bleeding edge, then you’ll want something that is made to be a little bit sexy and a little bit dangerous (don’t worry, we don’t mean “catch a virus” dangerous, more “I wonder if this new wordprocessor is actually going to work” dangerous).
Mageia – Mageia began life as Mandrake which eventually became Mandriva. Which then went bankrupt and was saved by Russian investors. You don’t need to know all that, what you do need to know is this throws around some of the most innovative designs we’ve ever seen in an operating system and is constantly changing and upgrading. There’s a huge volunteer set of developers behind Mageia who like to tinker with it and add all kinds of weird little Easter eggs. It’s really fun, but expect the learning curve to look like a learning cliff.
For Older / Cheaper Computers
A lot of us aren’t using the newest, hottest, most powerful machine on the planet, but we still want to get a little more horsepower out of our laptop, even if it’s a little longer in the tooth or spent a little more time on the shelf. There’s plenty of smaller Linux distros that can help you crank out a few more RPM’s without needing to overhaul your system or upgrade your box.
Lubuntu – This is where we would start if you’re using an older machine. It uses the Ubuntu software repositories, which means your programs are going to work more easily and you’ll have more choices when it comes to internet browsers, word processors, spreadsheets, and the like. If you’re a netbook user or are looking to pack a Linux distro onto your Chromebook, this will get you going with the least muss and fuss.
Puppy Linux – A quaint alternative
SliTaz – With only 45MB required for installation, if you have 256MB of RAM, you can run this.
Tiny Core – 12MB to install it and it runs entirely off your memory for blazing speeds. You’ll need to install drivers separately, along with many other facets.
For the Hobbyist
If you’ve got a technical mind and like to muck about with things, then there’s a few distros that will tickle your fiddling fancy. These are usually not easy or forgiving for beginners, but once you learn them, you’ll quickly climb the ranks of Linux power users.
Fedora – Beginning life as Red Hat Linux, Fedora has become one of the strangest testing grounds in the Linux world and in many ways is the wild west. You’ll have the opportunity to try out all manner of software and do some of your own work right in the system. It’s wicked fun, though you might feel a little like a lab rat as new and strange things come and go all the time.
Debian – Made for servers, the new desktop model is making interesting inroads in unbroken territory
CentOS – Fairly stable and easy to learn on, this is where you move from beginner to a more powerful user, get street cred, and really learn Linux’s bones.
For the Developer
If you really want to dig in deep to Linux and get something that’s going to let you really test your wings as you plummet toward the ground, then you want one of the truly customizeable distros that force you to earn your stripes. These are not for beginners, but they are a whole lot of fun.
If you’re a developer, odds are you already know what flavor you want, but if you’re still a dev in training, consider these:
Arch Linux – Our favorite place to begin the developer journey, Arch is built on the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) ideology. Meant to be chopped down, strip-mined, and lacking in frills, this is Occam’s Linux distro of choice.
Gentoo – Completely customizeable from the ground up, this wholly shifts and changes its stripes into whatever you want or need it to be. Way too much for a beginner, it’s a festival for the senses and a veritable carnivale for the advanced user.
For the Gamer
This is a tough one, since most PC games are built with Windows or Macs in mind. While you can get some traction using a program that emulates a Windows environment, Linux isn’t always made for the l337 gamers among you. That being said, since most developers are gamers at their core, there’s some very good options for distros to help you out and get your frag ratio back to respectable levels.
Play-Linux – Based around Ubuntu architecture, Play is made to be popular and capable of working with the majority of gaming rigs, no matter how complicated. It comes pre-loaded with Wine (a Windows emulator) along with WineTweaks, which helps you alter settings as you go. While still in its early stages, this nonetheless has proven itself to be capable of handling any number of proprietary kinds of software, including mp3’s and Flash.
Sparky-Linux – Specifically the GameOver release.
Fedora Games Spin – A special version of Fedora made entirely with gamers in mind
SteamOS – Made completely for Steam games, if you’re an online devotee, this will get you there.
For the Security Fiend
If you live and die by the idea that you can’t be paranoid enough, then Linux is great for you since out of the box it’s harder to hack than anything else on the market. However, if the standard level of security isn’t enough for you and you really want something to build your firewall to the stratosphere, then here’s the best options outside of a tinfoil hat:
Kali – Perhaps better described as the attackers friend, Kali has the ability to help you create exploit code and test it against a remote machine. It’s secure as houses, popular among pen testers who care about their security, and can be completely configured to run whatever kind of desktop you desire. Developed by Offensive Security Ltd.
BackBox – Fast, loose, and light, this is a phantom OS that can run on your box, but is meant to go on a USB stick and carried with you for easier use of remote systems and quick use of computers you don’t trust.
Security Onion – Made mostly for servers, this specializes in detecting problems, invasions, and intrusions. It’s a nightmare for hackers, though also not tons of fun to use.