Which distro of Linux should I try?
August 18, 2009 1:20 AM   Subscribe

Which one of the multitude of Linux distros should someone who's never used Linux before give a go?

I''m by no means a PC-phobe [or a Windows-phobe for that matter] but I've just done a couple of system backups and reinstalls of Vista, and am looking at my laptop [Acer Aspire 720Z with 2GB RAM, Intel Core-Duo] with a "hmm, what if eye, and wonder whether I should finally give a Linux distro a try.

My computing background was initially Amigas [hey, configuring Ami-TCP by hand was fun! To a certain extent... :) ] and I'm a graphic designer by profession. I already use a fair bit of Inkscape / GIMP so I'm not scared of new apps to replace anything, I'm just stumped at what to try from the various advice proffered by various techy-types here.

Any advice greatly appreciated - and play nicely! :) [Remembers the Amiga vs PC debate years ago...]
posted by n3rt to Computers & Internet (34 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Ubuntu is the standard choice these days -- super-easy to install, can do it without even having to fuck around with partitions thanks to wubi.
posted by paultopia at 1:30 AM on August 18, 2009

2nding Ubuntu.
posted by XMLicious at 1:40 AM on August 18, 2009

Pardus just put out an upgrade, and it's super easy for beginners. It doesn't plug into the behemoth software repository of the Debian derivatives, however.

Ubuntu is very easy, and their user-forums have an answer for everything under the sun.

Mint is similar, and marginally easier.

Vector Linux and Mepis both have reputations for being very user friendly (I've not tried either), Mandriva has its share of fans, but some flaky implementation for intel video may or may not spell problems for you.

Avoid Fedora; it's too cutting edge for a first time, things are very experimental. .

The best place to research this with reviews et al is the venerable distrowatch, the fans can get a bit rabid, but it's all part of the fun.

Trying out distros is an addictive and fun process; I urge you to shop around!

If you're a graphic designer, you may prefer some of the more visually interesting distros out there like elive, or Goblinx
posted by smoke at 1:40 AM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been using Linux for twelve years or so. I've been through Slackware, Red Hat, SuSE, debian, gentoo, and Ubuntu.

I don't use anything but Ubuntu anymore. Even on servers, I'll use ubuntu-server.

Ubuntu does the following things best: easy installation, automatic sane configuration, hardware detection, application bundling. I cannot emphasize how stunningly awesome it was the first time I installed Ubuntu and didn't have to spend the next three days figuring out which revision of network card I had so that I could build a kernel that had the appropriate driver enabled. Seriously... running both debian and gentoo, I'd generally have to build between two and four kernels before I'd get everything working.

Likewise, in contrast to previous distros I've used, I don't live in fear of software updates. While I had a couple of problems back in Dapper and Edgy, Ubuntu updates these days almost never break your system.

Nearly every program I need is in the ubuntu apt repositories (once you activate the non-FOSS repositories). In the time I've been running Ubuntu (since Dapper Drake/2006), I've only manually had to install about five programs... and one kernel patch, which was for some buggy, goofy experimental feature anyway. (I'm a programmer by profession, so I'm constantly needing really obscure shit.)

The support forums are also top-quality. They have a no-RTFM policy, which means that you can actually get help with the trivial shit. You still need to ask your question the smart way, but you'll almost certainly get better than a brushoff.

The one problem I see in your plan is that laptops are notoriously annoying to get fully working under any linux distro. However, a google search for "Acer Aspire 720Z ubuntu" doesn't show any forum postings of people having troubles. So you may be safe, even if it isn't explicitly listed on any of the compatibility lists I've found.

In general, the laptop-related issues aren't enormous or show-stopping. They tend to relate to the fn keys not working, or the fan controllers being stuck in overdrive, that kinda thing. The worst problem I've had with Ubuntu on a laptop was a wifi off-switch that worked just fine to turn the wifi card off, but wouldn't turn it back on--you had to reboot to windows to turn it back on. The dude who had that problem just turned the wifi on, and physically removed the switch. No problems after that, and he blew away Windows. Of course, that was on a no-name machine that he purchased from a Chinese importer--"It was a helluva deal."

You might have to tweak configuration files, as well as install additional utilities, to get your laptop fully functional though.

Ubuntu just works. It just-works infinitely better than my Mac does, in fact.
posted by Netzapper at 1:50 AM on August 18, 2009 [7 favorites]

By the way, if you choose something other than Ubuntu, I highly recommend that you stick with something based on Debian and not on Slackware or Red Hat.

The reason is package management: rpm packages, which are used in Red Hat, have terrible dependency management. Just god awful. Slackware's package management doesn't do any dependency checking at all.

What this means is that on a debian-based system, you can type apt-get install mythtv, and it will recognize that MythTV depends on mysql, mysql-control, mythtv-backend, libnet-upnp-perl, and a host of other shit. Then, in that one operation, it will automatically download and install those packages as well as the one you indicated.

If you do the same thing on Fedora, you'll likely find that the automated system has installed the wrong versions of two of the packages and that it's missed one of them. On slackware, it just won't work. Mind you, RedHat/Fedora is trying to do the same thing as Debian. But, it routinely fails miserably.

The same goes in reverse. apt-get remove mythtv will remove mythtv and mark all of its dependencies for removal (if they aren't required by something else). Then apt-get autoremove removes them. Neither of the other package management systems do this... meaning that you can install something, choose to remove it, but still be left with 200MB of cruft.
posted by Netzapper at 2:03 AM on August 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Despite what I've already said, and the fact I *have* made nice DriveImage XML backups here, I'm also looking at the possibility of a dual-boot set up; so what kind of space on an HD does a typical Ubuntu install eat? I'm guessing from the DL sizes, not mahoosive [and whilst Ubuntu currently sounds very nice so far - and looks pretty; damn the designer in me - I might just keep Vista on the box as well. Wimping out so soon I know...
posted by n3rt at 2:19 AM on August 18, 2009

Count me along with the others who say Ubuntu is the way to go. Aside from the smooth installation and the wide range of applications available, the ubuntu forums have plenty of people who love the OS and are glad to help beginners. For everyday use, Ubuntu is getting really close to Windows or the Mac OS; of course, under the hood it's still linux, so occasionally you may need to get your hands dirty, but I've found Ubuntu pretty hard to break, even with my haphazard keyboard-jabbing.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:19 AM on August 18, 2009

An out-the-box Ubuntu installation takes up maybe 4GB. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less... it's been awhile since I installed from a CD.

My system, which was installed about two years ago, is using 11GB according to df. Although I'm having trouble figuring out where that's coming from... nothing seems all that huge. And du is showing I'm using 3.4 gigs.

Hey! There we go! I had a 7GB log file from a program I uninstalled last week. Thanks for helping me catch that, n3rt.

So, with that gone, df shows that I'm using 4.1GB of space for the system. Of course, my home directory is like 60GB. But that's not a question of installation... that's a question of pirated video.

The Ubuntu documentation (did you read that document on asking smart questions? did you google "ubuntu installation size"?) recommends 10GB for Ubuntu.
posted by Netzapper at 2:57 AM on August 18, 2009

posted by phrontist at 2:59 AM on August 18, 2009

Linux Distro Chooser
posted by missmagenta at 3:02 AM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that you can try Ubuntu (and most other distros these days) by booting from a Live CD, negating the need to make any changes to your existing system, until you're sure what you want to do.
posted by Diag at 3:18 AM on August 18, 2009

If you want to dip your toe in the water - with regards to Ubuntu or another distro then you could try using a flash drive and UNetbootin. The whole OS boots from the flash drive. It is equivalent to using a live CD to test out the OS but is a faster solution with better write capabilities.
posted by rongorongo at 3:42 AM on August 18, 2009

Another vote for Ubuntu. It comes with everything, including three kitchen sinks, and if anything goes wrong you only need to google a few key terms, and you'll get a solution. It actually approaches *fun* fixing your OS.
posted by kalimac at 3:52 AM on August 18, 2009

Netzapper's point about choosing a Debian based distribution for its superior package management system is a very important one. Ubuntu is Debian based and a very good place to start. You can then go from there. Some people, after getting a bit of experience with Ubuntu move to pure Debian. But most people tend to stick with Ubuntu.

If you don't know the Ubuntu story, it was started by a South African, Mark Shuttleworth, who made a lot of money in the 90's and decided to bankroll his own distribution. He's shown a lot of business sense right from the word go (Ubuntu exploded in popularity from its very first release) and also importantly, he shows respect to the philosophical and ethical underpinnings of the Free Software movement.

Finally, as has been noted above, you can try a distribution by booting off its live CD. A risk free way to check hardware compatibility.
posted by Sitegeist at 4:00 AM on August 18, 2009

Ubuntu. Less insanity and brokenness than any other environment I have ever used on a desktop computer, and I've been playing with them since owning an Apple II.
posted by flabdablet at 4:26 AM on August 18, 2009

One other delightful aspect of using the wubi installer, is that you can also uninstall ubuntu via windows with a simple 'uninstall', and it restores your partitions to how they were. It also automatically looks after the dual-boot aspect, and when you turn on your computer it will give you a choice about which OS to boot.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 4:30 AM on August 18, 2009

I like this Laptop Magazine writeup of "Which flavor of Linux is right for you?" and I'll suggest one that hasn't been suggested: Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, but includes some of the multimedia codecs that Ubuntu can't include for legal reasons. I put it on my laptop knowing absolutely nothing about Linux, and it has been a complete joy to use.
posted by Jeanne at 4:45 AM on August 18, 2009

Another vote for Ubuntu. A great distro with a critically large enough user base to make a world of difference when it comes to support and documentation. Definitely the one most likely to do what it's supposed to out of the box (e.g. sound, graphics, etc.)
posted by furtive at 5:16 AM on August 18, 2009

Use Ubuntu because it's easy to manage. If you don't want it to "feel" like windows, change your desktop manager from KDE or Gnome, which generally try to emulate windows. Try something like Openbox or Enlightenment. My favorite is Ion, an all keyboard based WM where you tile the desktop into "zones" and open applications in those zones.

Just because Ubuntu has made a lot of decisions for "out of the box" usability, doesn't mean that the bevy of Linux applications are hidden from you. In fact, because of the apt based package management, you should be pretty satisfied for a long time.

TBH having the window manager look like windows will make you happy while you tinker under the hood. Don't knock it until you understand just how much your computer has changed with the new OS.

I also second staying away from Red Hat or Slackware based systems. If you want to make things more complicated (really really really complicated), you can try Gentoo :)
posted by teabag at 5:24 AM on August 18, 2009

Also nthing Ubuntu. Make sure you use their forums too, everyone's very friendly and helpful.
posted by aheckler at 5:26 AM on August 18, 2009

That's a whole lot of Ubuntu. I'll second Linux Mint. It's very similar to Ubuntu as far as ease of install and use; even uses the same repositories. I've tried Mandriva, Fedora, OpenSuse (which I actually quite liked after considerable tweaking) and Ubuntu. Mint played better with both of my laptops, finding proprietary drivers for Nvidia without me even asking for it.

Good luck!
posted by yamel at 5:26 AM on August 18, 2009

Ubuntu. Works out of the box. Though you do have to install multimedia codecs, IIRC, it asks if you want to install them the first time you play a cd or mp3.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:27 AM on August 18, 2009

As others say, Ubuntu. If Vista is precious to you, use "wubi" -- put in the Ubuntu install CD while Windows is running and the entire linux bit is made a file on your Windows disk; no fussing with partitioning or anything. It is a teeny, tiny bit slower for disk IO with that, but it is otherwise perfect for you. You get to choose how much disk space is reserved for Ubuntu, too.

Once Ubuntu is running, I recommend adding the package "ubuntu-restricted-extras" (from the "multiverse" repo, if that matters).

Also, paradoxically, beware that burning CDs is trickier now than it was years ago. Quality has suffered mightily with 10 cent cds and 8 dollar cd burners. If the first disk doesn't work, make another.

Aside from that, welcome! Because the names are funny, remember: Pronounce "Lih'-nucks" and "Oo-boon'-too".
posted by cmiller at 5:28 AM on August 18, 2009

I am a complete computer doofus and I use Ubuntu on my laptop. And it's great. Even a doofus like me can fix any problems that arise with some Googling, and the problems that have arisen have been almost exclusively due to my own fumble-fingery.
posted by macadamiaranch at 6:31 AM on August 18, 2009

Yes, Ubuntu (easy, big friendly user forums for support) or Mint (based on Ubuntu, less configuration to start?).

Whichever one(s) appeal to you, try a live CD first. You download the installation disk, burn it onto a CD, then boot the your computer with the CD in your drive. The version of Linux on the CD wll load as if you'd installed it. See if you like the look of it and check that everything works: in laptops, wifi, webcams and card readers are notoriously fickle. Don't worry too much about speed, as reading from the CD drive is slowing it down. It'll be much faster when it's installed properly.

Ubuntu has been tested on your laptop model before and mostly looks alright. There are a couple of reported bugs, but they can be fixed. Note that the information in that review is over a year old (Version numbers refer to dates, so 8.04 = 2008.April), so there's a good chance that the latest version of Ubuntu has fixed those bugs internally, meaning you might not have to do anything.
posted by metaBugs at 8:16 AM on August 18, 2009

nTH-ing Ubuntu. Love it, love it, love it. I was a die-hard Windows user for 25 years or so, including being a network manager for 250 or so Windows machines and servers. I finally had one or two daily crashes too many and decided to try Linux just out of spite. I toyed around with RedHat and a couple of others, but when I found Ubuntu, I fell in love. With the distribution, with the attitude, with the obvious love that goes into it and the people who support it. Everything. As quickly as possible, I purged all my personal machines of the infestation known as "Windows" and installed Ubuntu. It has worked very well with almost every piece of hardware I've used it on (which is not something I could say for Windows, even if the hardware is "supported" in some cases). Go to ubuntu.com and download the live trial/installer ISO for the latest stable version, burn it to a CD, boot from it, and try it for a couple of days. I'm betting you love it as much as I do. (THANKS, UBUNTU PEOPLE!)
posted by Death by Ugabooga at 8:24 AM on August 18, 2009

Ubuntu! It's easy to get started, but suitable for experts too. Everyone in our (large, extremely geeky) CS department uses Ubuntu.
posted by miyabo at 8:44 AM on August 18, 2009

The upside to Ubuntu is really the support available. There's a really helpful IRC channel and forum questions are thoroughly and quickly answered. It's a great place to jump in and you can experiment with other distros once you gain some experience.
posted by Raichle at 9:52 AM on August 18, 2009

Here is a recent article raving about Mint.
posted by caddis at 10:27 AM on August 18, 2009


Here I am, posting from Firefox on Ubuntu installed on a Windows partition - and it's utterly awesome! :)

Not that I didn't think it wouldn't be mind you, but it is.

Thank you to all who recommended this - I feel a full install on the laptop [testing it here on the desktop] will be occurring in the very near-probably-within-the-hour future.

posted by n3rt at 11:40 AM on August 18, 2009

Just another data point. I had many aborted conversions to linux (from windows) but I always found myself going back. I've finally switched over full-time due to Ubuntu. Switched laptop and fileserver over also. It's been great.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 1:46 PM on August 18, 2009

If you don't mind burning a CD or putting the image on a flash drive, at least try Kubuntu before committing to an install.

I hate GNOME.
posted by oaf at 6:14 PM on August 18, 2009

(disclaimer: I have an @ubuntu.com email address, and have considerable pro-Ubuntu bias, and recommend it to experts and novices alike.)

I see you've picked Ubuntu. Some advice: keep a liveCD around, and skip wubi. Ubuntu developer support for wubi is a bit weak because it's easier to just reinstall without wubi than it is to debug wubi. The installer doubles as a liveCD, which is useful for all sorts of things, so make sure to keep one around.

My second piece of advice is to make backups, and I see you've already gotten into that habit. Ubuntu has a plethora of tools for backups. My suggestion is to test out restore; it's much better to find out you misconfigured backups before you've completely customized the system, installed new software and ripped CDs etc.

Finally, check out LaunchPad(LP). If you have problems, searching for and reporting them to LP is a good way to get things fixed. In addition to bug tracking, there's an Answers system that functions much like AskMefi does, with many people subscribed to questions. I like it a bit better than the forums because it's customized for the workflow and has dupe finding built into the process.

Graphic design tips... well, if you want to check out font creation, there's FontForge, but it's really from another era. Lately I've been looking at automated creation tools like GraphViz+XSLT. The next version of Ubuntu is due out in October, and has ContextFree packaged, which will be interesting. Which I guess is a good final point: Ubuntu releases new versions every six months, and you'd be well advised to keep pace, or settle into an LTS release like 8.04.
posted by pwnguin at 6:48 PM on August 18, 2009

Another vote for Ubuntu. While I'm not sure that it's objectively better or worse than other distros, it's by far the easiest to use simply by virtue of the enormous user community.
posted by primer_dimer at 3:18 AM on August 19, 2009

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