Help me pick a Linux distro
March 21, 2009 10:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm about to move one of my computers to Linux, but I don't know much about the various distributions. Can you recommend resources that compare the strengths and weaknesses of the various distributions, so that I can assess any relevant tradeoffs?

The only distribution I know about is Ubuntu, and my knowledge there is limited to "they try to make Linux accessible to non-techies." That could well be the ideal route for me, but I'd like to be able to make that decision on a better basis than their marketing pitch.

Specific details about my computing situation: My current setup is Mac-based. The Linux-to-be computer is a desktop. Daily usage will include OpenOffice, text editing, web browsing, listening to music, email, and IM; I also semi-regularly rip DVDs or convert video files for my iPod, get digital photos from my camera, and connect to my employer's VPN.

I'm comfortable using the command line to the extent that I can follow directions, but unguided tweaking is not my forte. I have no problem with downloading drivers from the web, but I don't want to spend lots of time looking up, e.g., what kind of video card I have.
posted by philosophygeek to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've only used Ubuntu and Kubuntu, so I can only speak to those--but with Ubuntu you should be able to do all of that. With Intrepid Ibex, I've had zero driver issues.

Honestly, I don't see any reason why you should just start with Ubuntu, since it's free (as in beer). Once you get accustomed to it, if it's not meeting your needs, it won't be hard to switch to another distro.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:00 AM on March 21, 2009

Use Ubuntu. It's easily the best for your needs. Here's a list of some of the most important distros and their strengths as I see them anyway, though:

Ubuntu: Combination of user-friendliness and power. Best distro on the desktop hands down.

Red Hat: Corporations only need apply. They provide support so the boss has someone to yell at.

Debian: Excellent choice for servers. Stability and open-source purity are paramount.

Slackware: Very old (I was using this in 1996) and very refined. Simplicity. Different enough from every other distro that I would not recommend starting out with it.

Gentoo: Can be as simple as you make it. Everything is compiled from source. Definitely not for newbies.

ArchLinux: A relative newcomer. A great compromise between the simplicity of Slack/Gentoo and more complicated distros like Ubuntu.
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:05 AM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and there are different flavors of Ubuntu, which are:
Standard (Ubuntu) - GNOME desktop
KUbuntu - KDE desktop - if you don't already have a preference, just use GNOME, that's where most of the Linux GUI development is going on
XUbuntu - XFCE desktop - for use on older machines, or for people who just like low resource usage
Netbook Remix - Basically just standard Ubuntu with a Netbook-specialized application launcher
Edubuntu - Designed for use in schools
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:09 AM on March 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

You might find this wizard helpful
posted by missmagenta at 11:26 AM on March 21, 2009

To get a feeling for which disros are currently popular and read an overview of each one, have a look at Distrowatch, who track interest (web searches, page views) in the more popular versions. They also have a pretty thorough Guide to Choosing a Distribution, which is exactly what you're looking for.

Your best bet is to try a "live CD" of one or more distros. Boot your computer with the live CD in your drive, and it will boot into that distro of linux - you can see then what hardware works "out of the box" and what would need to be updated. Remember that running from a CD will probably be much slower than running from a proper install, so look at the functions and maybe aesthetics, but not speed. Ubuntu (in my case, Kubuntu) is pretty good at spotting what your particular system will need, as was Mandriva; I don't have enough experience with others to give useful comments.

I found Ubuntu to be very user-friendly. You'd need to download a few extra programs to let your computer handle .mp3 files and DVDs but it's a 5-minute job you'll only ever need to do once. Look here for information about that. It asks you to play with the command line a bit but, really, it's just a matter of copy, paste, hit enter, done.

The only sticking point might be VPN: I've had one person tell me that it's difficult to set up but another telling me that it's easy. I'd suggest heading to the forums for the distributions that interest you, and asking there.

For what it's worth, I chose Ubuntu because it does everything I wanted (my list included everything on yours except VPN), was easy to get running properly and, crucially, has a large and very active support community for the very rare occasions I've needed it.
posted by metaBugs at 11:29 AM on March 21, 2009

The only thing that sets off warning bells in my head is your employer's VPN. Before you dive into the infuriatingly wonderful world that is Linux, I would suggest you find out which distributions are compatible with that. That'll probably narrow down your options quite a bit.

Then, head over to Distrowatch, scroll down to the Page Hit Ranking on the right-hand side, and start reading. I would limit myself to the Top 10 over the past 6 months. Anything lower than that is probably too difficult or unproven and liable to cause unnecessary headaches for a new user.

If you have a particular machine chosen for this, Google it for Linux compatibility. You shouldn't have any hardware problems with a recent -but not bleeding edge- machine.

Things I would consider a plus: a wide user base, friendly and extensive user forums, a periodic release schedule.

You could do worse than taking the LiveCDs from Ubuntu, MInt, Fedora, OpenSUSE and Mandriva for a spin. That would show their level of hardware compatibility and allow you to choose the one you like best. Your choice would probably depend on aesthetics and usability at first, but that's really all right. Just choose one. Linux makes it so easy to separate your data from your programs that you will be able to switch distributions easily in the future.

Me, I like Ubuntu.
posted by Cobalt at 11:34 AM on March 21, 2009

The only sticking point might be VPN: I've had one person tell me that it's difficult to set up but another telling me that it's easy. I'd suggest heading to the forums for the distributions that interest you, and asking there.

VPN is super easy. Ubuntu (well, GNOME actually, but Ubuntu has provided enhancements) has a little widget called the "Network Manager" that can do any sort of network connectivity: wired, wireless, cell phone, VPN, etc. with one click. To set it up to connect to a VPN, you just paste the information in the boxes. You will have to install a plugin for Network Manager for the type of VPN you'll be using, and for a corporate VPN that will probably be PPTP, so you'd just need to go into Synaptic, search for PPTP, and install network-manager-pptp. There are plugins for PPTP, VPNC (Cisco) and OpenVPN.
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:37 AM on March 21, 2009

The big advantage with ubuntu is necessarily its technical achievements (which all linuxes benefit from) or its packaging of tons of drivers; the big advantage is its forums. Unlike every other linux distro support site the people who post at the ubuntu forums are only 20% dismissive nerd assholes opposed to 90%, which is typical on IRC, newsgroups, or forums of more "technical" linux distributions.

Considering most of the popular distros have live CDs, you really should just be able to run them, but if you dont know what you are looking for then its just easier to install ubuntu and be done with it.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:40 AM on March 21, 2009

Also there are ubuntu vmware machines you can download. You can run it as a vm for while before deciding to take the leap.

Vmware server is free now too, so you could just make a virtual machine of whatever distro you like.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:42 AM on March 21, 2009

Unlike every other linux distro support site the people who post at the ubuntu forums are only 20% dismissive nerd assholes opposed to 90%, which is typical on IRC, newsgroups, or forums of more "technical" linux distributions.

That's an artifact of the old UNIX culture, whose primary law is "RTFM" (Read The Fucking Manual). The thinking behind it is basically "we learned how to do all this stuff, so why shouldn't you?" Ubuntu, on the other hand, has a lot of users who came over from Windows or some other non-UNIX environment, which is what we always claimed to want, although some of us didn't really and would rather it remained an exclusive boys' club.

On the other hand, most questions that would get that sort of treatment really were stupid, obvious questions that could have easily been answered by the documentation. "What's the terminal for?" and stuff like that.
posted by DecemberBoy at 12:12 PM on March 21, 2009

I've run slack, stampede, debian, gentoo, redhat, centos and a few other distro's over the past ten years. While all the major distro's can do what you want, I would suggest you run Ubuntu.

1. Easiest Install - the current ubuntu installer is the best I've seen for any operating system, and recognizes and configures almost all the hardware you have.

2. Community Support - I am constantly amazed at the writeups on the ubuntu forums, a little googling almost always finds the exact answer to an issue you're having.

3. Package Mangement - ubuntu has a huge repository of packages (precompiled binaries you can install on your system), that makes installing applications a breeze.
posted by zentrification at 1:39 PM on March 21, 2009

Ubuntu's approach is a double edged sword. Leadership often pursues the deployment of "bleeding edge" technology if it looks like it will improve the status quo in the long run. It seems like every release has a symptomatic problem. Early on, 3d window management (beryl / compiz) was pushed far before the average video card could drive it. More recently, PulseAudio brought in a set of regressions that caused skips, bleeps or muted audio. This release saw an aggressive push for reworking notifications; this is unique as it's the first significant engineering work Canonical has done with the expectation of upstream adoption at some ambiguous point in the future.

On the balance, I believe the project is working to move the needle towards "new user friendliness", despite these occasional hiccups. I much prefer this sort of bleeding edge progress to wildly divergent approaches that cause
posted by pwnguin at 2:09 PM on March 21, 2009

Personally I run Ubuntu, but only the "LTS" releases. These are version that are slated for Long Term Support — they get bugfixes for 5 years, I think, instead of the normal year or so. Occasionally, the more frequent releases can feel like public betas. However, you avoid a lot of that if you only run the LTS versions and then you only upgrade to the next one after it's been out in the wild for 6 months or so.

It means you pass up a lot of the newest-greatest-shiniest technology, but instead you get a system that's a lot more stable, and which there's a lot more information about on the Internet in case you run into a problem.

Right now my main Linux machine is headless, and I do everything via the CLI through SSH, but in the past I have used both stock Ubuntu (Gnome GUI), Kubuntu (KDE GUI), and Xubuntu (XFE GUI). Overall I actually prefer Xubuntu, but I'd probably recommend Kubuntu since it's easier to find troubleshooting information. I don't really like Gnome that much, but it's a personal thing and you shouldn't let that stop you trying each and seeing which you like. And who knows, maybe Gnome has been cleaned up and made more consistent across applications since I used it last.

Unless you have a very compelling reason to these days, I don't think there's much reason not to go with Ubuntu. It's really the default Desktop Linux, and for a good reason: it does pretty much everything you'd want a desktop OS to do. (And it's a very nice server OS as well, but suffers from lack of vendor support if you need to run commercial applications like DB2 or Oracle.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:29 PM on March 21, 2009

Red Hat is not "Corporations only need apply" (we're all aware that Canonical Ltd. actually isn't a hippie commune, right?), and half the software in any Linux distro seems to have an among the contributors, but today Red Hat may have a too extreme version of the "long term" vs. "bleeding edge" dichotomy. Red Hat Enterprise Linux (or its CentOS rebuild if you don't want the Red Hat support) will give you a great, solid system... based on 2007's software. Red Hat's Fedora Linux currently goes too far in the other direction, and will give you... well, whatever new stuff managed to compile. That turned out to be a good thing in Fedora 8, tolerable in 10, and, well, let us never speak of 9.

I'm using Fedora 10 at home, and that along with CentOS 5 and Ubuntu 8.04.2 LTS at work. I'd recommend the latter for new users.
posted by roystgnr at 3:33 PM on March 21, 2009

For a laptop, you should probably go with Ubuntu, definitely go for Ubuntu if you want to use binary drivers.

If you want strong security (not sure you do since you say you use a mac) then go for Fedora: selinux works really well these days.
posted by devnull at 4:32 PM on March 21, 2009

Red Hat is not "Corporations only need apply" (we're all aware that Canonical Ltd. actually isn't a hippie commune, right?)

By that I simply mean that the primary benefit of Red Hat is the support contract, which obviously is of no use to anyone but companies. RHEL and CentOS are indeed fine distros for servers. Fedora, on the other hand... I wouldn't recommend it, and most certainly not over Ubuntu. As you say, they don't put a whole hell of a lot of care into it.
posted by DecemberBoy at 5:57 PM on March 21, 2009

Regarding drivers, (and software in general), you are going to fuck up your system and rob it of one of the biggest Linux advantages if you go on google, download something, and install it, as your fist course of action.

Use the package manager, with only the default repositories for your distro/version. This will provide access to everything you just said you use, and a few thousand other bundles of programs also if you ever want to install a kitchen recipe organizer app or whatever.

When I first started with Linux I tried to do things the windows/mac way, googling for what I want and downloading/installing by hand. I managed to make a very unreliable and buggy system that way, and it was a lot of work messing it up that bad too. Now there are two or three programs I custom install from source, and I never need drivers that don't come with the system. The one issue driver wise I have seen is that it seems Ubuntu uses some patent-encumbered or not-quite-free stuff for WPA wireless that is not availible with Debian, I was forced to switch my Debian laptops to Ubuntu and Dyne:Bolic to be able to use WPA.
posted by idiopath at 12:03 AM on March 22, 2009

For what you want, I would suggest Linux Mint. It's a Ubuntu based distro but is focused on more ease of use. Plus, it looks better imho.
posted by tdreyer at 12:09 PM on March 22, 2009

Unless you have some particular need to provide a yardstick, I think that trying to research distros to compare their strengths and weaknesses would be more likely to confuse than enlighten. In general, the big modern desktop distros are all striving to be easy to install, use, and maintain, and the arguments about their relative success are infinite, 'cause everyone's priorities are different.

Like a lot of people here, I use Ubuntu. I doubt you'd feel you'd gone horribly wrong if you go with it, but I'd expect that to be true of the others people have recommended.
posted by Zed at 9:55 AM on March 24, 2009

Start with Ubuntu/Debian if you intend to be just a user
Start wirh Gentoo/Slackware if you intend to be a geek :)
posted by wgl1 at 4:09 AM on July 13, 2009

Honestly, my impression is that people who choose Gentoo eventually burn out. This is going to sound strange, but many of my friends and roommates in college experimented with Gentoo. At the time, it's lack of binary packages and general Do-It-Yourself attitude either drained them of enthusiasm or drove them to unhealthy obsessive compulsive customization (at one point I noted to my roommate that his main use of Gentoo seemed to be customizing which screensavers appeared).

Much of what ignited the popularity of Gentoo was the insular and partitioned nature of Debian development (and the apparent stall where releases were very far apart). Gentoo did a good job of catering to people who wanted to step it up but couldn't navigate Debian's quasi "hiring" process. I think Canonical / Ubuntu has made great strides to make this much simpler, without sacrificing quality assurance.
posted by pwnguin at 2:06 PM on July 13, 2009

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