The Question is not Linux itself, but what flavour?
July 25, 2006 2:20 AM   Subscribe

IT Experts and Linux Fans - I need your advice cutting through the clutter. Can you please recommend the best linux distros for Beginner, Intermediate and Expert users? There are so many options out there and most people only skim the surface.

Personally my choice for newbies is Ubuntu and Suse for pros, but that barely scratches the surface and I have no clue if there is anything that suits everyone else inbetween. Also , I need advice on whether KDE or GNOME is the best bet. Any and all advice would be greatly appreciated geared towards a formulating a best choice for beginners, intermediates and experts.
posted by Funmonkey1 to Technology (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Beginner - Ubuntu, SuSe
Intermediate - Debian
Expert - Slackware

I'm thinking in terms of amount of Linux knowledge needed to know, not in terms of how able the users are to be totally 1337.

Your question regarding KDE vs GNOME has no clearcut answer and will likely spawn arguments.
posted by cellphone at 2:37 AM on July 25, 2006

Beginner - Ubuntu or Mandrake

To be honest, I think intermediate and expert is a difficult distinction and there are horses for courses. I'd consider myself intermediate-to-expert, and I use Ubuntu at home. I use Fedora at work, but that's just because it's what the system administrators have installed (it's fine - I have no complaints). I want my home box to be easy to use and administer so Ubuntu it is. Pre Ubuntu, I used Debian, because I prefer the APT package management system (which is also used in Ubuntu).

Gentoo is a favourite of some of the real geeks I know because it is completely configurable and you can build just the bits you want - ending up with a sleek cut-down system.

I agree with cellphone about the gnome/KDE thing. I use gnome, but am finding it a bit "dumbed down" recently and am thinking of switching to KDE.

Practically, I think if you're deciding on a distribution one of the important things is the level of user community and support. If you're starting out with Linux and know an "expert" who you can call on for help, I'd just choose whatever distro they use. There's really not that much between them.
posted by handee at 2:52 AM on July 25, 2006

"Beginner - Ubuntu, SuSe"

posted by dance at 2:55 AM on July 25, 2006

Ubuntu or debian (upon which debian is based).
posted by singingfish at 3:45 AM on July 25, 2006

Beginner - Ubuntu and Xandros (both based on Debian).

Why? Ubuntu has so much community support, you can get everything up and running (including multimedia) without any problems. Xandros can run some Windows applications via an integrated program called CodeWeavers CrossOver Office which can help ease the transition for newcomers.

Intermediate - Fedora Core

Why? Fedora Core is an RPM-based distribution, has great community support and utilizes both the KDE and Gnome desktops (I would recommend KDE to anyone, not just beginners). Fedora Core is derived from Red Hat which has been my favorite distribution since version 5.1 back in 1998. It's where I cut my teeth learning Linux.

Expert - Slackware

Why? Slackware is considered an "advanced" Linux distribution because it has no automated package management system (to my knowledge), and your likely going to be doing more things command-line instead of via a GUI. This is not a bad thing. It's important to be able to get things done this way because it's often faster, offers the user more power and creativity and it's less resource intensive. And command-line is cool ;)

It's also my opinion that package management systems and it's associated "dependency resolution tools" can make all the difference in the world to a newbie. RPM-based distributions have yum (which is so gravy to use, you wouldn't believe it) and DPKG-based distros use APT to install .deb packages (which is incredibly powerful and versitile). Experiment with both and see which one you're most comfortable with.
posted by rinkjustice at 3:56 AM on July 25, 2006

Puppy is a good beginner's Linux, because it looks and feels a lot like Windows 95, so it's easy for Windows people to make the transition, and it doesn't need to be installed on your computer - you can put it on a CD-R or USB pen drive, boot that on any computer you're near, and take all your work with you. On any machine with at least 256MB RAM, Puppy also runs completely in RAM, so it feels very responsive.

For people who are already comfortable enough with the tradeoffs surrounding Linux to make it their main operating environment, Ubuntu is the most fuss-free distro I'm currently familiar with (I've used Red Hat 9, Mandrake, Gentoo and Fedora).

I'm reasonably happy with Gnome, though I've always found the Nautilus file manager to be a bit of a nuisance. I tend to work with bash in an xterm when not using Firefox. I've not used KDE since rejecting its Red Hat 9 incarnation for gross unusability; I'm sure it's improved since then.
posted by flabdablet at 5:06 AM on July 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

I don't really understand the folks who recommend Slackware for experts. There's nothing you can do on Slackware that you can't also do on Debian (my fav), Fedora, Ubuntu etc. Not having package management doesn't give you anything. It really depends on what your aim is. If you're a beginner and you just want to have a usable desktop then Ubuntu is the current pick of the litter. If you're a beginner and you want to *learn linux* -- how all the pieces actually fit together, I don't think you can go wrong with Slackware. I started off that way and think it was a great introduction. Having to build from source using the actual config process set out by the software author provides a wealth of experience.

After cutting my teeth on Slackware I switched to Debian and have been very satisfied with it since. It's nice to be able to rely on the distribution to keep most things up to date but when necessary I still build some applications from source.
posted by roue at 5:55 AM on July 25, 2006

Beginner: Ubuntu because it's well tested, is user-focused but not over simplified, installs from a single CD, is exceptionally well supported by the community and a commercial entity, has sane release schedules, and (mostly successfully) strives to "Just work".

Expert: Gentoo because you can optimize and configure everything, and it's easy to roll your own patches into the portage tree. This lets you run completely customized code, while still using a very powerful package management system. If you are the kind of person who frequently builds software from source, you will love Gentoo and never go back.

Wannabe Enterprise User: Centos, which is a free clone of RedHat Enterprise Linux... RHEL isn't the Best on any front, but it is far and away the most common distro used in a stodgy corporate environment, and you'll be expected to know it if you want to be a pro.
posted by toxic at 5:58 AM on July 25, 2006

Debian is highly optimized for remote administration, and IMO is the best server distro going. The more you know, the more it pays off... the foundation is incredibly good.

Ubuntu takes the Debian core and polishes it up for the desktop. It has the same power under the hood, but it looks pretty and is nicely simple.

I don't see any real reason why you'd switch away from Ubuntu... it's easy to start with, but there's Debian down underneath. And, presumably, it would be just as good as Debian for servers.

So, my answer:

Beginner: Ubuntu
Intermediate: Ubuntu
Advanced: Ubuntu or Debian
posted by Malor at 6:09 AM on July 25, 2006

I recently read an interesting interview with Mark Shuttleworth - of Ubuntu fame - in which he claims that his two target audiences are
1. Power users - people who are developers themselves.
2. Complete beginners who just want an OS that lets them do email, document creation and web surfing with minimal additional fuss.

He claims that the people in the middle of the scale are harder to win over since they are the ones who are most likely to customise their Windows machines with devices that don't port to Lunix easily. They are also more likely to be dependent on Windows specific software.
posted by rongorongo at 6:18 AM on July 25, 2006

Well, here is where I would disagree with the breakdown of Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced.

For beginners using primarily desktop applications, I'd go with Ubuntu.

But advanced users can take advantage of the wide spectrum of domain-specific Linuxes (and BSDs). So as users become more advanced they can start saying things like, "I need an free software focused server system with a conservative focus on stability and security, I think I'll go Deban."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:25 AM on July 25, 2006

Ubuntu, IMO. I've put numerous users on it with much greater success than Mandrake or SuSE. Further, I fall under item 1 from rongorongo's list, so I've got direct daily experience with it and wouldn't (currently) use anything else.
posted by Kickstart70 at 7:18 AM on July 25, 2006

Heh. I use Ubuntu, and I fit into advanced power-user. (Actually, I use OSX most of the time, but Ubuntu is on my home wintel machine...) I liked how fast Slackware ran, but I had a rough time dealing with the lack of package management when I moved from supporting one or two servers to supporting a whole bunch of servers.

I think the question -- basic, intermediate, advanced -- is miscategorized. There are different distros for different *purposes*, and by the time you hit intermediate at least you are starting to see them.

Oh, and to answer the 'why would I switch if I'm an admin' -- when you first get into Linux, it'll take you forever to do anything. It's kind of like bumbling through a Microsoft administration app that you're not familiar with -- too many choices, don't know what to set, and the behaviour changes. But when you're an expert Linux user, you can usually accomplish the same task by editing a few text files and running a quick perl script... whereas an expert windows sysadmin is still stumbling through context menus that changed drastically since the version two years before.

If you're a beginner that doesn't want to do anything more than surf or do email, I'd use ubuntu. It's the prettiest, most struggle-free distro I've encountered. The toolset is rich and full. I'd also go this route if you eventually want to administer Debian servers.

If you're a beginner that needs to dive in quickly and learn how to solve the weirdest problems you'll ever encounter in Linux, or you expect to someday be administering a huge farm of RedHat servers, and you're not afraid of the command line or googling answers to odd issues, download a test build of Fedora Core. Fedora is a bleeding-edge distro that acts as a tesbed for Red Hat Enterprise Linux. The test builds especially are NOT the most stable things in the world, and at least back in 2003 when I worked with it last, things like getting a wireless card to work made for an interesting challenge.

SuSE is now, IMHO, a fringe distro. It's slipping into weird little niches in large companies, put there by people who were die-hard Novell fans forever. (Novell Netware/Groupwise is like the grout in your tiles -- it's scummy, mildewed and chipped, but your house would fall down without it.) Certain companies, like IBM, use SLES as their default desktop/server distro and run heavily customised kernels specifically debugged to run on all of their hardware. I've seen SuSE popping up in kiosks and POS terminals. It's strange. And SuSE is a fairly strange distro; it inherited Slackware's clunkiness, and yast2 is a pain in the ass to work with after being a redhat admin and having yum at my fingertips for ages. I wouldn't start with SuSE, but I would pick up familiarity with it at some point or another... because you WILL see it.

Mandrake/Linspire/etc. -- Bah, fug 'em. Mandrake has always been a fringe distro. I remember getting Mandrake 7 for free somehow, throwing it on an old PC, and trying to get it to run with my tulip-derivitive standard 3com wireless card. I then found out that Mandrake 7, even under full install, was somehow missing half of the C headers that are required to build new kernel objects. I haven't touched Mandrake since. Completely useless if you ever want to get good with Linux.

Wrap-up: It's useless to try to pick a distro NOW for when you're intermediate or advanced if you don't know what you want to do in the future. However, you can pick a starter distro based on what you think you'll be doing and where you want to go.
Painless/Debian admin? Ubuntu.
Painful/Fast-learning/Redhat? Fedora Core.

Good luck! It's truly freeing to get away from Windows.
posted by SpecialK at 7:38 AM on July 25, 2006

I think people are answering this a bit backwards. The idea of switching distributions when you get beyond "beginner" doesn't make much sense to me. If you're using Linux because you want to be productive at your computer, then:

Beginner: Ubuntu or Fedora or SuSE are all user-friendly.
Intermediate: Whatever you used as a beginner.
Expert: Whatever you used as a beginner.

If you're using it because you want to develop an employable skillset or because you want to become "a Linux expert" for whatever personal reasons:

Beginner: Ubuntu or Fedora or SuSE, as above.
Intermediate: Ubuntu and (Fedora or CentOS or RHEL) and Gentoo and Slackware and SuSE and Knoppix and... (and FreeBSD, and Solaris, and...)
Expert: The one that best fits the situation you're using it in.
posted by mendel at 7:53 AM on July 25, 2006

Gentoo (which I use) is nice for power users as it has a massive package database, so there's a good chance the obscure mail client/programming language/utility is available.

That said if all you want to do is e-mail and websurf and do a bit of word processing you probably can't go wrong with Ubuntu.
posted by PenDevil at 8:04 AM on July 25, 2006

Ubuntu is great for a beginner (and is currently the trendy pick). But for a long time Mandriva (ne Mandrake) was the beginners choice. It's no longer the sexy, hip, with-it option, but that makes it no less easy to use. Further, Mandriva's installer is way, way nicer than Ubuntu's, especially if you'll be partioning your drive. Wallmart is a big fan of Linspire, so we can assume that it is easy to use too.

For intermediate Fedora Core or Suse seem to be the most common options. There is a little less hand holding in their communities. (Everyone expects the newbs to start with Ubuntu or Mandriva.)

For advanced users pick anything. Advanced users will, most likely, stick to command lines and these are available with every distribution. Unlike other OSes there are no crippled versions of Linux. There is nothing missing from Ubuntu/Mandriva/Linspire, the expert user has all of the tools that are needed at hand. They just may be hidden below a pretty interface. (I assume you are just asking about desktop distros not about OSes for exotic purposes pr environments.)

The whole KDE vs. Gnome thing is a pain of a discussion. I think both are pretty straightforward. KDE has a lot more "native" applications like Koffice and Konquerer, but to some that just means that Gnome is more flexible. I really like Nautilus (Gnome's file manager) but a lot of people can't stand it.
posted by oddman at 8:07 AM on July 25, 2006

What you mean by "Expert" is a very important question.

My preference, personally and professionally, has been SuSE, since RedHat got out of the "Real non-enterprise distribution" business (Fedora isn't a distro, it's a toy).

Our clients run their businesses on Linux, mostly converted from SCO (since *SCO* no longer sells a real distro either :-), and we therefore have the predictable set of expectations... which SuSE 9 and 10 have been meeting handily.

If you mean "what distro can I use to build specialised systems out of", then yeah, maybe Slack or Debian, or even OpenWRT or DSL.

But for business servers, and increasingly, desktops, I'm quite happy with SuSE so far. We'll see how Open SuSE progresses.

As far as KDE v GNOME, my opinion is that KDE tracks more closely to "the Windows Experience" than GNOME does, making it slightly easier for people to pick up, and I've also always thought the industrial design was a bit more ... professional looking. To me, that's important.

I'll admit to not having looked at Gnome in depth for quite some time, though, so that may have changed.

Short version: *so much* of this is really taste and feel and experience and intuition; it's difficult to compose a sufficiently detailed list of requirements to come up with a really objective answer (as the number and tone of the comments on this thread ought to illustrate).

Hopefully, these replies will help you better define "best", "beginner", "intermediate" and "expert". :-)
posted by baylink at 8:34 AM on July 25, 2006

I actually use the Ubuntu variant, Kubuntu, now that it is officially supported. Mainly because I don't have to do much to keep it updated.

There are quite a few things that don't work the same under Linux vs Windows, 5 button mouse, for example, so the Ubuntu suite's support forums and Wiki are excelent tools for new users.
posted by slavlin at 9:49 AM on July 25, 2006

SpecialK: Mandrake was good for a long time. They had a strange thing with the kernel source they shipped, where somehow they included all the headers for every binary version they supplied. This messed up a clean build.... if you just went in, set options, and recompiled, you'd end up with a non-booting kernel. You had to issue some oddball command... not 'make distclean', but some other target. From there, it would work fine. Messed me up for awhile... pretty frustrating, because it wasn't clearly documented.

I dropped Mandriva when they dropped their founder, Gael Duval. But it was never a fringe distro... for many years, worldwide, it was a solid #2, behind RedHat, and ahead of SuSE. And it was a great place to start with Linux. But Ubuntu is now better.

One thing that people do not, in general, realize about Unix is this: you never stop learning it. With Windows, you spend a year or two, and you're about as good as you'll ever get. With Unix, that just means you're a clueful user.... another eight or ten years and you might be a guru. Layer after layer after layer, and at least with the open source variants, and every bit of it is under your control. The more you put in, the more you get out, and the ROI goes up with time, not down.

I've often said that you can nearly bring about world peace from the Unix command line. Maybe in a few more years I'll figure out the correct bash script. :)
posted by Malor at 10:31 AM on July 25, 2006

I like Ubuntu myself. I've been using it for almost 2 years (starting with the Warty preview) and have been pretty happy with it overall but I've dabbled with a lot of different distros. Ubuntu is still not quite the *most* absolute newbie friendly one, but it's a lot closer than it was. Dapper's LiveCD installer is a big step forward in that direction.

If you're just curious about more obscure but easy to use distros, you might look at Mepis (now Ubuntu-based, used to be built directly off of Debian) or maybe PCLinuxOS (Mandriva derivative). For Intermediate/Advanced users I'd also throw out a couple of other possibilities nobody's mentioned: Vector Linux (Slackware derived) which is particularly nice on old hardware, and Arch (scratch built) which draws users from both Slackware (Arch has a nice package manager and up to date packages) and Gentoo (Arch has a very streamlined and bare base system, and though binary based, is i686 optimized and allows for easy rebuilding of packages).

That said, for people with less interest in dabbling for its own sake and without as much time to kill as I obviously do (heh), it's probably better not to stray so far off the beaten path. It's just good to know there are a lot of interesting niche alternatives.

As for desktop environment, a good case can be made for either...KDE probably is more suited for Windows "power users" while Gnome is generally simpler and more intuitive overall. Both have a lot of themes and icon sets available, so it's easy to radically change their appearance if that's an issue.
posted by Pryde at 10:47 AM on July 25, 2006

Another vote for Ubuntu as great for beginners. It (and pretty much any distro) can continue to be great for intermediate and expert users. I agree with Baylink that what you mean by expert is relevant.

I'll throw in that it'd be useful to build Linux From Scratch once on one's way toward expert-hood, but it's not anything anyone would want to maintain for daily use.

Gentoo most facilitates obsessive control-freakish customization, but that, of itself, doesn't mean expert user, nor vice versa. (I have obsessive control-freakish customization tendencies myself and I like Gentoo and used it for a couple of years, but am using Ubuntu now.)

I don't have an opinion about Gnome vs. KDE; I use the ultra-minimalist keyboard-centric Ratpoison window manager. From when I've used Gnome and KDE, and from what I've read, having a strong preference for one of them seems to me very much a matter of taste.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 11:09 AM on July 25, 2006

I strongly reccomend SuSE for beginners, and for "the desktop". The install is easy, everything just works, and the release cycle is really fast (6 months, way better than everyone else).

For server environments, Debian is it.
posted by phrontist at 11:47 AM on July 25, 2006

phrontist: why would you suggest SuSE at first and then force them into another (albeit less steep) learning curve when they get to the stage of administrating servers? That makes no sense.

I'll give you the fact that SuSE might be -as- user-friendly as Ubuntu, but I do know it's not -more-.
posted by Kickstart70 at 1:08 PM on July 25, 2006

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