Picking a Linux Distro

debian forks timeline

I talk a lot about Linux here, and I encourage everyone to try it out if you haven’t yet. How do you go about selecting said Linux distribution (distro for short)? I’m going to go over some of the most popular distributions and their history. I’ll also go over the different desktops that are available.

Here is a list of the distributions I’ll be discussing.

When you are researching distros there is really only one resource worth mentioning. DistroWatch. They offer daily news, a weekly newsletter, a list of the top 100 distros, package tracking, education, and even a random distro pick to highlight each day. And once you select your distro, they link straight to its home page.

Desktop Environments

Before I talk about each distro, I need to clarify what a desktop environment is. Some distros will give you a choice of desktop environments.

Really? (This is what I thought when I discovered this.) So, after agonizing for hours (it may have been minutes) over which distribution I’m going to try, now I need to pick which version of the distribution I want??? Come. On.

But yes. You need to pick which version of the distribution you want. Otherwise known as a desktop environment. Luckily, most distributions stick with a handful of desktops.

  • GNOME gnome desktop with fedora linux
  • KDE KDE desktop on openSUSE Linux
  • Xfce xfce desktop version 4.10
  • LXDE LXDE desktop for Linux
  • MATE mate desktop on fedora linux
  • Unity Unity 7 in Ubuntu Linux
  • Cinnamon cinnamon desktop on linux mint 18

There are others, but these are the most used. Not all distributions offer all these desktops. Some only offer one or two. Some you can pick whichever desktop you want.

Each desktop has its own graphic user interface (GUI) that affects the look of your distribution. It comes with its own GUI tools, such as a text editor (Windows equivalent: Notepad), a file manager (Windows equivalent: Windows Explorer or File Explorer), a document viewer (Adobe), a web browser (Internet Explorer or Edge), a task bar, a terminal emulator (cmd.exe), a calculator, and other hidden toolkits and managers.

GNOME is by far the most popular. It and KDE are also the most resource intensive. Many of the other desktops, such as Cinnamon, are based on GNOME.

The desktops that are the least resource intensive are called lightweight. Lightweight desktops include Xfce and LXDE. You would want one of these if you have old hardware or a small CPU or small amount of RAM or if you just want to minimize the space for the operating system in order to maximize the space for actual data files. Xfce began in 1996 and is now an option for most of the major Linux distributions. LXDE stands for Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment, and was started in 2006 in Taiwan.

MATE was started in 2011 in protest against GNOME 3. The creators preferred GNOME 2 and created MATE to continue the evolution of a GNOME 2 desktop.

The only desktop that is found on only one distro is Unity, for Ubuntu Linux. However, Ubuntu’s parent company Canonical, announced recently that they’re stopping development of Unity and will no longer offer it on future releases. But you can still use it. Some people really like it. (And some really don’t.)

Cinnamon, like MATE, began as a protest against GNOME 3. However, instead of continuing GNOME 2, they simply took GNOME 3 and made it into a more conventional looking desktop. It is similar in look and feel to Windows 7. I use the Cinnamon desktop with Linux Mint and I enjoy it.

My suggestion is that you research what distro you want and see which desktops it comes with. Then decide which desktop you prefer. Try it out and see if you like it. Rinse and repeat if desired.

Popular Distributions

Debian

Debian is the grandmother of Linux distributions. Check out the picture for this post. That is showing some of the distributions that are forked from Debian. (Forked means someone took Debian and changed it in a minor way to suit their desires and called it something else. This is legal to do because of the open source license used to build Linux distributions.) Here is the full image that shows all Linux distributions between 1992 and 2012:

Linux distributions timeline 1992-2012

Yeah. Debian is the basis of easily a third of all distros. Debian was founded in 1993 and it was one of the earliest distros to be based on a free software concept.

A distro can be stable or bleeding edge, also called rolling release. Stable versions use proven technology that has been thoroughly tested and has been around for a while. Rolling release versions use some of the newest technologies to keep up with current trends. Rolling releases are more likely to have bugs and do unexpected things. Stable releases are less likely to incorporate new tech.

Debian issues stable releases about every couple years (named after characters in Toy Story). They also offer two versions of rolling releases they call testing releases and unstable releases for developers.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu comes from an African word meaning humanity. It was started in 2004 by the company Canonical, Ltd, in the UK. The goal for Ubuntu is to be a Linux distribution that is easy to install and easy to use. The distro stood out when, in 2010, it introduced a brand new desktop made for Ubuntu called Unity. Some people love Unity, some hate it. I’ve never used it.

Ubuntu tries to release every six months in April and October, and they refer to them with a two digit year and two digit month separated by a dot. Newest release is this month, so it is 18.04. Long term support releases (LTS) are released every two years in April on even years, therefore this release is the LTS release. They also name their releases alliteratively with an adjective and an animal. 18.04 is named Bionic Beaver. (Lol)

If you want different desktops with Ubuntu, they offer various “flavors” of Ubuntu. For example, Lubuntu offers a lightweight version that uses the LXDE desktop environment. This is great for older PCs or even Raspberry Pi computers – Lubuntu has a version specifically for a Raspberry Pi environment. Or, Xubuntu is offered with the Xfce desktop, which is meant to use fewer resources yet still be user-friendly with a customizable look.

Canonical is a heavyweight in the Linux world and sometimes steps on other people’s toes to get what they want. But, for all the strong arming, they are after all providing free software that works really well.

Mint

Linux Mint is the distro that I use the most, so I know the most about it. I first downloaded the Cinnamon desktop and I’ve stuck with it ever since. It is easy to install and use and quite similar in look and feel to Windows 7. It’s a fork of Ubuntu, so if you know Mint, you’ll be familiar with Ubuntu as well. For example, it uses the same package manager as Ubuntu.

Mint tops the popular distro chart pretty much all the time these days. If you want a really easy introduction to Linux and you’re used to Windows, try Mint.

Manjaro

I’m also familiar with Manjaro after using it for about a year around 2015 or 2016. It’s based off of Arch Linux, which I’ll discuss later. Manjaro started in 2011 and is on a rolling release schedule, which means it includes some newer tech than a distro that is a stable release.

Manjaro can be downloaded with KDE, XFCE, GNOME, or even no desktop! Many other desktops are supported by others and can be downloaded from other sites.

In the end, I gave up using Manjaro. I think I’m just not a person for rolling releases or my hardware wasn’t up to snuff. I didn’t like updating; it was annoying and sometimes really messed up my setup. It would take a super long time to update anything from the AUR. So, I’m mainly sticking with Mint for now. Maybe when I know more and feel more comfortable I can revisit Manjaro later.

On a positive note, however, since I found out about Manjaro it has rocketed up the charts from number 12 to number 2 in most popular distros on DistroWatch! Good for Manjaro! If you’re an experienced Linux user I recommend trying it out.

Fedora

Fedora is a bleeding edge distro that likes to include the newest tech. Because of this, if you decide to download a brand new version within the first couple of months of its release, there may still be bugs that need to be worked out. Caveat Emptor and all that. However, once you get past the first few months, you will have one of the best experiences with this distro as with almost any other.

Red Hat Enterprise

Red Hat is the only distro in this list that caters to the corporate world. Even though the operating system is free, they highly restrict distribution due to Red Hat trademarks. They also charge for technical support.

RHEL as it is currently known started in 2002, with RHEL 2. Each version uses a different Linux kernel. The most recent version is RHEL 7, which uses kernel 3.10.0.

Red Hat is a stable release that takes its code from previous versions of Fedora. Because Fedora is a bleeding edge release, it stays leaps and bounds ahead of Red Hat. Red Hat takes a Fedora release, tests and refines it, and releases it several years after the initial Fedora version from which it is derived.

CentOS

If you’re not a corporation, but are interested in working for one that uses Red Hat Enterprise Linux, try CentOS. This distro is specifically made to mirror Red Hat. The developers take the Red Hat code (which is free), strip out the Red Hat trademarks, and offer it as CentOS for free. This is legal because Red Hat uses an open source software license, as nearly all Linux distros do.

Kali

Kali Linux is specifically made for hackers (legitimately: penetration testers). It includes a huge suite of networking tools that you’d otherwise have to install after the fact.

Kali Linux is not recommended if you’re new to Linux due to the fact that it installs with a single default root user. You can do a lot of damage if you don’t know what you’re doing. I haven’t used Kali Linux, but I’d like to try it out someday.

openSUSE

openSUSE Linux started when Novell acquired the SUSE project in 2003. SUSE Linux had been a closed-development model that charged for a current release and offered a free version two months later. Novell created openSUSE to be a completely open source, open development Linux version.

SUSE appeared first in 1994, from a company based in Germany. It is known for its configuration manager YaST, which stands for Yet another Setup Tool, whose logo is an Aardvark. YaST continues in openSUSE Linux.

It is offered with GNOME or KDE, but you can install another desktop if you want. This would probably be an okay distro for a beginner Linux user, but moreso if you are an intermediate or advanced Windows user.

Gentoo

Now we start getting into the advanced Linux distributions. The next three distros do not encourage or offer use of one-click installation. You build your Linux operating system from the ground up. You’ll only want to try these after you get more comfortable with the Linux way things work.

Gentoo Linux offers some really great resources for newbies who have never built their own operating system before. There is a handbook with step by step instructions for your particular architecture. The forums are also a good place to go for help.

Gentoo started in 1999, first called Enoch Linux. Its purpose was to be a modular distro without precompiled binaries. This way, it would be specially made for the hardware on which it is installed. In 2002, it was renamed Gentoo for the fastest-swimming penguin species. Its package manager is called Portage, and contains over 19,000 packages. Gentoo is one of the few Linux distros not forked from another distro. There aren’t really version numbers, per se, and no need to upgrade after installing Gentoo. Anytime the system is updated (called emerge), it is considered to be the current version of Gentoo.

I recommend this distro for people who are experienced with Linux and looking to further their knowledge.

Arch

For a distro that requires advanced Linux knowledge, Arch Linux is very popular. It was started in 2002.

It comes with a package manager, called pacman, which links to the Arch User Repository – AUR. And that’s pretty much it. Then you install whatever tools you need and nothing else. You don’t even need a desktop if you don’t want. If you do, pick whatever desktop you like. You’ll have to install it yourself of course.

As with Gentoo, there aren’t really versions. Just keep all your packages updated after installation. Arch is very good at incorporating the newest bleeding edge technology. If you want to stay up to date on open source technology, you’ll probably want to use Arch.

Arch also has a very extensive wiki page where you can learn pretty much everything there is to learn about Arch. Because of its popularity, there are many forks of Arch, including Manjaro, ArchLabs, and BlackArch for pentesters.

Slackware

Slackware began in 1993 as improvements to the Softlanding Linux System by a college student named Patrick Volkerding. (SLS is the same project that inspired SUSE Linux.) Eventually, Volkerding had so many improvements, he changed the name to Slackware as a joke and provided it for free to the rest of his college campus.

Slackware takes a hands off approach to package management. They do not natively include dependency resolution and really just offer up packages as the developers write them. You may think that the advanced nature of the installation means that Slackware embraces rolling releases that incorporate the newest technology. It is the opposite. Volkerding, who is affectionately called Slackware’s “Benevolent Dictator for Life” due to the control he’s kept over the life of the distro, prefers stable technology. This makes Slackware one of the stablest Linux distros you’ll find. This is a great distro for experienced Linux users who don’t want to have to think about their operating system.

FreeBSD

FreeBSD is the only distro here that is not based on a Linux kernel. However, a lot of people who like Linux also like FreeBSD. BSD stands for Berkeley Software Distribution and is modeled after Unix (like Linux). FreeBSD is an entire operating system rather than a branded kernel with many third parties’ software delivered on top as Linux is.

The first version of FreeBSD was released in 1993. It came out of a project at UC Berkeley where students were given Unix code from AT&T to modify it for the BSD Project.

One of the things I always hear about FreeBSD is that “It just works.” I haven’t tried it myself, but I’d like to try it out someday.

Conclusion

These are really just a few of the most popular Linux distributions. Take a look at some of these links to read more about them. I hope this gives you some ideas for different distros you’d like to try out. Which distro is your favorite and why? What makes it so great?

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