A distribution is a type of Linux. Linux comes in a large number of distributions, some of which are designed for everyday use, and others designed with a specific task or device in mind. We'll discuss some of those differences below.
Most Linux distributions have a special type of CD, called a live CD. If you insert this CD and then restart your computer, the live CD will run Linux on the computer while avoiding changing anything on your computer as much as possible. For example it won't normally install any files on your PC, but run only from the CD. You can give the operating system a try to see if you like it without the risk of installing anything on your hard drive. You should remember that linux typically runs very fast - if the system seems slow, it is because it is running off your CD drive, not your hard drive.
Choosing A Distro
There are dozens of different Linux distributions. Here are some ways to help you narrow down the options to a short list.
- How do you intend to use the system?
- Desktop or server? This distinction is probably the most important. Distributions for the desktop will have a graphical user interface, while server distributions won't.
- Specific hardware requirements
- Try out a few LiveCDs of different distributions. Does it recognize and work properly with your hardware?
- If you intend to install Linux on a low-end specification computer, or you have other peculiar hardware compatibility problems or requirements, your choice might be influenced by this need. Most linux distributions should run fine on all but the lowest end of the spectrum.
- Application support
- Which applications or desktop environment are important to you?
- Does a given distribution install those programs by default or is it easy to install and integrate them with the rest or your system?
- Does the distribution have a good package management system, and suitable software repositories?
- What options will be available for getting support? Is commercial (paid) support available? Is there free community support? If the distribution has a small user base, you will have a harder time getting distribution-specific support, as compared to a more widely-used distribution.
- Desktop environment
- For desktop systems, you'll need to feel at home. Check out Linux Guide/Desktop environments for information on some common ones. GNOME and KDE are the two most popular.
Try a distro chooser, like http://www.zegeniestudios.net/ldc/. Often several different distributions will meet all your requirements. Your final choice from the short list may be based on whim or personal taste.
- Main page: Linux Guide/Distros in detail
- A minimalistic and lightweight distribution that caters to the experienced Linux user. User-contributed build scripts for many programs are available in the Arch User Repository.
- Contains a lot of packages.
- Comparatively easy to use and update.
- Very stable; expect a longer wait between software updates.
- Free version of Red Hat Linux.
- Offers four levels of installation, very time consuming, but easy to upgrade.
- Used mainly by advanced users. All packages are compiled from source, which makes it easy to exclude unneeded parts of software, or optimize programs for the user's system. This includes the Linux kernel.
- Linux From Scratch
- This page details how to build a Linux system without relying on any particular distribution. For experts only.
- Linux Mint
- Makes Ubuntu easier with improved hardware detection, scripts, and multimedia integration.
- Mageia Linux
- A distribution based on the now-discontinued Mandriva Linux, with easy configuration utilities and many useful applications.
- Based on Arch, but a lot easier to install and use.
- Distribution designed mostly for business, but very user friendly and easy to pick up and use.
- Very popular for beginners.
- Red Hat
- Commercial distribution (but see centOS) designed mostly for business, yet also usable for individuals.
- The free version is Fedora (above)
- Gentoo Linux-based distribution that focuses on newest technologies.
- Slackware Linux
- One of the first Linux distributions.
- Easy installation, but a bit of knowledge would be useful. Users are encouraged to install all of the available software along with the system. This does not slow down the system, as none of them are enabled by default. This cuts down on package management significantly.
- The most successful and popular desktop distro based on Debian.
- Uses the Gnome user interface and has frequent updates.
- Very easy to use and install.
- Ubuntu Linux has different variations:
- Kubuntu: Uses KDE instead of Gnome. Also see KubuntuGuide.
- Xubuntu: A light-weight version of Ubuntu that uses Xfce instead of Unity. This version is useful for less powerful PCs and for people who want a simple interface.
- Lubuntu: A very light-weight but still full-featured version that uses LXDE instead of Gnome. This version is useful for legacy PCs and for people that want to get the most out of their hardware. Lighter than even Xubuntu.
- Edubuntu: Distribution designed for educational purposes.
- Studio: Distribution designed for multimedia production.
- Linux Mint (above) is a remastered version of Ubuntu