Choosing a GNU/Linux Distribution

This article was made to help users without GNU/Linux experience to choose a distribution. Today there are about 800 distributions, and choosing the right distribution could make you like or not GNU/Linux.

Why it is important to choose the right GNU/Linux distribution?

GNU/Linux is a libre operative system, and because of this, many people with different ideas have developed and created different distributions. Today there are about 800 distributions and choosing the right one could make you like or not GNU/Linux.

I still remember the first time I installed a GNU/Linux distro, it was Ubuntu. It was ok, but I reset it after a month and I re-installed Windows. Years after (I think in 2014), with some motivation to try again, I struggled to install Debian, and one month after, I was fascinated with this operative system. I understood the real value of GNU/Linux, and since then I've been using it as my personal computer & server. Debian introduced me to the real world of GNU/Linux, and I could not choose to use any other operative system.

Some big lines about the most popular distributions

  • Main distributions:
  • fedora
    • First release in 1993.
    • The distribution is maintained by Patrick Volkerding.
    • Only experienced GNU-Linux users will be able to use it.
  • debian
    • First release in 1996.
    • It stands for libre software, but it gives the choice of using non-free software.
    • It is a really stable distribution, and it is widely used over networks and businesses.
    • It is not noob-friendly, its community will expect from you to search & read the docs before asking stuff.
    • New releases are about each 2 years, in the meantime only security updates are provided.
  • arch
    • First release in 2002.
    • It is updated through rolling release. A system that allows the software to be updated as soon as it evolves.
    • It requires more GNU-Linux bases than Debian.
  • fedora
    • First release in 2003.
    • It is sponsored by Red Hat.
    • It requires some minimal GNU-Linux bases.
    • As same as Arch, it is a bleeding-edge distribution and the software is pretty updated.
    • It is probably the most used distribution by private business that needs to have GNU/Linux servers.
  • Secondary distributions (Ugh!):
  • ubuntu
    • First release in 2004.
    • It is a Debian based distribution.
    • It is the most popular distribution for new users.
    • It is maintained by Canonical, and one of its sponsors is Amazon.
    • It is easy to install and "there's no need to customize anything".
    • It includes proprietary software by default.
    • New releases are about each 6 months.
  • kubuntu
    • First release in 2005.
    • It is an Ubuntu-Based distribution. It uses the same packages & package versions, and they have activated by default the community repositories.
    • It uses the KDE desktop environment instead of Unity.
    • It includes proprietary software by default.
    • It is really easy to use, and probably the default look will make feel comfortable GNU/Linux newbies.
  • mint
    • First release in 2006.
    • It was an Ubuntu-based distribution, and it recently switched to Debian.
    • It includes proprietary software by default.
    • New releases are about each 6 months.
    • It includes non-free software by default.
    • It is really easy to use.

Distribution Comparison

When choosing a distribution, there is a compromise between stability, security and bleeding-edge software. Some people don't really understand why they need to do this, and they see it as a disadvantage when actually it is a great advantage. GNU/Linux is libre and thanks to its people can make choices. Private systems give no choice other than the one made by the provider!

  • Installation: How easy is the distribution to install. This field takes in mind adding the necessary hardware to make the computer work correctly.

  • Hardware: Supported hardware (Hardware is the software that computers need to be able to use their physical devices such as screens, Wi-Fi, mouse, printers, etc...).

  • Packages: This refers to the software, libraries and doc that you can directly download through their official repositories. You can imagine this like an "App Store" for downloading everything you need. You can also download and install things from the web, but when they are coming from the official repositories, you can be sure that they will be supported, easy to install and secure.

  • Bleeding-Edge: This refers to the official packages. Some distributions choose to not always use the last available version of software, and sometimes this can considerably affect the choice of a distribution.

    By using the last available version of software, some people consider that there are security and stability risks. This is why some distributions like Debian choose to stick to a version, try it, and give it only security updates until the next version of the distribution.

  • Desktop: This takes in mind the comfort and design of the desktop manager. But in reality I don't think that this should be rated because most distributions allows to easily change the desktop manager. There is more info about this at the next part of the article.

  • Documentation: How much documentation exists about the distribution. This may be a tricky field because even if there is a lot of documentation, it doesn't mean that you will be able to understand it (most people are not used to read and search information).

    Another important fact is that since all the distros are Linux based, a lot of documentation can be used for different distributions.

  • Customization: This field also takes in mind how easy it is to customize, but it is based on the fact of having basic GNU/Linux and programming knowledge. If you only want to click buttons and change dumb things like the screen wallpaper or general system settings, Ubuntu/Mint would have a score of 5 and Debian a score of 2.

  • Community: How many communities are out there to support and help the project. This field can be tricky to noobs because, for example, the Debian community will not help them if they are having some common problem that has already been documented. The Debian community expects you to make an effort of reading the docs.

What is KDE, LXDE, XFCE?

Often when choosing to download a distribution, there are multiple choices with links containing "KDE, LXDE, XFCE, etc...". They all are desktop environments, and they refer to the default desktop environment.

So what is a desktop environment? In a simple understanding: They define "the look" of the graphical interfaces and things like gestures, the application's look, and some default software like file managers. Desktop environments use themes to define the color and the icons, it is then possible to have a different look for the windows by just switching the theme.

Most popular D.E. are:

  • LXDE: A really lightweight environment. Perfect for pretty old machines.

  • XFCE: Is the second-lightest environment. It is pretty simple and highly customizable.

  • MATE: Was created with the look of GNOME2 because many people don't like GNOME3.

  • KDE: For me, it is like XFCE with unnecessary effects, but many people like it.

  • GNOME3: Is an excellent desktop environment with a nice look, modern tools and the best compatibility. Personally I don't like its default look and behaviour, so I only use it after installing the Dash to Panel plugin. I recommend you to start with this D.E.

Note: it is possible to have multiple desktop environments, they all work like a "big software" and they are launched at the startup by the session manager.

My personal opinion and favourite distros

I could write pages about this, and even more easily if I comment on the distributions that I do not like, but to keep it short and simple, my two favourite distributions are ArchLinux amp; Debian. Archlinux is my favourite distribution for personal computers, and Debian for servers.

And as a fun fac, some years ago, I was so impressed by Arch's stability, that I experimented to hosted some of my servers on it. It was successful, and I had a lot of fun doing it, but as expected, with time I got tired of the maintenance because there were too many code updates. Finally, I decided to move back my servers to Debian but it was a good experience.

So what distribution should you use?

Well, I cannot really tell you that. The only thing that I can advise you, is that if you are starting with GNU/Linux, you can begin with some noob distribution like Ubuntu and then if you manage to install it and to stop using private software, move to a better and more ethical distribution like Debian or ArchLinux.

Most people struggle and don't manage to install GNU/Linux or move from noobuntu, so I wish you good luck!

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Extra Credits

  • The distributions and the preview image were taken from here.


  • Published on July 7, 2015.
  • Last modified on Dec 15, 2023.


The content of this article is released under the Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license.