Which Linux distros should newbies use?

A fresh look at some of the more popular Linux distros (plus one non-Linux OS), and an impression of their ease of use.

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Easy or tough?

Linux has a bad rap as a daily driver – the programs aren’t written to run on Linux, it’s tricky to install stuff, and so on. But it might surprise people who think along those lines to learn that plenty of the distributions out there are actually quite simple to use. Here’s our latest appreciation of the desktop Linux landscape.

Ubuntu
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Ubuntu

It’s tempting to call Ubuntu the Linux distro that even non-techies know about, but to be honest, most non-techies don’t even know what Linux is. Nevertheless, it’s still the best-known distro out there, and it’s been the de facto standard for breaking in new Linux users for years. If you're looking at a commercial laptop with Linux pre-installed, it probably runs Ubuntu.

NEWB-FRIENDLY?: And how.

Debian
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Debian

Talking about Debian as its own distro doesn’t really tell the whole story – it’s also the base technology for a ton of others, including Ubuntu and – by extension – Mint and many besides. But even on its own, it’s one of the most carefully governed, thoughtfully constructed distributions available. It just received several important security fixes, as well, including one for a root vulnerability that dates back more than a decade.

NEWB-FRIENDLY?: Sure, even if it’s not designed expressly for it.

CentOS
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CentOS

CentOS is the free version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, from which it is derived. The idea is to provide a free option for enterprises and other organizations seeking an operating system, and CentOS dates all the way back to 2004. It’s come a long way, baby.

NEWB-FRIENDLY?: Reasonably, sure.

Arch

Arch

Arch is meant to be as flexible and user-configurable as possible, and it has a devoted following in certain parts of the Linux community. Some of them participated in “Twitch Installs Arch Linux,” a while back, a real-time, crowdsourced task in the vein of “Twitch Plays Pokemon” or “Twitch Plays Dark Souls.” Calling it the “hipster” Linux distro is probably unfair, but it gives you some idea.

NEWB-FRIENDLY?: Nope.

LXLE
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LXLE

LXLE is a somewhat recent offshoot of Lubuntu, itself the “flavor” of Ubuntu that uses the LXDE desktop environment. It marries the usual light weight and simplicity of LXDE to some surprisingly robust features and attractive visuals, and is said to run nicely even on dated hardware, per contributing editor Mark Gibbs.

NEWB-FRIENDLY?: Quite so.

OpenSUSE
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OpenSUSE

OpenSUSE is, appropriately enough, the free and open-source version of SUSE Linux, made and marketed by the German company of the same name. It’s a straightforward distro, expressly designed to be accessible and easy to use, and recent shakeups of the development process have seen SUSE Enterprise Linux code integrated into the open-source product for the first time. There's a rolling release version - Tumbleweed - and a stable distribution called Leap.

NEWB-FRIENDLY?: Certainly, yes.

Fedora

Fedora

Fedora is one of two branches that sprouted when Red Hat discontinued Red Hat Linux, the other being Red Hat Enterprise Linux (the commercial version, which is, in fact, derived from Fedora these days). Fedora’s the free variant, obviously, and is one of the best-supported and most actively developed operating systems out there.

NEWB-FRIENDLY?: Pretty much – blocking off access to software that doesn’t meet strict free software requirements might irk some, but the system itself is easy enough to use.

Manjaro

Manjaro

Where parent distro Arch isn’t so welcoming, Manjaro was built from the ground up to be a user-friendly Linux OS – easy to install and as headache-free as possible, with everything the average non-specialist user could want working straight out of the box.

NEWB-FRIENDLY?: Absolutely.

FreeBSD
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FreeBSD

We know, we know – it’s definitely NOT a Linux distribution. But FreeBSD is still reasonably popular among some sectors of the free software community. It’s an alternative to an alternative, but the project is still chugging right along.

NEWB-FRIENDLY?: For the technically experienced, it’s probably fine, but real newbs might run into trouble.

Mint

Mint

If Ubuntu is the best-known Linux distro, Mint is its main challenger, and plenty of people think that the guard has changed already. Mint is famously easy to use, and even if it's had a rougher ride lately - a 2016 security breach saw its website distributing compromised ISOs - it's still a great choice for new Linux users.

NEWB-FRIENDLY?: You bet.