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Flipping the Linux switch: The distribution maze

Who doesn't love choices? You can "have it your way" at fast food restaurants. No two cars ever cost the same, because of add-ons and price negotiations. We like choice. It's a good thing.


Choice, really, is a double-edged sword. We get too many choices, and we can get easily overwhelmed. "Oh crud, another option..." leads to "What do I care?" leads to "Forget it." We either select our options without thinking through (or understanding) the consequences, or we drop what we're trying to customize without ever getting all the way through.

Choosing a Linux distribution is tough. We're not kidding. There are a lot of them out there... some wonderful, some not so wonderful, and some that are designed to fit very specific needs you may (or may not) have.

So how are you supposed to sort through them all?

Here's a hint. You don't. Not all of them, anyway.

There are two real criteria a Linux distribution has to meet for most users. It has to support the hardware they install the distribution on, and it has to perform in a way they want and, to some degree, expect.

The first criteria is pretty easy. For instance, many years ago we tried installing Fedora Core 2 on a computer. It would not work. We tweaked the BIOS, we tried different kernel parameters. It would hang. It turned out that particular version of Fedora had some issues with the motherboard we had. Okay, fine. Easy enough, that ruled out running Fedora Core on that box (at least at that time), and we moved on to the next distro.

Some distros will support more hardware than others, and just because something doesn't work right out of the box on a given distro doesn't mean it can't ever work with it. In reality, though, if you find a distro (or two) that supports your hardware (or at least the core components) nicely from the get-go, don't beat yourself up trying out a distro that doesn't support as much of your hardware just because you like the look or feel of it. We've found it's generally easier to change looks and behavior than it is to make all the hardware play nicely, especially if you're new to it all.

Think about what you want to do with your computer. Do you want to do common desktop tasks (word processing, internet browsing and light multimedia work)? Are you looking for an installation that serves a particular purpose (maybe a PVR like MythTV or a server distribution)? Think about the functions or programs you need, and focus on the distros that provide all or most of them out of the box.

Remember how we mentioned earlier about not trying every distro? Seriously. Don't. Don't even try half of them. We'd dare say, starting out, don't even try more than four or five liveCDs before deciding what to install, and even that's probably pushing it.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to try a lot of different distributions. We would question the wisdom of trying more than five in a short period though. You're going to get overwhelmed, frustrated, and confused unless you take notes about what works and doesn't.

Make this easy on yourself. This is supposed to be fun. It is fun. It's not a lifelong commitment to a distribution. You can change periodically. We do, regularly. Skills are transferable... even your home directory and settings can be transferable.

We'd recommend approaching distribution choice this way: Try two of each major packaging system. Try two Debian based systems, perhaps Ubuntu or Mint or Debian itself. Try two RPM based distros, like openSuSE or Mandriva or Fedora Core.

One might jump out immediately as the one for you. At the very least, you'll get a feel for the different package management systems. Depending on which you prefer, you can, if you need to, explore other options that use your preferred management system.

Every once in a while a tool comes down the pike to help you choose your Linux distribution. Check out the Linux Distribution Chooser, or the (very brief) survey at Though not terribly scientific, this type of survey can get you started working with the most likely compatible distros.

The really important thing to keep in mind while choosing is that it is very much allowed (and normal!) to change your mind and try something else as you get more comfortable. We've found new users feel a bit less overwhelmed if they limit themselves to trying a few major distributions. It's certainly possible to blaze new Linux trails later, but keeping on the path of a solid, established distro at the beginning can make things a lot less stressful.

Tags: choice, distribution, distro, Linux, linux-switch, open source, OpenSource, operating system, OperatingSystem