Choice and flexibility are the hallmarks of a Linux distribution, and by extension the Linux ecosystem. With the proprietary Windows and OS X, you're stuck with the system as designed and can't make changes no matter how unpleasant you may find the experience. Linux distributions are free of such limitations.
Each distro has the Linux kernel at its core, but builds on top of that with its own selection of other components, depending on the target audience of the distro. Most Linux users switch between distros until they finally find the one that best suits their needs. However, for new and inexperienced users, the choice of hundreds of distros, with seemingly little to distinguish them, can seem challenging to say the least.
Largely speaking, Linux distros can be grouped into seemingly endless categories such as the default graphical environment, the underlying package management system, single developer distros or distros backed by large billion dollar enterprises, and so on.
In this feature we're focusing primarily on the desktop. Some desktop distros aim to keep things as simple as possible, while others give you more control. These distros have different installation routines, along with different desktop environments, package management schemes, and administration tools.
For users well versed with the Linux way of working, and hoping to better understand the internals of Linux, we'll also look at distros for skilled users and one distro that has been labelled as advanced by the Linux community.
While not the first distro designed for inexperienced Linux desktop users, Ubuntu has established itself as one of the most well-known.
The distro features the home-grown Unity desktop, one of the most polarising desktop environments in the Linux ecosystem. But that's about the extent of the project's missteps. For the most part, the distro remains incredibly polished and sophisticated for all manner of users, but especially new converts.
Ubuntu has one of the easiest installation mechanisms. It doesn't include proprietary codecs by default, but you can include them during installation simply by clicking a checkbox. This distro is released twice a year with regular Long Term Support (LTS) releases that are supported for five years.
One of the most exciting new features of version 14.10 is user-level container control. This allows for greater security as users can run containers with superuser privileges. The latest release also features support for OpenStack Juno, which is a feature more relevant to experienced users than newbies.
Tools for browsing the web, accessing emails, playing multimedia files and working with office documents are available out of the box. The distro also boasts of one the largest software repositories that you can easily mine for additional apps, and Ubuntu Software Centre remains one of the best software management tools that has inspired various clones.
Verdict: This is a sterling distro which is very polished and sophisticated, and remains a great choice for those new to the world of Linux.
One of the most popular RPM-based distros, OpenSUSE, has shunned its KDE preference and now looks consistent across desktops. However, it remains one of the leading users of (and contributors to) the KDE desktop.
Its all-in-one management tool YaST (Yet another Setup Tool) can handle software installation as well as system configuration and administration. It can be used to configure just about every aspect of the system, from appearance to hardware. While it's convenient to have all these settings in one place, it can seem a bit overwhelming and intimidating, especially to new Linux users.
Taking a cue from distros that feature a straightforward installer, the latest release of OpenSUSE features a very simple installer. Almost all the advanced options, such as setting up a printer and configuring LDAP, are no longer a part of the installer, making the process quick and more appealing to new users.
One of OpenSUSE's most popular features is the ability to revert between two snapshots. A snapshot is created every time you make changes to the system with the YaST configuration tool. With the Snapper tool, you can then compare the changes and also revert to the previous snapshot of the system.
Another innovative feature aimed at new users is the one-click install system which makes installation of packages a breeze.
Verdict: OpenSUSE has taken major steps to be more appealing to new users. Everything from installation to software management is easier with the latest release.
One of the oldest Linux distros, Fedora can trace its origins back to the 1990s and Red Hat Linux. Fedora came into being when Red Hat decided to split its Red Hat Linux distribution into Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora Project in 2003.
The distro aims to provide a completely free software system and has traditionally been pitched as an alternative to Ubuntu. Due to its focus on providing bleeding edge software and server-centric features, this RPM-based distro has often been described as suitable for advanced users.
Fedora's ease of use has diminished since the introduction of the Gnome 3 desktop, a phenomenal departure from the traditional desktop metaphor. The Gnome project, however, has worked tirelessly to provide a better user experience to new users and this is evident in the latest releases.
Fedora has traditionally lacked a decent software management tool despite several attempts at providing a suitable alternative to the popular Synaptic Package Manager. Perhaps it will have better luck with Gnome Software, the continuously improving Ubuntu Software Centre lookalike.
The project aims for a new release roughly every six months. With the next release, Fedora will begin offering three variants: Cloud, Server and Workstation. Each of these will be built upon the same base, with other components added on to suit the target user base.
Verdict: A very capable distro for an experienced Linux user, and one that's trying to reinvent itself.