Note: Our best Linux distro for beginners feature has been fully updated. This article was first published in January 2014.
For those folks dipping their toes into Linux waters for the first time, the choice of various distributions or 'flavours' of Linux can be truly overwhelming, especially if you're not sure what to look for.
In the early days of Linux, choosing a distribution (distro) was much simpler. You usually selected one you had heard about or with which you had a small amount of experience. There were also far fewer choices beyond Red Hat Linux, Debian and Slackware.
While you can still make a choice based on these criteria, the sheer number of Linux distros available now, and their ever vocal fan bases, makes it difficult to settle on one and get started.
So let's ignore those voices altogether, and add one of our own. We've deliberately shied away from the popular mainstream distros here, as we didn't just want easy-to-use distros. Instead, we've selected four that we believe are ideal starting points.
We have not included the regular version of Ubuntu as in our opinion it isn't exactly right for beginners as is. However, three of the four versions of Linux we'll be discussing are based on the Ubuntu operating system, with a few important changes.
We've also picked one that's specifically aimed at those switching from Windows – in previous years, we were also able to feature a distro that was specifically aimed at macOS users too, but it (Pear Linux) has sadly been discontinued. However, both Pinguy and Elementary contain elements that will definitely appeal to Mac switchers – Elementary, in particular, has a macOS feel.
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How we tested...
All distros were tested on the same dual-core machine with 4GB RAM. We've selected the latest 64-bit stable releases for each one. Some distributions are available for 32-bit processors and can run with less RAM. We encourage you to visit the developer’s website and discover the current requirements for yourself.
The distro also needs to be easy to install as most users will probably never have installed Linux before. We have also focused on software management and the kind of applications that are included with each distro.
Apart from these major points, the distro also needs to be easy to use for day-to-day activities. The ideal distro for newbies is one that does all of the above and also makes it easy to tweak some settings.