Abundance of choice is one of the biggest challenges faced by new Linux users. Choosing your first Linux can be a very daunting task. Especially when you don't even know what criteria to look for when deciding on a distro.
In the mid-to-late 90s, choosing a distro was a much simpler process. You went with the distro you had heard about, or the one that someone you knew had experience with, or the one with some degree of documentation. Naturally, then, you were limited in choice to RedHat, Debian, or Slackware.
While those criteria still apply, the sheer number of Linux distros available now, and their vocal fan bases, makes it difficult to settle on one and get started.
We've deliberately shied away from the popular mainstream distros, as we didn't just want easy-to-use distros. Instead, we've selected five that we believe are ideal beginning points. Ubuntu has long been a popular Linux distribution, but it isn't quite right for beginners.
However, it can be with the right changes. This is why four distros in our list are Ubuntu-based. For users hoping for familiarity as they move away from a proprietary OS, we've got a distro each that resemble Mac and Windows.
How we tested...
All distros were tested on the same dual-core machine with 4GB RAM. We've selected the latest stable releases for all the distros, except for SolusOS.
The distro has made significant changes since its last stable release, so we've settled on an alpha release for the roundup. For inexperienced users, the documentation is one of the most important reasons for choosing a distro.
The distribution also needs to be easy to install. Since most users of these distros have probably never installed Linux before, this is a very important feature. Just as important is software management and the kind of apps that are included in the distro.
Apart from these, the distro also needs to be easy to use for day-today activities. The ideal distro for newbies is one that does all of the above and also makes it easy for them to tweak some settings.
What does it offer out of the box?
Distributions are usually designed with the need to serve the most possible users in mind. This philosophy also drives the applications that are bundled with them. All the distros in our list offer the minimum, such as internet browser, email client, text editor and media player. But if you expect lots more apps, they have those as well!
The current release of SolusOS is meant for developers and testers, and has a limited number of apps. Of note are Firefox 24.0b9 and Thunderbird 17.0.8. The developer has already announced plans of shipping the Steam client in the final release, and you can expect all sorts of productivity and multimedia apps.
Zorin is bristling with apps. You get the usual office and internet apps, such as LibreOffice and the proprietary Google Chrome. The distro also lets you view content in proprietary formats from within the live environment. Also included is Gimp image editor, Shotwell photo manager, Thunderbird, Pidgin for IM, Totem video player, Rhythmbox music player, and the OpenShot video editor. It also includes Wine and PlayOnLinux to install Windows-only apps and games. There's also Web Browser Manager, which makes it easy to install different browsers. The distro offers Gwibber, a desktop app that lets you control most of the popular social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Flickr.
Elementary OS provides a simple, elegant design. It has apps with a simple design. This is explained by the inclusion of Geary email client and Shotwell photo manager. Most other distros ship with Thunderbird, although Geary is a smart email client. You also get Totem movie player, Noise music player, and Midori web browser. The latter two reaffirm the distro's fondness for lightweight, simple apps. Elementary provides fewer default packages and you need its software management app to install the ones you want.