What is the best Linux distro for beginners?
linux doesn't have to be a headache these days…Introduction
Note: Our best Linux distro for beginners feature has been fully updated. This article was first published in January 2014.
Abundance of choice is one of the biggest challenges faced by all Linux users, particularly those dipping their toe in the water for the first time. Choosing your first Linux distro can be incredibly daunting, especially when you don't even know what you're looking for.
In Linux's early days, choosing a distro was simple: you went with the one 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 the likes of RedHat, Debian, or Slackware.
While you can still make a choice based on those criteria, the sheer number of Linux distros available now, and their 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.
You'll note the absence of Ubuntu yes, it has long been a popular Linux distribution, and one which is quite welcoming, but it isn't exactly right for beginners in our opinion. However, it can be with the right changes, which is why three of the four distros in our list are Ubuntu-based.
We've also picked one that's specifically aimed at those switching fromwindows in previous years, we were also able to feature a distro that was specifically aimed atmacOS 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.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 all the distros.
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 consideration. Just as important is software management and the kind of apps that are included in the 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 for them to tweak some settings.5 of the most popular Raspberry Pi distros 10 of the best Linux distros for privacy fiends and security buffs 5 of the most popular Linux gaming distros 10 of the most popular lightweight Linux distros Linux Format is the number one magazine to boost your knowledge on Linux, open source developments, distro releases and much more. Subscribe to the print or digital version of Linux Format here Prev Page 1 of 10 Next Prev Page 1 of 10 Next
Solus’ installer is much improved, and apes UbiquityInstallation
Linux's Live CD approach allows you to test a distribution and familiarise yourself with it without having to first commit to a full installation. This is a great way for new users to ease into Linux, and you can usually install the distro direct from the Live environment if it's something you like.
Most of these distros have an icon on the desktop you can double-click to launch the installation. As a new user, the installation needs to be easy. It's likely that a user already has some form of an operating system on the machine. If that's the case, the user will have to partition and resize the hard disk. This is the step where many distros aimed at switchers falter.
But it's not just a problem for newbie-centric distros. Many mainstream distros fare poorly because they don't provide a friendly enough installer.
Solus OS is the one distro not based on Ubuntu in this roundup. It's been built from the ground up and, since December 2015, hit five major release milestones, culminating in the latest version, 2017.01.01.0. Like almost every other aspect its installer is under active development, and it's now much improved from earlier versions indeed, it's very similar to Ubuntu's own Ubiquity installer. There is some terminology that's likely to baffle new users a little, and doing your own custom partitioning isn't as easy as it perhaps could be, but the whole process is neat and tidy.
The Ubuntu-based distros all use Ubuntu's Ubiquity installer, somewhat modified, to better suit the beginners that the distros are aimed at. The installation process usually takes you through seven or so steps that cover partitioning, creating a user, defining the time zone and specifying the keyboard layout.
The most important step is partitioning, where you can erase the entire disk and use it to install the distro, or specify a custom partitioning layout. More importantly, if a version of Windows is detected, the distro will allow you to install it alongside in dual-boot format.
The best thing about using Ubiquity, as a newbie, is there's plenty of documentation. Plus there are YouTube videos that take you through the installation process for each of our Ubuntu-based distros. Since the distros are based on Ubuntu, you don't get to choose the software that’s installed. Once you specify the disk and configure the partitioning, the distro will automatically install all software for you.Verdict Zorin OS: 5/5 PinguyOS: 5/5 Elementary OS: 5/5 SolusOS: 4/5 Prev Page 2 of 10 Next Prev Page 2 of 10 Next
Pinguy offers some unorthodox but brilliant packagesIncluded software
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 an internet browser, email client, text editor and media player. But if you expect lots more apps, they have those as well!
Solus offers only the very basic apps Firefox, Thunderbird and Transmission BitTorrent Client, plus Rhythmbox Music Player and VLC, but there's no LibreOffice or any graphics or other media editing tools provided, nor are gamers catered for in the slightest.
Zorin is bristling with apps. You get the usual office and internet apps, such as LibreOffice, and the Chromium web browser as default. The distro also lets you view content in proprietary formats from within the live environment. Also included is GIMP image editor, a Photos app, Thunderbird, Empathy IM, Videos, Rhythmbox music player, Cheese Webcam Booth and OpenShot Video Editor. It also carries Wine and PlayOnLinux to install Windows-only apps and games.
PinguyOS is similarly well blessed, and ships with Thunderbird, LibreOffice, Empathy, Deluge, TeamViewer, DeVeDe to burn discs, OpenShot Video Editor, Clementine, Gparted, Shutter, Steam, PlayOnLinux and much more. The inclusion of TeamViewer seems like a masterstroke, as the app makes it easy to access and control remote desktops.
Elementary OS provides a simple, elegant design and thus it has apps with a simple design. This is explained by the inclusion of the Photos and Geary email client apps most other distros ship with Thunderbird, for example, but Geary is a smart client that fits in with Elementary's UI. Similarly, the preference for Noise (music), Midori (web browser) and a built-in Videos app reaffirm this fondness for lightweight, simple apps. Elementary provides fewer default packages and you need its software management app to install the ones you want.Verdict Zorin OS: 5/5 PinguyOS: 5/5 Elementary OS: 3/5 SolusOS: 2/5 Prev Page 3 of 10 Next Prev Page 3 of 10 Next
Solus’ package management selection is much improvedSoftware management
For most new users, the default set of apps should be more than enough to get started. As you become more accustomed to your distro, you may wish to install additional apps. Software repositories may seem like a strange concept at first, but most distros provide useful tools to help you install software easily.
Solus provides its own frontend which links to both its own repository and a number of third-party apps. It's a mite restrictive for more advanced users, but there's a large selection of consumer-grade apps to choose from, and it's very well presented. The GUI frontend is easy to navigate, but remember to use eopkg rather than apt-get when installing via the Terminal.
Elementary OS once shipped with the Ubuntu Software Center, giving you access to a wide range of software. It now comes with its own package manager, AppCenter, which is perfect for new users, offering a wide range of apps in a number of clearly defined categories. It does, perhaps, lack a little explanation new users may struggle to find the precise app they need without scrolling through long lists but that's a common flaw with Linux installers.
Zorin supplies a skinned version of Ubuntu Software, but dig deep (System Tools > Administration) and you'll also find the Synaptic Package Manager. It throws in the Google and Opera repos in addition to its own.
PinguyOS goes to the opposite extreme, supplying both GDebi and Synpatic Package installers in addition to the 14.4-era Ubuntu Software Center. It also offers a large number of additional repos, many of which are enabled by default, including those for Linux Mint and Ubuntu. There are PPAs for themes, and apps such as Clementine, VLC and Gnome. Ultimately, you could argue that the distro ships with too many PPAs, but beginners will be thankful and it also includes Y PPA Manager. This is a tool that you can use to make sense of and manage all those PPAs if the choice is too much.Verdict Zorin OS: 4/5 PinguyOS: 5/5 Elementary OS: 4/5 SolusOS: 4/5 Prev Page 4 of 10 Next Prev Page 4 of 10 Next
Zorin’s updated Windows 10-style interface is an absolute beautyUsability
You can tell a user has found a distro that they like when they begin to tweak its different aspects. This moving away from the defaults is a sign of maturity for any user, but especially so with new Linux users.
People often say Linux distros are extremely customisable but what does this mean for new users? Sure, you can change the desktop background, the icons theme, define keyboard shortcuts, configure power management and make other changes to the appearance and behaviour of the distro. But is it easy for a first-time Linux user to do all of that?
While all the distros in our list allow you to do all of this and more, they each go about the process differently. If the distro is aimed at new users, it earns high points if it includes special custom tools to help the user easily customise the distro to their liking.
Zorin is one of the finest distros to attract inexperienced Linux users. It has everything in terms of offering a friendly and usable experience to those coming from another Linux distro or even from Windows or macOS. Besides its Windows 10-styled desktop, built on top of Gnome Shell, the custom application launcher does a pretty good job of mimicking the Windows 10 Start menu.
The Core edition has enough to whet your appetite, and you can shell out some money to get the specialised versions. Zorin also instils good desktop practice by regularly reminding users to set up the backup app. All in all, the distro has the right mix of the best of Ubuntu sprinkled with some custom Zorin apps, such as the Look and Theme Changer apps.
Elementary is one of the simplest Ubuntu-based distros available, and as such is a good starting point for beginners. The distro places great emphasis on design, and this has resulted in a curious choice of default software packages. While these may not be to everyone's liking, the apps are highly usable and a suitable replacement for their more popular alternatives. It uses a dock to emulate the look of macOS, but it's not particularly configurable and the same is true of the desktop as a whole.
Pinguy once released new stable versions to coincide with the latest underlying version of Ubuntu, but it's at a standstill recently as its creator is not seeing a positive reimbursement on the time he is spending creating and maintaining it. That said, the distro is wonderfully stable and a very attractive option for all Linux users. Whether you're an absolute beginner or someone looking to switch to another distro, this is definitely worth your time.
Pinguy also ships with a custom Docky, which you can use to create a number of docks. To each such dock, you can add docklets, such as weather, a network usage monitor and a workspace switcher. It also includes the Tweak Tool to help you easily configure many different aspects of the desktop.
One area where Solus does close the gap on its rivals is in terms of desktop configuration. That's largely thanks to the fact that it bundles the same Tweak Tool found in the other distros, making it relatively easy to configure the desktop to your tastes.Verdict Zorin OS: 5/5 PinguyOS: 4/5 Elementary OS: 3/5 SolusOS: 3/5 Prev Page 5 of 10 Next Prev Page 5 of 10 Next
Zorin’s Ultimate edition includes a bunch of niceties for a small priceCommercial services
A distro can have several reasons for offering paid add-ons. More often than not, it's just the developers trying to make some money so they can continue to produce it. This is why some distros also offer the facility for users to make donations to the project.
In addition to the desktop release, Zorin OS produces a premium version that can be downloaded after giving a donation. The Ultimate edition can be downloaded after donating a minimum of 9.99 (around 7.60, $10.90), and it offers tantalising extras like macOS desktop emulation. With a purchase, you also get premium support. The distro supports one-off donations, too, and more specialised versions are on the way.
PinguyOS also has an extensive store on CafePress , from where you can get all kinds of merchandise, such as mugs, T-shirts, bags and baby bibs. You can also donate via PayPal, or on Patreon.
Elementary's website gives the impression you need to pay a fee for the OS before downloading it (type 0 into the 'Custom' box to skip this). It also has a US-only store offering merchandise. Furthermore, it supports ongoing monthly donations through Patreon to aid future development.
Solus encourages both one-off and monthly (Patreon Supporters) donations, with early access to developmental versions and premium support available in return.Verdict Zorin OS: 4/5 PinguyOS: 3/5 Elementary OS: 3/5 SolusOS: 2/5 Prev Page 6 of 10 Next Prev Page 6 of 10 Next
Documentation may be one of the most important featuresSupport and documentation
Regardless of a user's past OS dalliances, a beginner in Linux will encounter a vastly different way of doing things, in terms of everything from appearance to the alternative apps they will need to master. This is why the distro must provide extensive documentation. Additional resources, such as forum boards, mailing lists, wikis and so forth, which can help a newbie tap the collective experience of the community, are also appreciated.
Elementary OS provides to-the-point, easy-to-understand documentation on the website. The project also has an Answers page, where anyone can post a question.
SolusOS organises its extensive support materials under the Community menu on its home page. There are community forums offering tutorials, installation support and more, plus access to more help resources via Google+, IRC and Reddit. Things are rounded off with a nascent wiki that should help with more technical questions.
While it provides only a barebones installation guide , Zorin OS makes up for this elsewhere. There's a handy Help button on its Start menu that leads straight to its user forums, with sections including how-to guides, install help and more. The project also has an IRC channel (#ZorinOS) and FAQ page, so you can have your questions answered instantly (hopefully, anyway).
Except for the FAQs, PinguyOS offers its users everything that Zorin does what's more, there's also a very thorough step-by-step installation guide to help you out.Verdict Zorin OS: 4/5 PinguyOS: 4/5 Elementary OS: 4/5 SolusOS: 5/5 Prev Page 7 of 10 Next Prev Page 7 of 10 Next
A distro may be based on Ubuntu, but that doesn't mean it'll necessarily look anything like itRelease cycle
There are three popular development methodologies that Linux distros typically adhere to: fixed schedule, fixed feature and rolling release. With a rolling release comes a learning curve that may be too steep for most new users. It's because of this reason that distros such as Gentoo and Arch are not recommended to newbies.
With a fixed feature schedule, the distro is released when it's good and ready there is no fixed date for a release. Elementary follows this schedule, despite being based on Ubuntu. The current 'Loki' release is based on Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, and Elementary has made it clear that it only ever plans to build releases from the LTS branch.
The fixed schedule is one of the most popular release cycles, and is followed by the majority of distros. In the fixed schedule, a new release is pushed out at fixed intervals, usually every six months. Ubuntu follows this twice-yearly release cycle and so, naturally, most of its derivatives do the same.
Zorin OS is based on the latest Ubuntu release. Work on a new edition begins as soon as a new Ubuntu release arrives on the horizon, but it takes time for the developer to produce the different editions.
Pinguy's six-month-releases shipped with bleeding-edge software, and were not considered stable when they stalled at Ubuntu 14.04. They remain in beta, despite being a final release. The stable releases are based on Ubuntu LTS releases.
SolusOS is the exception here. It's being built entirely from scratch, which is why it has no 'upstream source'. Its plan is to release quarterly minor point updates (1.1, 1.2, etc) and one major update each year. Each major release will be supported for two years, so support for 1.x will continue into 2017 alongside the new releases for this year.Verdict Zorin OS: 3/5 PinguyOS: 4/5 Elementary OS: 5/5 SolusOS: 3/5 Prev Page 8 of 10 Next Prev Page 8 of 10 Next
Zorin OS is our new frontrunner a clean, awesome beginner distro
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