How to Choose a Linux Distribution?

Ever since the first Linux distributions appeared, people have been having a hard time trying to choose the “right one” to use.
Many people end up asking “Which distribution should I use?” on the web, only to receive heaps of different suggestions (usually just the distributions that the posters like), a few arguments, and inevitably, the RPM vs DEB debate.
The problem is, that even after you filter out the posts to just the suggestions of distributions, you will find that you end up with just a big list of distributions, with usually only a comment like “This is good” to guide you in your choice.
This is a really bad way to choose a distribution, since you have no real advice on WHY you should choose distribution X over distribution Y. This article aims to give you the advice you need to choose the distribution that best suits you.
One of the key things in choosing a distribution is what you are using it for. Most uses fall into one of the 3 categories below:
• Desktop usage.
• Desktop and Server usage.
• Server usage.
“Desktop usage” or “desktop distribution” is a very commonly used term to describe a Linux distribution which provides a GUI and is suitable for usage on desktop or laptop computers.
If you want a desktop distribution, some of the main requirements are:
• Ease of adjusting settings – in the case of laptops, easy network changing is important.
• Age of the software (you want the programs to be fairly recent)
• Range of GUI applications.
If you are looking for a server distribution, you want to look for:
• Software api stability – do updates ever change the way the distribution works mid-release?
• Software life – how long will it get updates?
• Security – servers are often open to the public – it needs to be very well secured.
What distro for trying Linux out?
If you aren’t yet prepared to set aside a portion of your hard drive for Linux, or if you just want to take Linux for a spin without any long-term commitments, try one of the Live CD distributions like Knoppix or DamnSmallLinux, or the Suse 9.1 evaluation CD.
These can be booted and run directly from a CD, and are a great way to see what Linux can do without affecting any existing operating systems you may have installed.
Such distributions tend to run more slowly than a fully-installed Linux, however, so if you are thinking of using Linux regularly, you may want to consider doing a real installation. Many Live CD distributions can be installed to the hard drive if you so choose.
What distro for a total newbie?
If you are very new to the Linux world and have no interest in learning a lot of technical details just to get it running, you may want to go with one of the mainstream distributions such as Linspire, Mandrake, Fedora (formerly Red Hat), SuSE or Ubuntu. If you can spare the money, it may be worthwhile to purchase a commercial version, since you may get tech support from the vendor.
What distro for the power user?
If you consider yourself a power user, and would like to learn a lot of technical details about Linux as you are installing and using it, you would be well served to try out one of the more do-it-yourself distributions. Gentoo, Source Mage, Arch_Linux, Debian and Slackware might be among your choices here.
If you are already an experienced Linux user and really want to get your hands dirty, there is Linux From Scratch, which is not really a distribution so much as a set of instructions for building your own distribution (though this isn’t recommended unless you already know what you are doing).
Special purpose
What distribution for a server
Debian, Red Hat, and Slackware make good choices for servers. Debian’s security policy and strict packaging rules make it an attractive choice for a non-commercial solution. All security fixes are backported ensuring that the production environment remains the same and breakage will not occur.
Slackware’s up-to-date packages facilitate security, and its transparent system administration makes customization easy. Red Hat’s support packages for its Advanced Server line make it attractive for commercial solutions.
What distro for an old computer?
There are a number of minimalistic distributions, such as VectorLinux and Peanut that are designed for computers without much hard drive space or CPU speed. It’s quite possible to install Linux on an early 386 with 2 to 4 megabytes of RAM, though if you hope to install a GUI you may need a bit more memory or CPU; a 486 with 8MB RAM is probably the lowest you can go with XFree86.
For acting as a firewall, e-mail client, or basic machine for text editing and scripting, this might be the way to go. However, distributions like Vector and Peanut, while minimal, are not “micro” – they still require 100+ MB hard drives and really need a 586 or fast 486. For even smaller distributions that may run in under 100MB (or even from floppy) on a 386/486, distros like BasicLinux, muLinux, Floppix, and others may be suitable.
What distro for games?
Any distribution will be just about as good as another in this area. Something that will likely help more than using any specific distibution, is using a lighter Desktop Environment like XFCE.
Gentoo and Source Mage have modified kernels and other elements that may make them a good gaming platform. (Note: These distributions are generally for more experienced users.)
Windows/UNIX-Oriented Distro Spectrum
If you are a newbie, you will naturally look for a distro that has the look and feel of Windows. On the other hand, if you prefer manual configuration, you will look at a more UNIX-like solution.
This spectrum should help you figure out where major distros stand out-of-the-box:
Windows -> Linspire, Xandros -> Fedora, Mandriva, SuSe, Mepis, Ubuntu -> Debian -> Arch, Gentoo, Slackware -> BSD (Open, Free, Net, DragonFly), Solaris -> pure UNIX (Unixware, HP-UX, 4.4BSD).
This spectrum is purely based on the ease of installation and amount of shell usage. It does not have anything to do with quality. FreeBSD installs are about as easy as arch, so even that won’t trouble you.
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