Being a computer user that wants to try out a Linux distribution can leave you feeling overwhelmed because there are so many options. Users from the windows and apple world are used to only having one option of their chosen core system, but there are more than 300 Linux based distributions under active development that are available and most are free.
Before you begin your exploration into the Linux world there are few things that you must understand about the commonalities and differences between the many Linux based distributions.
What is Linux?
So many products are referred to as Linux or Linux distributions because they are all built on the Linux kernel. The Linux kernel is a set of drivers that are written to allow your hardware to talk to each other and to allow your software to talk to the hardware, you can think of the kernel as a translator between all components in your system.
The Linux kernel was originally developed by Linux Torvalds in 1991, and is still developed by him and a group of talented developers. The Linux kernel is currently built by many hobbyist developers and commercial developers from various organization worldwide. The current lead development (and this website) is funded by the Linux Foundation, The Linux Foundation's members are individual companies that widely use Linux based systems and fund much of the current development and hosting necessary to keep the Linux kernel and related programs active.
What is a Linux distribution?
A Linux distribution is a set of software such as core libraries, Window Managers, Server daemon processes and user based applications. The specific sets of software that are included in a Linux based distribution are decided by the distribution maintainers based upon their goals, their goal distribution may be security oriented, user friendly, sever based, mobile phone based, etc.. The goals will always vary because there are so many different uses for computer systems, so it is pretty much guaranteed that if you are working on a computer based system there will be a Linux based distribution developed to fit your needs.
The differences between a free and paid Linux distributions
Free and paid distributions generally contain the same software and libraries, however some commercial distributions do contain some closed source proprietary software intended to give you a custom experience and improve efficiency. In addition to the software difference you also receive a different experience when it comes to seeking support, paid distributions generally come with a limited support period, in contrast the free distributions generally offer no official support, but offer documentation and community support methods. In my experience the community support is quite often better than paid support because you are learning for users who know the products in depth compared to paid customer service representatives which often read from scripts.
Supported Architectures and CPU types
The Linux kernel has been developed with the necessary drivers and libraries to run on the following architectures.
This list may be a little intimidating to many new users, to simplify the information I will tell you that your personal computers generally run on x86, x86_64 or ia64; the mobile devices such as mobile phones generally run on arm processors.
You must remember that even though the kernel can run on all of the listed architectures, not all Linux based applications have been programed to compile and run on all listed architectures.
The differences between the many Linux based Distributions
Even though all Linux based distributions operate on the same kernel there are some notable differences.
- Hardware Support - When someone builds a Linux kernel they can choose which hardware to support out-of-the-box, most popular distributions choose to support all hardware available, but others may be more customized and support specific hardware.
- Included Window Managers - A window manager is a set of programs and libraries that are used to display a graphical environment; the best explanation is how the apple and windows user interfaces are different, in the Linux world those user interfaces are the window managers. Currently there are more than 300 different window managers that can be used on Linux based systems. Most Distributions use KDE, GNOME, XFCE or LXDE, if you liked the interface on a specific distribution and want to keep using it you can find other distributions that use the same window manager.
- Cost - Most Linux based distributions are free, but a few are paid distributions as I highlighted above.
- Support Community - Even though you hope you will not need help, it will most likely happen at one time or another. The support community will be the mutual users that you will find on IRC channels, forums and other online sources. If you would like to know how new-user-friendly a community is you can view their archives or just ask for opinions on the Linux.com forum.
- Documentation - All distributions have different stances on forcing documentation on the users and where to store most tutorials. Some distributions give you all possible guides for all software you install by default, others will make you go to their package repository and download the guides and documentation.
- Package Format - A package is a installable application, library or other pre-build archive containing information. By package format I am referring to the core structure and extension used to notate a package. You can relate these to the exe and msi installers in windows. In the linux community there are three major formats rpm (used for redhat based distributions), deb (used for Debian and Ubuntu based distributions) and txz which is used for Slackware based distributions.
- Package Installation Options - In most distributions they use an online repository based packaging system that allows you to open a program to search and install packages/applications from the internet. Other distributions choose not to use the online repositories and have you download and install the packages manually. Due to most applications being based upon other applications and libraries it will often be necessary to install additional packages to make your chosen ones work, most distros that use online repositories will automatically download and install the dependencies for you.
- Included Applications - Based upon the target audience and purpose of a Linux distributions such as educational, scientific, multimedia or general use they will choose different applications to install in the base installation. You must note that you are never stuck with what was installed when you first began, you can always add or remove programs to customize your system to your liking.
- Philosophy - The philosophy of the ditribution maintainers could be new-user-friendly, advanced users, cutting edge, proven stable software only or to stay highly secure. There are other potential philosophies that the distributions maintainers may follow, to learn the goals and philosophies you can read their descriptions on their home pages.
The list shows where the strength of Linux based distributions lies, in the ability to customize your system to your specific needs. As you start your adventure in Linux based systems you may find that your needs change, when that time comes you can use the list above to filter your choices to what would best fit your needs.
Where to find a listing of Linux Distributions
There is no one official listing of Linux base distributions, but the most complete one is www.distrowatch.com, that site allows you to search for Linux distributions based upon multiple criteria and it links to the official sites and recent reviews. You can also use the Linux.com distribution list to get additional community submitted information.
How to choose which Linux Distribution to use
As noted above there are multiple differences between the many distributions, but recently some web sties have sprung up that offer surveys you can take that will recommend Linux distributions based upon your answers. These sites are all over the net and can be found by searching the internet for the phrase "distro chooser", the site I hear about most is http://www.zegeniestudios.net/ldc/ and I highly recommend that you give it a shot to help you make the best decision possible.
How to install a Linux Distribution
To start off you can choose to download the installation disks from the internet, download the disks through bittorrent or order an official installation disk. Rather than rewriting a much written guide, I will refer you to Ubuntu for instructions to download the disks, burn the disks and various installation options at https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Installation
Where to go for help
If you have any issues choosing a Linux base distribution, installing a distribution, using a distribution or resolving an issue then there are many places you can turn for help. You should first consult the included manuals and documentation that came with the programs, go to the official websites/forums or use any of the Linux.com functions such as Answers, Groups or the forum.
When using community support please remember that the people you are talking to are volunteers that are not paid, even though they are willing to assist they will not walk you through all steps. Please consult the included manuals or search the internet for your issues prior to asking for community support, you will find that taking these steps will help you to learn more and the additional information will help the community supporters to better assist you.
I hope you learned a lot from this tutorial and I welcome all feedback that will help to direct new users to valuable resources.