Choosing a Distro – a newbies guide

– By John Murray
Demystifying the Distro Decision– One of the most confusing things that confronts the Linux newbie is the
multitude of available distributions. It’s common to see posts to Linux
newsgroups along the lines of “I’m new to Linux. Which distro should I
use? ” The usual response is twenty or so replies, recommending nearly as
many different distros. I’m not about to name any particular distro as the
best (there is no “best”), but I’ll try to help you narrow down the
list to some distros that will suit your own needs.

Does it Really Matter Anyway?

Linux is an extremely configurable OS, and can be shaped (bashed?)
into almost anything you want it to be. So it follows that no matter what
distro you use, it can probably be made to suit your requirements. Keep in
mind though, that it can take a long time (and more than a little
expertise) to configure a distro that was designed for something completely
different to your intended use. In other words, selecting a suitable distro
will allow you to get your machine up and running with much less time
and frustration.

How the Distros Differ

Distros differ in lots of ways, including, but not limited to these:

  • Intended Users, e.g.. Distros such as Debian and Slackware seem to
    appeal to the more experienced users, who have less need for graphical
    configuration tools, easy installers and “hand holding” in general.
  • Intended Purpose – For instance, will it be used as a server , a
    workstation, a game playing box or some other specialized use? Some distros
    such as Caldera are aimed at business, while others like Lycoris are designed
    primarily for ease of use. Many distros (RedHat, Mandrake, SuSE, Caldera, etc)
    will allow you to select an installation type when you first install Linux.
    These installation types typically allow you to choose from classes like
    workstation, home user, developer, minimal, server, or “the works”.
  • Hardware Requirements – Some distros (eg. Mandrake) are compiled
    specifically for Pentium class processors, while others are designed to be
    useful for owners of older, less powerful hardware. Linux can also be used on
    other platforms besides Intel PCs, e.g. PowerPCs.
  • Included Packages – These range from the tiny Linux-on-a-Floppy
    distros that include a shell and a few tools but not much else to the
    full-blown multi-cdrom installations that include multimedia support, office
    suites and much more, and that can take up a couple of GB of disk space.
  • The Kernel Version Used – Most current distros are using the 2.4
    series, though some still include the 2.2 version, either as the default or as
    an option.

Before You Start

  • Spend as much time as you can browsing the various distros web sites. If
    you only go to one site, make it DistroWatch.
    Find out what’s available, what’s included, what the hardware requirements
    are, and anything else specific to your needs. There’s a lot of material to
    wade through, so keep some notes, or save the relevant pages.
  • Write down a list of the programs that you are using under your current
    OS. Now find Linux equivalents to these programs so that you can see if they
    are available for your intended distro. This list will also be handy at
    installation time; you can use it to make sure your needed apps will be
    installed. You can find info about various Linux apps at sites like Freshmeat;
    if you find the available choices a bit overwhelming try asking for advice at
    one of the newsgroups, or your nearest Linux
    User Group
  • Most modern distros do a pretty good job of detecting hardware, though
    it’s still a good idea to jot down a few details before you start. In
    particular note your monitors vert. and horizontal frequencies, and be aware
    that software modems (“winmodems”) often cause problems.

Making the Choice

Consider these factors before making your decision:

  • Your Linux Experience – If you’ve never used Linux or Unix before,
    you might want to consider those distros with relatively painless installers.
    Caldera, Mandrake, RedHat, SuSE and so on generally have very polished
    installation routines that include easy partitioning tools, and detect most
    hardware without help from the user.
  • The Programs You’ll Be Running – The distro makers website will
    usually list all the available packages for its product. Ideally, at least one
    distro would include every program you want to run, so that you wouldn’t need
    to install anything from other sources. This eliminates any problems tracking
    down the appropriate versions of apps and dealing with any dependency problems
    encountered during installation. Having everything you need available on the
    installation cd-roms isn’t as unlikely as it sounds; recent versions of some
    distros include an incredible range of apps, with just about everything you’ll
    need, plus lots you don’t. Of course, you’ll sometimes need extra stuff that’s
    not included on the install cd, and you’ll want to install other apps
    eventually anyway, but you get the idea. If you do need programs that aren’t
    included with the distro, try to find out what requirements (shared libraries
    and so on) the program has, and compare them with what is provided with the
    distro. Basically, we are just trying to make life a little easier when it
    comes time to instal more software (OK, settle down all you apt-get fans…).
  • The Availability of Software Packages – Depending on your needs,
    this may or may not be an issue. If you plan on playing with lots of new
    programs, keep in mind that packages built for the more common distros such as
    RedHat and its derivatives are probably going to be easier to find than for
    the more obscure ones. Of course, if you are prepared to compile from source,
    this won’t be a problem.
  • Your Hardware – Most of the more common stuff is now well supported
    by Linux, and you can sometimes find info about supported (or required)
    hardware on the distro builders website. If you have some weird equipment, or
    you are setting up a notebook, you should probably check this out. Users of
    older computers might like to check out some of the smaller distros like
    Vector etc, though even the common distros can usually be trimmed down to a
    reasonable size. Even something ancient like a 486 or an early Pentium with
    32megs of RAM will run Linux (including X) reasonably well, providing you use
    the appropriate software (ie. don’t expect to run
    stuff like Evolution and KDE3, or 3D games).
  • Kernel And X-Server Issues – Do you have anything that requires the
    later kernels (eg. Firewire support)? If so, you might want to run a distro
    with the 2.4 kernel. Personally, I’m still happy to use the old 2.2, but your
    mileage may vary.. Also check the version of XFree86 supplied. If you plan on
    playing 3D games, and have suitable hardware, you’ll probably want to use the
    4.x version. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry, the
    default packages will probably be fine.


OK, you’ve chosen your distro and it’s time to install. you might want to
think about these few points:

  • Dual-Boot – Linux is quite happy to share a disk with another
    operating system, and you can choose which OS to run at bootup. This is quite
    easy to do with most distros. If you only have one computer, and if disk space
    allows, it can be quite useful to have more than one OS installed. Getting
    Linux configured just the way you want it can take time, and it’s handy to
    have a working OS on a different partition so you can download stuff, access
    info on the web, or just continue to do the everyday things on your computer
    while you are setting up Linux. For example, if you are now using Windows ,
    you can leave this in place while you are getting Linux fully set up. If you
    later find that you no longer need the original OS, you can delete it and use
    that partion to experiment with other distros – and the two Linux
    installations can share a single swap partition. At any rate, always having a
    working OS available is invaluable, and will be appreciated by others sharing
    the computer. Having a working Linux installation available can also be
    helpful when playing with other distros on another partition – if necessary
    you can use known good settings (such as XF86Config ) to help configure the
    new installation.
  • New Versus Older Version – It’s sometimes said that the very recent
    versions of the well known distros have become fat, slow and bloated, and I
    think there is some truth in this. However, recent versions will usually also
    include the latest software and library versions, and you are less likely to
    have dependency problems when installing recent software with them. While
    older distro versions are often leaner and faster out of the box, an hour or
    two spent trimming the fat from the recent stuff will usually yield similar
    performance, with the advantage of retaining the current library versions. Of
    course you can go the other way, and update the libraries on an older distro,
    but be prepared for dependency dramas. Another thing to watch out for when
    using older distros is RPM version incompatability. Many recently built RPM
    packages have been made with with RPM version 4, and these packages won’t
    install on distros using most of the earlier versions. While you can get
    around this by updating RPM itself, it might well be easier to just use a
    later distro.
  • The Point Zero Releases – Maybe I’m just too fussy, but I tend to
    avoid x.0 software releases. In my admittedly limited experience, these are
    often more buggy than later versions in a series. While it’s tempting to take
    advantage of all those cool new features in say Distro v8.0, it might
    be prudent to wait for 8.1 or 8.2, unless of course you don’t mind the
    occasional bug.
  • The Desktop Environment – Not sure whether to run KDE or Gnome?
    Install them both and make up your own mind. Most distros will also offer
    lighter weight alternatives (IceWm, xfce, WindowMaker, etc.) that can perform
    extremely well on older hardware.
  • Be Prepared to Sample a Few different distros before you find your
    favourite – you will anyway.
  • Where to Get Them – You can get many distros on cdrom quite cheaply
    from companies like LinuxCentral or CheapBytes. You might be tempted to
    download them if you have a fast enough connection, though I’m not sure it’s
    worth the trouble. You can sometimes find distros on the cover CDs of computer
    magazines, or included with Linux books.
  • Support Those Who Support Us – When you finally settle on a distro,
    I strongly recommend that you buy a full retail version from the distro maker.
    This way we can help them to continue the work that benefits us, the users.
    Some distros (like Debian) that don’t sell disks directly, have a donation
    system in place.

Some Distributions Briefly Described

Here are a few distros with links and brief descriptions. I haven’t tried
them all, so some of this info has simply been lifted from their websites.
Remember this list only includes a fraction of what’s available, be sure to
check the DistroWatch site for more info.

The Better Known Distros

The ones in this group are probably the most popular for home users. They
all have easy to use graphical installations and partitioning tools, as well
as graphical configuration tools. Some hard core geeks look down on these
point’n’click tools, but most of us have better things to do with our time
than read documentation and wrestle with configuration files ….. All these
use the RPM packaging system.

  • RedHat – The most popular of them all.
    Not my favourite desktop distro, but obviously zillions would disagree….
    RedHat have a huge range of Linux products and services to suit a range of
    platforms and applications.
  • SuSE – Very popular in
    Europe, full version includes literally thousands of apps. As well as Intel
    PCs, SuSE is also available for PowerPCs and other platforms.
  • Mandrake – One of my
    favourites. While it’s promoted as being the ideal beginners distro, it’s also
    very popular amongst more experienced users. Has one of the easiest
    installation and partitioning routines, plus some very polished configuration
    tools. Mandrake have recently released a gaming edition (packaged with a copy
    of The Sims) that’s capable of playing some popular Windows games.

The Experienced Users Favourites

These distros inspire incredible loyalty. The installation routines are
probably a little, um, challenging for the Linux virgin. All have a
reputation for stability and efficiency.

  • Debian – Unusual for being a
    non-profit organization, and totally volunteer driven. Exceptionally stable,
    and having a brilliant package management system that automatically resolves
    dependencies. While the ease of use factor probably makes it less than ideal
    for a first timer, there have been a few Debian based distros that have
    addressed this issue (though for some reason, they don’t seem to stay around
    for long).
  • Slackware – This one has been
    around for almost as long as Linux. A simple, “traditional” distro
    that stays out of the way, Slackware is the most “Unix-like” distro.
    Software installation is menu-based using tarballs (compressed archives)
  • Gentoo -Another similar distro that
    is becoming very popular. Like Debian and Slackware, Gentoo is probably more
    suited to experienced users than beginners. Gentoo is designed for
    extraordinary speed and flexibility, and uses an exceptionally sophisticated
    package management system that automatically resolves dependancies (like
    Debians’ apt-get), and builds binaries optimized for your machine. If you are
    thinking of stepping up to a “hackers” distro, you should definitely
    check this one out.

The Compact Distros

While Linux can be small enough to fit on a floppy, or use in an embedded
application, the compact distros listed here are complete enough for normal
desktop use.

  • VectorLinux – A small distro
    (< 250mb installed), designed to be fast and simple. Features a lightweight
    desktop GUI and a range of software to handle most needs.
  • Peanut Linux – Another smallish
    (99mb download, 299mb installed) distro, unusual in that it can be installed
    into an existing FAT partition, as well as the more usual ext2 or reiser etc.
  • Crux – Crux is a
    lightweight, i686 optimized distro aimed at the more experienced user. It’s
    primary focus is simplicity, and features a relatively small set of packages.
    It uses a tar.gz based package system.

Other Interesting Distros

  • Elxlinux – Elx is a distro that
    emphasises ease of use for the Windows user. It’s desktop layout is very
    windows-ish, right down to MyComputer and NetworkNeighbourhood. Could be worth
    a look if you want the benefits of Linux without the learning curve.
  • Lycoris – (formerly known as Redmond
    Linux) Another distro that aims for ease of use. Has a very well laid out GUI
    and an easy networking administration tool. Installation should be
    exceptionally quick and simple, with only one possible configuration. Includes
    a logical menu layout and a sensible selection of apps.
  • Zeebralinux– This is an
    interesting distro that boots and runs directly from the cd-rom, without
    having to install onto the hard drive. Useful for anyone wanting to try Linux
    without actually installing it. Comes with a suprisingly complete set of
    software, including compilers and servers as well as the usual desktop stuff.
    I don’t know what the performance is like, but with a modern cd drive, it
    would probably be OK.
  • YellowDog – A RedHat based
    distro for the PowerPC.

Obviously this list only barely scratches the surface, but hopefully it
will give you some idea of the types of distro available.

Some Useful Links

Comments, corrections and suggestions are welcome. Send them to

John Murray, 20th Jan, 2002

Updated 5th Aug, 2002