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Distilling the distros
The major distros are backed by massive communities of dedicated Linux users who regularly update and improve the software and services. Ubuntu is particularly noteworthy for being supported by a private company, Canonical, but still retains its community focus. While the Linux kernel must be distributed free, some companies charge for their distro to cover the costs of their unique assembly of user interface, drivers, server support, and bundled programs and installers. However, this usually only applies to enterprise editions for businesses. The hardware requirements of mainstream operating systems can hit you in the hip pocket, sometimes requiring a whole new computer to run the latest version.
But some Linux distros are designed to run on older, or lightweight (low-spec), computers for users who don’t want to be forced into an upgrade. This is just one of the benefits of the community-driven nature of Linux, as developers have the freedom to design software that suits the needs of a wide range of users.
When almost isn’t good enough
Switching to Linux may not be practical for everyone. Many find the free Linux-based Libre Office a capable alternative to Microsoft Office, but others find that subtle variations in how programs work can cause problems. The Libre Office spreadsheet program, for example, may cause formatting issues if you open a spreadsheet originally created in Office. If you regularly use software that’s only available on Windows or OS X, you’ll need to stick with those systems.
Gamers may find Linux a bit disappointing too. Although Steam has officially launched on Linux, the offerings are quite limited. The list of Linux-friendly titles is growing, however, and it may be just a matter of time before Linux versions are released alongside Windows and OS X games. Finally, some hardware vendors appear reluctant to focus on the Linux market, so while your PC hardware and attached devices may function you could find drivers are updated less frequently, if at all. The classic example is Nvidia, one of the three global graphics cards giants, whose support for Linux users was spotty at best until the end of last year. The good news is that if you can’t live without Windows, you can still create a dual-boot system that will let you switch back to Windows when you need to (see Dual booting).
Distilling the distros
Picking a suitable distro is your first step. New users should keep an eye out for those that look similar to the familiar Windows or OS X desktop and offer a full point-and-click graphical user interface (GUI). This means you won’t need to learn many, if any, command line instructions. Other points to consider are the size and reputation of the distro’s developer base and the time between updates. A Linux bonus is that you can run most distros from a USB or CD as a live trial before installing them. Below are three of the most popular distributions for new Linux users, and we've also included links to each of their download pages.
For first-time Linux users, it doesn’t get much better than Ubuntu. The look of the desktop will take some getting used to, but you’re unlikely to run into any major problems, because in Ubuntu, pretty much everything just works. You won’t find many preinstalled programs, and Ubuntu doesn’t come with the codecs you need to watch movies or listen to MP3s, but you can easily download most of these from the Ubuntu Software Centre. This looks and feels like a typical online app store, and lists almost all the programs available for Linux. We tried it out and found it had everything we needed to run a basic set-up downloaded and installed within half an hour. Mac users will feel right at home in Ubuntu, as the interface is almost identical to OS X, but PC users will have to get used to navigating without the start menu. The straightforward installer gives you the option to install the OS alongside Windows – perfect if you aren't ready to fully commit.
For the user with basic knowledge of Linux and general computing, Mint is one of the most complete out-of-the-box Linux distros available. It comes pre-installed with most of the software and codecs needed for regular activities, so you’ll be able to watch DVDs, listen to MP3s or check email as soon as it’s up and running. There are two versions of Mint available, with the Cinnamon release being similar to the classic Windows environment. Installing Mint isn’t as straightforward as it is for Ubuntu, and you may find it difficult to get help if you encounter a problem. Mint is a community distro run by volunteers, and the support centre and forums assume the reader knows a thing or two about Linux.
Download Mint (we recommend the Cinnamon release)
Mageia prides itself on its simplicity, but also has a notable elegance not offered by other distros. There are two GUIs available, one of which is based in the KDE project, which is known for its intuitiveness. At first look, Mageia feels less alien than Mint and Ubuntu. The trade-off for its simplicity is a lack of advanced options. Those keen to learn the code and theory behind the kernel may find Mageia limiting. While it’s far from being a bare-bones distro, Mageia runs on fairly limited resources, making it suitable for use on an older PC. But the distribution is still quite young, and although there are stable builds available, Mageia is less established than Mint and Ubuntu.
Pick your own
Don't like these distros? Then head over to DistroWatch, the ultimate Linux database. It lists most, if not all, of the publicly available distributions and where you can download them. Everything from the user-friendly to the ultra-specialised are listed, so we recommend sticking with the major distributions section if you're going to pick your own.