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Best Linux Distro For a New User?

There’s still a perception that Linux is difficult to use and is only for Geeks. This seems rather silly, since most casual users, the folks who use their computers only for surfing, email and word processing, would have little to no learning curve at all using many Linux distros these days. In fact, even with some of the more “advanced” distros, your grandma wouldn’t have any trouble sitting right down and doing whatever it is she does when she’s on the computer.

We mean, what’s really advanced about an advanced distro? Firefox and Chrome are the same, whether you’re in Linux or Windows, as is Thunderbird–and even grandma can usually make the jump from from Word to LibreOffice with little to no difficulty. When you get right down to it, the “advanced” part of a “not user-friendly” Linux usually has to do with either installation or configuration, and when did grandma ever do either? If your grandma’s like ours, she calls you up to get you to come over even to do a simple little configuration trick with her Windows machine.

But let’s get back to the Linux distros that have built a reputation for being user friendly.

The first distro we remember as being advertised for newbies was Mandrake, which had a really easy to use graphical installer and also allowed most system configurations to be done right from the GUI, with no need to open up a dreaded terminal and use that most scary of computer tools–the command line(by the time Mandrake came on the scene, people were so scared of the command line you’d have thought there’d never been such a thing as MS DOS).

These days there are a lot of “user friendly” distros–all with a little different take on what constitutes friendliness. There have grown to be so many of them, in fact, that they’re starting to take drastic measures to differentiate themselves, to stand out from the crowd.

This poll is closed! Poll activity:
start_date 20/05/2013 01:18:32
end_date 13/06/2013 19:48:44
Poll Results:
What Linux distro would you be most likely to recommend to a new Linux user?

Mint tries to be the Ubuntu you remember before Unity came along and destroyed everything. Mageia tries to be the Mandrake from your childhood, before you knew anything about French bankruptcy law. Fedora wants you to remember the days when you could buy Red Hat shrink wrapped at your local big box store and openSUSE wants you to forget that Novelle ever existed. Then there’s Chrome OS, which just want’s you to click on ads, and Ubuntu, which thinks it would be swell to be the new Microsoft.

The weird thing is, they’re all different. A few years back, the biggest difference in mainstream distros had to do with configuration options and graphics. Other than that they were mostly the same, different variations of the same theme running either KDE or GNOME.

It’s a whole ‘nother ball game now. We’ve got Unity, MATE, Cinnamon all trying to appeal to users GNOME abandoned. Of course, there’s still KDE and a slew of lightweight desktops, most of which were not designed with grandma in mind. Oh, then there’s Chrome, which definitely want’s to be grandma’s new laptop.

So what do you tell somebody who’s finally ready to end their codependent relationship with Redmond? What distro do you recommend for someone who’s ready to get their feet wet?

If after taking our poll you’d like to explain why you’d recommend such-and-such distro to a new Linux user–feel free to leave a comment below.

21 comments to Best Linux Distro For a New User?

  • B.Ross Ashley

    I would have said XandrOS a few years ago … but desktop development stopped. The *ubuntus are more user-friendly than Ubuntu in my opinion, but I just don’t like Unity.

    So i voted for Mint.

  • @B.Ross Ashley Mint is certainly a good choice. In the last couple of years, it’s a distro that’s certainly been blazing it’s own trail. Alas, I do think Shuttleworth’s got his heart set on turning Ubuntu into Windows for Linux – but it remains a well engineered GNU/Linux distro that continues to bring both stability and inovation to the table. Time will tell on that. At one time I thought PCLOS was a contender. It’s still a fine distro, but it seems to be being destroyed by the rudeness of it’s user community–and that’s a shame.

  • arnolds

    The title is a little dumb.
    First, what is the competence of a new user.
    Is it a user with lots of experience with other OSes?
    Is it a user fresh from Windows ?
    Is it a user used to email, movies, music faacenook etc only ?
    Is it a user who likes to tinker, regardless of OS ?

    I have tried to introduce newbies to Mint without much success.
    Introducing them to PCLinuxOS was usually successful, after which they easily switched to Mint and openSuze

    @Christine Hall
    I am not going to ( can not ) argue that point, but being more specific would help to kill their .
    However, there are only a few jerks out there.
    The most of them are nice and helpful

  • arnolds

    correction to above

    …..would help to kill their bad habits.

  • DutchWolfie

    If can surely agree with this article, for me PCLinuxOS is the best choice for people who want to get away from Windows and experience the joy of using a Linux system.
    Nice graphical installer, very good hardware detection, even the most exotic setup will run with it. A lot of software packages available and up to date, so even the most demanding users can find their favorites The comment about the community i sincerely object to. Sure they have their own (perhaps too straight) ways when it comes to explain why they make the choices for their distro. But largely it is the community who has a say in how things have to be arranged. And the support from this community is amazing, the most friendly forum around :)
    But at the end it comes down to the beauty of Linux, choice!
    You can make it the way you want, and therefore you as a user can use whatever distro you like.

  • [...] Best Linux Distro For a New User? There’s still a perception that Linux is difficult to use and is only for Geeks. This seems rather silly, since most casual users, the folks who use their computers only for surfing, email and word processing, would have little to no learning curve at all using many Linux distros these days. In fact, even with some of the more “advanced” distros, your grandma wouldn’t have any trouble sitting right down and doing whatever it is she does when she’s on the computer. [...]

  • @arnolds I have been more specific: http://fossforce.com/2012/08/goodbye-pclos/

    @DutchWolfie Yup. I really enjoyed PCLOS for a number of years. I hated to have to move on. However, everything worked out. I’m not using a distro I like even better! :-)

  • BrentRBrian

    Mint … hands down. Used to be Ubuntu, but, I hate Unity and most of the Windows users I move to Linux prefer Mint to Unity hands down (comparison is done on a Fedora machine using a mint vm and an ubuntu vm).

  • LinuxCanuck

    I chose Ubuntu over Mint for three reasons. First Mint has no distribution upgrade tool.

    To upgrade Mint the user has to edit the sources and hope for the best. This is not something a newbie could easily do. Ubuntu and the other *Buntus all have an upgrade tool that works almost flawlessly.

    The second thing that Ubuntu has that Mint does not is that it has a plan. Canonical knows where it is going and is working hard to make that happen. Mint in contrast is mired in indecision. They are doing too much fence sitting. Will it be Mate or Cinnamon? They are trying to be everything to everyone and are failing.

    The third and perhaps biggest is their reliance on GNOME. Canonical parted ways with GNOME for valid reasons and since then GNOME has made mistake after mistake and floundered. The project is in trouble with internal disputes and is seems to be not moving forward very fast. In contrast Unity has leaped way ahead of GNOME and have no trouble making decisions that are winning users over.

    Mint is a good distribution, but way over-rated. It is not the best choice for newbies, IMO.

    (Please note that I do not use Mint or Ubuntu. I am a KDE user who has used Unity, GNOME Shell, Cinnamon, and Mate for periods of time.)

  • @LinuxCanuck I’ve never used Ubuntu or Mint, but from where I sit it appears as if Ubuntu relies on GNOME as much as Mint does. Unity and Cinnamon are both basically just two different shells running atop GNOME. That being the case, Unity is still very dependent on the GNOME framework running beneath it.

    Indeed, you’re correct in that Canonical seems to have a plan and direction. Personally, I’m a little worried about where they’re taking Ubuntu right now, as they seem to be dipping their toes into the sort of commercial waters we usually associate with the priority guys, but I’m taking a “wait and see” attitude right now and give them the benefit of the doubt.

    BTW, since last summer I’ve been using Bodhi, which runs Ubuntu under the hood. My experiences have made me pretty impressed the that part of Bodhi that is Ubuntu. :-)

  • Bruno Magalhães

    After a long run through lots of distros, I’ve settled down with pure Ubuntu (currently, 12.10).

    In my opinion (and it’s “my” opinion), Ubuntu is the strongest distro available nowadays.

    – It’s an old distro, I mean, it’s been there for a long time, so it has a solid background, no doubts.
    – It has a big and great repository, nobody can deny that.
    – It has a lot of information out there, it’s just a matter of “googling” for what you want to know.
    – It has a lot of users all over the world who spend their time trying to help others.
    – Most of all forums related to Linux are also related to Ubuntu, so to speak.
    – It uses .DEB packaging format, which seems to be “the best” ones, if I can say so, (Arch Linux users may not agree) and the most common ones available for download when you look for apps on the internet.
    – Ubuntu tries to offer the best hardware compatibility you can get out of the box, and it does work.
    – Many things are specifically focused on Ubuntu, games for instantce (Steam won’t let me lie about that).
    – In a near future, Ubuntu will be totally functional on smart phones and tablets as well (I do believe in that).
    – (I guess there’s more, but I don’t remember any other things right now. Anyway…)

    Now, when it comes to desktop environment, for a person coming from Windows, I would definitely say KDE is the way to go; not only because it looks like Windows, but it’s also totally customizable. Linux Mint’s Cinnamon is cool too, but as it is something relatively new, it’s still buggy and unstable, sometimes. KDE, on the other hand, has been a solid DE for a long time.

    That said, for a new Linux user, I would strongly recommend Linux Ming KDE (always the latest version, of course). Why? Because it’s based on Ubuntu and uses KDE as its desktop environment.

    Why not Kubuntu? Simple, because Linux Mint KDE is better than Kubuntu. Yes, it is! Try it and see for yourself, if you don’t believe me. :)

    No distro is perfect, not even Ubuntu or Linux Mint, but the Mint team tries to solve some issues Ubuntu may have, and we’ve got to admit it, they do a great job. Linux Mint 14 KDE is, by far, the best and the most stable KDE distro I’ve ever tried (believe me, I’ve tried a lot of them). It’s really awesome!

    “If you like Linux Mint KDE so much, why did you say you use Ubuntu 12.10?”, you may ask. Answer: option. I’ve opted by using pure Ubuntu with Unity. I confess, I didn’t like it at first, but now I’m extremely used to it and satisfied. But if I decide to use a KDE distro again, someday, it will definitely be Linux Mint KDE, unless it gets worse in the future, but you know, I really doubt that can happen.

    I hope my words are helpful. Cheers. :)

    Bruno Magalhães

  • LinuxCanuck

    @ChristineHall
    There is a big difference between Unity and Cinnamon when it comes to GNOME dependency. Basically Cinnamon is GNOME Shell with extensions which sits atop the GNOME 3 framework. It started as GNOME Shell with Extensions installed and then they made their own extensions.

    You are correct that Unity uses GNOME 3 underneath, but there are major differences that are getting larger with each release. It is hard to completely distance from GNOME when you use the same language (GTK), but Canonical is open to changing that. They have toyed with using Qt which they used in their now defunct 2D Unity. Basically they will use whatever best serves their purposes with no allegiance to GNOME.

    Cinnamon uses the same window manager (Mutter)as GNOME, but Unity uses Compiz. Mint uses X.org (as Ubuntu currently does) but Ubuntu will be switching soon to Mir as their display server and perhaps Wayland in the more distant future. And this is my point. Canonical is thinking outside the box and Mint is not.

    Here is another problem for Mint. Mint uses Ubuntu repositories, but as their differences grow Mint will be forced to reconsider this because Ubuntu will offer less GNOME and more of their own. They will eventually have their own package format for example. So what does Mint do? Answer that is obvious is to go to Debian which they now have as an experimental project, LMDE.

    Not to completely diss Mint, they have come a long way through tough times and made some difficult decisions. The questions users need to make is, were they the right ones and how well positioned is Mint for the future?

    Do you see? To date, with Mint the cart is driving the horse. I hope that Clem (Mint’s developer) sees this and is able to alter course. He may own most of the desktop market (as some prematurely claim), but when everyone else has moved on what good is that going to do?

  • Moving to develop Ubuntu as a distro that stands apart from the crowd is the only move that Shuttleworth could make. I said that from the very beginning. Look at Red Hat, the one great commercial success story. They didn’t find their success until they quit dropped their consumer desktop and began concentrating exclusively on RHEL, and then working on developing and integrating their enterprise stack atop that.

    I still believe that Shuttleworth’s plan, once he gets all his ducks in a row as far as developing his software, will be to take Ubuntu down the Apple path and work a deal out with an OEM for Ubuntu branded hardware.

    I’ve never been interested in using Ubuntu or Mint myself. I realize that both have excellent reputations with strong user bases–but neither is my cup of tea. Mostly because, until recently I was basically a KDE person.

    Again, for the last year or so I’ve been using Bodhi, and I’ve never found a distro I like better. I really like Enlightenment, and I’ve found nothing not to like about Jeff Hoogland, his development team or the way they approach Bodhi. Also again, the Ubuntu beneath the hood in Bodhi is nothing if not impressive.

  • Everyone loves it whenever people get together and share opinions.
    Great blog, continue the good work!

  • Dimplewidget

    PCLinuxOS has given me the best “out of the box” experience I have ever gotten. The interface and controls are less of a shock to windows users, strong support and I’ve gotten quick package updates just by making a request

  • Kulantro

    Newbie here. Getting confuse on the trend. Some post are to advance for me. The trend seems to go to “Best Linux Distro” not “Best Linux Distro For a New User”. Looking forward on this trend to help me what distro do I have to choose.

    Cheers.

  • @Kulantro Welcome to FOSS Force. And don’t worry about being confused, most of us are confused about something all the time

    It’s a given that a newbie is going to be directed to one of the best Linux distros–we’re certainly not going o have you install something awlful on your machine. :-) Besides, once you get beyond the window dressings (oops, bad choice of words), it’s all Linux under the hood. Whenever I’m helping someone new migrate to Linux I try to look for a distro that will put the new user into familiar surroundings–in other words, something that’s not too radically different than what that person is used to using. Also, I don’t direct new users to distros that need a lot of configuring from the command line. They’ll be plenty of time for you to learn your command line skills later, if you wish.

    As you’ve seen from the comments here, for Windows users, this might be something like Linux Mint, which I just loaded on a laptop for a first time Linux user. I’ve heard that a lot of Mac users like the Unity interface that ships with Ubuntu.

    The nice thing is, you can make yourself a “live” USB drive–boot your computer from that and run from the USB drive for a bit, seeing what you think. You most likely want be able to easily save anything while working from a “live” version, so don’t start writing your novel yet, but you can check-out two or three live versions before choosing one you like to put on your hard drive.

    In a week or so, we’ll be running an article on our take on the newbie distro poll, and that might give you some help. I think I’ll also put together an article on booting and running a live CD or USB drive, which might help you out.

    Good luck!

  • Kulantro

    @Christine Hall I’ve already installed ubuntu on my laptop but not via USB/DVD bootable procedure. I use Wubi(W*****s instaler for Ubuntu desktop). Now, my laptop has 2 OS. I can now experience the different between the two. Looking forward to that article. Thanks..

  • In the meantime, I’m sure you’ll enjoy your use of Ubuntu, Kulantro!

  • gerald cragg

    Ubuntu and mint are the easiest for beginners.
    as already quoted, most software is easily installed from the net. Ubuntu has better help and guide lines to view on the net.
    Pclinuxos is one to advertise to new a user, EVERYTHING shipped on it works. never really had to do much research on the internet to get things working.
    Manjaro is another for beginners, it now comes with a easy installer and helpful wiki to get it installed. also, being based on arch, it is rather sleek and no worry’s, a rolling release based on tested software.

    best advice for a new user, buy a new hard drive and install Manjaro, load virtual box and try all the Linux distros that take your eye. the one you like, install as a permanent OS.

    lastly – Opensuse = 1 click install.
    could it be easier

  • John

    Ive gone back and forth between Ubuntu and Mint.. Both are nice, though one thing i really dont like with Mint is their update philosophy.. Have to backup and do a clean reinstall, now why backing up isnt a bad idea, but can be tedious.. and for the average new user can be a hudle… People dont like unity in Ubuntu.. But… you can goto the software center in ubuntu and download cinnamon and voila you have the cinnamon desktop.. im sure you can get MATE on ubuntu too perhaps.. I liked PCLinuxOS though wasnt bad but i liked gnome better than KDE their Gnome version i didnt like for some reason…