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Discussion on: Explain the different popular Linux distros

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riidom • Edited

Ok here is my attempt at explaining, based on the building blocks a distro is made of. And I will assume you ask for a friend, who mostly wants to use linux, and not learn linux.

First, there is the linux kernel. This is relevant only if you plan to buy some bleeding edge hardware, or want to know if the touchpad from laptop XY will be well supported or not. As a simple user, there is nothing more to say about the linux kernel than that it determines the support of hardware.
Assume that you basically have no say in the kernel version you are using. It will be updated when a major updates hits your installation, but otherwise no. Let's assume it is difficult to update your kernel yourself and that it won't happen.

There is the model called rolling release which updates constantly and will break things now and then. I have no experience with these, but I claim: Don't use a rolling release distro as your first linux.
The other model is based on LTS. You won't get the latest bugfixes (which can be annoying), but you have a much more stable and curated experience overall.

This is relevant when you install software. Basically there are 3 clubs: deb, rpm and aur. If you want to download and install some software, they basically support your club or they don't. Deb is the best supported club, I believe.
Now what to do if your club is not supported? Either you build from source, which can be everything from easy to difficult. Or you use something package-agnostic, which would run just on any linux: snap, flatpak, or appimage.
I have only experience with deb, and in combination with snap, flatpak and appimage, I can conclude that I never ever had to build from source in the last 3 years.

This is not the icon-cluttered image you see when you minimize all programs (I refer to that as workspace later on), but rather the whole "Operating system UI" (and a bit more):

  • the task bar where you pin programs, see which are currently open, have your system area with clock, volume and battery etc.
  • the start menu
  • the whole "system configuration" affair
  • the core software, like a text editor, the console, your calculator etc.
  • the keyboard shortcuts
  • the theme, the icons, the system font
  • high-level productivity concepts like "virtual workspaces", or "activities"
  • extra things like widgets, that you can place on your workspace (weather, clock, cpu usage, sticky notes etc.)

The biggest ones are Gnome, KDE Plasma, XFCE, in my opinion. And I totally would recommend to pick a distro which uses one of these three.

Beside the default minimal applications I mentioned in the list above as "core software", many distros deliver additional software (less or more, depending) like GIMP, LibreOffice, Thunderbird, etc.
This doesn't play a big role in my book. When I don't like their email program, I ignore it and install my preferred one. I have to download a bit more, and carry through all the updates of the one I actually don't use, but I would not base my decision for a distro on the pre-delivered software.

This is often underrated. If you "dunno-X" or "suffer-from-Y" or want "different-than-Z", you can always search. People say good things about the wikis on AUR-based distros (see section packaging), but I can't tell first-hand. What I know though, is how excellent the support is for ubuntu-based distros. I have yet to find a question that didn't yield an answer in the search results. And in my beginnings, I didn't even phrase the questions very smart and still found answers.

You asked for an explanation, not a recommendation of distros, but I feel this does belong here :)
I am not much of a distro hopper, but I have been using Linux Mint, Ubuntu/Unity and Kubuntu so far. The first on an old laptop to get my first contact with linux, the other two as only OS installed on my only computer.
So based on my limited experience, I recommend either:

  • Linux Mint: with XFCE, you get a distro that is particularly newbie-friendly, and has a rock-stable desktop. It looks a little outdated though, and this is why I didn't use it again when I made the jump.
  • Ubuntu: It is widely supported (deb-club), has huge support (internet search), developed by an actual company. If you like to play games, most studios who support linux, actually just support (as in: tested) Ubuntu. The Gnome desktop I never tried, but it is widely used, some people have complaints about it, but I feel the majority is just silently enjoying it.
  • Kubuntu: I recommend this because I use it myself. You get all the benefits from Ubuntu, just instead Gnome you have KDE Plasma as desktop. KDE Plasma looks awesome, is highly configurable (if you don't like to do that, the defaults are fine too). Like Ubuntu it is LTS-based, so you hop every 2 years to another version with 5 years of support, typically. With a lot of padding, if you don't feel like updating this year or next year.

(edit) Two more tips:
a) buy an external HDD. Whenever you feel worried about loosing all your stuff, back it up. I used this once when I jumped from Ubuntu to Kubuntu, and never due to an emergency. But it gave me so much confidence and made me worry less. And I often worried when I started with linux.
b) have a secondary device with internet access. Your smartphone may do it, an old laptop is even better. I never had trouble with my internet access, but in case I have, I can still search the web for solutions :). This is also mostly for "soften the worrying".