What's the best distro for beginners?

18th Jan 2014 | 15:00

What's the best distro for beginners?

The best distro for Linux beginners

Abundance of choice is one of the biggest challenges faced by new Linux users. Choosing your first Linux can be a very daunting task. Especially when you don't even know what criteria to look for when deciding on a distro.

In the mid-to-late 90s, choosing a distro was a much simpler process. You went with the distro you had heard about, or the one that someone you knew had experience with, or the one with some degree of documentation. Naturally, then, you were limited in choice to RedHat, Debian, or Slackware.

While those criteria still apply, the sheer number of Linux distros available now, and their vocal fan bases, makes it difficult to settle on one and get started.

We've deliberately shied away from the popular mainstream distros, as we didn't just want easy-to-use distros. Instead, we've selected five that we believe are ideal beginning points. Ubuntu has long been a popular Linux distribution, but it isn't quite right for beginners.

However, it can be with the right changes. This is why four distros in our list are Ubuntu-based. For users hoping for familiarity as they move away from a proprietary OS, we've got a distro each that resemble Mac and Windows.

How we tested...

All distros were tested on the same dual-core machine with 4GB RAM. We've selected the latest stable releases for all the distros, except for SolusOS.

The distro has made significant changes since its last stable release, so we've settled on an alpha release for the roundup. For inexperienced users, the documentation is one of the most important reasons for choosing a distro.

The distribution also needs to be easy to install. Since most users of these distros have probably never installed Linux before, this is a very important feature. Just as important is software management and the kind of apps that are included in the distro.

Apart from these, the distro also needs to be easy to use for day-today activities. The ideal distro for newbies is one that does all of the above and also makes it easy for them to tweak some settings.

Included software

What does it offer out of the box?

Pear Linux

Distributions are usually designed with the need to serve the most possible users in mind. This philosophy also drives the applications that are bundled with them. All the distros in our list offer the minimum, such as internet browser, email client, text editor and media player. But if you expect lots more apps, they have those as well!

The current release of SolusOS is meant for developers and testers, and has a limited number of apps. Of note are Firefox 24.0b9 and Thunderbird 17.0.8. The developer has already announced plans of shipping the Steam client in the final release, and you can expect all sorts of productivity and multimedia apps.

Zorin is bristling with apps. You get the usual office and internet apps, such as LibreOffice and the proprietary Google Chrome. The distro also lets you view content in proprietary formats from within the live environment. Also included is Gimp image editor, Shotwell photo manager, Thunderbird, Pidgin for IM, Totem video player, Rhythmbox music player, and the OpenShot video editor. It also includes Wine and PlayOnLinux to install Windows-only apps and games. There's also Web Browser Manager, which makes it easy to install different browsers. The distro offers Gwibber, a desktop app that lets you control most of the popular social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Flickr.

Elementary OS provides a simple, elegant design. It has apps with a simple design. This is explained by the inclusion of Geary email client and Shotwell photo manager. Most other distros ship with Thunderbird, although Geary is a smart email client. You also get Totem movie player, Noise music player, and Midori web browser. The latter two reaffirm the distro's fondness for lightweight, simple apps. Elementary provides fewer default packages and you need its software management app to install the ones you want.

Pear OS ships with LibreOffice, Thunderbird, Firefox 20, VLC media player and On Air music player. It also offers Time Back, a clone of Apple's Time Machine backup tool, Empathy for IM and Cheese webcam tool.

PinguyOS ships with Thunderbird, LibreOffice, Empathy, Deluge, TeamViewer 7, DeVeDe to burn discs, OpenShot video editor, Cheese, Clementine, PlayonLinux, Gparted 0.16.1, Shutter, PlayOnLinux and more. The inclusion of TeamViewer seems like a masterstroke, as the app allows you to control remote desktops.

Verdict

Zorin OS: 5/5
PinguyOS: 5/5
Elementary OS: 3/5
SolusOS: 2/5
Pear Linux: 3/5

Pinguy offers some unorthodox but brilliant packages.

Software management

For when you need to install additional applications.

Pinguy

For most new users, the default set of apps should be more than enough to get started. As you become more accustomed to your distro, you may wish to install additional apps. Software repositories may seem like a strange concept at first, but most distros provide useful tools to help you install software easily.

SolusOS uses gpk-application as a frontend for installing apps, but the developer is working on a custom GUI for its PiSi package management system.

Elementary OS is working on its own AppCenter as a replacement for Ubuntu Software Center. With the exception of Elementary OS, which ships only with Ubuntu Software Center, all other Ubuntu-based distros in our list ship with that and Synaptic Package Manager.

In Pear Linux, neither of these tools is accessible from the desktop. You must first head into Launcher and then click the System Tools tab. Main, restricted, and multiverse repositories are enabled by default.

With Zorin, you get a redesigned Ubuntu Software Center, as well as the Synaptic Package Manager. In addition to all the usual repositories, it also has repos for Google and Opera.

PinguyOS has a variety of additional software repositories that are enabled by default. It also includes repos for Linux Mint, Ubuntu and Elementary OS. There are PPAs for themes, and apps such as Clementine. The distro ships with too many PPAs, but thankfully it also includes Y PPA Manager. This is a tool that you can use to make sense of and manage all the PPAs.

Verdict

Zorin OS: 5/5
PinguyOS: 5/5
Elementary OS: 4/5
SolusOS: 2/5
Pear Linux: 5/5

SolusOS loses out, as package management is a core skill.

Usability

How easy is it for newbies to configure the desktop?

You can tell a user has found a distro that they like when they begin to tweak its different aspects. This moving away from the defaults is a sign of maturity for any user, but especially so with new Linux users. People often say Linux distros are extremely customisable. But what does it mean for new users? Sure, you can change the desktop background, the icons theme, define keyboard shortcuts, configure power management and make other changes to the appearance and behaviour of the distro. But is it easy for a first-time Linux user to do all of that?

While all the distros in our list allow you to do all of this and more, they each go about the process differently. If the distro is aimed at new users, it earns high points if it includes special custom tools to help the users easily customise the distro to their liking.

SolusOS - 3/5

Solus 2 OS

While originally based on Debian, SolusOS is now being developed from scratch by the developer who worked on the Debian edition of Linux Mint. Although the distro is under active development and hasn't even had a beta release yet, it is pretty stable.

The Alpha 9 release has a basic installer and even lacks a partitioner, but the developer is adapting the partitioning tool from Pardus's YALI installer. The final SolusOS 2 will ship only non-live installable images. The distro uses its own adaptation of the PiSi package manager, created for Pardus Linux. It supports delta upgrades, which lets users update their system using minimal bandwidth. It uses Xfce, but the completed distro will ship with Consort, its own fork of the Gnome Classic desktop.

Zorin OS - 5/5

Zorin OS

This is one of the finest distros to attract inexperienced Linux users. It has everything to offer a nice usable experience to users coming from another Linux distro or even from Windows or Mac OS X. Besides its Windows 7-styled desktop, the custom application launcher does a pretty good job of mimicking the Windows 7 Start menu.

The Core edition has enough to whet your appetite, and you can shell out some money to get the specialised versions. Zorin also includes all of the Ubuntu goodies, such as Ubuntu One, which is well integrated into the distro. It also instills good desktop practices by regularly reminding users to set up the backup app. All in all, the distro has the right mix of the best of Ubuntu sprinkled with some custom Zorin apps, such as the Look Changer.

Elementary OS - 4/5

Elementary OS

This is one of the simplest Ubuntu-based distros available, and is a good starting point for beginners. The distro places great emphasis on design, and this has resulted in a curious choice of default software packages. While these may not be to everyone's liking, the apps are highly usable and a suitable replacement for their more popular alternatives.

The distro is lightweight and blazingly fast. It doesn't offer many apps out of the box and doesn't include codecs for proprietary media formats. This means that you can't play MP3s, videos, or even YouTube videos out of the box, but you can leverage its Ubuntu lineage and access thousands of additional packages and multimedia codecs using the software centre.

Pear Linux - 5/5

Pear Linux

This distro strives to be Mac-like in its appearance. Like Elementary, it too doesn't offer many apps out of the box, which is rare for Ubuntubased distros. It's only available as 64-bit ISOs for now, but future releases will also provide a 32-bit variant, starting with Pear OS 8.

Aside from the Desktop edition, the team also produces a Server edition, which ships with Apache, MySQL, Samba, Webmin, TomCat, etc, and can power your business, home office or school. It also includes a custom app called MyServer to help you manage the different services.

The desktop edition includes MyPear, a one-stop tool to control and configure many different aspects of the desktop, such as defining the hot corners, the positioning of the panel, window animations and more. There's also Clean My Pear to help you maintain your system. You can use the tool to empty trash and delete temp files and browser cache.

PinguyOS - 5/5

Pinguy

Traditionally, any application or operating system with Beta in its name implies the project is not ready for the masses, but Pinguy has turned that theory on its head, and it's out-every-six-months final releases are all Beta. The distro is wonderfully stable and a very attractive option for all Linux users. Whether you're an absolute beginner or someone looking to switch to another distro, this is definitely worth your time.

It ships with a custom Docky, which you can use to create a number of docks. To each such dock, you can add docklets, such as weather, a network usage monitor and a workspace switcher. The distro also includes the Tweak tool to help you easily configure many different aspects of the desktop.

Commercial services

What paid add-ons does the distro offer?

PPA Manager

A distro can have several reasons for offering paid add-ons. More often than not, it's just the developers trying to make some money so they can continue to produce it. This is why some distros also enable users to make donations to the project.

In addition to the desktop release, Zorin OS produces four premium versions that can be downloaded after giving a donation. The Business, Multimedia and Gaming versions can be had for a minimum of €7.99, while the Ultimate edition can be downloaded after donating a minimum of €9.99. With a purchase of these editions, you also get premium support. The distro also sells merchandise, such as mugs, t-shirts and stickers on CafePress.

PinguyOS also has an extensive store on CafePress, from where you can get all kinds of merchandise, such as mugs, t-shirts, bags and baby bibs. You can also donate via PayPal. To show your support for Pear Linux, you can get stickers. You can also donate to the project; there are several options, ranging from the minimum of €5 to the maximum of €100.

You can also fund the developers' salaries by becoming a sponsor. There are five levels of sponsorship: Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze and Community. Sponsors pay a fixed amount per month, and get exposure on the website and monthly announcements.

The Elementary store lets you buy the 32-bit CD for the current release and also offers a few t-shirts and stickers.

Verdict

Zorin OS: 5/5
PinguyOS: 5/5
Elementary OS: 3/5
SolusOS: 0/5
Pear Linux: 5/5

SolusOS has no commercial services, but it's not a poor distro.

Support and documentation

RTFM doesn't help. What else have you got?

Pinguy

Regardless of a user's past OS dalliances, a beginner in Linux will encounter a vastly different way of doing things; everything from appearance to the alternative apps they will need to master. This is why the distro must provide extensive documentation. Additional resources, such as forum boards, mailing lists, wikis, etc, which can help a newbie tap the collective experience of the community, are also appreciated.

Elementary OS provides to-the-point, easy-to-understand documentation on the website. The project also has an Answers page, where anyone can post a question. It also lets you connect to the project's IRC channel from within the browser.

SolusOS has a neatly arranged forum board, which hosts community contributed tutorials and tips and tricks.

While it provides only a bare bones installation guide, Zorin OS more than makes up for it with its many FAQs for new users, forum boards with installation help, how-to's and tutorials. The project also has an IRC channel, so you can have your questions answered instantaneously.

Except for the FAQs, PinguyOS offers its users everything that Zorin does. What's more, there's also a very thorough step-by-step installation guide to help you out.

In contrast to these distros, Pear Linux provides only a forum board and little else. While the website also lists a wiki, it is inaccessible for now.

Verdict

Zorin OS: 5/5
PinguyOS: 5/5
Elementary OS: 4/5
SolusOS: 3/5
Pear Linux: 2/5

Documentation may be one of the most important features.

Release cycle

Which schedule is best for a beginner?

SOlus

There are three popular development methodologies that Linux distros typically adhere to - fixed schedule, fixed feature and rolling release. With a rolling release comes a learning curve that may be too steep for most new users. It's because of this reason that distros such as Gentoo and Arch are not recommended to newbies. With a fixed feature schedule, the distro is released when it's good and ready - there is no fixed date for a release.

SolusOS is the only distro on our list that follows this practice. It's being built entirely from scratch, which is why it has no 'upstream source'. Since the distro follows the fixed feature strategy, the date for the final release is not fixed. The fixed schedule is one of the most popular release cycles, and is followed by the majority of distros. In the fixed schedule, a new release is pushed out at fixed intervals, usually every six months. Ubuntu follows this twice-yearly release cycle and so, naturally, its derivatives do the same.

Zorin OS is based on the latest Ubuntu release. Work on a new edition begins as soon as a new Ubuntu release arrives on the horizon, but it takes time for the developer to produce the different editions.

The current Elementary OS release is based on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. It will not, however, produce a distro based on Ubuntu 13.10. The next release of Elementary, named Isis, will use Ubuntu 14.04 as its base.

Pinguy's six-month-releases ship with bleeding-edge software, and are not considered stable. They remain in beta, despite being a final release. The stable releases are based on Ubuntu LTS releases.

Verdict

Zorin OS: 3/5
PinguyOS: 4/5
Elementary OS: 5/5
SolusOS: 3/5
Pear Linux: 4/5

The distros may be based on Ubuntu, but look nothing like it.

Installation

The Live CD is the best thing Linux has to offer to new users.

Elementary

The ability to test a distribution and familiarise yourself with its ins and outs without installing it helps ease new users into Linux. All the distros here let you test them from the Live environment. After using the distro if you feel its right for you, you can run the installation from within the Live environment.

Most of these distros have an icon on the desktop you can double-click to launch the installation. As a new user, the installation needs to be easy. It's likely that a user already has some form of an operating system on the machine. If that's the case, the user will have to partition and resize the hard disk. This is the step where many distros aimed at new users falter.

But it's not just a problem for newbie-centric distros. Many mainstream distros fare poorly because they don't provide a friendly-enough installer.

Like almost every aspect of SolusOS 2, its installer is under active development. The current installer is based on the one the developer wrote while working on LMDE and later used in SolusOS 1. In its current state, the installer is very basic - it doesn't even have a partitioner. This means users will have to rely on other partitioning tools to prepare their hard disk for the distro. The developer is working to adapt the partitioning tool from Pardus's YALI.

The Ubuntu-based distros all use Ubuntu's Ubiquity installer, somewhat modified, to better suit the beginners the distros aim to target. The installation process usually takes you through seven or so steps that cover partitioning, creating a user, defining the time zone and specifying the keyboard layout. The most important step is partitioning, where you can erase the entire disk and use it to install the distro, or specify a custom partitioning layout.

The best thing about using Ubiquity, as a newbie, is there's plenty of documentation. Plus there are YouTube videos that take you through the installation process for each of our Ubuntu-based distros. Since the distros are based on Ubuntu, you don't get to choose the software that is installed. Once you specify the disk and configure the partitioning, the distro will automatically install all software for you.

Verdict

Zorin OS: 5/5
PinguyOS: 5/5
Elementary OS: 5/5
SolusOS: 1/5
Pear Linux: 4/5

Ubiquity scores highly. It is unrivalled in its simplicity.

The verdict

Pinguy

The Linux ecosystem is often praised, and sometimes criticised, for giving users too much choice. This is true, not just for applications, but also for distributions. Untill a few years ago, it was considered the height of cool for experienced Linux users to complain about this distro proliferation, but nothing much came of that.

Eventually, people turned to writing about how we will soon witness the year of Linux on the desktop. People still sometimes talk about that. But there are some of us who are thrilled by each new Linux distro announcement. As new Linux users, you might get vertigo browsing through the list of distros, but this isn't a bad thing. It means that there definitely is a distro that's just right for you. But you can't wait for this tailored-for-you distro to fall into your lap before starting with Linux. So what do you start with? How about one of our designed-for-newbie distros?

SolusOS appears to be the worst in the list, judging by the ratings. But this is a promising distro that we urge everyone to come back to once the final version is released. We've pitted an alpha release against more mature, stable distros, but the project still stands out. SolusOS 2 differs greatly from the last stable release, and the project has some wonderful ideas to attract and retain users.

Pear Linux is ideal for those looking to move away from Mac, but who still want some degree of familiarity. It's not as polished as Elementary, but is being actively worked on, and its custom set of tools make it stand out.

Elementary OS started off as a contender for the top slot, but small nags such as a reduced selection of default apps mean it finishes in third place. It faces stiff competition from Pear Linux, and may soon be overtaken by the French distro.

It was a close contest between Zorin and Pinguy. Zorin produces several commercial variants and includes custom tools. For novice Linux users, Pinguy provides the best desktop experience. It is easy to use and configure, and has an intriguing design.

1st: PinguyOS

Web: www.pinguyos.com
Licence: GPL and others
Version: 12.04

A pleasant-to-use distro. Perfect for newbies.

2nd: Zorin OS

Web: www.zorin-os.com
Licence: GPL and others
Version: Zorin OS 7

Very thoughtful distro. Good for most new users.

3rd: Elementary OS

Web: www.elementaryos.org
Licence: GPL and others
Version: Luna

Nowhere near Pinguy or Zorin, but very usable.

4th: Pear Linux

Web: http://pearlinux.fr
Licence: GPL and others
Version: Pear Os 7

A little bit of effort could well put it on the podium.

5th: SolusOS 3

Web: www.solusos.com
Licence: GPL and others
Version: 3

Wait for the final release before you write it off.

Also consider...

We chose not to go with any of the mainstream distros. There are those who believe there is no such thing as a newbie-centric distro, and that a determined user will find a way to persevere with a distro no matter how alien it feels. We've often seen Arch and Gentoo recommended to new users, along with the all-time favourites Debian, Slackware, Fedora, Mint, Ubuntu, and so on.

Gentoo and Arch will teach you Linux internals like no other distro could. But experienced Linux users still shy away from them, and with good reason. These two are not for those who've never used Linux before. Depending on your past computing experience, you may find the five distros in our list too simplistic.

In which case you can pick Fedora, Slackware, Debian, or any other. If you are an absolute beginner, you'd be better off starting with one of our five choices, before switching to one of the others after a while.

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