Linux today comes in several different flavors or distros as they are known in Linux circles.

Some Linux distributions are light-weight (they’ll run just fine on your old laptop), some are targeted at people who just want to try out Linux without replacing their main OS while other desktop distros (say Ubuntu) include a more comprehensive collection of software applications and also support a wide variety of hardware devices.

Choose the Right Linux Distro for your Desktop

Ubuntu, Xubuntu, Xandros, Knoppix, Fedora, openSUSE etc. are just some of the popular Linux distros but you’ll be surprised to know that there exists over 650 active distros in the world according to DistroWatch, a site that tracks the popularity of various Linux distributions.

Determining the perfect Linux distribution that will meet your requirements can therefore be a difficult task so here’s a handy guide that lists different scenarios and the Linux distros that will be the most appropriate for each of them.

Related reading: How to Install Linux on a Windows Computer

1. For people who just want to try Linux out

Live CD distributions like Knoppix boot directly from the CD-ROM so you can try out Linux without you having to install anything on your computer. The user can run many different software applications and he may also save documents / files created during a Live CD session to persistent storage like a hard disk or a flash drive.

A Linux Live CD can also be used in situations when your windows has crashed and you want to save your existing data on another media before reinstalling windows. The only problem is that such distributions tend to run slower than fully installed Linux distributions.

If you aren’t too happy with the speed of a Live CD, you can use a Wubi to install the Ubuntu Linux distro on your Windows desktop. Wubi allows you to install and uninstall Ubuntu on your computer just like any Windows application. As compared to other Linux distributions, Ubuntu has got a fixed release cycle and support period and a wealth of both official and user contributed online documentation.

There’s another interesting option as well – you may install Linux in a virtual environment and run it alongside other Windows /Mac applications. Virtualization software like Virtual PC (Microsoft), Virtual Box (Sun) or VMare can be easily used for this purpose. Just download the Linux ISO (or use the Linux installer CD if you have one) and follow the wizard to set up your new Linux virtual machine.

2. For people who are new to Linux

Among the GNU/Linux desktop distributions, Linux Mint provides an ease of use and elegance not seen in other distributions. Linux Mint is is based on Ubuntu (which itself is based on Debian) so users have a large collection of software programs and packages to choose from. If something works for Ubuntu or Debian, it’ll probably work on Linux Mint as well.

Linux Mint CD comes with a utility called mint4win that will let you install Linux on your Windows computer on other partition without touching any of your existing setup. The performance won’t be that great but you can easily uninstall Linux from your Windows PC using the Add/Remove applications tool within Windows.

Ubuntu (Desktop edition) is also a great choice for Linux users who are beginners. It supports a wide-variety of hardware devices, has a standard release cycle (every six months) and, if you don’t have a great Internet connection, you can ask Ubuntu to ship you installation DVDs for free anywhere in the world.

OpenSUSE (Novell) and Fedora (Red Hat) are other popular Linux distros for the desktop that are both free and user-friendly.

Among the commercial distros, Xandros Home Edition is perhaps the most useful Linux desktop operating system for newbies. Xandros includes CodeWeavers CrossOver so you can easily run Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and many other Windows applications inside Xandros.

3. For installing Linux on old computers

Puppy Linux is a Live CD distribution that has a small installer and will run just fine on computers with RAM as little as 64 MB. Puppy Linux can boot from several media including USB flash drives, CD or a zip drive. Puppy Linux will run totally in RAM so make sure you save the modified personal files to a disk else you’ll lose the changes when the system shuts down.

Xubuntu, a variant of Ubuntu is also a possibility. Xubuntu uses xfce, a desktop environment that uses less system resources than GNOME that comes with the Ubuntu distribution. Xubuntu versions are released twice a year, coinciding with Ubuntu releases.

antiX is another good choice for old computers – it should run on systems that were considered slow when Windows 98 was released (like the Pentium II series). Damn Small Linux and Zenwalk are other variations that have minimal hardware requirements.

4. For using Linux at work

Redhat Enterprise Linux and and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (formerly known as Novell Linux Desktop) are the front runners in the business category of Linux distros. Traditionally though, Redhat has concentrated more on the server market than the desktop market. Xandros Desktop is another choice except that Xandros is a small company and most business organizations would prefer to deal with large stable vendors.

Red Hat Enterprise Server, SUSE Enterprise and Ubuntu Server are possible contenders for deploying Linux on server machines. Some factors that go in favor of Red Hat are extensive security updates schedule (7 years), large number of new packages included in the distro and a strong training and certification program which is very useful for organizations that do not have in house skills.

5. Linux for Netbook computers

Netbooks are like your regular notebook computers but with small screens, they consume less power but also have less powerful hardware. Linux distros that are suitable for running on netbooks include Ubuntu Netbook, Moblin and Jolicloud.

Ubuntu Netbook requires an Intel Atom processor. If you already have a Ubuntu installer, you can install the desktop version of Ubuntu on your netbook, change the default repository to point to Ubuntu Network Editor repository and then install the relevant packages.

Jolicloud is suitable for running on low-powered computers that don’t have enough memory or storage space. The interface of Jolicloud is gorgeous and different from all other Linux distros. It is based on Ubuntu so any app that works with Ubuntu will run on Jolicloud as well. You may install Jolicloud alongside your Windows OS or download the ISO to install Jolicloud on a separate partition.

Moblin, another Linux distro from netbooks, was initially a project of Intel but is now part of the Linux Foundation. You can run Mobile from a live USB image or you install the OS on to the netbook. Going forward, Moblin and Maemo* will merge into MeeGo and will be available for download in Q2   ’10.

[*] Maemo is Debian Linux based software platform from Nokia.

6. For power users who want control

Arch Linux is a recommended distro for power (experienced) users as it allows them to create a customized Linux installation built from the ground up. It does not have a graphical install interface.

Once the Arch Linux installation is done, there is no post-install account creation or login manager screen. Instead, there is a screen full of configuration files that have to be tweaked to suit the network and system configuration. This allows the user to tailor the system from the ground up as compared to a ‘user-friendly’ distro where one would get a standard set of packages and will have to remove the ones that are not needed.

Slackware is another distro that deserves mention in this context. As compared to Arch Linux, Slackware Linux provides more stable packages and is thus more conservative. However, Arch Linux provides a more usable package management system that takes care of dependencies.

Slackware third party packagers on the other hand, have to ensure that everything is included in the package or available for download from the same web page. It is the oldest surviving Linux distribution. Since Slackware philosophy is to use vanilla packages, it tends to run faster than other distros.

References and Resources:

  • List of Linux distributions – We only touch a dozen Linux distros but this Wikipedia article will provide you detailed information (including screenshot images) of all popular Linux distributions.
  • Netbook Distros – Detailed comparison of netbook oriented Linux distributions.
  • Linux Distribution Chooser – This is a web based wizard that will help you find the right Linux distribution for your needs.
  • Comparison of Linux distributions – You can compare the various Linux distros from a technical point of view like what processors they support, what is the base distribution, etc.
  • Linux Releases – This page tracks the upcoming releases of various Linux distros.
  • Linux Gaming – If you use Linux for playing games, this article has a list of popular video games that are currently available for Linux.