Updated: What’s the best Linux distro for beginners?

Linux

Note: Our best Linux distro for beginners feature has been fully updated. This article was first published in January 2014.

The 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.

In this feature, we’ve deliberately shied away from the popular mainstream distros, as we didn’t just want easy-to-use distros. Instead, we’ve selected four 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 three of the four distros in our list are Ubuntu-based.

We’ve picked one that’s specifically aimed for those switching from Windows – in previous years, we were also able to feature a distro that was specifically aimed at Mac OS X users too, but it (Pear Linux) has sadly been discontinued. However, both Pinguy and Elementary contain elements that will definitely appeal to Mac switchers.

How we tested…

All distros were tested on the same dual-core machine with 4GB RAM. We’ve selected the latest 64-bit stable releases for all the distros.

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 consideration. Just as important is software management and the kind of apps that are included in the distro.

Apart from these major points, the distro also needs to be easy to use for day-to-day 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.

Installation

Linux’s Live CD approach allows you to test a distribution and start to familiarise yourself with it without having to first commit to installing it. It’s a great new way for new users to ease into Linux, and if you then feel it’s right for you, you can install the distro direct from 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 switchers 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.

Solus OS is the one distro not based on Ubuntu in this roundup. It’s been built from the ground up and after a rocky start has finally released version 1.0. Like almost every other aspect its installer is under active development, but it falls down at one crucial point: setting up your hard disk. Experienced users will know to click the Launch Partition Editor button and how to navigate GParted to create a new partition table or wipe the drive to start from scratch, but newbies won’t know this, and things get more complicated if you’re planning to dual-boot.

The Ubuntu-based distros all use Ubuntu’s Ubiquity installer, somewhat modified, to better suit the beginners that 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. More importantly, if a version of Windows is detected, the distro will allow you to install it alongside in dual-boot format.

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

Included software

Distributions are usually designed with the need to serve the 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 an internet browser, email client, text editor and media player. But if you expect lots more apps, they have those as well!

Solus offers only the very basic apps – Firefox, Thunderbird and Transmission BitTorrent Client, plus Rhythmbox Music Player and VLC, but there’s no LibreOffice or any graphics or other media editing tools provided, nor are gamers catered for in the slightest.

Zorin is bristling with apps. You get the usual office and internet apps, such as LibreOffice and Firefox (the Zorin Web Browser Manager app provides one-click access to Chrome, Opera, and Midori too). 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, Empathy IM, Videos, Rhythmbox music player, Cheese Webcam Booth and OpenShot Video Editor. It also includes Wine and PlayOnLinux to install Windows-only apps and games.

PinguyOS is similarly well blessed, and ships with Thunderbird, LibreOffice, Empathy, Deluge, TeamViewer 10, DeVeDe to burn discs, OpenShot video editor, Clementine, Gparted 0.24.0, Shutter, Steam, PlayOnLinux and much more. The inclusion of TeamViewer seems like a masterstroke, as the app makes it easy to access and control remote desktops.

Elementary OS provides a simple, elegant design. It has apps with a simple design. This is explained by the inclusion of the Photos and Geary email client apps – most other distros ship with Thunderbird, for example, but Geary is a smart client that fits in with Elementary’s UI. Similarly, the preference for Noise (music), Midori (web browser) and a built-in Videos app reaffirm this fondness for lightweight, simple apps. Elementary provides fewer default packages and you need its software management app to install the ones you want.

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 5/5
  • PinguyOS: 5/5
  • Elementary OS: 3/5
  • SolusOS: 2/5

Software management

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.

Solus once again falls short of its rivals. Things aren’t helped by its decision to go it alone – its own repository, although still relatively limited, does at least cover all the core apps like LibreOffice, GIMP, and Shotwell. At least support for user repositories has been added, so going forward things should get even better. The GUI frontend is easy to navigate, but remember to use eopkg rather than apt-get when installing via the Terminal.

Elementary OS ships with the Ubuntu Software Center, giving you access to a wide range of software, but aside from adding in its own PPA, there’s little to differentiate it from Ubuntu. Similarly, Zorin supplies a skinned version of the Ubuntu Software Center, but dig deep (System Tools > Administration) and you’ll also find the Synaptic Package Manager. It throws in the Google and Opera reports in addition to its own.

PinguyOS goes to the opposite extreme, supplying both GDebi and Synaptic Package installers in addition to the Ubuntu Software Center. It also offers a large number of additional reports, many of which are enabled by default, including those for Linux Mint and Ubuntu. There are PPA for themes, and apps such as Clementine, VLC, and Gnome. Ultimately, you could argue that the distro ships with too many PPAs, but beginners will be thankful and it also includes Y PPA Manager. This is a tool that you can use to make sense of and manage all those PPAs if the choice is too much.

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 4/5
  • PinguyOS: 5/5
  • Elementary OS: 4/5
  • SolusOS: 3/5

Usability

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 for new Linux users.

People often say Linux distros are extremely customisable – but what does this 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 behavior 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 user easily customise the distro to their liking.

Zorin is one of the finest distros to attract inexperienced Linux users. It has everything to offer a nice user experience to users coming from another Linux distro or even from Windows or Mac OS X. Besides its Windows 7-style 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 specialized versions. Zorin also instills good desktop practice 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 and Theme Changer apps.

Elementary is one of the simplest Ubuntu-based distros available, and as such 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.

It uses a dock to emulate the look of OS X, but it’s not particularly configurable – and the same is true of the desktop as a whole. Once you’ve exhausted the basic options, be sure to install the Elementary Tweaks tool, which gives you greater control over all aspects of the desktop, including the dock. Once installed, you’ll find it under Tweaks in System Settings.

Pinguy releases new stable versions to coincide with the latest underlying version of Ubuntu, but it doesn’t rush these to market, instead of making sure they’re well tested first. 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.

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

One area where Solus does close the gap on its rivals is in terms of desktop configuration. That’s largely thanks to the fact that it bundles the same Tweak Tool found in the other distros, making it relatively easy to configure the desktop to your tastes.

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 5/5
  • PinguyOS: 5/5
  • Elementary OS: 3/5
  • SolusOS: 3/5

Commercial services

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 two premium versions that can be downloaded after giving a donation. The Business version can be had for a minimum of €8.99 (around £6.90, $9.80), while the Ultimate edition can be downloaded after donating a minimum of €9.99 (around £7.60, $10.90). With a purchase of these editions, you also get premium support. The distro also supports one-off donations.

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.

Elementary’s website gives the impression you need to pay a fee for the OS before downloading it (type 0 into the ‘Custom’ box to skip this). It also has a US-only store offering merchandise. Furthermore, it supports ongoing monthly donations through Patreon to aid future development.

Solus encourages both one-off and monthly (Patreon Supporters) donations, with early access to developmental versions and premium support available in return.

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 4/5
  • PinguyOS: 3/5
  • Elementary OS: 3/5
  • SolusOS: 2/5

Support and documentation

Regardless of a user’s past OS dalliances, a beginner in Linux will encounter a vastly different way of doing things, in terms of 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 and so forth, 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.

SolusOS organizes its extensive support materials under the Community menu on its home page. There are community forums offering tutorials, installation support and more, plus access to more help resources via Google+, IRC, and Reddit. Things are rounded off with a nascent wiki that should help with more technical questions.

While it provides only a barebones installation guide, Zorin OS makes up for this elsewhere. There’s a handy Help button on its Start menu that leads straight to its user forums, with sections including how-to guides, install help and more. The project also has an IRC channel (#ZorinOS) and FAQ page, so you can have your questions answered instantly (hopefully, anyway).

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.

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 4/5
  • PinguyOS: 4/5
  • Elementary OS: 4/5
  • SolusOS: 5/5

Release cycle

There are three popular development methodologies that Linux distros typically adhere to the 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. Elementary follows this schedule, despite being based on Ubuntu. The current ‘Freya’ release is based on Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, and Elementary has made it clear that it only ever plans to build releases from the LTS branch.

Freya debuted in April 2015, a full 12 months after Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, and the next major release – codenamed ‘Loki’ – is likely to follow the same schedule, so don’t expect to see it before 2017. That’s good news for beginners who don’t want constant changes and updates.

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, most of 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.

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.

SolusOS is the exception here. It’s being built entirely from scratch, which is why it has no ‘upstream source’. Its plan is to release quarterly minor point updates (1.1, 1.2, etc) and one major update (2.0) each year. Each major release will be supported for two years, so support for 1.x will continue into 2017 alongside 2.x releases.

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 3/5
  • PinguyOS: 4/5
  • Elementary OS: 5/5
  • SolusOS: 3/5

The final verdict

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. There was a time when it was considered the height of cool for experienced Linux users to complain about this distro proliferation, but it did nothing to stem the tide.

People then turned to writing about how we’d soon witness the year of Linux on the desktop. We’re still waiting, but there are some of us still thrilled with 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.

If you can’t wait to find the perfect distro for your needs, then obviously one of these designed-for-newbie distros is a good place to start. At the bottom of the list is Solus OS. This project was recently resurrected after being dormant for a while but has rapidly made strides to make its first stable release back in December 2015. Now that’s passed, we hope to see many minor updates throughout 2016 before the next major release – Solus 2 –hopefully closes the gap on its rivals.

Elementary OS started off as a contender for the top slot, but small nags such as a reduced selection of default apps mean that it finishes in third place.

It was a close contest between Zorin and Pinguy for the top spot. Zorin produces several commercial variants and includes custom tools and will appeal to Windows switchers, but for novice Linux users, Pinguy provides the best desktop experience. It’s easy to use and configure and has an intriguing design.

So, here are those results in full, along with where you can grab these distros:

1st: PinguyOS

  • Web: http://www.pinguyos.com
  • Licence: GPL and others
  • Version: 14.04
  • Verdict: A pleasant-to-use distro. Perfect for newbies

2nd: Zorin OS

  • Web: http://www.zorin-os.com
  • Licence: GPL and others
  • Version: Zorin OS 9.1
  • Verdict: Very thoughtful distro. Good for most new users

3rd: Elementary OS

  • Web: http://www.elementaryos.org
  • Licence: GPL and others
  • Version: Freya (14.04)
  • Verdict: Nowhere near Pinguy or Zorin, but very usable

4th: SolusOS

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 favorites 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 four 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 choices, before switching to one of the others after a while.

// TechRadar

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  1. jymmn 5 months ago

    I used Zorin for years, but no longer find it that great a OS. It is getting to locked down and the processes to hidden. While Solus has a great future, it is still to early in development and lacks a lot of software. Personally I would recommend Ubuntu Mate to a new user or someone coming from Windows.

    Mate is highly configurable to look a lot like Windows if that is what you desire. Ubuntu has great update and upgrade software. If offers a good learning curve for LInux, you can use a GUI your whole life or delve into the terminal. You ignore Ubuntu, while it is the base OS for most of your recommendations.

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