From newb to expert - best Linux distro for YOU!

You know how I like to rate distributions at the end of each year? Yes, you do. However, while I do try to make those articles be as impartial and fair as possible and encompass as broad spectrum of users as possible, they ultimately reflect one man's experience, me. Not bad, given my awesomeness, but still.

I want to try a tricky challenge. Give you a perspective on how Linux distributions can serve you based on your skill level. In other words, what is the best distro for you if you happen to be a first time user, and what is the best one for you if you're a hardcore l33t hacker with Computer Science III ninja level? And then, everything in between. Of course, it will still be my perspective, but not so much revolving around my particular needs. To sum it up, we will examine the distributions based on their stability, productivity, ease of use, compatibility, security, and many other factors, only normalled to other people than myself. Not an easy task, but let's hope I can manage it.

Total newbie

Say this is your first time using Linux. I'm not going to lie to you. It will not be easy. There are the preliminary steps of figuring out what Linux is, what distributions are, which version to choose, including architecture, desktop environment, flavor, codecs, software, and whatnot. Then, you have to grab the media and burn it, and then run it. The installation is probably the trickiest part, but once you figure out the notation, you will learn that all operating systems are the same, so if you've ever installed Windows, you will eventually cope just fine.

After a bit of trial and error, fun and frustration, disappointment, wonder, and realization that things might be different from what you're used to, your Linux experience will begin in earnest, or it may end suddenly, and you will go back to Windows, disliking the unfamiliar taste of change.

In this adventure, the best distribution for your needs would be Linux Mint. It is based on the most popular distribution out there, Ubuntu, and shares much of the code base, so pretty much any problem that applies to Mint applies to Ubuntu, and vice versa. Moreover, Mint retains the classic desktop layout in the form of Cinnamon desktop environment, which is very similar to Windows, and it comes preloaded with useful software and multimedia codecs, so you are ready to start using your operating system from the first moment it comes up. Of course, do not expect miracles. Most games and certain Windows-only software will not work, but as far as Linux is concerned, Mint will offer the easiest transition from your familiar world into the unknown.

Linux Mint

A second worthy candidate is Kubuntu. The distribution, also based on Ubuntu, comes with a different flavor of desktop environment, known as KDE, hence the name, Kubuntu. With five years of free support, a very Windows-like interface, and a good compromise between usability, looks and functionality, Kubuntu offers an experience that should be similar to Linux Mint, with an added Windows twist, although some of the options in the system are not as trivial as Cinnamon.



You are no longer a noob, you know your way around. This means you have installed several Linux distributions by now, you can go about partitioning and multi-booting without ruining your system much, and you are now undergoing the transitional phase known as distro-hopping, testing everything for a few days then moving on to the next available distro with the promise of simplicity and greatness.

Again, Linux Mint is probably the best bet for your needs. You get a comfortable, out-of-the-box experience with everything you need, so you will not be overwhelmed with the need to tinker too much or try to fix too many things that could cause you to quit.

Intermediate user

At this point in life, you've notched several years of Linux use under your belt. This means you can write your own scripts, debug system problems, separate spurious nags from systematic issues, report bugs when needed, and suchlike. You still dislike tweaking too much lest you lose control, and you often marvel at the success of some of the long commands provided in forum posts.

As someone who is willing to experiment, but not too much, you expect a certain level of predictability from your systems. Beauty is important, but no longer imperative. You are more concerned about long-term support, backward compatibility and abundance of information. Perhaps the best word that describes your needs is consistency.

Finding distributions that offer consistency is not easy. If you look at Ubuntu, and consequently Linux Mint, there have been many radical changes under and over the hood in the past few years. For example, various system paths and services have been removed, others added. This could really upset you. Ubuntu used the classic Gnome session as its fallback, then it introduced Unity 2D, and now it's gone. Then, Mint underwent from Gnome 2 via Gnome 3 via Gnome 3 with shell extensions to Cinnamon and MATE. Not bad, but you might find this somewhat alarming.

What you're looking for is something simple yet elegant, modern but not unstable, conservative but not outdated, with good information, and many years of support that will guarantee your peace of mind. The most suitable candidate that addresses all these concerns is CentOS. Still running the venerable Gnome 2, the distribution comes with 7 to 10 years of support, rock-solid stability, and follows all the classic Linux schemes and dogmas. This means you can rely on CentOS not to break your programs and scripts. The downsize is that you might have to struggle a little bit in making the distribution suitable for desktop use, but that's part of your fun as an advanced user, albeit to a small degree. You want productivity, and you don't have much partience. Luckily, CentOS matches the bill.


Advanced user

My definition of advanced points at people who use Linux for work in addition to fun, or at the very least, the system is an inseparable, integral part of their daily use. People who might be chucked into this category include code developers, scientists, engineers, or very enthused enthusiasts.

The advanced level of skills comes to bear in things like the ability to recover systems without reinstalling in virtually any situation, the ability to perform detailed, thorough analysis of problems and root cause them without running arbitrary commands found in Web searches within seconds, the ability to understand that symptoms are merely pointers to an issue of a deeper scale somewhere. Along those lines.

Contrary to what you might think, advanced users will most likely shun from tinkering with systems, because they expect them to be robust and stable and predictable. Much like the intermediate users, they seek the peace of mind, so they can focus on actual productivity. However, here, the criticality of the matter is even more enhanced. While a skilled home user can afford to break down their box now and then for the sake of fun, advanced users will not want to afford it, or cannot afford it. Moreover, the excitement of recovering from errors and bugs no longer poses a challenge, and it is even detrimental to one's experience.

The answer is: CentOS, once again. Fedora can also be a candidate if your work entails dabbling in the latest and greatest, but Fedora does introduce a bleeding edge of unpredictability into the equation, making things more difficult, and there's the quick update regime. Eventually, one's personal desire to focus on maintaining and running the system vs. the need to be as efficient and productve as possible will determine the usage patterns.


On a side note, and it's a big, fat, bold note: Advanced users can afford to run pretty much any distribution, from Ubuntu to Gentoo, as they see fit. In fact, taste might be the deciding factor. Unlike most people out there, I do not equate difficulty with skill. In other words, setting up Arch or Gentoo can take time, but that's probably not the best use of one's skills. In the learning stage, maybe, and it's highly debatable, but once you've mastered that stage, the necessity to manually setup your Wireless card and everything else becomes a burden. Why go through something you can get out of the box? You know your packets and services and scripts, you are no longer an apprentice marveling at your master's magic potions and powders. Harry, move on.

Anything goes, just make the right choice that matches your needs - money, freedom, religion, software choice, licensing, and all that. My expectation is to see a two-hump camel graph describing advanced users, those at the far end with hackerish distros and those at the near end with so-called noob distros. Either going for ultra-ease or ultra-control, while avoiding the in-between gray area that is the worst thing for people who strive for efficiency and perfection.


If you're expert, you are reading this article because it may have amused you. The title, that is. Do you really need me to tell you how to cater to your needs? If you're a game developer and you're now planning on working on new games for Steam, then obviously, you want Precise Pangolin, because that's what Steam wants. Or if you're an Android developer, then you will look for the distro that offers the best SDK.

Being an expert means you're really good at what you do. And being an expert in Linux means you define the boundaries and rules of the game around you. So the choice of the distribution becomes irrelevant. What is important is to use what makes you happy or rich, or both.

My vision of an expert is definitely not a basemen dweller gazing at Assembly code. That could be a form of an expert, but that does not necessarily mean THE expert. Not does it have to be something arcane or obscure that no one will ever know about. Expertise is, after all, your ability to solve problems. That is all.

As an expert, you will most likely not be using any one specific distro, but multiple ones. Rather than converging on the best compromise, you will go for pinpoint, specific tools and solutions that address your needs perfectly and disregard everything else. So you will dabble in many and all, each one perfectly tailored for narrow tasks, as it should be. Think a utility van vs. a sports car. You get it.


Not what you expected? Neither did I. When I began writing this article, I realized another cool thing. A person can instantly qualify in multiple categories at once. Someone can be an expert and a newbie. Or perhaps someone might have the necessary skills for a certain job, but completely and totally refuse to exercise them. For example, being able to manually configure printers using CUPS does not mean you will ever want to do that in your distro. So you might end up using Mint and CentOS. There you go.

The list mentions only four distributions - Mint, Kubuntu, CentOS, and Fedora. That does not mean that many others, like Xubuntu, Ubuntu, Sabayon, Mandriva, Debian, or others do not have their place in the food chain. This merely means that I have tried to choose the best, most optimal solutions for listed skill levels. Your ever so slightly different needs will make all the difference in the world. And do not forget the magical multi-faceted nature of your computing personality. Well, hopefully, you enjoyed this.




About the author:
Igor Ljubuncic aka Dedoimedo is the guy behind He makes a living out of his very hobby - Linux, and holds a bunch of certifications that make a nice pile in the bottom drawer.

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by CyberWolf64 on 27. November 2014 - 3:06  (119863)

Over time I have tried various distros and flavors.
Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Xubuntu, Fedora, PCLinuxOS, Mageia, Solyd, Mint, etc.
Same applies to desktop environments: KDE, GNOME2, Xfce, LXDE, MATE, Unity, etc.

I have finally settled on a distro: Manjaro, which is an Arch based distro. Using either the Xfce or LXDE desktops (I can choose which as I log in).
It is a rolling release distro, which makes it far more appealing to me than fixed release because I get newer software versions quicker.
And, the icing on the cake is their forums, VERY knowledgable, very user friendly, and very helpful. You have users of every level there. Noob to Uber-Expert.

I have started highly recommending this particular distro.

by br1anstorm on 30. October 2014 - 14:42  (119389)

I'm exploring the world of Linux now that WinXP support is ending, and I have already seen some of Dedoimedo's separate online articles (all very helpful).

There are so many different Linux distros that it is indeed confusing. The scope to select or tailor them to your individual taste is so vast it can be initimidating to a newbie.

Two particular criteria seem important to me: i) that the user interface should not be too radically different from that to which one is accustomed; and ii) that the updating/upgrading process should be a straightforward as possible.

The first criterion drew me towards Zorin - which I have installed and which I like very much.

But a lot of Linux distros failed the latter test. Zorin, being based on Ubuntu, is among them. The fact that so many of the more popular ones - including Ubuntu and Linux Mint - seemed to deliver a separate, new release every few months (some more "stable" or long-term than others) put me off. Constant fiddling about, or reinstallation of the OS, does not appeal.

This led me to those Linux distros which are "rolling releases", and in particular to PCLinuxOS. Not the snappiest of brand-names, perhaps, and it may not have all the bells, whistles and fancy effects of other distros, but it does seem to me the most robust, user-friendly and stable of all the Linux OSs.

To each his own, I guess. But to those who are still searching, or thinking of taking the plunge, I'd say give PCLinuxOS a try as well as those recommended by Dedoimedo

by MidnightCowboy on 30. October 2014 - 15:21  (119393)

Rolling releases can have their own querks and users considering such a distro would be advised to browse the appropriate forums before deciding on this route. LTS releases on the other hand tend to be a better option especially once the initial release phase is a few months old. Even the previous 12.04 based systems are supported until 2017 and the latest 14.04 base, including Mint 17, is supported until April, 2019. MC - Site Manager.

by br1anstorm on 31. October 2014 - 15:44  (119419)

Thanks MC - I defer to your greater experience and wisdom.

I'm not a distro-hopper - but I am trying to weigh up PCLinuxOS (rolling) versus either Zorin or Linux Mint (both LTS). So I'd be quite interested to know (i) what are the "quirks", or downside, to rolling releases? What should I be looking out for? And (ii) why exactly are distros which rely on Long Term Support (LTS) releases "a better option" than rolling ones?

by MidnightCowboy on 1. November 2014 - 4:55  (119428)

With a rolling release, you will always have the latest software and there is no need to do an upgrade. Sounds good until you research the amount of things that can break with an update v the same thing happening after an LTS update. Manjaro is a good example. With an LTS release however you can sit out non critical security updates for a while and monitor the forums for issues before committing your own machine.

Specific to PCLinuxOS, the user base compared to Mint is tiny. Feedback regarding compatibility issues therefore will be much less. Supposedly their QC is amongst the best, but if stability is your goal then a distro based on Debian stable would be the way to go.

These things of course are only relevant to how you work with your hardware and what it is used for. I keep all of my stuff on an external drive (or duplicated there) so in the event of a failure I can reinstall Linux and have it fully customized to how it was before in less than an hour. Try doing that with Windows. :)

What I like of course may well be seen as garbage by someone else, which is the beauty of having so much choice with Linux. Here though are my own recommendations that in any case will only cost you a few minutes with a DVD live session to evaluate for yourself.

KDE - SuperX and Netrunner 14 (both LTS)

Gnome - Cylon (LTS) Runs with Compiz/Emerald and my current system of choice.

Cinnamon - Liunux Mint 17 (LTS)

Unity - Oz Unity BlackOpal

Hybrid - Xfce/KDE - Centrych (LTS)

Xfce - Voyager (LTS) Amazing distro (French site with English translation on page).

MATE - Point Linux. Will run with Compiz and associated goodies.

Free software only - has to be Trisquel 7.

Something different - Deepin. Superb effort that is not quite there yet, including lack of support for mobile broadband, but IMO this will be the one to beat in the future.

MC - Site Manager.

by br1anstorm on 3. November 2014 - 22:08  (119459)

Thanks again MC - just shows what a range of choice there is!

You make a good point about the PCLinuxOS user base being small compared to, for example, Mint. I share your perception that PCLinuxOS quality-control is pretty good.

Part of Linux's appeal is that it offers so many flavours and so many tweaks. In fact it's precisely because of the amazing range of possibilities that as a newbie I find it reassuring that the PCLinuxOS team checks and selects their ungrade/update "packages" so closely. When there are so many ways of skinning the Linux cat, I like the idea that people more expert than me have pre-tested what goes into PCLinuxOS.

Some of the evolution and modification of other distros seems to be like a free-for-all suck-it-and-see: great for enthusiasts and experimenters, but too uncertain for those like me who value reliability and stability above almost all else. But no doubt I will in time become knowledgeable enough to venture into some of the more esoteric areas of the Linux world - and I guess that's part of the fun!

by kronicon on 2. February 2014 - 12:59  (114153)

In my opinion there a to many Linux distribution flavor for every person. For example if you came from Windows and try to use Linux. I recommend Ubuntu is very easy to use, and is very friendly user. For install linux apps you can choose the Ubuntu Software-Center.

For more information check Distro-Watch they show a overview and rating of any Linux distribution

by mrinmoyjk on 3. April 2013 - 6:15  (106762)

I think Zorin OS ( is a very user friendly OS for those, who want to try Linux for the first time.

The truth is, when using a new OS, everybody wishes to have the same interface, they are already used to. And to know where to get it, while trying to do something. Zorin OS provides this.

Thanks for the article BTW. I want to try CentOS. But I don't understand why the distro size is so big.

by humpty on 22. January 2013 - 21:38  (104735)

I use Mint. Certainly is easy, like the article says.

by james the darkfoxx on 16. January 2013 - 3:17  (104513)

well i'm at noob level, I've played with both ubuntu and mint (as well as a few others). I liked Ubuntu but hated Mint due to trying to install wireshark. I was able to successfully install it (after a few hours) on ubuntu but could not duplicate it in mint. I installed mint after trashing my Ubuntu profile. Changed my desktop resolution and now i can't seem to undo it. Overall i preferred the look and feel of Ubuntu to Mint but I'm only a noob.

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