Choosing a Linux Distribution
For new Linux users, the hardest thing can be trying to get an answer to one simple question: "Which Linux distribution should I use?" Back in the world of that other OS, the choice is pretty simple since you had no choice, or as Henry Ford might have put it, you can have "any color you want as long as it's black". In the Linux world, you can get black, yellow, red, blue, green, and every color in between. I personally think it is a wonderful thing that so many Linux distributions exist. Aside from creating a rich OS landscape, it furthers creativity and fosters innovation in software design. This can only be a good thing. While this makes for a colorful world, it can be very confusing for the new user. The DistroWatch Web site alone lists over 350 Linux distributions.
So which distribution should you get? Well, every Linux vendor does things a little differently. If you think of this in terms of cars, it starts to make sense. Every single car out there is basically an engine on wheels with seats and some kind of steering mechanism so that drivers can get to where they want to go. What kind of car you buy depends on what else you expect from a car, whether that is comfort, style, the vendor's reputation, or any great number of other choices.
If you've come this far and you are reading what I'm writing here, then you probably want me to do what no sane person is willing to do, go out on a limb, take sides, and recommend something. All right, here goes . . . but I'm going start by dividing all of you into two groups.
Those of you in the first group haven't yet decided whether they are ready to give up on Windows. You know it's a good idea and you're going to switch at some point soon, but you would like to try Linux without having to actually commit to anything. For you, I'm going to recommend Knoppix, a wonderful Linux distribution that runs entirely from the CD without the need to install. There are other so-called live CDs out there (and I invite you to try others) but Knoppix is a great place to start. Download and burn a copy or pick up the first issue of TUX which will include a special version of Knoppix, remastered to include all of the software we are covering in the first issue.
It's also a great item to carry with you when you go PC shopping. When you're looking at that spiffy new PC, ask the salesperson to let you boot it up with Knoppix to verify that your system is well supported.
Those of you in the second group have decided to just go for it and install Linux. It's a done deal and now you just need to know which Linux distribution to pick. If you are just getting started with desktop Linux, I would probably suggest that you look at either Mandrake or SUSE (now owned by Novell). Both are excellent, well-engineered, and beginner-friendly Linux distributions. Mandrake tends to be more geared to home users with excellent multimedia and game support (it's the one I usually install for friends and family). SUSE, meanwhile, tends to feel more polished and is certainly more business friendly. In both cases, you can buy boxed sets or download images which you can then burn to a CD.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and it certainly doesn't imply that other distributions aren't great and worthy of all the accolades that come their way. RedHat, Fedora, Xandros, Libranet, Linspire, and MEPIS are all great beginner friendly Linux distributions. Rest assured that under the skin, all of these remain Linux distributions.
Which brings me to what might be the single best suggestions for selecting a distribution. Sometimes, the ideal choice is to install what your friends running Linux are currently using. After all, one of the most powerful attractions to Linux is the enthusiastic and knowledgeable community support that is available. There's a lot to be said for taking advantage of an existing community of support, in this case, your friends and family.
Getting Linux is the easy part. One way to get Linux is to buy a copy. Head down to your local computer software store and ask for your favorite distribution. Alternatively, visit one of these vendors' Web site, whether it be Mandrake, SUSE, Red Hat, or any of the many different distributions listed on the DistroWatch DistroWatch or LinuxISO.org Web sites and order one online.
You might be asking the question, If I can get a free copy of Linux, why would I want to pay for one? As it turns out, there is more than one answer to that question. The first is that buying a boxed set usually gets you some amount of technical support from the vendor. If you are feeling nervous about your first Linux installation, this might be a good reason. Furthermore, working with a vendor may offer other advantages such as certification of certain enterprise applications (eg: Oracle) to run with your specific platform. You'll often see messages stating that this database or this CRM system is certified to work on a particular version of Red Hat or SUSE.
Second, the boxed set usually contains some kind of manual or manuals specific to that version of Linux. That will inevitably lead to another question as to what makes this Linux different from that one. Finally, in purchasing a boxed set, you are supporting the company that put leather on the seats or tinted the windows. It's a way of saying, "Thanks for all the hard work."
Because it is possible to get a free copy of Linux, you don't have to shell out the dollars if you don't want to. At most, you'll need a fast Internet connection, a CD burner, and some blank CDs—or a helpful friend who has these.
The final option is to buy a PC with Linux preinstalled. A number of companies now offer systems with Linux preinstalled and that may be the way you want to go. Best of all, Linux PCs are often much less expensive than those preloaded with that other OS.