Choosing Linux Distributions
For those who are new to Linux, deciding which Linux distribution to install is quite a task since there are many Linux distributions available. You should install a few of them to see which version you like. I will introduce some of the more popular Linux distributions for considerations. Please note that the comparison list is not comprehensive.
Differences Between Linux Distributions
First, I would like to highlight the key differences between all the different Linux distributions. Most of the Linux distributions use the same software packages, the main differentiating features are the software management packages and graphical desktop interface.
Software Management Packages
There are two types of software management packages; they are the rpm and dpkg packages.
Rpm software package is develop and use by Red Hat. All Linux distributions that derived from Red Hat operating system also use rpm file to package their software. It uses yum for software update and distribution. Red Hat class distributions include Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Fedora and CentOS. Other distributions such as OpenSUSE and Mandriva also adopted the rpm package manager. It is now the Linux Standard Base software management package.
Debian class of Linux distributions use dpkg packages since these distributions use the base code of Debian. Debian uses deb file for software packaging and it uses apt-get for updates and distributions. Debian class of Linux includes Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Lubuntu, Kubuntu, Knoppix and DSL (via Knoppix).
While most Linux distributions uses either rpm or dpkg packages there are some Linux distributions uses their own tools. Slackware uses its own package tool, but the package tool lacks software dependency check. Gentoo uses Portage software management packages whereas Arch created its own software management package called "Pacman".
Graphical Desktop Interface
Almost all graphical desktop environments use X Window as the underlying base system. The most popular graphical desktop environments are GNOME, KDE, XFCE and LXDE. Until recent years, GNOME is the most popular desktop user interface in Linux and most of the popular Linux distributions adopted GNOME as the default user interface.
Since the redesign of GNOME 3, there are many defection and fork such as MATE (based on GNOME 2) and Cinnamon (Based on GNOME 3 but uses different shell). Ubuntu design its own shell interface for GNOME called "Unity".
There are many more minor differences between Linux distributions. The features mentioned above are the main differences.
If you are new to Linux, Ubuntu is the choice. Ubuntu is design for people who are migrating from Windows or Mac. It is user friendly and easy to use. Its documentation is very rich and clear. Ubuntu also has a very large support community. Furthermore, Ubuntu focus its feature enhancement more on the desktop experience. Ubuntu is more concern of stability and therefore it won’t adopt any new technology that is too new and unstable.
If you want a stable and user-friendly desktop experience, Ubuntu is the choice. If you do not like to tinker with operating system and just want to use it for normal usage, choose Ubuntu. Presently, Ubuntu introduces two different versions; the latest version and the LTS (long term support) version. The latest version contains the latest features but it is less stable than the LTS version. I would recommend new Linux user to choose the LTS version instead of the latest version.
Linux Mint is a new distribution derived from Ubuntu. It tries to improve the usability of Ubuntu with more user friendly enhancements. New tools are developed for Linux Mint which would improve the ease of use. However, this distribution's security updates depends on Ubuntu.
Fedora, however, is the most technically advanced distribution. Any new technology will be adopted by Fedora first. If you want the latest and most advanced technology, use Fedora. Therefore, Fedora is not as stable as Ubuntu. Sometime you would get a problematic kernel update which forces you to switch back to older kernel for a while. Fedora is more suitable for seasoned Linux user who wants to try out the latest. You must not be afraid of tinkering with the operating system when using Fedora. If you are technically inclined but new to Linux, you could try Fedora. The support community for Fedora is good.
For feature enhancement, Fedora is more concern of security and it may include enterprise feature which might not benefit you. Fedora is the test bed for trying out new technology before such technology is adopted by its sponsor Red Hat Enterprise Linux in their enterprise operating system. If you are an IT professional considering adopting a new skills in Linux administration, Fedora is the choice. By learning Fedora, you will be sure that Red Hat Enterprise Linux would adopt some of the technology eventually.
Enterprise: Red Hat Enterprise Linux and CentOS
In the enterprise market, Red Hat Enterprise Linux is the most popular distribution. However, Red Hat Enterprise Linux is not free. You can download Red Hat for a free trial. After which, you have to pay for any updates and support. In addition, Red Hat Enterprise Linux includes some propriety features and functions. For those looking to learn the skills in administering Red Hat Enterprise Linux, you could use Fedora or CentOS. CentOS is similar to Red Hat Enterprise Linux. In fact, what CentOS did was to get the source code from Red Hat Enterprise Linux, remove its trade mark, propriety software and marketed as CentOS.
Please bear in mind that CentOS is not 100% compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. CentOS is trying to be as similar to Red Hat as possible. I could say that CentOS is 99% compatible with Red Hat Enterprise Linux. For those who want to learn Red Hat administration, CentOS is the choice because you can download it for free. In the enterprise market, some companies try out CentOS before adopting Red Hat Enterprise Linux. There are some companies who would not like to pay for updates and support. They would adopt CentOS operationally.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux has different versions and product line. Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 are the most current versions. Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 uses Linux kernel 2.6.18-8 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6 uses Linux kernel 2.6.32-71. CentOS also adopted the same naming convention; we have CentOS 5 and CentOS 6.
Mobile Distribution: Lubuntu, Puppy Linux and DSL
Lubuntu is the most popular light weighted Linux distributions which derived from Ubuntu. It is however one of the heavier OS in the light weight divisions. Its boot CD is about 700MB.
Puppy Linux is another light weight Linux distributions. Puppy Linux is designed to boot from CD or USB drive. Puppy Linux has two versions; Slacko Puppy is a Slackware-Compatible build and Lucid Puppy is Ubuntu-Compatible build. Its Live CD takes up between 130MB to 165MB of disk space.
Another mobile distribution is DSL (Damn Small Linux). It is derived from Knoppix and it is much smaller in size. It contains only 50MB and could be stored in a thumb drive. Mobile distribution could be used for demonstrative or educational purpose. However, Linux administrator uses it frequently for hardware troubleshooting or repair. It has stop updating for a few years and recently DSL has a 2013 version.
Distribution for Hardcore Geek: Gentoo, Arch and LFS
Gentoo Linux was designed for power users. Its installation could be cumbersome although it includes an installer to simplify the installation. If you would like to modify your operating system to your liking, Gentoo could be your choice. Gentoo also got a good support community with comprehensive documentation. Gentoo users are more technically inclined. In fact, Gentoo forum provides a lot of highly technical solution to the common problem in other distribution. This distribution is ideal for power users wishing to customize the operating system to their hearts content.
Arch is similar to Gentoo in the flexibility of customization. However, Arch improved on its software management package with its own software package manager called "Pacman". This excellent software management package greatly reduces installation time compared to Gentoo. Beside excellent software management packages, it allows great customization flexibility and tweaking options. The online documentation is also great.
LFS (Linux From Scratch)
If you want to build Linux from scratch, you should consider LFS project. Linux From Scratch (LFS) is a documentation project that provides you with the steps necessary to build your own custom Linux system. The most important reason for using LFS is to learn how a Linux system works internally. Building an LFS system teaches you about all that makes Linux work, how things work together, and how Linux software depends on each other. Along the way you could customize it to your own taste and needs.
Classic Distributions: Debian, Slackware and FreeBSD
Before Ubuntu arrives, Debian has the largest support community with a large collection of software. Debian has also got the largest group of developers working on the project. The existence of Ubuntu, which uses the base code of Debian, split up the manpower and resource from Debian. In fact, lots of other Linux distributions are derived from Debian.
Slackware is one of the oldest Linux distributions. It uses a text based installer with a primitive software management package that could not resolve software dependency. It is highly technical in terms of installation. Presently, Slackware is more commonly used as based software to which many Linux distributions derived from.
FreeBSD is an indirect descendent of AT&T Unix. It is a collaboration project between AT&T and Berkeley University. It is a Unix distribution and it uses its own BSD kernel instead of Linux kernel. It has a reputation for being a fast and stable operating system. FreeBSD also has the least restrictive license compared to Linux. Mac OS X was derived from FreeBSD. The disadvantage about this operating system is that it lacks behind in term of hardware support and graphical interface support. It is not popular for direct adoption; however, it is used as a base system to create more user friendly BSD distributions.
I hope the analysis above will help you to make up your mind on which Linux distribution to choose.