Distributions and tigers and bears, oh my!: Making sense of the wild world of Linux

What’s a distribution? Why are there so many of them? Which one should should I choose? These are some of the questions the newcomer to Linux might ask when confronted with the dizzying amount of options. This post will help you make sense of the seeming chaos, and hopefully leave you with a better idea of which distribution is right for you.

With all the choices out there, beginners can have a hard time figuring out where to begin when it comes to Linux. This map takes a humorous look at the world of Linux distributions. (Image © Dedoimedo.com, used with permission)

First off: What the heck is a distribution, anyway?

If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll certainly have come across the term distribution. That’s not a word most average computer users are familiar with—at least not in terms of operating systems—so you might have been left scratching your head. What is a distribution, exactly?

To put it simply, a distribution is a bunch of software that’s packaged together to form an operating system (OS). I don’t want to get too detailed and complicated here—honestly, I don’t understand everything about it myself—but essentially, Linux is very modular, and there are different pieces and parts that can be interchanged to make the operating system better suited for certain tasks. You’ve got the core of the system—called the Linux kernel—and then there are a bunch of other parts that the maintainer of a distribution includes, such as libraries of code the OS needs to function properly, something called a window manager, a desktop environment (which is what you actually interact with on the screen), and all sorts of other stuff. Applications and programs that are added on (such as Firefox, LibreOffice, etc.) are also part of the distribution.

Hundreds of options

Since Linux is free and open source, anybody with enough know-how can whip together a distribution (called distro for short) of their own. There are literally hundreds of different distros out there. Some are community-developed, others are personal projects, and still others are supported by private companies. Each distro has a different philosophy and approach. Some target advanced users, while others are designed with the beginner in mind. There are distros geared toward netbooks, old computers, high-end computers, servers, and pretty much any other type of computer you can imagine—including plain old desktop PCs.

At the time of writing, some of the most popular distros include Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Fedora, Debian, openSUSE, Arch Linux, and PCLinuxOS…among about a billion others. Some distributions are better suited for more experienced users who want to manually configure every aspect of their machine, while others cater to newbies who just want things to work without problems.

So…where do I start?

As a beginner, you’ll want to start off with something that is easy to use. Just so you have a general lay of the land, I’ll introduce you to two very popular distros that are great for those who are just starting out with Linux:


For a while, Ubuntu has been the most popular distro out there. For many beginners, Ubuntu is the gateway to Linux—it’s gotten lots of media attention, has millions of users, and is designed with the newbie in mind. One of the benefits of running Ubuntu is that, if you ever have a question or run into a problem, there’s bound to be an answer on one of the many forums or blogs dedicated to Ubuntu.

Linux Mint

Linux Mint is actually a derivative of Ubuntu, designed to provide users with a complete experience out of the box. Since it’s based on Ubuntu, Linux Mint enjoys many of the benefits of Ubuntu: beginner-friendliness, large user base, lots of community support. In the past year, Linux Mint has increased in popularity among users who have become dissatisfied with some of the changes Ubuntu has been making to its user interface. However, for the newbie, Linux Mint and Ubuntu are both excellent choices.

For the purposes of this blog, I’ll actually be showing you how to use Lubuntu, which is a lightweight variant of Ubuntu. Lubuntu is designed to run on less powerful computers while still enabling you to do everything you need. I chose Lubuntu because it can really make older computers run faster, which is something that will appeal to those stuck with aging Windows PCs that are on the verge of being replaced. Check out future posts for more information about Lubuntu and how to get started installing it on your computer.

Of course, if you’re feeling adventuresome, you can always check out other distros. (DistroWatch is a great place to start.) Installing a new OS might seem daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it—and with distros like Ubuntu, the process is painless—you’ll find that it’s really not that big of a deal to try out a new distro. In fact, you might even find that you like it a little too much and become a distro-hopper—in which case, there’s no saving you.

Posted on February 16, 2012, in Discover Linux and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Distributions and tigers and bears, oh my!: Making sense of the wild world of Linux.

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