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Choose a Linux Distribution (Operating System) That's Right for You

written by: Sam OBrien•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 12/27/2009

It can be difficult to choose a Linux distribution (operating system) as there are so many. They are also distinct in what they offer and how they operate. Eliminate the confusion that many people wanting to transition from Windows to Linux are experiencing when selecting free operating systems.

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    Learning to choose a Linux distribution may prove to be one of the best decisions you make in life. Where do you start? How do you narrow your choices? There are three questions you can ask yourself when considering a partial or full switch from Windows to Linux. Your answers will be your guide when you begin selecting from among free operating systems.

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    What is Open Source Software?

    Do you have any familiarity with open source software? The Linux kernel which is the core of all distributions, also known as "flavors," falls under the GNU public license. It is free software. The word "free" does not refer exclusively to price, but also to freedom- the freedom to modify the source code (program) behind the scenes; hence it carries the name "open source." Linux distributions are the products of many years of work performed by an international community of computer programmers mostly in the C and Python languages. What does this mean for you? If you choose a distribution that's totally free of charge, you will not receive technical support provided by a company as is the case when you purchase Windows that Microsoft supports. Nevertheless, open source software, including free operating systems, are very well supported by hundreds of Linux Users Groups (LUGS), communities, and documentation that's usually written in various languages.

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    The disadvantage of this kind of support is that it isn't centralized, and with so many people involved, technical support is neither supervised by a corporation nor standardized. However, this can actually be an advantage because security loop holes in open source software tend to be discovered and patched much more rapidly than in the closed source software world. Again, the source is open, so when a problem is discovered, no user has to wait for a company to release a patch only after much damage has been done. How many computers running Windows XP were infected with the Sasser worm before Microsoft released a patch?

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    However, it is a good idea for businesses and corporations that choose Linux to opt for a distribution that has centralized and standardized technical support. Many major companies, including branches of the U.S. federal government have chosen Red Hat Enterprise Linux which offers company-backed technical support.

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    Are You a Programmer or Comfortable with a Command Line?

    Believe it or not, thousands of committed Linux users answer that question in the negative. The days of having to use the cryptic command line to get work done are long over. This doesn't mean that it's not a good idea to learn to work within a terminal ("under the hood") of the system because this can be essential in some cases. However, how many Windows users know how to work with a command line? Not many.

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    If you have no interest in ever learning Linux commands, it's imperative that you choose a highly automated flavor of this open source software. This also means avoiding any distributions released earlier than 2005. It should have a very sophisticated desktop environment and graphical user interfaces for system administration.

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    Below is a screen shot of the default desktop in Ubuntu 8.04.1. Notice the icon that reads, "1.0 GB Media." Just as a USB drive "mounts" automatically in Windows, so it does also in Ubuntu and other distributions. However, unlike Windows, it must be “unmounted” in Linux before you remove it. Simply right click on the drive and choose the option to Unmount. The icon should then disappear and can be safely disconnected.

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    Ubuntu Desktop

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    You'll want to be able to follow wizards to accomplish tasks such as installation and Internet connections. If you've never partitioned or reformatted a local disk, you'll appreciate having a distribution that will give you default options to choose to handle these requirements.

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    Chosse a Linux Distribution by Following this GuideReaders realize the need to analyze their computing needs before attempting to choose a Linux distribution. They are given a brief overview of the free operating systems: Fedora, Debian, Ubuntu, Puppy, and OpenSuse.
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    What are Your Computing Needs?

    College students, business owners, computer programmers, web developers, gamers and the average personal computer user all perform very different tasks when they work- or play. Most everyone wants or needs at least the following: word processing, an Internet connection, printing capabilities, and multimedia. I consider these the "basics." Programmers, particularly in C or Python and people who know UNIX commands may choose a Linux distribution offering feature-rich C compilers, the Java Development Kit (JDK), and other tools of interest to them. Those who want to make use of legacy hardware may be interested in small Linux distributions such as Puppy. Choose a Linux distribution based on your answers to all three of these questions.

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    Fedora, originally known as “Fedora Core” under the sponsorship of Red Hat Enterprises is one of the largest contributors to open source software. Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a choice operating system for companies. Fedora 9 is so automated that most compatible printers are recognized and configured upon connection. Fedora offers the freedom to customize installations to create a personal work station, developer's environment, and server. This is a good operating system for basic to power computing and is used by a large number of people from the average user to the programmer and business owner. Fedora Linux may be obtained via download at or purchased very economically at Fedora is committed to open source software, so multimedia performance may not come quite as easy as it does in some of the other flavors. I refer specifically to video playback which requires a little additional work to get it operational. The GIMP which is powerful free image editing software comes bundled in this distribution. Live CD's that run on-the-fly are also available.

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    Ubuntu is another highly automated and popular linux distribution. If you still have a dial-up Internet connection, you may not want to choose Ubuntu. Version 8.04.1 doesn't support dial-up modems very well. In fact, it did not recognize my USRobotics controller-based modem at all. Ubuntu may be obtained via download at or purchased very economically at The GIMP which is powerful free image editing software comes bundled in this distribution. Live CD's that run on-the-fly are also available.

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    OpenSuse is the free version of Novell SUSE. It's one of the free operating systems that recently caused a good number of PC users to switch from Windows to Linux with the 11.0 release. This was due in part to its precise detection of hardware. Live CD's that run on-the-fly are available. OpenSuse may be obtained via download at or purchased very economically at

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    Debian - This open source software is highly automated, but very large. Debian may be obtained via download at or purchased from

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    The Puppy distribution is very small in file size, around 100MB, but it offers a little of almost everything and has amazing hardware detection. Puppy Linux is one of the best small flavors offered that revives legacy hardware, can run without installation, and is highly automated. A full installation of Puppy isn't always a smooth operation and may require some effort for beginners. However, it can be continuously run on-the-fly using what's called a "pup save" file. Make sure you have at least 250MB RAM which is where this system "sits" before attempting to run it. Puppy may be obtained via download at or purchased very economically at You may also want to consult "A Beginner's Guide To Puppy Linux."

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    Below is a screen shot of my desktop in Puppy 4.1.2 showing my USB drive (the green dot confirms the mount). The drive "sda2" is my local disk which appears with a gold circle indicating that it can't be unmounted. This is the drive to which I did a full install of Puppy. The icon of the disc reveals that I had a CD in the optical drive at the time of the screen shot. You can also see the sample work I did in OpenOffice, a full-featured word processor. I do hope this information will be of help if you decide to choose a Linux distribution.

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    Puppy Desktop and OpenOffice