Which is the best Linux distro for a new user?

There are hundreds of Linux-based distributions out there and it’s hard to pick the right one, but I did.

Credit: Oleg./Flickr

In a previous post I discussed what hardware to pick for your Linux system, where the focus was entirely on picking the right hardware for a Linux system. One question that I keep hearing from readers is: which is the right distro for a new user?

As you're well aware, the correct answer depends on why someone wants to use Linux in the first place. In my experience there are three kinds of Linux or PC users:

Ordinary people: They want a PC that just works. They won't be interested in how it works. They won't have any desire or time to learn more about it or 'waste' time in fixing it. All they want to do is create some documents or send email; they don’t need to learn anything about the OS just way you don’t have to become mechanic to drive a car.

Enthusiasts: They are tinkerers, tweakers. They are never satisfied with what they have and want something different; something more. Linux gives them the perfect platform to play with like a toy. These folks don’t worry about broken systems; they actually take their systems to extremes to break them so that they can get the pleasure of fixing them.

Professionals: These folks are (or aspire to be) developers or system admins. They want to learn how an OS works. They don't worry about broken systems as that would be part of their job - to fix broken systems.

One would assume that each class of users would need a different distro, given their diverse needs. That's what common sense says. But I think if you are a new user the first thing you need is a stable Linux experience. You need time to familiarize yourself with the system; you need time to understand it, master it, before you start tinkering with it. I see no point in a new user wasting days in trying to figure out how to install it. I have seen cases where users get frustrated, which discourages them from furthering their Linux journey. They leave Linux with a bad taste in their mouth.

So I believe that one must start with a distro that just works out of the box. This benefits all three categories of users as mentioned above. The regular folks can enjoy the 'just works' operating system and use it without having to worry about making it work. The enthusiasts can benefit from tinkering on top of the stable base. The pros can invest more time in understanding the system without wasting too much time in fixing things.

Once you get hold of the stable OS, once you understand how everything works, then you can graduate to a bit more complicated OS. I would suggest that once you get used to one distro you must start distro hopping, try other distros and then choose the one that's right for you and not the one I that I'm going to suggest.

Cracking the code

So which distro do I recommend? It's a tough question and I spent considerable time researching the answer.

I would recommend Linux Mint Cinnamon to a new user.

I can see some readers raising their eyebrows. I can see them wondering: ‘why is a full time Arch Linux, openSUSE and Kubuntu guy -  who also happens to be a passionate KDE user - suggesting Linux Mint with Cinnamon?'

The answer is simple: Linux Mint Cinnamon just works. It has many advantages and very few drawbacks. Let's talk about some advantages.

Linux Mint is now based on the LTS (long term support) version of Ubuntu, which means each version is supported for a longer period instead of nine months. Users don’t have to worry about upgrading their systems every six to nine months.

LTS base also provides Mint developers with time and resources to polish the OS itself instead of chasing the moving target Ubuntu. We are seeing notable improvements in Linux Mint after this switch.

Linux Mint has a deal with Canonical so they gain access to drivers, codecs, software packages, PPAs, etc. It also means that Linux Mint will work out of the box on most hardware.

Linux Mint, unlike base Ubuntu, doesn't have any mobile or TV ambitions, its core focus remains on offering users with a tried and tested desktop OS. They are not chasing a cut-throat market or pitting themselves against giants like Google or Apple. Which means that ‘desktop’ remains the central project and not an afterthought.

Since it's based on Ubuntu, once you master the system and the commands, you can easily switch to Debian or other Ubuntu based systems. You can go beyond Debian and Ubuntu because all Linux distributions use the same commands to perform different tasks. The only difference would be the commands used in installing software or updating the system since each distro uses different methods. Once you get comfortable with Linux Mint you can easily switch to a non-Ubuntu distribution such as openSUSE, Fedora or even Arch Linux.

The only drawback of Linux Mint would be that it’s a derivative of a derivative (it’s based on Ubuntu which is based on Debian), so the future of Linux Mint heavily relies on Ubuntu. (There is a Debian edition of Linux Mint, but it can pose some challenges as it lacks extra packages and drivers offered by Ubuntu.)

So here is the verdict: If you are a new user, Linux Mint 17.2 Cinnamon is the distro I would recommend.

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