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HTG Explains: What’s a Linux Distro and How Are They Different?

ubuntu-derivatives

If you’ve heard anything at all about Linux, you’ve probably heard of Linux distributions – often shortened to “Linux distros.” When deciding to use Linux – on a desktop computer or server – you’ll first need to choose a distro.

For many people, Ubuntu has become synonymous with Linux. But Ubuntu is one of many distros, and you have a lot of choice when it comes to Linux.

What is a Linux Distro, Anyway?

Linux isn’t like Windows or Mac OS X. Microsoft combines all the bits of Windows internally to produce each new release of Windows and distributes it as a single package. If you want Windows, you’ll need to choose one of the versions Microsoft is offering.

Linux works differently. The Linux operating system isn’t produced by a single organization. Different organizations and people work on different parts. There’s the Linux kernel (the core of the operating system), the GNU shell utilities (the terminal interface and many of the commands you use), the X server (which produces a graphical desktop), the desktop environment (which runs on the X server to provide a graphical desktop), and more. System services, graphical programs, terminal commands – many are developed independently from another. They’re all open-source software distributed in source code form.

If you wanted to, you could grab the source code for the Linux kernel, GNU shell utilities, Xorg X server, and every other program on a Linux system, assembling it all yourself. However, compiling the software would take a lot of time – not to mention the work involved with making all the different programs work properly together.

Linux distributions do the hard work for you, taking all the code from the open-source projects and compiling it for you, combining it into a single operating system you can boot up and install. They also make choices for you, such as choosing the default desktop environment, browser, and other software. Most distributions add their own finishing touches, such as themes and custom software – the Unity desktop environment Ubuntu provides, for example.

When you want to install new software or update to new versions of software with important security updates, your Linux distribution provides them in precompiled, packaged form. These packages are fast and easy to install, saving you from doing the hard work yourself.

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How Are the Distros Different?

There are multiple different Linux distributions. Many have different philosophies – some, like Fedora, refuse to include closed-source software, while others, like Mint, include closed-source stuff to make it easier on users. They include different default software – like how Ubuntu includes Unity, Ubuntu derivatives include other desktop environments, Fedora includes GNOME Shell, and Mint includes Cinnamon or MATE.

gnome-shell-on-fedora-17

Many also use different package managers, configuration utilities, and other software. Some distributions are bleeding edge and won’t receive support for very long. Others, such as Ubuntu LTS or Red Hat Enterprise Linux, are designed to be stable distributions that will be supported with security updates and bug fixes for many years.

Some Linux distributions are intended for desktop computers, some for servers without a graphical interface, and others for special uses, such as home theater PCs.

Some are designed to work out of the box – like Ubuntu – while others require a bit more tweaking, such as Arch Linux.

What Distro Should I Choose?

Different Linux distributions are suited for different purposes. Which Linux distribution you should choose will depend on what you’re doing with it and your personal preferences.

If you’re a desktop user, you’ll probably want something simple, like Ubuntu or Mint. Some people may prefer Fedora, openSUSE, or Mageia (based on Mandriva Linux).

People looking for a more stable, well-tested system may want to go with Debian, CentOS (a free version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux), or even Ubuntu LTS.

There’s no one right distribution for everyone, although everyone has a favorite. Linux distributions offer choice, which can be messy, but also very useful. Anyone can make their own distribution by assembling it from the source code themselves, or even taking an existing distribution and modifying it – that’s why there are so many Linux distributions.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/14/13

Comments (41)

  1. Max

    All the variants is one of the reasons I never really bothered with Linux.

  2. IrishIT

    ^Unlike Max, this article is exactly why I like Linux. It gives you unlimited choices and endless opportunities for no up-front cost!

    My preference for most home users would be Ubuntu because you do not get as much “OS Shock” changing from windows to Ubuntu. Mint is also a good choice because it is very lightweight for older computers.

    CentOS is a great business choice because it is super stable and you can run some pretty cool programs like Cacti or Nagios on it. (Network Monitoring Gods!)

  3. rKiller

    Damn I love Linux but I love Windows even more and I hate Mac OS

  4. MO

    it is very hard, too many distros and everyone thinks his way is the right and best way.

    can you provide a way to learn Linux(CentOS)/Red Hat

  5. Asgaro

    @Max: Variety is the spice of life.

  6. Don Chandler

    Article raises more question than it answered. No wonder Windows is still selling so well.

  7. Jim

    Unfortunately this told me nothing except some have nuts, some have a chocolate coating, some come unwrapped, you get the idea. I would like to try Linux but a comparison other than the wrapper would have been nice. With all of them out there to chose from I don’t have the time to load and compare them. I appreciate the time the writer took to present this article though as there is usable information there.

  8. Myflight72510

    The one thing I dislike the most about the prepackaged systems from Microsoft is the “one size fits all” methods they have. There is so little room to tweak things to suit me and my need to be individual. I hate the idea of buying something without being able to determine what goes into it.

    When I first got into Linux it was a matter of necessity. The particular machine I bought ran windows XP and didn’t offer the ability to create backup disks. It was only a matter of time before something went wrong and the thing would not boot into Windows any longer. The only way to re-install XP was to buy the system again. I very nearly used the thing for a Frisbee off the back deck. When I was researching the problem I discovered that I could have bought the same machine for $100 less with a free Linux system installed and skip XP completely.

    There is a learning curve involved in switching to Linux. Once I learned how to create Live Bootable disks and Live USB thumb drives it got a lot more interesting. With the right opensource software it’s an easy matter to create a “system on a disk” and take it for a test drive to see if I like the way it looks and works.

    My main computer is dual booted with Linux Mint and Windows 7 so I have choices. Mint runs things wicked fast but not all software works at it’s best in Linux so I have the ability to switch back to Windows where that software runs better. I do a lot of photography and find that editors run slow on Windows because Windows is so resource hungry but on the less demanding Mint things work a lot faster.

    A great place to do some comparison shopping is on distrowatch. All of the main distros have websites dedicated to them and forums where there is a lot of help.

  9. Steve

    I have been using linux for 10 years and I love it! No viruses or spyware. I own a computer shop and have converted most of my customers to Ubuntu or the newest Zorin. Zorin is very user friendly with interfaces of gnome, win 7, vista, xp, win 2000 and Mac. Nothing to learn new!

  10. merriadoc

    Interesting article to introduce GNU/Linux distributions.

    A simple way to test different distributions is multisystem : a usb key wich can contain several live distros to test.
    http://liveusb.info/dotclear/

  11. Jimmy

    I’ve tried multiple distros over the years. If you are a Windows user and want to try Linux, I would suggest starting with Zorin. IMHO it looks the most like Windows.

  12. Michael Eldridge

    thank you for the article and all those who left comments . Both are appricated as Computers and software always a learning experience respectfully

  13. Holger

    Very good review on the way Linux distros work. As some readers pointed out: choice can overwhelm you. It was made easier for me as there is a brilliant WiKi/user forum at ubuntuusers.de over here in Germany. Their site and the way they presented ubuntu made up for about 60% of my decision to plunge right into ubuntu in 2008. With all the knowledge, tips and tricks presented here I felt confident enough to give it a tray. I wasn’t let down and never wanted to return to Windows; however I keep a dual boot system with Win7 as I need to keep up-to-date with Windows as well. But I spend more than 90% of my time with Ubuntu, at present running Xubuntu 12.04.

  14. James

    I used to run Ubuntu when it had a proper desktop, but found this new interface unattractive and unintuitive and very detracting from my productivity. Having to ‘get used to’ a change for change’s sake is something I won’t do. It should be right first time. I dumped it and installed Mint / Mate (Cinnamon was always crashing on me). Now I have a superb and productive installation that doesn’t need me to needlessly relearn ways of working and change mindset as I move to a Windows machine. I warn everyone against Ubuntu in its current form for this reason alone. Shame, because it used to be excellent.

  15. paddy

    I also have been using Linux for a long time. I have had it installed on several of my computers for more that eight years.
    When (Ubuntu) first came out with a lts (long term service) distro, they allowed parties that were not sure about converting permanently to run the program from the cd/dvd drive. Now you can bake a bootable thumb drive to run a distro. This way you can keep your Windows, Mac or any other system, including another Linux distribution.
    I believe most Linux versions allow for creating a bootable thumb drive. To further assist those who are interested, here is a link that shows you how to do this: http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-put-any-Linux-distro-on-a-USB-flash-drive/ ( cut and paste the link into your browser address bar ).
    I keep a working computer with Windows 3.1 and another with Windows Vista Professional and a Mac OSX v 10.6.8 for certain work, I usually use one of the Linux laptops or my ASUS for personal use. I really appreciate the flexibility to customize to my needs and preferences.
    Hope this helps.

  16. wendy

    Thanks for the info, but I would have liked to see a more complete description of each distro of Linux. I recently made the switch to Ubuntu 12.10 and have been experimenting. I love Ubuntu. The only thing I wish for was an easier way to run .net apps such as Office 2010.

  17. Bob

    It would be nice if they made a distro in which your printer works. The driver they make for a Kodak Hero 4.2 AIO. On a Ubuntu 12.04 Distro.

    Is CRAP.

  18. tecn0tarded

    I was always a linux mint fanboy, but after mint10 every release got worse and worse. things quit working or customization wasn’t an option. mint 14 made me finally try ubuntu. I didn’t have to go to a forum once. the printer, scanner, graphics, everything worked perfectly. if i can get a tv card to work with little effort i’ll dump windows all together, which is what i tried to do with linux mint with no success.
    i’ll have to check out zorin, i remember trying it out a few years ago but don’t remember the outcome as to why i didn’t use it

  19. Steve G

    I agree with James’s comments about Ubuntu. I switched to Ubuntu when Windows Vista was released but when the Unity desktop came along I couldn’t get on with it. Happily I discovered Linux Mint and have never looked back.

    I’ve not had any problems printing with Mint. I have an Epson all-in-one and Mint recognises it and works just fine. I had to download Linux drivers for the scanner part but these are available from Epson and were easy to install.

    I dual boot with Windows 7 but mostly use Mint.

  20. Paul

    @Don
    Actually, Windows sells well simply because it is entrenched. They got in early and grabbed the business market, and then the home user market. That’s why even Apple, which has some highly-loved products, hasn’t been able to garner a larger share of the market.

    Most people don’t say word processor document, they say Word document. in the same way, spreadsheets are identified as Excel, and slide shows as PowerPoint.

    The average user, business or personal, is not aware of choices — and worse, afraid of change. When I’ve tried to introduce people to Linux, the biggest push-back that I’ve gotten is “we use Windows at work, or at school… etc” You get the picture.

  21. TheClaus

    I would love to use Linux but always find some silly reason to go back to Windows. Right now it is the occasional ripping of a bluray. I use AnyDVDHD and there is nothing like that in Linux. Also I am not fond of Unity/Gnome 3. I like KDE but have some issues with Kubuntu. Anyone have a distro that is KDE friendly or XFCE that is good on updates(I like to keep my Chrome and other apps updated to the latest stable).

    I have tried Arch and liked it until I ran an update and it stopped working. Would prefer something that when you update it doesn’t break the existing system.

  22. Wasp

    I’m paranoid about customizing my operating system to my needs and windows make me very tired when I change things. So I tried linux and first of all Ubuntu (9.10). Didn’t learn much and for the version 10.10 I switched to Mint (Ubuntu variant). Same things here but more stable, since 11.04 came with unity and things turned very buggy. So from 2012 I abandoned Mint and got myself to the deep water with Slackware. That’s it. I’ve learned everything about linux, which I didn’t with Ubuntu and Mint, from the install process till configuration of the system. Also for my new DELL ultrabook I’ve installed Arch Linux and my machine is ultrafast and super customized to my needs. I have installed the software I only need nothing more.

    Also I have and emergency Live USB with DamnSmallLinux installed with just 50MB to my flashdrive and other Booting Tools with YUMI.

  23. JahPickney

    Linux is fantastic and getting better all the time. I dual boot with Windows 7 for those times when I need to use a Windows-only app that is resource intensive. For normal use I have Windows installed in Virtualbox so I can use it without leaving Linux. If anyone wants to learn more about any distro, just go to Distrowatch. It’s a great site and it helped me to find my distro of choice (which is Bodhi). Since most of them can be run from a live cd or flashdrive it’s real easy to try them out.

  24. grandpa

    It is to bad no one mentioned “PCLinuxOS”. It is my choice of all. Download a “live DVD” and give it a look see. I have found it works right out of the box. Go to pclinuxos.com and have a look around. Visit the forum. You will never get the RTFM type of answer there.

  25. ReadandShare

    Some people like to build their own cars. Most just buy them ready made. Match it wrong and you create big misery.

    Linux can continue to cater to tinkerers — and there is nothing wrong with that. It is only when Linux also wants to expand into the mainstream territory that it gets itself into trouble.

    Every report of yet another new distro or UI or yet another entire forking out — is as much a delight to tinkerers as it is a “complicated turn off” to many in the mainstream.

    My take: either continue as a hobbyist OS and enjoy all the benefits that come with going that route – or else standardize and provide a clear package to the mainstream public — and be prepared to support it for the next 5 to 10 years..

    For Linux to offer itself “as is” to the mainstream is as fruitless as having Microsoft pushing its standard products at diehard Linux tinkerers!

  26. Keltari

    @ Myflight72510 – “The one thing I dislike the most about the prepackaged systems from Microsoft is the “one size fits all” methods they have.”

    This is exactly what a Linux distro is, the Linux kernal, plus whatever the distro decides you need.

  27. pbug56

    LInux distros range from geeky to extremely geeky, from semi usable and practical to pretty much useless. The GUIS are at the heart of the problem, in that there are so many, and that as soon as you get used to one it radically changes. Underneath is pure, 100% geekdom, and if you are not into that you had better hope your system never has a problem. And you’ve got to be real hesitant about taking updates, because after you do you may end up with a system that looks and behaves completely differently then it did before the change.

    Of course, then there’s Windoze. Especially Windoze ME, Windoze Vista, and Windoze Mutro. The first 2 were just half baked releases, the new one would work best on a CGA video adapter with a touch screen and is meant mainly for chimps, dogs, apes, and toddlers. Which leaves people with a real problem; there is no longer a current OS that is semi useful except the Linux or UNIX that the MAC’s run. But Apple is so bloody arrogant that you couldn’t pay me to buy a Mac.

  28. RR

    Linux Mint 14 rocks … 12 and 13 were not great but everything works out of the box … Lots of other great distros as well. PCLinuxOS is great for new users but basically all of the Ubuntu derivatives (Mint, Zorin, any of the Kubuntu, Zubuntu …) are all good and there is nothing new to learn … unless you want to … almost all of them are great for older hardware as well.

    I knew nothing about Linux 3 years ago and now don’t run anything else …

  29. Tony L

    Most of the supercomputers use Linux and if its good enough for Skynet… Many Linux distros have a Live version users can use to see if they like it. I like Mint KDE for example. Some people like Fedora or Gentoo or Bodhi. New users might want to stick to the more well known distros like Ubuntu or Mint as they have a large active base who can help you. A few things to consider. Some Linux distros are cutting edge and what is called rolling distributions. Arch for example has all the latest software. That’s good and bad because you need some knowledge of how to fix problems when they happen.

    Some distros have a slow update rate. Debian for example. Its very stable but has older versions of software but rarely if ever crashes. The big dog Ubuntu is the easiest to use in my view and the most supported. Do a Google search for Linux distros and take some for a spin. You can load most on a USB flash drive with http://unetbootin.sourceforge.net/ They usually are in a ISO and Unetbootin does all the work. Try and use at least a 2gb USB or larger drive. See if all your devices work. Sound, wireless, etc. Take a look at how much RAM and CPU you are using. KDE on most distros is more resource hungry then GNOME or Mate or LXDE. Have fun!

  30. Pawan Sharma

    Among all other Linux distros Fedora is most secure because of SELinux implementation.

  31. Erik

    There’s nothing wrong with having many ‘flavors’ of Linux, so long as they share common standards (file systems, protocols, etc.).

  32. Chaim Seymour

    Hi

    Many thanks for the article and the comments. I had an HP portable running Vista, which was terrible. I tried Ubuntu, but it was too heavy for the machine and I settled for Fedora. It does the job, but I remain curious if there is anything better and that is the real problem with Linux. One always thinks that maybe there is a better distro for my purposes. However, once something works: “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.”

    Chaim

  33. Robyn

    “The average user, business or personal, is not aware of choices — and worse, afraid of change.”

    The average user also repeats what others have said over and over and over so many times that it must be right, since it’s been repeated so many times. Like the remark about “too many distros”. Fragmentation. People want a “better Windows”… but they *want* Windows. Why? Incredibly good marketing. I have used Windows since 3.0 on a 386dx with 8 meg RAM and a 128meg hard drive. Yes, megabyte.
    Windows 3.0 -> 3.1 was reasonably fast, but after a while, it would slow down. Then, eventually, I got Windows95. It was so much faster, but eventually it would slow down. Windows98 Second edition… eventually slowed down. Windows2000: same thing. WindowsXP – (GREAT OS! how fast was *this*!!) … eventually slowed down. So, I’d re-install. And it would slow down again.

    I skipped Vista, went straight to 7. Haven’t done much with 7 except disable most of the services and no anti-virus, no anti-spyware/anti-malware/all-that-jazz… and it runs brilliantly fast. And stays fast… why? Because I’m running it in VirtualBox so I can run an old version of Office (2000) and Photoshop – so yes, Wendy, you *can* run Office and some Windows programs in Linux – and for all the hardcore stuff, Linux Mint 14 64-bit… with all sorts of development/office/graphic arts/multimedia/utilities programs and it simply is as fast as when I first installed it – it screams.
    Windows? It’s simply a veryVERYvery circumspect utility to run my Windows programs. It does nothing else – doesn’t have to. I let a real OS manage all that.

  34. TheFu

    To a new user, any specific Linux distro appears to be the GUI. Almost any version of Linux can run any other version’s GUI.

    Let me say that again, [b]Almost any version of Linux can run any other version’s GUI.[/b]

    Pick a distro based on philosophy and package manager. Next pick a GUI. If those don’t come together, it is trivial – under 3 minutes – to switch GUIs completely.

    For example, I HATE Unity, but I like that Ubuntu will support an OS for 3 or 5 years. Mint doesn’t do that. Fedora doesn’t do that. I prefer APT over all other package management systems, so that means Debian and Ubuntu are my only real choices. My solution – load Ubuntu Server, then load fvwm and/or LXDE GUIs. Simple.

    I can switch between these GUIs easily. I could load up about 50 different GUIs if I liked and try them all. Then remove the ones that aren’t worth keeping, as you like. It is possible to completely remove a program from Linux leaving no traces behind too.

    The GUI is not the OS folks. Well, it isn’t unless you run MS-Windows. Even then, you can swap out the provided GUI with something else, but lots of things break like file links and Libraries. Those are not supported at all levels of the OS, just in the GUI layer.

  35. Chad

    I generally recommend that someone trying Linux for the first time start out with Ubuntu. It is a popular distribution with a lot of support – if you run into a problem, chances are you can find someone who has solved it. I have my work PC dual booting Win7 and Ubuntu 12.04 and can use either one to do whatever I need.

    If you like it and become familiar with it, then experimenting with other forms of Linux becomes much easier.

  36. WhiteRanker

    Last year I installed Ubuntu on a second hard drive in my HTPC. Install went fine, but it couldn’t find the driver for a 3com wireless card. Scratched around a bit for about an hour to find a control panel or something resembling one. Gave up and wiped the drive. Still using Media Centre from the 64bit Win7 install…which btw had the network card driver embedded and worked straight out the box. It’s the third time I’ve had a similar experience with the sandal-lovers OS, but I can’t see me bothering again – more likely to try a bit of Hackintosh. As for the viruses and spyware comments – 20 years of PC use and I’ve only ever had 2 or 3 infections – it seems to be mostly down to what the user decides to go click-happy on in all honesty.

  37. cam2644

    I’ve used Linux for some time now and prefer it to Windows and find it more user friendly as well as technically superior. I’m currently using Mint and Ubuntu with no complaints

  38. Rustyhatman

    I’m a geriatric old fart that only started using a computer in my late sixties some six or seven years ago.
    Being old means that you have a brain like a wet sponge. It leaks out more than it soaks up so my learning curve was s l o w and difficult.
    I can remember when my favourite keys were control + alt + delete.

    To cut a long story down to a mini series, I progressed from Win 95 through all the variants to XP and Win 7.
    In the process and many system crashes later I learned quite a bit even though I forgot most of it fairly quickly, but I loved the learning curve and that is what Linux Mint has given me.
    Another opportunity to learn something new.

    If you are one of those staid horse and cart individuals that like things the way they are, then stay away from Linux in all its forms but if you like adventure and want to broaden your mind (or what’s left of it) and learn new things then do yourself a favour and give Linux a whirl.

    I now run Mint 13 Maya on my desktop as a dual boot to XP and Win7 on my laptop and I must confess that there are apps in Windows that I prefer to Linux but I do believe it is only because I have not yet found the equivalent Linux apps.

    One thing that Microsoft cannot even come close to is the peer to peer support from Linux enthusiasts.
    Ask a question on any of the multitude of Linux forums and you will have a dozen answers from across the globe within hours.

    OK so it’s not easy or cut and dried like you are used to but therein lies the secret

    It is STIMULATING.
    And if you get it right you will find that it does the job better and faster than ever before.

    HAIL LINUX

    Rusty
    One very enthusiastic Geriatric Old Fart

    PS.
    It is never too late to have a happy childhood

  39. Dr. Nicolas V. Rao

    There are many reasons that I would love to use Linux, but unfortunately have not had the grit to hang on and ride it through. Always falling back on Windows XP home as that is all that I have at the moment.
    I have loads of other priorities such as medical expenses that make it quite impossible in the near future to get 1) a faster computer 2) Buy Windows 7 or 8.
    I downloaded Ubuntu 12.10 Desktop version and tried the DVD that I made using Imgburn. However my old HP Pavillion with only 1.5GB of RAM and 3+ GHz processor – probably 2.? in reality already loaded with WinXP did not seem to be able to handle.
    If I could I would like to switch to Linux distro which would give me the ability to use GIMP and its plug-ins for my photography. I come from the digital age, but know how to handle Photoshop and GIMP to a degree. Open office, GIMP and a good browser such as Firefox or Chrome would be more than enough for my needs.
    I watched Eli the computer guy on YouTube and liked what I heard. I also realize that using Open Source for commercial purposes is another ball game entirely.
    Any usable tips to get me started would be great. I am an aggressive reader and little slower than I used to be in learning- under a lot of medication-but I think it will be a great thing to be able to do.
    I have always admired Linux for as long as I can remember its name!

  40. Dabheid

    I’ve had a Dual boot Ubuntu partition on my Win 7 Notebook for the past 2 years (thanks largely to How to Geek) and I’ve had no problems thus far….Cheers for the article, now that Natty is gettin’ old I might try Debian out or one of the other many distros out there.

  41. roy devito

    hi it is good to have

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