Linux isn’t a complete operating system — it’s just a kernel. Linux distributions take the Linux kernel and combine it with other free software to create complete packages. There are many different Linux distributions out there.
If you want to “install Linux,” you’ll need to choose a distribution. You could also use Linux From Scratch to compile and assemble your own Linux system from the ground up, but that’s a huge amount of work.
Ubuntu is probably the most well-known Linux distribution. Ubuntu is based on Debian, but it has its own software repositories. Much of the software in these repositories is synced from Debian’s repositories.
The Ubuntu project has a focus on providing a solid desktop (and server) experience, and it isn’t afraid to build its own custom technology to do it. Ubuntu used to use the GNOME 2 desktop environment, but it now uses its own Unity desktop environment. Ubuntu is even building its own Mir graphical server while other distributions are working on the Wayland.
Ubuntu is modern without being too bleeding edge. It offers releases every six months, with a more stable LTS (long term support) release every two years. Ubuntu is currently working on expanding the Ubuntu distribution to run on smartphones and tablets.
Mint is a Linux distribution built on top of Ubuntu. It uses Ubuntu’s software repositories, so the same packages are available on both. Originally, Mint was an alternative distribution loved mainly because it included media codecs and proprietary software that Ubuntu didn’t include by default.
This distribution now has its own identity. You won’t find Ubuntu’s own Unity desktop here — instead, you get a more traditional Cinnamon or MATE desktop. Mint takes a more relaxed approach to software updates and won’t automatically install critical software updates. Controversially, this has led some Ubuntu developers to label it insecure.
Debian is an operating system composed only of free, open-source software. The Debian project has been operating since 1993 — over 20 years ago! This widely respected project is still releasing new versions of Debian, but it’s known for moving much more slowly than distributions like Ubuntu or Linux Mint. This can make it more stable and conservative, which is ideal for some systems.
Ubuntu was originally founded to take the core bits of stable Debian and improve on them more quickly, packaging the software together into a user-friendly system that’s more frequently updated.
Fedora is a project with a strong focus on free software — you won’t find an easy way to install proprietary graphics drivers here, although third-party repositories are available. Fedora is bleeding edge and contains the latest versions of software.
Unlike Ubuntu, Fedora doesn’t make its own desktop environment or other software. Instead, the Fedora project uses “upstream” software, providing a platform that integrates all this upstream software without adding their own custom tools or patching it too much. Fedora comes with the GNOME 3 desktop environment by default, although you can also get “spins” that come with other desktop environments.
Fedora is sponsored by Red Hat, and is the foundation for the commercial Red Hat Enterprise Linux project. Unlike RHEL, Fedora is bleeding edge and not supported for long. If you want a more stable release that’s supported for longer, Red Hat would prefer you use their Enterprise product.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a commercial Linux distribution intended for servers and workstations. It’s based on the open-source Fedora project, but is designed to be a stable platform with long-term support.
Red Hat uses trademark law to prevent their official Red Hat Enterprise Linux software from being redistributed. However, the core software is free and open-source. CentOS is a community project that takes the Red Hat Enterprise Linux code, removes all Red Hat’s trademarks, and makes it available for free use and distribution. It’s a free version of RHEL, so it’s good if you want a stable platform that will be supported for a long time. CentOS and Red Hat recently announced they’re collaborating, so CentOS is now part of Red Hat itself.
openSUSE is a community-created Linux distribution sponsored by Novell. Novell purchased SuSE Linux in 2003, and they still create an enterprise Linux project known as SUSE Linux Enterprise. Where Red Hat has the Fedora project that feeds into Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Novell has the openSUSE project that feeds into SUSE Linux Enterprise.
Like Fedora, openSUSE is a more bleeding edge version of Linux. SUSE was once one of the great user-friendly desktop Linux distributions, but Ubuntu eventually took that crown.
Mageia is a fork of Mandriva Linux created in 2011. Mandriva — known as Mandrake before that — was once one of the great user-friendly Linux distributions.
Like Fedora and openSUSE, this is a community-created project to create an open-source Linux distribution. Mandriva SA no longer creates a consumer Linux distribution for desktop PCs, but their business Linux server projects are based on Mageia code — just like how Fedora and openSUSE provide code to their enterprise equivalents.
Arch Linux is more old school than many of the other Linux distributions here. It’s designed to be flexible, lightweight, minimal, and to “Keep it Simple.” Keeping it simple doesn’t mean Arch provides tons of graphical utilities and automatic configuration scripts to help you set up your system. Instead, it means Arch dispenses with that stuff and gets out of your way.
You’re in charge of configuring your system properly and installing the software you like. Arch doesn’t provide an official graphical interface for its package manager or complex graphical configuration tools. Instead, it provides clean configuration files designed for easy editing. The installation disc dumps you at a terminal, where you’ll need to enter the appropriate commands to configure your system, partition your disks, and install the operating system yourself.
Arch uses a “rolling release” model, which means any installation image is just a snapshot of the current software. Every bit of software will be updated over time without you needing to upgrade to a new “release” of Arch.
This distribution has a bit in common with Gentoo, which was popular at one time. Both Linux distributions are designed for users who know how their systems work or who are at least willing to learn. However, Arch uses binary packages while Gentoo had an (unnecessary) focus on compiling every bit of software from source — this means it’s quick to install software on Arch as you don’t have to spend CPU cycles and time waiting for software to compile.
Slackware is another institution. Founded in 1993, Slackware is the oldest Linux distribution that’s still maintained and putting out new releases today.
Its pedigree shows — like Arch, Slackware dispenses with all those unnecessary graphical tools and automatic configuration scripts. There’s no graphical installation procedure — you’ll have to partition your disk manually and then run the setup program. Slackware boots to a command-line environment by default. It’s a very conservative Linux distribution.
Puppy Linux is another fairly well-known Linux distribution. Previous versions have been built on Ubuntu, but the latest is built on Slackware. Puppy is designed to be a small, lightweight operating system that can run well on very old computers. The puppy ISO file is 161 MB, and Puppy can boot from that disc in a live environment. Puppy can run on PCs with 256 MB or RAM, although it does recommend 512 MB for the best experience.
Puppy isn’t the most modern and doesn’t have all the flashiest bells and whistles, but it can help you revive an old PC.
These aren’t the only Linux distributions out there. Distrowatch lists many and tries to rank them by popularity.
Image Credit: Eduardo Quagliato on Flickr