The Best Linux Distributions for Beginners

If you want to try Linux, you’ll need to choose a Linux distribution. There are hundreds of different Linux distributions, but some are better to start with than others.

“Linux” is actually just a kernel, the core part of the operating system. The graphical desktop, command-line utilities, and other parts of the system are separate projects. “Linux distributions” take open source software from different projects and combine it into a complete operating system you can install and use.

Linux distributions are now very easy to try. You just have to download them and use a tool to create a bootable USB drive or burn a bootable DVD. You can then restart your computer and boot from the removable media to use the Linux distribution in “live” mode. In live mode, the Linux distribution will run from the bootable device without tampering with your system. If you decide you want to install the Linux distro on your computer, you can do it from the live environment.

On new computers, you may need to disable Secure Boot to boot Linux. Some Linux distributions can boot normally on Secure Boot-enabled PCs, but not all can.

Ubuntu Is a High-Quality, Well-Supported Linux Distribution

Ubuntu is the closest thing to a household name among desktop Linux distributions. It’s a great Linux distribution to start with—and it’s even a great Linux distribution to keep using after you’re more experienced, if you’re happy with it.

Ubuntu is user-friendly in a lot of ways. It offers a simple desktop and easy installer. It provides a checkbox during the installation process that will automatically install the Flash browser plug-in and various codecs you’d need for multimedia support. There’s an “Additional Drivers” tool that will detect closed-source drivers that might be necessary to get all your hardware working and easily install them for you. This additional software isn’t always as easy to get on other Linux distributions.

Ubuntu’s popularity means it has a large community that’s willing to help. if you encounter a problem or have a question, you can generally search the web and you’ll find someone else who’s had the same problem or question along with an answer, because so many people use Ubuntu.

This huge community also means a lot of available software, both in Ubuntu’s standard software repositories and third-party software repositories known as PPAs. Third-party software vendors make sure they support Ubuntu. Valve’s Steam download page says “Ubuntu is our favorite version of Linux”. Applications like Google Chrome and Microsoft Skype officially support Ubuntu, while they may not be supported on smaller Linux distributions. Ubuntu offers an easy way to get the latest NVIDIA graphics drivers from if you like, while these can be more work to get on other Linux distributions.

You’ll even get long-term support if you choose an “Long Term Support” (LTS) release, which we recommend. LTS releases are supported with security updates for five years from their release date, and Ubuntu releases a new LTS version every two years. This means you’ll only need to perform a major upgrade every two years, and you can hold off for five years if you prefer. Not all Linux distributions offer such long support times.

Ubuntu has been controversial recently as it announced the abandonment of Ubuntu phone, the vision of “convergence”, and the new Unity 8 and Mir desktop and display server. But the project’s abandoning of Unity 8 and Mir and future shift towards more standard Linux technologies like the GNOME desktop and Wayland display server means that Ubuntu should become even more rock-solid as it stops reinventing the wheel and builds on top of what the rest of the open source community is doing.

Ubuntu offers a variety of different “flavors”, which come with different desktop environments and applications over the same underlying Ubuntu operating system. You can use these to experiment with other desktop environments, while keeping the same base with its good technical support and software availability. For example, if you have an older computer you want to revive, you might want to give Lubuntu a go. It provides the LXDE desktop environment, which is much more lightweight than the more full-featured desktop on Ubuntu.

Linux Mint Offers a More Traditional Desktop

Linux Mint is extremely popular as well, and we can’t recommend Ubuntu without noting that quite a few people prefer Linux Mint instead. Linux Mint is based partially on Ubuntu, but uses either the Cinnamon or MATE desktops instead. These are more traditional Linux desktop environments complete with a taskbar with a window list and pop-up applications menu. Quite a few people are just looking for a a polished desktop that doesn’t try to do anything new, and Linux Mint’s Cinnamon and MATE desktops deliver this.

If that sounds what you want—or if you try Ubuntu and decide you’d prefer a more traditional desktop environment—look to Linux Mint.

Linux Mint used to be a bit more different from Ubuntu, offering various media codecs bundled for a more convenient user experience. But Ubuntu now makes those much easier to install, and Linux Mint installs them separately (but in a similarly easy way). And, since Mint is based off Ubuntu, you can still get a ton of applications and support for it.

Fedora Is All About Bleeding Edge, Open Source Software

“Try Ubuntu or Mint” is pretty common advice. These are great Linux distributions to start with and learn. But, if you’re looking for something a bit different, you might want to give Fedora a spin.

Fedora has a few philosophical differences from Ubuntu, Mint, and many other distributions. Unlike the others, Fedora is passionate about only including open source software. It doesn’t include closed-source hardware drivers, for example. You have to find those yourself afterwards, if you require them.

The Fedora developers also work more directly with open source projects like GNOME, making fewer changes and just shipping you the latest, bleeding edge software from these projects. This distro gives you the latest and greatest stuff from the community.

Fedora’s desktop image is now known as “Fedora Workstation” and pitches itself to developers who need to use Linux, providing easy access to development features and software. But it can be used by anyone.

This community Linux distribution also forms the base for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, a commercial Linux product Red Hat provides long-term support for. Fedora is the opposite—the project releases new versions approximately every six months, and each release will be supported with security updates for approximately every thirteen months. You’ll have to upgrade to at least every second release of Fedora to stay supported. If you want a free version of Red Hat’s slower-moving Red Hat Enterprise Linux, use CentOS instead. It’s the same code as in RHEL, but without the branding and commercial support.

Other Linux Distributions You Might Want to Try

There are many other solid Linux distributions you can try. Anything with enough popularity on DistroWatch’s page hit rankings is likely an excellent Linux distribution that has fans for a good reason.

You’ll often find Linux distributions that are developed by a small team, like Elementary OS, here. Elementary OS offers a polished, simple desktop \due to its own custom Pantheon desktop environment. It looks good and is quite different from many other Linux desktops, but may not be as rock-solid and supported as tried-and-tested distributions. Elementary’s website asks for a donation before you download it, but you can enter “$0” if you just want to download it for free.

Debian is a great Linux distribution and actually forms the basis for Ubuntu, which in turn forms the base for many other Linux distributions. Debian is a good option if you want a stable environment, but Ubuntu is more up-to-date and desktop-focused.

Arch Linux forces you to get your hands dirty, and it’s a good Linux distribution to try if you really want to learn how everything works…because you have to configure everything yourself. We don’t recommend starting here—seriously, that’s not a good idea—but once you’re comfortable with something like Ubuntu, Arch can be a great way to learn the ins and outs of Linux. Just make sure you have the installation guide handy when you install it.

Tails is a live CD environment that delivers as much privacy and security as it possibly can. Tails is used by Edward Snowden, as well as political dissidents and journalists that need maximum protection. It automatically routes your web activity through Tor and provides other security utilities. As it’s run in a live environment, it ensures all your traces are wiped away when you reboot. It isn’t a general purpose Linux distribution, but, if you’re looking at Linux because you need something rock-solid when it comes to privacy, Tails is the one to choose. This is the kind of purpose-built operating system that can only be built on top of open source software.

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+.