Originally stolen from http://jotunheim.net/thunder/linux.html but heavily edited.
Many ReligiousWars revolve around choice of LinuxDistribution. You should make your choice depending on goals and taste. The main issue is how much control you want to have over your system vs how much effort you want to put into tweaking things to get them to run. There are specialist distros for particular purposes, such as for old hardware or for a dedicated firewall.
You can read through the options below, or get the distribution chooser to recommend a distro for you.
Most people will fall into one of these categories:
Never seen Linux before
No-obligation, try before you buy. You can try out Linux without actually installing it on your PC, by booting up with one of the many LiveCD distributions available. KnoppixLinux was the pioneer, but there are now many other choices, including Kanotix and ones like Damn Small Linux and Puppy Linux which are small enough to fit on a business-card-sized CD. The Ubuntu CD also runs as a LiveCD version.
Try a few things from the menu and get familiar with it, see that Linux isn't just a command prompt any more, it's a stable, professional operating system. But you get better performance running software off a hard drive than from a CD. Although most of the abovementioned Live CD distros can be installed to your hard disk, you'll probably be better off moving to one of the mainstream distros.
These distributions are at the forefront of combining useful, full featured Unix power with an excellent desktop experience. You can use the desktop without any Linux knowledge (these distros have configuration tools for almost everything), or you can do everything from Shell. They are all very well supported and all use a packaging system (such as RPM or apt) to make software installation easier. These distros provide both KDE and GNOME as well as some other window managers.
Due to legal uncertainties in some countries, these distros don't include some utilities, such as to read encoded DVDs and to make mp3 files. These utilities are available from community sites.
- If you are at all familiar with Debian, start here. Ubuntu is a Debian derivative founded by a rich philanthropist, which releases stable releases every 6 months designed to be an up to date desktop system. Default desktop is GNOME, and you should download sister distro Kubuntu if you want to try KDE. Package management with apt.
- Until recently called Mandrake, a good for beginners and serious users, focuses on the latest applications and features. Default desktop is KDE. Package management with urpmi (a development of RPM).
- If you are at all familiar with RedHatLinux, start here. Fedora used to be RedHatLinux and was spun off when RedHat moved to focus more on enterprise customers. Default desktop is GNOME with RPM package manager.
- SUSE (as it's currently capitilised) is a very european distro, popular in Europe but used worldwide. Recently (2003ish) Novell purchased SuSE and is marketing and supporting it as a business desktop/server system. Default desktop is KDE and package management is YaST (Yet Another Setup Tool).
- Previously Corel Linux. A Debian based distribution. Commercial, but there's an open circulation edition that's crippled. KDE only, no GNOME.
Which one should you pick? If you don't know where to start, get the one that is used by your friends or at your local LUG. Best approach is to try a few and choose for yourself what you prefer. As of May 2006, we really think you should look at Ubuntu. It is that good. All the above distros are great, and each has enthusiastic followers. Also see the list of Linux Distributions.
Appliance style user
You're going to install it and walk away. The user (maybe you, maybe your folks or grandparents) knows nothing about computers and will not be changing any system settings and doing nothing more than surfing the 'net, sending email, and maybe light office tasks (word processing, etc).
One approach is to use one of the main distros (like Ubuntu, Mandriva, FedoraCore, SUSE, etc). This might be the way to go if you are already familiar with one of these distros.
Or you could look at a distro designed for this exact task. The following LinuxDistributions exist only to pretend they are MicrosoftWindows. Please note that almost no-one in WLUG runs any of these distributions. Choice is a double edged sword, but if you feel the user's needs may be better met, these are all still Linux too.
- Lycoris Desktop/LX
- Previously known as Redmond Linux (to emphasize it's Windows-clone-ness), this has grown into a reasonable desktop distribution. It has a unbelieavably smooth install and sets itself up looking almost exactly like Windows, so users coming from it should have no problem whatsoever. Like many other distros, it has an auto-update feature that will upgrade the software for you without any major issues. However, as it is mainly for offices and new users, Lycoris locks the system down very tight. Root is hidden (and in fact never mentioned -- you set up an "administrative password" for system maintenance) and some files are in unusual places. For a hard-core customizer, this distro would be incredibly frustrating... about as frustrating to the customizer as it is helpful and friendly to newbies. It's freely downloadable (mind the difference between lycoris.com and .org.)
- A 'commercial Linux' by the guy that tried to make money off MP3's. Originally called Lindows OS, it was renamed after pressure from MicrosoftCorporation, trying to pretend they own the word Windows. Designed to be a drop in Windows replacement and they're doing a lot of work on desktop apps (Nvu and Wine). Its USP (Unique Selling Point) is "Click'n'Run", which lets users choose from available packages and have them automatically installed on demand--for paying customers only.
- Elx Linux
- Everyone's Linux. A distro from India that looks so much like Windows it's scary.
- Ark Linux
- Created by the KDE guy who didn't leave RedHat when Mandrake started, Ark Linux is a desktop distribution based on KDE.
But remember that no matter what you do, LinuxIsNotWindows.
SysAdmin, technical tweaker
If you are a SysAdmin, you probably already have a favourite distro or 2, likely to be one of these.
- The most obvious community-driven Linux. This is a blessing and a curse; the stable versions are rock solid but can become outdated quickly. However, Debian has almost everything available for Linux available with one command (apt-get). Don't be put off the by name of the 'Unstable' branch though, that means that the packages are constantly changing, and you can update to the latest versions of all your installed software very easily (see FlavoursOfDebian). Debian's PackageManagement is binary based.
- For those who want total control of their system. There are (almost) no binary Packages, everything is compiled from SourceCode. There is currently no installation program, either. You have to set the system up yourself. You don't have to be an überhacker or technical genius, but you the time and will to read the (very detailed and good) documentation, and the energy to follow through.
- Build Your Own
- Even Gentoo not customziable enough for you? Or you just want to learn how it's done? Why not roll your own Linux distro with LinuxFromScratch!
Enterprise in need of a server
- You need support with accountability.
- If you don't have Linux expertise inhouse, find a Linux service provider who is local and competent. They can help you choose a distro.
Globally supported, commercial Linux distributions include Mandriva, RedHatEnterpriseLinux and Novell, SUSE products.
- You don't need much third party support.
- Look first at CentOs, the best of the RedHatRebuilds. Then consider Debian stable. Otherwise, evaluate if your favourite distribution would make for a good server platform. Factor in how quick updates come out, and how long the support for each version is.
Linux is about freedom of choice. There are many distros available. Find out about them and take your choice.
Those are just a smattering of the available LinuxDistributions. If you want more variety, try Desktop Linux and Distro Watch, a site that keeps up with hundreds of LinuxDistributions. However, it's advisable to keep to the major distributions unless you have a specific reason not to. Since a distribution is only a packaging of the greater GNU/Linux OperatingSystem, everything that can be done on one distribution can be done on any other; the only difference is how much effort is required.
Once you've made a choice, you may want advice on GettingLinux.