Let’s face it, any time you come across articles that offer advice on choosing the right Linux distribution, they tend to get bogged down in a lot of technical advice that rarely (if ever) applies to those who’ve never experienced Linux. They’ll speak of things like rolling releases, package managers, kernels, open-source licensing, and other features and ideologies that not only have little bearing on those new to Linux and open-source technology but mire the decision in unnecessary complications.
I want to take a very different approach, one that should make the process quite simple for anyone looking to dive into the world of desktop Linux for the first time. I’m going to shrug off the usual advice and aim straight for the heart of the matter. What exactly is that matter?
It’s all about the desktop.
But why? Why forgo all those other exciting goodies that help make each distribution special? The answer to that question is pretty simple in that with most modern Linux distributions, everything just works.
Sure, there are some distributions (such as Ubuntu) that offer superior hardware detection. Still, for the most part, the best versions of the open-source operating system do a great job of detecting your hardware. Also, nearly all of those flavors of Linux include a user-friendly software installer, a drag-and-drop file manager, and a simplified Settings application. And even though some of those variations on a theme might be better than others, they all just tend to work.
So, if you don’t have to concern yourself about the kernel being used, the package manager installed, the security of the system, or anything that runs under the hood, how does one who is new to Linux best choose the right distribution?
As I said before, you look toward the desktop.
Let me explain.
Not all desktops are created equal
Certain Linux desktop environments are phenomenal, but not the right fit for the new user. Take, for instance, one of my favorite desktop interfaces: Enlightenment (Figure 1). This desktop is highly configurable, efficient, and quite a bit of fun. However, not only is Enlightenment a far cry from anything new users have experienced, the configuration of this desktop can be a bit daunting.
The same holds true for just about any tiling desktop interface, such as i3 and Awesome, which can be incredibly efficient interfaces but offer more challenges than a new user should be asked to deal with.
Next, comes the likes of GNOME. Although I do prefer GNOME to many other Linux desktops (my current Linux distribution of choice, Pop!_OS, has a desktop based on GNOME), it’s quite a leap from what most new users expect from a computer interface. GNOME takes a very “minimal” and “get out of the way” approach to the desktop. GNOME is modern, elegant, and quite simple…but the metaphor it employs tends to throw a lot of new users for a loop.
Remember, people fear change and that’s the driving force behind this method. You don’t want to foist a desktop onto new users that’s going to not only force them to relearn everything they know about using a PC, but also make them think.
This brings us to another outstanding desktop, which checks off many of those new user boxes (such as all the right components in all the right places), but suffers from a bit of added complexity due to the enormous amount of available configurations. That desktop is Xfce (Figure 2), which is one of the most flexible desktops on the market.
If you know what you’re doing with Xfce, you can make it look and behave exactly as you like it. However, it’s because of that high configuration ability that I don’t tend to suggest this desktop for new users.
That brings us to two desktops I believe are the perfect marriage of the Linux ethos and what is required for new users to be able to dive in without hesitation. Those desktops are KDE Plasma and Cinnamon. The primary reason for selecting these two as the desktops of choice for new users is because they are immediately familiar, while still being able to expand as users gain more knowledge.
KDE Plasma (Figure 3), offers everything a new user wants, without having to worry about tweaking, configuring, or (best of all) learning.
Finally, Cinnamon (Figure 4) is just as familiar as KDE Plasma but doesn’t offer the same level of flexibility. Cinnamon is incredibly user-friendly and offers an environment that anyone, regardless of skill level, can immediately use.
So, which distributions?
Now that we’ve narrowed down the desktops, which distributions should you choose? It’s pretty easy at this point. If you want a distribution that offers the newest version of the KDE Plasma desktop, go with KDE Neon. If, on the other hand, you want something a bit more stable (without the bleeding edge software), go with Kubuntu.
As far as Cinnamon is concerned, stick with Linux Mint and you’ll be good to go.
And there you have it, the easiest method of choosing a Linux distribution for new users. There is no science to this, as it’s all about familiarity, stability, and usability. With those three things in mind, you absolutely cannot go wrong with KDE Neon, Kubuntu, or Linux Mint.