Most of the top Linux distributions are of the "easier to use" variety. Some observers might dispute this, but the fact is that most people not working in IT or software development will gravitate toward the easiest experience when it comes to Linux.
In this article, I'll share my top picks for best Linux distro for newcomers. These selections are chosen based on their ease of use, not their potential for "learning Linux." I hope to put to bed once and for all that myth that all who use Linux need to have a strong familiarity with how Linux works. After many years of casual usage, I can say for certain that this will tend to itself over time.
Ubuntu MATE – Full disclosure, Ubuntu MATE is a project that I personally support and have even made minor contributions to. Putting that fact aside, I also have found that it's a great distribution for Linux newcomers.
I've found that locating applications and settings is straightforward, regardless of Linux familiarity, thanks to the MATE desktop. But Ubuntu MATE also has additional niceties behind the scenes as well. These include tweaks made under the hood that most people may not be aware of, yet ensure a great experience. One example that comes to mind is a properly working touchpad disable while typing feature. Another benefit is TLP for power management provided right out of the box.
I also enjoy the MATE Tweak tool that is provided with the MATE desktop. I really like being able to utilize different panel layouts with a simple pull down menus.
Features for newcomers: Folks coming to Ubuntu MATE will likely enjoy its straightforward layout, easy customizations and the fact it just works. The biggest benefit is perhaps the Welcome feature. This provides users with immediate access to help, software suggestions and a tour of what Ubuntu MATE has to offer. On a personal level, I know the founder cares deeply about providing a great project. This makes introducing Ubuntu MATE to newcomers a natural fit in my book.
PCLinuxOS – PCLinuxOS doesn't receive as much press as it once did. This is a shame, since I believe they provide the best task-centric distro for newbies I've ever seen. Even though they also offer other desktops, I'm focusing on the FullMonty release in this case.
FullMonty provides multiple desktops designed for different tasks. For someone new coming to Linux, PCLinuxOS does a fantastic job showcasing software options and the categories they'd fall into. It's a great option for people interested in exploring software without knowing where to start.
Features for newcomers: PCLinuxOS' implementation of the KDE control center is very easy to use. Changing settings, adjusting appearance and so forth is very user friendly. I also like the setup wizard provided. Bundling this together with the functionality of a rolling release translates into a distro you install once and never have to reinstall a second time.
Linux Mint – I have friends who swear by Linux Mint and its Cinnamon desktop environment. It's attractive, logically laid out and works really well. For someone coming from Windows, much of this (like with MATE) will feel quite natural.
Linux Mint offers many of the same benefits as its Ubuntu base, with the added polish of its "mintTools." These tools include a streamlined update manager, software manager, desktop applets, and the other relevant aspects of the Cinnamon desktop.
One common belief is that all Ubuntu Deb packages and PPAs are compatible with Linux Mint. This isn't completely accurate. While it's true that most PPAs will work with Linux Mint, there are some known compatibility issues that could create headaches. Therefore it's advised that you use PPAs designed for Ubuntu 14.04 with care.
Linux Mint is about striking a balance between simple and elegant. Updates are numbered, so users can better understand which updates make the biggest impact on the system. Another benefit with the Linux Mint updater is its ability to detect non-updated mirrors, apt issues and the option to choose a local mirror.
Features for newcomers: A strong update manager, logical desktop layout (citing Cinnamon) and their amazing desktop applets. Being able to get the battery reading on your wireless mouse is pretty impressive. It's clean, easy to use and based on an Ubuntu long term release.
Now I want to touch on some popular Linux distributions that I don't recommend for brand new users and why.
Ubuntu (Unity) – Ubuntu (proper) has a great base, but the fact of the matter is Unity is NOT even remotely newbie friendly. I've tested it out with a number of casual folks and all of them found it to be vexing, especially when trying to browse applications. This doesn't mean Ubuntu proper isn't a good distro, it simply means it's not a good distro for anyone seeking a traditional desktop layout. That means most people won't like it. This isn't a poke at Ubuntu per se, rather me sharing my experiences with most newer users. To be completely clear – Ubuntu base is great, yet Ubuntu with Unity leads to frustrated newbies based on my tests.
Manjaro – It's a perfectly fine distribution for intermediate users and those who like the kernel installer or other features it provides. Unfortunately, it's unclear where the Manjaro advantage is for the newcomer. The packages are newer than with most distros, yet are held back longer than with an Arch proper installation. I’m not really seeing the value with that – if something is going to break, it's going to break even if it's held onto for an extra week. This is a cutting edge rolling distribution. This means it may be offering packages at a greater pace than most newer users really need. Their security track record is not perfect, so that along with my above mentioned concerns make me hesitant.
Fedora – Never could wrap my head around how Fedora could be a good option for newcomers. Fedora makes sense if you're in IT and want a solid, no bloat desktop. It especially makes life easier for those working in Red Hat and CentOS environments. But I promise you anyone coming from OS X or Windows isn't going to have a good time with Fedora. The distro is best for experienced users, this isn't even a debate.
Arch – Unlike the above two example of distros to avoid, Arch Linux is a mixed bag. If you want to "learn Linux" and completely understand that you're basically building your own custom distribution from scratch, it's a great distro. Their documentation and software availability is second to none and unlike Manjaro, the packages are always fresh.
All of that said, asking a newcomer to build their own desktop is reaching a bit. Remember, most newcomers are gravitating to easy to install and use. That's not Arch nor is it the Arch way. Recommending Arch to a newcomer only makes sense if they are looking for an education, not an install and forget it distribution of Linux. Don't get me wrong, I've installed Arch numerous times and currently run Antergos (yes, it is indeed Arch Linux with an extra repo) along side my Ubuntu MATE installation. But it's not a good suggestion for newbies.
What say you? Perhaps you believe your neighbor down the street is a perfect for candidate for Arch? Maybe you believe Fedora is a great distro for you, the casual user? Agree, disagree with my suggestions? Hit the Comments and share your ideas with me.
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