What is the best Linux distro for beginners?

The end of support for Windows 7 in January 2020 is just one of the many reasons that might compel new users to switch to a Linux distribution in the new year. If you’ve never used Linux before, or have limited experience, choosing a Linux distribution out of an ever growing list can be a very daunting task. 

The Linux distributions can be categorised on the basis of many different criteria such as the default desktop environment, their package management system and even the resource requirements. 

Conventional wisdom suggests that rolling-release distributions are best suited for advanced users. While this might have been true in the early to mid-2000’s, it no longer rings true, what with the myriad sources of information, vast amounts of documentation and a whole array of informational video guides and tutorials scattered across the internet. This is why our selection features two rolling-release distributions. 

Regardless of your computing experience or background, our selection of distributions will serve as the perfect starting point for your open source journey.

We understand that new to Linux doesn’t necessarily mean new to computing. Some of the distributions in our selection might seem too simplistic, and if that’s the case, you just might find a useful recommendation in the Also consider section.

How we tested…

All distributions were tested on the same dual-core machine with 4GB RAM and we’ve selected the latest stable releases for all the distributions. 

Documentation is one of the most important deciding factor when choosing a distribution, if you’re a new user. Just as important is the installation process. Since our focus is on users who’ve probably never installed a Linux distribution, this is a key criteria. Just as important is software management and the kind of apps that are shipped with the distribution.

Apart from these, the distribution also needs to be easy to use for day to day activities. As you spend time with Linux distributions, you’ll learn that adaptability is one of their best qualities. An ideal distribution for newbies is one that does all of the above and also makes it easy for them to tweak settings and make other changes to mould the distribution to their liking.

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Many Linux distributions give users the option to try them before installing them to disk. This highly useful feature lets you test the various aspects of a distribution, such as installing new software, and otherwise acclimatise to the ins and outs without going through the trouble of installation. This is important because installing Linux, although a far more streamlined and straightforward a process nowadays, still requires users to make some crucial decisions that they might not have faced before. The most important of these is the partitioning, where you can choose to either erase the entire disk and use it to install the distro, or specify a custom partitioning layout.

At the very least, Linux distributions require a root partition (often-times referenced by the / symbol). Its also possible to carve separate partitions such as /home, etc. but this is for slightly more experienced users.  

If you’re unsure of performing the partitioning yourself, for fear of risking the data on your disk, running Linux in a virtual machine is a viable solution. You can install Oracle VirtualBox or a similar app to your existing operating system, and then install Linux within, which will not harm your existing installation or data.

deepin requires a minimum of 16 GB of disk space, and recommends at least 20 GB. It doesn’t have a Live medium, so you must install it to disk before you can use it. 

The Elementary installer is quite robust and lets you create a custom partitioning layout on your disk. By default, the installer will automatically download all available updates during installation. You can turn this off by unselecting the relevant check-box. You can always install updates post-installation, if after a few days of testing you decide to persist with the distribution.

The Solus installer is far more primitive, compared to others. You must already have specific space on your hard disk carved out for it before beginning the installation. You can use the Live environment to experiment with the distribution, and even use the included Gparted tool to partition your hard disk and make room for Solus. 

Unlike the other distributions which don’t let you choose what software is installed by default, Manjaro gives you the choice between LibreOffice and SoftMaker FreeOffice suite during installation, but nothing else.

Verdict

  • deepin 8/10
  • Elementary 10/10
  • Manjaro 10/10
  • Solus 6/10
  • Zorin 9/10

Deepin ships with a large compliment of custom home-grown applications to help you play music, videos, etc. Also on offer is the Chrome browser and Thunderbird email client. Instead of LibreOffice which is the office suite of choice of most distributions, deepin instead ships with WPS Office. 

Elementary OS strives to provide a very simple and elegant design. Its for this reason that it ships with lightweight apps that follow a simple design philosophy. It ships with Epiphany web browser which is incredibly lightweight. One app of note is the Ciano multimedia file converter, which can be used to convert audio, video and image files to different formats. These are complimented by a string of home-grown apps such as Music, Video, Camera, Photos, etc. which perform the function as suggested by their names. 

Manjaro ships with all the applications a user might need on their desktop such as Firefox browser, Thunderbird email client, Kget download manager, VLC Media Player, etc. Also available are Timeshift, a system backup and restore tool. You can also connect the distribution to your android device using the KDE Connect application. 

With Zorin, you get the usual multimedia, office and internet apps such as Totem video player, Rhythmbox audio player, LibreOffice suite and the Firefox web browser. Also included is Remmina desktop sharing app, as well as Pitivi video editor, Gimp image editor and Shotwell image viewer. Unlike the other distributions, Zorin also ships Deja Dup, an easy to use tool to perform backup of your data.

Verdict

  • deepin 8/10
  • Elementary 6/10
  • Manjaro 10/10
  • Solus 6/10
  • Zorin 10/10

The focus of this Roundup is to identify a distribution that’s best suited for newbies. We are looking for a distribution that’s easy to use, while still offering users a chance to learn and enjoy themselves horsing around. This, we feel, is key for any distribution looking to retain and attract novice users. 

By a quirk of fate, and admittedly deliberate deviousness in selecting the KDE edition of Manjaro, our selection of distributions have provided us with five different desktop environments. Each of these comes with their own pros and cons, and are an important factor for newbies when deciding on a new distribution.

But you can’t look at any one element, such as the desktop environment to gauge the usefulness of a distribution. The complete distribution is greater than the sum of its parts.

deepin 8

The distribution is incredibly fast and responsive. Its best feature is its home-grown desktop and the myriad applications for everyday use. You can type deepin into the launcher for a list of all the custom applications. Run the Introduction tool for a video introduction to the distribution. You can also make some cosmetic changes to the desktop, such as enable/disable window effects, switch the desktop mode from the default Fashionable to Efficient, etc. These changes can also be accomplished from the settings manager.

The absence of a live environment, which can help new users try it without hassles is unfortunate. Also disappointing is the lack of focus on hosting quality documentation on topics other than the desktop environment and the home-grown applications. 

The project was originally based on Ubuntu but has shifted to Debian as its base now. This means that the project features thoroughly tested applications to provide a stable and robust desktop experience.

Elementary 8

Like deepin, Elementary’s claim to fame is its custom desktop environment, called Pantheon, and an assortment of desktop applications to go with it. The distribution favours as pay-what-you-want model, letting you decide what amount, if any, you wish to pay for the distribution. It similarly lets you pay an amount for many of the applications available in the App Center.

The distribution also features a curious selection of default applications, such as Epiphany browser. The selection is a further attempt by the distribution to provide a fast and lightweight distribution. Based on Ubuntu, its quite easy to flesh out the distribution with additional, and more popular applications.

You don’t have to launch the App Center to search for an application. Click Applications on the top-left of the desktop and start typing. All matching results will be displayed, and if no matches are found, the distribution recommends searching for the specified keyword in the App Center.

Manjaro 10

Manjaro is based on Arch Linux – one of the most beloved rolling-release distributions. Like its parent, Manjaro is incredibly malleable and easy to extend. It’s also one of the most thoroughly documented distribution and you’re unlikely to ever want for help you should run into trouble with it.

You’re greeted with a helpful Welcome screen when you boot into Manjaro. It provides quick links to different avenues of help such as the forum, wiki, etc. You can also change the language of the Welcome screen using the button on the top-left.

With its focus on usability and the rolling nature, which means you never have to perform a fresh installation, but can keep the system updated by regularly installing updates as they roll in, the distribution offers plenty to please advanced users, as well as beginners looking for an intuitive distribution to get started with.

Solus 9

Solus is a rolling-release distribution just like Manjaro. All available applications undergo testing by the developers before the distributions offer them to the end users. This ensures that users don’t accidentally break their installation by installing an untested bleeding-edge application. Whereas Manjaro features a backup and restore utility Timeshift, Solus doesn’t ship with a backup utility out of the box. But you can easily install one using the Software Center.

Like deepin and Elementary, it too features a custom desktop environment. Budgie doesn’t support creating icons on the desktop by default. You can change this by launching the Budgie Desktop Settings utility which lets you configure various elements of the desktop, as well as the Raven sidebar. You can also add additional panel at the top of the screen, with its own array of widgets such as Caffeine. If enabled, the Caffeine widget ensures that your system is not suspended or locked for the specified duration.

Zorin 8

If you’re dissatisfied with the default desktop layout on Zorin, you can easily change it using the Zorin Appearance utility. It provides three different layouts. You can also use this utility to tweak the location of the panel, as well as add other elements to it, such as date, etc.

Like all the other distributions, Zorin can play a wide assortment of audio and video files out of the box.  Also on offer is Zorin Connect, a custom utility to connect with your Android devices to transfer files, sync notifications, etc.

Our past experience with Zorin have always been positive and we’ve been impressed with its speed and performance. This is why the latest release is slightly disappointing. On many occasions, the desktop presents inexplicable jarring artefacts. For instance, when you move between the different categories on the launcher, sometimes the content doesn’t change as it should. Moving the mouse over the display area, results in the changes being displayed. Think scratch card and you’ll get our meaning.

Novice users must learn to navigate not just the new appearance of the desktop, but also the vastly different way of doing routine things, such as configuring the graphics cards, connecting to internet radio stations, installing new software, and more.

As the purpose of this roundup is to help new Linux choose their first Linux distribution, the project must provide extensive and easy to grasp documentation to help acclimatise new users. Additional resources, such as forum boards, mailing lists, wikis, etc. which can help a newbie tap the collective experience of the community is also appreciated.

The first steps section on the Manjaro website serves as an primer for new users. A comprehensive user guide is also available as a downloadable PDF file and the wiki is chock-full of information on every topic including installation, customisation, software management, etc.

SolusOS has a neatly arranged help-center with documentation on different topics such as gaming, hardware configuration, software management, and more. 

In addition to the forum boards, Zorin provides thorough guides spanning installation, software management, upgrading the distribution, etc. Although it pales in comparison to the offerings of Manjaro, its a sight better than what’s offered by deepin and Elementary.

Elementary OS provides to the point but easy to understand documentation on the website covering the installation and a quick introduction to the desktop. 

deepin’s wiki features bare bones guides on using some of its native apps such as deepin Movie and Cloud Scan. The forum boards can be used to tap the wisdom of the user community. The deepin Manual app is installed by default and provides a quick rundown of the DDE, and many of the home-grown apps.

Verdict

  • deepin 6/10
  • Elementary 6/10
  • Manjaro 10/10
  • Solus 8/10
  • Zorin 8/10

The desktop environment (DE) is the collection of all the graphical elements that you can see on the desktop, such as windows, toolbars, and icons – as well as a Window Manager, which is responsible for the appearance of the windows in the GUI. You’re unlikely to persist with a Linux distribution if you detest the look and behaviour of its DE. 

Zorin produces two free editions. The core edition, which is the subject of this Roundup ships with the Gnome 3 desktop environment. It’s one of the oldest DE available and the default on dozens of Linux distributions. The Zorin Lite edition, intended for older machines, on the other hand favours XFCE environment.

Manjaro similarly ships three official editions. We’ve featured the KDE edition in this Roundup, but the project also offers editions favouring Gnome and the XFCE desktop environment. KDE is well regarded as a highly configurable desktop environment. If none of these find your fancy, the Manjaro user community is responsible for producing editions of the distribution featuring other desktop environments, such as Budgie, Cinnamon, LXDE, Mate, etc. 

The other three distributions all ship with their own home-grown desktop environments. 

deepin features its own home-grown desktop environment called deepin Desktop Environment (DDE). The developers have spent considerable time and effort in producing a elegant and easy to use desktop. The desktop offers a nice blend of all the wonderful offerings of different desktop environments such as KDE, Gnome, Budgie, etc.

Budgie is Solus’s home-grown desktop environment and like DDE, Budgie is designed to provide a simple yet elegant user experience. 

Pantheon is yet another minimalist yet stylish desktop environment and the default on Elementary. Its intuitive design makes for a pleasant user experience.

Verdict

  • deepin 9/10
  • Elementary 9/10
  • Manjaro 10/10
  • Solus 9/10
  • Zorin 8/10

We deliberately opted for the KDE edition of Manjaro for this Roundup so as to ensure that we showcase five different desktop environments. The obvious upside to this selection is that each of the distributions present a unique and distinct look and feel. 

Unlike most distributions where the central settings manager is a distinct application in itself, the settings manager on deepin is presented as a sidebar, which can be accessed by clicking the gears  on the panel at the bottom of the desktop. You can access the different configurable elements such as Cloud Sync, Display, Personalisation, Power Management, Mouse & Touchpad etc. using the buttons on the left pane.

All the configurable elements on Elementary can be accessed from the System Settings tool, which lists them under different heads such as Personal, Hardware, Network & Wireless and Administration. To change the wallpaper, or otherwise tweak the appearance of the desktop, select Desktop from under the Personal heading. You can also change the default apps and even define apps you wish to automatically launch at startup. If you want to configure parental control, click the appropriately named button under Administration.

Manjaro provides a central settings manager, and more DE-relevant managers depending on your chosen desktop environment. The settings manager can also be used to install Linux kernel, change default applications and file associations.

Apart from Budgie Settings which cover all aspects of the desktop environment, Solus also features a Settings Manager, but we couldn’t get it to launch on our test machines.

Zorin features a custom app to change the appearance of the desktop, but all other configurable parameters can only be accessed from the central settings manager.

Verdict

  • deepin 10/10
  • Elementary 10/10
  • Manjaro 10/10
  • Solus 10/10
  • Zorin 10/10

All the distributions featured in this Roundup ship with a compliment of everyday applications such as web browser, video and audio players, office suites, etc. These default application should help you get started with the distribution. As you become more accustomed to your distribution’s way of functioning, you may wish to install additional application. All the featured distributions boast of vast software repositories. The 

You can think of software repositories as a common pool of all available applications and utilities. So installing a new app is as simple as executing a single command using the software management utility. All the distribution also ship with a graphical software management tool which can be used to install or remove applications with the click of a few buttons. They’ll also inform you if there are updates available for any installed application, and let you install those as well.

The deepin App Store provides relevant details such as version number, description, screenshot and even user comments for the apps. All the applications are neatly sorted into different categories and you can also access the top ranked apps, based on ratings or number of downloads. 

The AppCenter on Elementary OS provides a curated list of applications across different categories. While most apps are available for free, its also possible to pay a fee of your choosing for some of them. Should you encounter an app that you like, but don’t wish to pay for it just yet, click on the price button, and change the value to zero. You’ll then be able to install the app without making a payment.

Pamac is the graphical software management tool on Manjaro. While it offers a categorised list of available applications, it doesn’t provide screenshot, user comments or ratings for the different apps on offer.

The Solus Software Center doesn’t provide screenshots for the applications on offer. The applications are split into different categories such as Multimedia & Graphics, which is split into different categories for audio, video, graphics software, etc. The Internet Software category similarly comprises different categories such as Instant Messaging, Email client, Web browsers, etc.

Verdict

  • deepin 10/10
  • Elementary 10/10
  • Manjaro 10/10
  • Solus 8/10
  • Zorin 10/10

An operating system is not just its appearance, package management capabilities, the choice of default applications, etc. All the disparate elements, many of which have been the subject of comparison in this Roundup, must gel together to provide an enjoyable user experience. 

To recommend a distribution that only gets some of these elements right to a newbie, would be a recipe for disaster. While experienced users can work their way through a distribution’s weaknesses, novice users must be provided a system that’s usable in every sense of the word.

It is with this limited focus that we’re looking at the distributions featured in this Roundup. The outcome of this Roundup is not necessarily an indictment for the distributions. They may still make a good choice for advanced or skilled users, but are perhaps ill-suited for absolute beginners.

Elementary is a lightweight and fast distribution. But it fared poorly in a couple of tests,  especially documentation, where it lagged behind all the others, ensuring its position at the bottom.

Zorin’s reliance on Gnome 3 desktop environment makes the distribution ill-suited for machines with less than 4 GB RAM. We experienced some performance issues on our test rig, which are reason enough to deny it a podium finish. 

If not for these performance issues, Deepin would never have made it to the podium, with its limited documentation. 

When working with a rolling-release distribution, it’s important to create backups so as to revert to a previous state when something breaks. Solus doesn’t offer one by default, but you can install one from the software repositories. Its installer has long been a bone of contention with us, and we have also criticised its lack of features in past issues, going as far back as issue 178, and more recently in issue 240. A saner and more capable integrated disk partitioner will go a long way towards attracting new users.

It’s no secret that this author has long been a fan of Arch Linux. While many may view the final outcome of this Roundup as nothing more than a result of this bias, we believe that the results of the different tests that the distributions were put to justify Manjaro winning the top spot.

1st: Manjaro

  • Web: https://manjaro.org
  • License: GPL and others
  • Version: Manjaro 18.1.5
  • Verdict: Doesn’t put a foot wrong. Perfect for newbies and experienced users alike.

2nd: Solus

  • Web: https://getsol.us/
  • License: GPL and others
  • Version: 4.0
  • Verdict: Needs a backup utility out of the box and an improved installer.

3rd: Deepin 8

  • Web: www.deepin.org/en/
  • License: GPL and others
  • Version: 15.11
  • Verdict: Would be fourth if not for Zorin’s performance issues. Needs better documentation.

4th: Zorin 7

  • Web: https://zorinos.com
  • License: GPL and others
  • Version: 15.1
  • Verdict: Some performance issues, but otherwise incredibly competent.

5th: Elementary 6

  • Web: https://elementary.io/
  • License: GPLv3
  • Version: 5.1
  • Verdict: Limited applications and lack of documentation make it ill-suited for novices.

The choice of your first Linux distribution depends on a variety of additional factors outside of a distribution’s capability. Your past computing experience, and willingness to troubleshoot problems are just as important. 

For those who are willing to embark on a journey through trial and error, it’s an open field. You may well pick any distribution from the top 20 list on Distrowatch and begin a new adventure. 

Debian, Slackware, Fedora and Ubuntu all have their own pros and cons, and each boasts of significant user communities. They have all been around long enough to have been recommended at one time or another as an ideal candidate for new users. Note however that they aren’t designed with novice users in mind, so you may not get a very friendly vibe when working with these.

Regardless of the distribution you settle on, we would advise you to persist with it for a spell and switch to another distribution and begin the journey afresh.

Source: techradar.com

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