From Noobs to Experts: Is There an ABC for Linux Distros?

“To every thing there is a season,” as the old saying goes, and “a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

Can the same be said for Linux distros? That is the question that’s been on many Linux bloggers’ minds.

Specifically, “What Distros Have You Used, in What Order?” was the title of the Ask Slashdot post that got the conversational ball rolling, and it was a provocative one.

‘Ubuntu -> Arch -> openSUSE’

“Linux dude Bryan Lunduke blogged here about the top three approaches he thinks are the easiest for new users to pick up Linux,” wrote blogger colinneagle. “Lunduke’s, for example, went Ubuntu -> Arch -> openSUSE.

“It raises a question that Slashdot could answer well in the comments: what’s your distro use order from beginning to now?” colinneagle added. “Maybe we could spot some trends.”

Do Linux bloggers enjoy extolling the virtues of their favorite distros? Let’s just say there aren’t superlatives superlative enough for some.

Meanwhile, the nostalgia-fest hasn’t died down since in blogobars throughout the land.

‘My Go-To Distro for a Long Time’

“The first distro I ever used was called MKLinux, and it was on a friend’s Mac,” offered Google+ blogger Linux Rants down at the G+ Grill, for example. “That’s what got me started with Linux.”

After that, “I installed Red Hat (I think 3.0),” Linux Rants added. “Red Hat was my go-to Linux distro for a long time.”

In the meantime, he tried “Slackware, Debian, Yellowdog, Suse, Linspire, Gentoo, Caldera, Storm Linux, and countless others in kind of a rush where I couldn’t tell you what went where,” Linux Rants said.

‘I’m Back on Ubuntu’

“I used to buy CD packs with dozens of distros in them (those were modem days and a download of a distro would really annoy my roommates),” Linux Rants recalled. “I always went back to Red Hat.”

When Red Hat was split into Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), “I tried Fedora for a short while, and then along came the Warty Warthog itself, Ubuntu,” Linux Rants said. “Ubuntu became my go to distro after that.”

Since then he has tried “more Fedoras, SuSE again, CentOS, SolusOS, Bodhi, and Mint,” Linux Rants concluded. “I’m back on Ubuntu right now, but I really enjoy trying new distributions, so who knows where I’ll go next? This isn’t even a complete list of the ones that I’ve tried already.”

‘I Started with Slackware’

Consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack had a similar tale to tell.

“I started with the August 95 edition of Slackware released by Walnut Creek, then tried Red Hat a couple of years later,” Mack told Linux Girl.

“When I got my first job and had to maintain 20+ servers, I discovered how much easier it is to maintain multiple servers using Debian, so I’ve pretty much been an exclusive Debian user for the past decade,” he explained.

‘My First Linux Was Slackware 2.0’

“Everyone loves a little trip down nostalgia lane,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza offered.

“My first Linux was Slackware 2.0 (kernel 1.1.47) installed from floppies on a 386DX25 with 8MB of DIP (!) DRAM, 120MB disk, and a 1MB Trident VGA card, which was enough to have the networking and development sets as well as most of X, and Netscape,” he recounted.

“After that I used Caldera Network Desktop, then Red Hat itself for a while, on to Gentoo (on a K6, where it provided a notable advantage) then Debian,” Espinoza added. “Now I run Ubuntu on my desktop and Debian on servers.

“Before Linux I ran Xenix on a 286 and SunOS 4.1.3 on a 4/260, and Slackware on a 386DX was really a pleasant environment to move into,” he explained.

‘Mint, Then Debian, Then Others’

Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, followed yet another path.

“I started on Red Hat 5.2 and eventually moved to CentOS, Debian, and Fedora,” Travers told Linux Girl. “If I were to recommend an approach to others, it would be Mint, then Debian, then others.”

Still, “Gentoo looks very promising,” Travers added. “The few times I have worked with it, I have liked it.”

‘A Good Jumping-Off Point’

In general, however, “the first thing a new user needs is a relatively soft entry,” he opined. “I had no trouble with Red Hat because I was already somewhat comfortable on the shell, having a small amount of experience as a command line user on a DEC Ultrix system.

“Also Linux as a system isn’t as transparent as it was in those days,” Travers pointed out. “I think Mint today offers the best easy entry for users.”

Debian, meanwhile, “is a fantastic distro for servers and desktops, and it is the natural progression for people who want to become serious about using Linux in business,” he suggested. “It is extremely flexible and has a long support cycle, which is a rare combination.

“For those who want to go even more in-depth on the technical end, the next stage I think would be Gentoo, which is clearly BSD-inspired,” Travers concluded. “It seems Gentoo would be a good jumping-off point to the BSDs, if one wants to go there.”

‘A Really Bad Question’

Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien took issue with the question.

“This strikes me as a really bad question since it implies that there is a one-size-fits-all answer, and I don’t think that is true,” O’Brien began. “Before I would make any recommendation, I would want to know what kind of background someone has in using computers.”

For instance, “if someone was a power Windows user, Ubuntu would probably just be confusing and drive them away, and something like a KDE distro would be a better choice,” O’Brien explained. “If they were not very experienced, though, I think Ubuntu’s Unity desktop might be a great choice.

“Another question I would ask is what they intend to do with their computer,” he added. “If they want to mostly check e-mail and surf the web, almost anything would work well. If they are interested in making and recording music, one of the studio distros would be logical.”

‘I Get Both with Debian GNU/Linux’

Last but not least, blogger and retired educator Robert Pogson pointed to two different types of users.

“There are two cases: the user who installs GNU/Linux on his own PC, and the user who buys a distro pre-installed,” Pogson explained.

“Newbies need a distro that’s easy to install and to maintain in the first case,” he noted. “In the second case, a newbie needs a distro that’s easy to use and easy to maintain.

“I get both with Debian GNU/Linux,” Pogson offered. “It has a reputation — well-earned — for being challenging to install, but that’s ancient history. I had newbie high school students install it in minutes with little more than a demo you can find on YouTube and the advice that if they don’t understand the question, accept the default.”

Debian also has a reputation for being difficult to use, “but that, too, is history,” he added.

‘Why Use Anything Else?’

So, “the world can save a lot of anguish about which distro to choose by choosing Debian GNU/Linux or another good distro and sticking with it to learn more about it,” Pogson suggested.

“I used a dozen different distros in my time, but I could have saved a lot of work by starting with Debian,” he explained. “I used Caldera, Mandrake, Red Hat, Fedora, Slackware, KNOPPIX, SystemRescueCD, a few others and finally Debian GNU/Linux. If you can’t do it with Debian, it can’t be done.”

The important thing to remember about GNU/Linux “is that the distros are all mostly the Linux kernel and the GNU utilities,” he concluded. “The rest are just applications, and you can use the same applications on different distros. I recommend Debian because it has one of the largest repositories and works on the most hardware. Why use anything else?”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


  • Weird how I wrote about this on my squaredhippy blog at WordPress just before Mr Lunduke did! Must have been one of those "ideas" flying around 😉

    I recommend following a comfortable stream, like Mint LTS, Mint’s latest, LMDE, and into Debian.

    Or Vector to Slackware, or Fedora to CentOS and RedHat. Then doing compile-only stuff like Arch and Gentoo, and then into LFS and BLFS (the masochist route!)

  • I Started with Texstars tremendous PCLinuxOS 2011 KDE , so yes im a relative nooblet to linux ( i guess i was a windows power user and had gotten to the point where windows didnt challenge me mentally no more), after learning some linux basics i wandered from distro to distro looking for a $HOME, Nowadays its Sabayon & Archlinux for me, (Arch is the goto) it suprised me that no one interviewed mentioned archlinux which has taught me a great deal and has helped lead me out of the noob desert. Debian & Arch-Arm on the raspberry pi also helped. gr8 post linux girl. 🙂

  • My Linux journey started in 1993 with SLS.

    1993: SLS->SLackware

    1996: Slackware->Red Hat

    1997: Red Hat->Caldera

    1997: Caldera->Red Hat

    2001: Red Hat->Fedora Core

    2004: fedora Core->SuSE

    2008: SuSE >Ubuntu

    2012: Kbuntu

    Happily managing SLES, RHEL and debian servers for a living.

  • I’ve went from Kubuntu, to Ubuntu, to Mint, to Solus Os, and finally now to Mint Mate. I just can’t get into any other interface than the origional Gnome 2, which I fled to Solus Os for. But now that I see Mint Mate has released a version almost identical to Gnome 2. I switched back. Mint seems to be more compatible with bigger gaming sites like

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