The Best Linux Distribution For Users New To Linux

Posted by ajt on Sat 11 Jun 2005 at 20:02

A common question for new users is to ask, "what is best the Linux distribution for me?". I believe that the best Linux distribution is the one you personally like best: see Best Linux Distribution, however for a user new to Linux, this is no help. First, I would like to begin with a true story.

A Tale Of Three Windows Users...

Once upon a time there were three unhappy Microsoft Windows users. All were worried about the long term running costs, and security problems associated with Windows, and searched for an alternative solution.

The first one went out and bought a boxed Linux distro & manual and installed it on his computer. There were a few problems, but in the end everything worked just as well as it did with Windows: not quite perfectly. He was not a happy person, neither system was perfect and thus to get all the functionality, he required both systems running side by side. It was inconvenient to share data between them and to switch between the two. Later he met a happy Linux user who offered to help. They installed a different Linux distribution and all the problems were overcome quickly. Soon Windows was but an unhappy memory.

The second Windows user heard of the first user's conversion, and he too, went out and bought a boxed Linux distro. Like for the first Windows user, there were some problems and since it did not do things the way that Windows did, he gave up and went back to Windows. He still is an unhappy Windows user.

The third Windows user, asked the first Windows user what he had done, and installed the same Linux distribution. Things did not always work first time, but he asked the first Windows user for help, and in no time at all, he was running Linux on every computer in the house.

The moral of this story is: "The best distribution for a new user is the one that they can get the most help with. While there are some new user specific distributions, this is less important than the help".

Phone a Friend

When you are new at something, it really helps to have someone to turn to, who knows more than you do. I believe the reason why the first user struggled initially was lack of help and I am sure that was a key reason why the second user failed. The first user had better luck the second time because of the external help he received; and help was a significant factor for the rapid progress of the third user.

It is more important to choose a Linux distribution that you can get help for, than one that is specially designed for new users. Both boxed Linux distributions in the story were perfectly fine. The distribution that was installed successfully and with the fewest problems was the one that local help was available for.

On of the best way to find a Linux guru if you do not already know one, is to join a local Linux User Group (LUG). There are groups all over the world, and there is probably one near you. Most groups have a web site and an emailing list. It is not important to be physically that close, but it does help in the initial stages if you can take your computer to a meeting so that people can help you install. Some groups meet "virtually" using Internet Relay Chat (IRC) as well as in reality. In this context it is possible to try out a few distributions with help and it is much easier to form an opinion of which Linux is best for you.

Ask The Audience

As long as you have a live connection to the Internet with a computer, you can use Google to find the answers to many problems. Often your problem will have been experienced elsewhere by someone who will have asked for help and there will be a few answers given already. Simply typing in the error message will find you pages about the same problem and, if you are lucky, the solution. The answer may not always be complete, but it may point you in the right direction.

50:50

Sometimes it is worth having a go anyway. A guess may be good enough, and if you do not try you will never know. Playing with something, and sometimes breaking it, is a good way of learning how things work. However it helps if you are learning on a spare system so that you have a working system from which you can get help if you have a problem.

  • Version 1.00 / June 2005
  • By the way, the first user in the story is me
  • The United Kingdom LUG site: www.lug.org.uk
  • As ever, many thanks to the many people who have helped, in particular V. E. Kerguelen

 

 


Posted by Steve (82.41.xx.xx) on Mon 13 Jun 2005 at 04:46
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I definitely concur.

When people ask me for a recommended distribution my answer is usually Debian if they are close to me and I can help.

If I know they already have friends running something else I'd suggest that instead - because I know they'd get more help without having to wait for me to be available/awake/online.

Back when I started running Linux I started with two distros; Slackware '97 and RedHat.

Slakware was chosen soley because it came with a book I'd bought explaining how to run it, and whilst I didn't love it stuff mostly worked. (The five minute pause waiting for Netscape to open is something that I just can't imagine nowadays!)

Later I used RedHat 4.2, because most of my friends at that time used it. I had a lot of problems initially, but the people I knew who were already running it, locally because dialup was expensive and a rare luxury, were very helpful in getting it fixed.

After that, and the terrible problems i had upgrading to RedHat 5.0 I moved to Debian and that's where I've stayed since. Partly that's because I know I can find help easily, but I guess I could also say that know how to fix a lot of the common problems myself these days.

Steve
-- Steve.org.uk

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by Anonymous (62.234.xx.xx) on Sat 27 Aug 2005 at 07:06
I think the best distro for begginner is Mandkrake/Mandriva: easy to install, that's all that matters for new users i think.
Debian's OK too, but the installation "gui" may scare some people. :-)

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by Anton (66.156.xx.xx) on Mon 13 Jun 2005 at 06:55
Well written, and as simple as it is brilliant in concept. Kudos.

One thing you've already mentioned is that the answer to many, if not all, problems can be found somewhere on the internet. Not only answers to problems, but complete guides, seome as large as books, and howto's and most everything you can think of is out there on the internet. It can be all the help one might need for perhaps a minority of people new to Linux who are a bit more technical than the average user, and determined enough to stick with it and spend the time to learn and make it work. It helps if you love this type of stuff.

I suppose that makes me user type #4 (although I have only migrated server functions to Linux, can't get away from Windows if I wanted to due to proprietary software requirements - and the odd game or 2 perhaps).

Anyway, great article.

Anton

PS. I've noticed now that this is the 2nd time that the subject line is cut short starting with my reply. I'm not sure why, it seems to be beyond my control. Steve?

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by Steve (82.41.xx.xx) on Mon 13 Jun 2005 at 07:17
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PS. I've noticed now that this is the 2nd time that the subject line is cut short starting with my reply. I'm not sure why, it seems to be beyond my control. Steve?

Fixed now, for all new replies.

There was an issue with the comment title size in the database - also the submit form had a "maxlength" attribute which was too short.

Steve
-- Steve.org.uk

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by empty (70.176.xx.xx) on Mon 13 Jun 2005 at 10:03
IMO Debian is one of the very best. It is well documented, the sarge installer totally kicks ass, and apt causes few if any problems when installing software.

The biggest problems newbies have I think is basic commands. Once a user understands the 10-20 basic commands they will need(or at least knows their names so they can 'man' them) things become much easier for them to understand. I'm unaware of any *really* good tutorial for users new to Linux, but if anyone reading this knows one I would love the URL.

You've forgotten something here that I can't understand though- help available online. #debian on irc.freenode.net is easily one of the busiest and most helpful chat rooms for any distro I have run across. If a newbie can't find an answer in Google and there, it's probably not a newbie question :)

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by ajt (204.193.xx.xx) on Mon 13 Jun 2005 at 12:02
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I agree with you that Debian is brilliant, but I still feel that the quiality of the help is more significant than the actual distro.

I also agree that the new Debian Installer is a serious piece of kit. It reall does work very well, and offers something to both the newer and more experienced user. However I don't believe that installation of any distro (and also BSD and Windows for that matter) is something that many people are capable, without help. Again I must stress that it's not how newbie friendly something is or is not, rather the quality of the help.

Chat rooms fall into the categories already. Though not explicitly mentioned, I believe it doesn't matter where your local guru is or how you communicate, nor do I think that it matters where the search engine finds the problem and solution, in both cases it's the principle of help that counts.

I think the quality of documentation avaialable for Linux and Debian in particular is very good, and is probably better that documentation available for Windows. However for the really new user, 99.9% of this is above them at the begining, a helping hand to get them going, makes all the difference in the world.

--
"It's Not Magic, It's Work"
Adam

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by empty (70.176.xx.xx) on Mon 13 Jun 2005 at 15:00
My point was that the article seemed to forget that you don't need *local* help if you have two computers, and you don't need to *know* a linux guru already. The folk in #debian are perfectly happy to help strangers with debian-related topics, and the faq-bot there has a might and impressive base of knowledge.

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by ajt (82.133.xx.xx) on Wed 15 Jun 2005 at 19:59
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While you are correct, I think a lot of people new to Linux are also new to computing - the personal touch does help.

My local LUG has a lot of retired members. For some, going to a bring a box and getting an install done in person makes an enormous difference!

I believe that help is the most important thing to start a newbie on the right road. For many, direct person to person help is best, but as people grow in skill and confidence levels , email and irc are also valid tools.

--
"It's Not Magic, It's Work"
Adam

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by Anonymous (64.190.xx.xx) on Thu 28 Jul 2005 at 17:40
I have to disagree with you comment that a lot of people new to Linux are also new to computing. I just don't see a lot of people just starting to configure and get into computers jumping straight to something that is totally unfamiliar to the majority. Windows and Macs are so much more common that I see people starting out there before jumping to a new OS.

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by Anonymous (201.210.xx.xx) on Sat 14 Feb 2009 at 19:52
I use debian, three times I asked in #debian smart simple educated questions and got no answer :(

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by rbochan (24.92.xx.xx) on Mon 13 Jun 2005 at 13:50
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... I've found is to be winmodems. They're included with just about every machine sold in the past few years. I do several Linux installs for clients each month, almost always Debian, and the most difficult part is always the winmodem. It's come to the point that I've started telling clients it'll be cheaper for them to purchase a hardware modem than it will be for me to muck with things to get the crappy winmodem working, which it never does properly.
Aside from that, the only problems have been ISPs that use proprietary dialup software.

...Rob
The American Dream isn't an SUV and a house in the suburbs; it's Don't Tread On Me.

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by ajt (82.133.xx.xx) on Wed 15 Jun 2005 at 20:15
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Thankfully dial-up is less common thesedays, so new users are less likley to run into that problem. The alternative though are USB-ADSL kit or WinPrinters...

USB-ADSL "modems" (sic) initially common in the UK, and still common with the bigger ISPs are now less common as ADSL has become more accepted. People want to connect more than one device at a time, so ADSL-switches and ADSL-WiFi have gradually replaced them - they don't need Windows only drivers.

Windows only hardware is a pain, and to be honest I don't see my manufactures do it, I've had more problems with Windows and hardware support than I ever have had with Linux. Microsoft move the goal posts every release, and it's a real pain maintaining drivers for hardware, when the community will do it for you, if you provide them with the right help...

If a newbie has standard hardware though, a Linux install is quite easy thesedays, and with the help of a friendly LUG, it's easier still. -- "It's Not Magic, It's Work" Adam

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by saist (24.214.xx.xx) on Wed 15 Jun 2005 at 12:36
this is the reason why I created what is now http://www.mepisguides.com

I got tired of "traditional" Linux documentation which gives a lot of text commands, but... well, chases new users off. Nothing like telling a user to cat the man to the ???? (user tunes out at this point and goes SHINY!)

I stopped tracking emails I've gotten, from pm's, from forum posts, from whatever... the number of times random strangers just sent me a note saying thanks. Or saying, hey, I found you on google and you got this fixed.

Sometimes just doing something different, putting the whole process in context, can go a long way towards making a new operating system much more friendly to the user.

I'd like to see the step by step picture type guides implemented by people familiar with Red Hat, Suse, or Mandriva Systems. I think their users would get a boost from it as well.

Maybe the myth that Linux is only for geeks can be erased. I stated months ago that it was pathetic that installing accelerated 3D drivers in Linux took less work than installing identical drivers in Windows. I think it's outrageous that people talk about Linux not supporting hardware when I carry around literally 20 CD's composed of common and uncommon Windows device drivers when I have to work on Dell, HP, Gateway, or other OEM machines. Especially when I can pop my Mepis CD in and just about have everything work without having to apt-get in some drivers.

bah, now I'm just fussing, and yall don't need to hear that.

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by ajt (82.133.xx.xx) on Wed 15 Jun 2005 at 20:27
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High quality and understandable documentation is very scarce in all fields of computing. I've found that on the whole Windows doumentation is friendly, but ultimately unhelpful. Linux documentation is either complex and obtuse, or dumbed down to the point of uselessness.

It is a very hard balance to strike to make something useful for the newbie, without dumbing it down. People think Windows is easy (which it's not) and so are more willing to accept poor documentation. Linux has a reputation for being hard, so people tollerate terse and unfriendly documentation.

Personally I find that it's easier as a power user to use Linux than Windows. Windows is really hard to use, and it's a myth to think otherwise. For a new user it makes no difference what the system is, but to progress towards power user or administrator I believe the Linux path is easier.

Good quality documentation, which I've found for Debian, does make using and learning Debian easier than I thought possible. Google searching has found many really good ansers for me when I've hit a problem. People on my LUG have also directed me towards excellent on-line documentation, again making all the difference. -- "It's Not Magic, It's Work" Adam

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Posted by fsateler (200.83.xx.xx) on Wed 15 Jun 2005 at 23:48
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Personally I find that it's easier as a power user to use Linux than Windows. Windows is really hard to use, and it's a myth to think otherwise. For a new user it makes no difference what the system is, but to progress towards power user or administrator I believe the Linux path is easier.

I'd agree with the first portion of this quote: Windows is hard to use if you are a power user. However, I strongly disagree with the second half: It is a million times easier to setup a Windows machine than a Linux machine if you don't know what you are doing.

Normally the windows installer will detect all the hardware you have, install all necessary drivers (along with some you will never use), and ask you a few basic questions that mostly have to do with you than with the system (Would you like numbers to be displayed like 123.456.789,0, or 123,456,789.0?), and voila! the system is up.
However when installing linux (I use debian, so my last install was long ago ;)) you need to know if your hardware clock is set to GMT or local time, and how you'd like your hard drive partitioned, and other stuff that most people did not know they existed, and then the installer will proceed to install, also installing loads of crap you won't ever use. I wouldn't call this no difference between the systems...

However it should be noted that if you have a set of tools and themes/skins, and install them to a friend, they will mostly not complain. The main problems I've found is that Shockwave only provides Flash for linux, which leaves my friends unable to play certain kinds of web based games, and that msn messenger clones lack "essential" features (winks, user smilies, personal messages).

----
Felipe Sateler

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by Anonymous (24.214.xx.xx) on Thu 16 Jun 2005 at 01:41
Normally the windows installer will detect all the hardware you have, install all necessary drivers (along with some you will never use),


I call B.S. on that

if you run Windows update AFTER installing you may get drivers for some of the products on the system, but chances are they'll be out of date by literal years. This is presuming that Windows successfully detects your network adapter.

Device drivers that are loaded are generally written by Microsoft and are hardly optimized for any specific product. Often, the manufacturer had no input into the Microsoft offered driver. (however, this is also true with products under Linux where the Manufacturer refuses to release any driver code details)

and that msn messenger clones lack "essential" features (winks, user smilies, personal messages).


um... wha? How many different IM devices are available for linux? I can think of Kopete ( http://kopete.kde.org/index.php ) and GAIM ( gaim.sourceforge.net ) just off the top of my head.

My suggestion Felipe is try a modern distro, like Mepis, and then try to repeat the above post. Most of what you said was true, yes. Literal years ago. It's not true anymore.

Or, if you don't feel like installing a distro to see a modern installation, just visit the following link

http://www.mepisguides.com/install/install-blitz.html

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by fsateler (200.83.xx.xx) on Thu 16 Jun 2005 at 02:16
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Well, I may be a little outdated, but it seems that so are you: newer versions of windows are very capable of installing correctly (I know very well because I have setup lots of machines for my friends), and most people do not care if their drivers are up to date or not, but they do care if it works with as little effort as possible. On the other side, linux may be better optimized, but it requires you to do some work (say, for example, installing nvidia drivers).

As far as msn clones go, I think I've tried everything that has passed in front of me: Kopete, Gaim, KMerlin, aMsn, to name a few. However, all of these clones provide features equivalent to MSN Messenger 6-6.2, but they do not provide all the functionality present in Messenger 7. As a matter of fact, I usually use Kopete (nicer UI), but when I have some trouble, such as sending files, I switch to aMsn, which, as I have experienced, has a better backend.

PS: I use debian Testing, which has stayed back a bit because of the recent release of sarge, but I hope it will catch up soon.

PS2: What does BS mean? I guess it is Bull Shit, but I can't be certain.

Felipe Sateler

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by ajt (82.133.xx.xx) on Fri 17 Jun 2005 at 21:23
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I'd have to disagree with you, while it's easy to set up anything badly if you don't know what you are doing, if you have some idea then Linux is much easier.

Poeople think Windows is easy to set up, but you only have too look at how terribly most Windows PCs are configured, and the fact that between 80-90% of them are infected with something nasty at any point in time, to see that this is a myth.

Once upon a time Unix/Linux was complex and arcane to set up. Over time it's got easier, and the defaults are now mostly sane.

At the same time Windows with it's so called friendly GUI was easy to set up because it did so little, but over time it's got horrendously complex and the GUI hasn't been able to keep up. Typically Window XP is installed with everything switched on, and everyone logs in as adminsitrator....!

To a user it makes little difference, but to administrator Windows is much harder - look at the manpower companies dedicate to Windows support, usually double what they dedicate to Unix/Linux systems.

--
"It's Not Magic, It's Work"
Adam

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by fsateler (200.83.xx.xx) on Fri 17 Jun 2005 at 21:34
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To a user it makes little difference, but to administrator Windows is much harder
For a normal user, it much easier to let windows setup everything bad, than helping the linux installer setup things ok.


Felipe Sateler

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by strider22 (69.157.xx.xx) on Tue 4 Jul 2006 at 04:20
The only advise that can be improved is that when you get an error message you don't understand, copy it and paste it into YAHOO. I discover this over & over. I paste an error message into google and get one or two newsgroup comments with that message in them, but when I paste into YAHOO, I get pages of specific articles dealing with the exact problem.

Use YAHOO to handle problems with specific error messages.

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by ajt (204.193.xx.xx) on Tue 4 Jul 2006 at 09:48
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I've not used Yahoo! in years, I'd forgotten they had a search engine at all. I will have to give them a try if you think that they give better error message explanations.

I agree that Google gives you a lot of hits in disucssions, but often they have the answer in the thread some where, though you do get multiple hits for the same discussion which isn't so good.

--
"It's Not Magic, It's Work"
Adam

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by Anonymous (69.132.xx.xx) on Thu 31 May 2007 at 00:52
Is that your final answer? ;)

Seriously, as a new Linux user (who dived in with Debian and is enjoying the ride so far), I have to agree. Linux (of whatever flavor a person prefers) and Windows are both good products, and they do a lot of the same or similar things ... but sometimes the little differences can add up to a BIIIIG headache. Having someone to lend a helping hand is the best medicine.

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by ajt (204.193.xx.xx) on Thu 31 May 2007 at 09:39
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In essence yes! The best distro to get started with is the one you can get the most help for.

While distros vary in their ease of use, I believe this is insignificant when compared to the quality of help available.

--
"It's Not Magic, It's Work"
Adam

[ Parent | Reply to this comment ]

Posted by Anonymous (24.25.xx.xx) on Mon 27 Apr 2009 at 01:24
Debian - take the time to learn it AAAAAAAAA++++++++++++++

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