Buyer's guide to Linux distros
Fancy giving Linux a whirl? Here are all the factors that you should look for when choosing from the wide range of available Linux distributions.
Linux has many advantages over operating systems such as Windows 8 and OS X, and the most obvious one is that it’s free. You can install it on as many systems as you like – from laptops to servers and even supercomputers – without ever having to spend a penny.
It’s terrifically secure too. Like the Unix operating system on which it’s modelled, Linux operates a strict regime of file ownership and permissions that makes it all but impossible for malware to spread as it does on Windows. As a result, no native Linux viruses have ever been observed in the wild. (Some exist as proofs of concept, but in order to spread they would require users with administrative privileges to actively install them.) Linux systems can still be compromised by weak passwords and vulnerabilities in application software, such as web browsers, but overall it's very secure.
Linux is also more capable as a desktop OS than you may realise. It’s true that some major apps are lacking: you’ll look in vain for a Linux version of Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop. However, equivalents such as LibreOffice and The GIMP have become increasingly usable and mature over the years.
If you need to perform a specialist task, such as video editing or desktop publishing, Linux may not be the right choice. There’s no denying that the overall slickness and consistency of applications still isn’t quite up there with the best that rival platforms can offer. For everyday office and internet use, though, Linux will do everything cleanly and easily – and with the arrival of Steam, Linux is set to become a viable gaming platform.
The key appeal of Linux, however, is its flexibility. In Windows and OS X, if you don’t like something about the operating system – tough, you’re stuck with it. In the world of Linux, there are numerous distributions from which to choose. Each is based on the Linux kernel, but builds on this with its own selection of other components, from software management tools to desktop environments. What’s more, these choices aren’t set in stone. Should you wish, you can customise a Linux distribution in almost any way imaginable.
The number of distributions on offer can be quite daunting to a new Linux user, especially if you’re transitioning from an operating system that offers only one way of doing things. However, the choice reflects the reality that people have differing needs and preferences. Many distributions are created with a specific use in mind, such as enterprise and server roles – areas in which Linux has a well-established presence. In this feature, we’re focusing primarily on the desktop, and even within this area, there’s plenty of variety from which to choose.
The choice of distros reflects the reality that people have differing needs and preferences
For a start, each distribution has its own setup routine. Some aim to keep things as simple as possible, automatically detecting as much of your hardware as possible and installing a preset range of applications. Others give you more control at the expense of simplicity. Distributions differ in which drivers are included and what hardware is recognised, so you may find that your wireless controller and multitouch trackpad work in one distribution, but not in another.