Choosing the Best Distribution

Doghouse – Distributions

Article from Issue 248/2021

Which distribution is the best choice for you? It's not an easy question, but maddog offers suggestions for finding the answer.

Almost exactly eight years ago, I wrote an article [1] about why I never answer the question "What distribution do you use?" The reasons are many, but the reason I gave at the time (which is still valid) is that I am a consultant and a writer, and I typically use the distribution that my customers use, not necessarily one of the options that is best tailored for me. Secondly, I recognized that in most cases, the question really being asked was "What distribution should I be using?" Usually I could not answer that either, because I did not know enough about the questioner to give a good answer.

Yesterday in a virtual FLISoL conference, I was asked (again) exactly that same question and gave exactly the same answer. If nothing else, I am consistent.

However I gave very little information in that article about how the questioner should choose their distribution. Also, many things have changed over the past eight years. So in this article I will give some tips for how to choose that first (or 10th or 20th) distribution that you might want to use.

First of all, do you belong to an organization that is already using GNU/Linux on the desktop? Some companies already support GNU/Linux as an operating system through their IT departments. If you are going to start using a distribution, you might as well use the distribution that they support. They can recommend the hardware and configuration you might want to use and perhaps even do the installation for you and set it up. Your laptop or desktop will then fit in well with their environment.

Even if your organization does not officially support GNU/Linux, perhaps some of the administrators use it, and they can give you help with distributions that they use.

If you are attending a university, and particularly if you are studying computer science or computer engineering, you will likely find other students already using GNU/Linux, and they can give you recommendations on distributions and/or help in installing and configuring the system. Modern-day GNU/Linux distributions are typically not that hard to install and configure, but in addition to smoothing the way, finding others who use the same system as you gives you people to discuss features and ways of doing things with, which many users of GNU/Linux like to do.

If you have looked around and found you are a "lone wolf," your next stop might be several of the sites on the web that cater to GNU/Linux beginners. Websites like,,, or even (cough), will have articles giving advice on both selecting a distribution and getting started with that distribution. Even a simple web search of "Linux beginner" turns up many articles about what to select for your first distribution.

But what if you have already been using a "first distribution," perhaps one of the many great "community" distributions, and you want to go deeper?

For that you can go to This is a website that lists hundreds of "open source" (mostly GNU/Linux and BSD, but occasionally other) systems, tells their features, and provides release dates, popularity ratings, and reviews. Often there are screenshots of the default desktops, but of course most distributions allow you to tailor this, so the defaults often do not mean much.

Of course you will want to have a distribution that matches your architecture, and you need to decide if you want one aimed toward being a desktop, or server, or high performance computer system.

Many of the distributions are what I would call a "spin" from another distribution. The distribution creators started with another distribution and gradually (or not so gradually) morphed it into something that may have a completely different "look and feel" and installation.

As an example, Ubuntu started out using an underlying Debian distribution. They used the Debian package manager and changed the installation, the graphical desktop ,and other factors to create their own distribution. However, people using Ubuntu had access to the underlying Debian repositories to bring a wealth of functionality to what was, at that time, a fledgling distribution.

Likewise, later, the Linux Mint distribution was based off Ubuntu, and they utilized many features of the Ubuntu distribution to build their own look and feel and functionality.

In choosing your distributions, you may wish to stick with distributions in a particular "family," using a particular package manager rather than switching between families. I am sure you will find large amounts of functionality in each family of systems.

In choosing any distribution, please look carefully at items like "last release date" and "activity," since many distributions are no longer maintained. DistroWatch does have policies for "dormant" and "discontinued" distributions, but checking dates and downloads is also useful.

Finding the distribution that meets your needs is part of the adventure of open source.


  1. "Community Notebook: Distribution of Choice" by Jon "maddog" Hall, Linux Magazine, issue 152, July 2013, pg. 94,

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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