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I've been using Linux in some form intermittently for the past ten years or so, but have only really been in to it for the past few months.

What are the major differences between distributions? Ultimately I know that package management and branding are the big ones, but would it be easier to do task x with distribution y? Why so?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

I think two main difference is

  • Package management
  • Default Window Manager (Gnome, KDE, XFCE)

Just pointing to these two big difference will somewhat change your behaviour in doing task. For example you could easily install a package on Ubuntu using apt but not so simple when using rpm. Having a difference in Window Manager can also change how you interact with the system.

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I can run whichever Window Manager I want with any distro through, right? – Andy Mikula Jul 15 '09 at 8:05
Andy, correct. But from a casual user point of view usually you just go with what is given in the installation package right? – hendrasaputra Jul 15 '09 at 8:21
Most distros will allow you to install any window manager but you may find that support for one is favoured over the other. – Mark Jul 15 '09 at 8:22
Hmmm, fair enough. I wouldn't really consider myself to be a 'casual user', but I know what you mean. – Andy Mikula Jul 16 '09 at 15:58
I've never understood why people find RPM so hard... – Evan Jul 17 '09 at 3:26

There are two major flavors of linux distro's out there. Debian and Red Hat based distributions account for a large percentage of the distributions out there.

The major difference between them is the package management. If they are debian based the most likely use the dpkg& apt/deb system, if its a Red Hat system it most likely uses yum/rpm. A lot of distros pop up because someone was unsatisifed with the package management so most will have some form of graphical interface that is different, but the underlying system is the same.

If you learn how to use apt-get and yum, you'll cover 80% of the distro's out there, and 99% of the systems you'll most likely encounter.

Each distro will do something a little different with the window manager. Most major distro's choose between KDE and Gnome, with Gnome seeming to be the popular one at the moment. The great thing about linux though, is that you can change the window manager if you like (go windowmaker!).

If you learn the command line there is not "much" of a difference, but the GUI changes between distro's will definitely sway you're choice. Also, some distro's ship with divers that will make it easy for certain hardware like video cards.

I highly recommend Linux Mint for home systems, and vanilla debian, ubuntu (server edition) or centos for servers.

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+1 for most of your comments. I would disagree about using vanilla Ubuntu for servers though. Ubuntu has a specific server distribution which removes a lot of the X-fluff that just isn't required for a headless box sat in a rack... – Russell Heilling Jul 15 '09 at 8:29
Agreed. I'll make an edit to reflect that. – Mark Turner Jul 15 '09 at 8:52
I would say openSUSE, which RPM based, could stand as a third major distro. Much better than Fedora IMO, but not wanting to start a flame war. A few other distros such as Arch with their own package management systems are also gaining followings, but perhaps not "major" yet. – Evan Jul 17 '09 at 3:29

Even though the package managers are different, my understanding (though I don't use Linux regularly) is that most packages are available some way or another with any distro. Also, the window systems / desktop environments are different, but you can install alternates anyway. The only other thing I can think of right now would be the simple difference in communities surrounding distros.

I'm pretty sure that you'll be able to find a way to do whatever you want to do.

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As others have suggested the package management, default software choices (especially desktop environment), and configuration file layouts are the most obvious differences between distributions.

I however think more important then this is different philosophies that the distributions follow. To name a few:

  • Ubuntu/Fedora - User experience, consistent interface, lots of built in graphical tools.
  • Arch - Simple and clean, cutting edge software
  • Gentoo - Extremely customizable, source based
  • Debian - Lightweight, rock solid, stability over new software
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