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What are the differences between major Linux distributions? Will I notice?

I'm completely new to linux, and the first thing that confuses me is all the different flavors. There's Ubuntu, red hat, debian, mandrake, fedora, etc. Its all confusing to a complete linux noob. Could someone clear up the differences between and provide a nice "introduction to linux" talk? :D

marked as duplicate by Sathyajith Bhat, user7244, quack quixote, BinaryMisfit Dec 24 '09 at 22:09

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There are a million different flavors, but you really only need to look at the top 5 or so:

Ubuntu Fedora/RedHat SuSe Mandriva Debian

Of those, the two most popular by far (in America) are Ubuntu and Fedora.

Ubuntu bills itself as the most user-friendly out-of-the-box functional Linux. It's got a nice support community, and is a good place to start for newbies. Very trendy. Uses APT, which is the Debian package system. Here is the "Getting Started" forum for Ubuntu.

Fedora/Redhat is an old standard. Very common in the business world. RHEL is one of the most common commercial linux distributions. Fedora is kind of a bleeding edge testbed for RHEL, but still pretty nice. Very modern, very often updated (with the good and bad that comes with that). Uses RPMs for packages. Here is the "Getting Started" Guide for Fedora

Go out and play with it. Set up some services, screw around. Break things. Start again.


Quick Overview

The thing about the different flavors of Linux is because Linux itself isn't an operating system. It is a term used to reference Operating Systems using the Linux Kernel. In Microsoft terms. You have the kernel winnt, it is what provides you with the pretty blue-screens. The operating system is Windows Vista, Windows 7, etc. Since the Linux kernel is free and open source, you see a lot of different operating systems built around it. They all do something different and provide a different subset of features.


Ubuntu is by far the most popular up-and-coming Distribution. It has a company behind providing support and development. For most users this is the most complete one out there. I think some others out there that I see a lot of good support for are Mandriva, Suse and Fedora. Fedora was started by Red Hat, and it is more up-to-date then the RedHat Linux distro (which is meant for servers). Suse is made by Novell, which struck a deal with Microsoft for patent protection, whether this hurt and helped Suse, I can't really say. But it's latest release has gotten some really good reviews. Mandriva is another one with no really big company behind it, but like the others, provides a great desktop experience.

The differences in the distributions is mainly how the Operating System handles the configuration of itself, and the package management. Package management is something people outside of Windows don't grasp the first time around, but basically all modern distributions use their own means of installing software, which makes it very easy to update software and stay current.

Desktop Enviroments / Window Manager

Most modern - user friendly - distributions are based on Gnome or KDE. These are your Desktop Environments. The provides a File Manager, Window Management and Desktop capabilities. File Manager is synonymous with Windows Explorer. Window Management is the Title bar that lets you minimize and maximize, task-bar , system tray, etc. And the Desktop is the , well Desktop. It controls your wallpaper and icons and widgets that sit on it.

From here, most distributions are the same. The provide pretty much the same base packages.

My Recommendations

If I had to recommend one one of the easier to use ones I would say go with Ubuntu or Suse. Both allow you to run Gnome or KDE. Right now, I have just switched from Gnome to KDE, and I really like it. That is just a matter of preference. While it can be helpful to figure out which you like up front, you can switch to either using the package management of your distribution.

If you are looking to get a better understanding of Linux in general, then Ubuntu and Suse will barely get your feet wet, but are great for those that just want a free Operating System to use e-mail and web. To get a better understanding of Linux I would really look at using a sourced based distribution. My favorite (use every day) is Gentoo. The set up time takes a lot longer b/c you are compiling all the software as you go. While you might go through several installs of Gentoo in the first few months, the knowledge you gain can be invaluable.

In the end, there is no right or wrong answer. You will eventually find one that first perfect with what you are wanting and with how much you want to work with the system versus just using it

  • ::grumble:: Linux is an operating system in the proper sense of the word. It is just that the colloquial sense includes a lot of supporting cruft that is not part of the operating system. – dmckee Dec 24 '09 at 17:46
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    Linux itself is not an operating system. It is a term used to reference Operating Systems using the Linux Kernel. Update main post to reflect this. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux – Ryan Gibbons Dec 24 '09 at 20:06
  • Counter-wikipedia link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operating_system list the jobs of the OS (basically mediating access to all limited resources) as you would learn them in a OS course, and the kernel does them all except providing the (optional IMHO) graphical interaction layer. Certainly the common understanding is "everything that comes on the disk", but the difference is important when you're doing work with embedded systems and/or looking at the history of computing. /pendant – dmckee Dec 24 '09 at 21:33

My favorite is WUBI, http://wubi-installer.org/, its a 1-click windows installer. It partitions your drive for you and does all the grunt work. From there all you need to know is the package installer apt-get. Basically from the command line all you ever need to do is "sudo apt-get install SOMEPACKAGE". Totally simple. The only thing I don't like is that it doesn't have a superuser account (for security purposes) so a lot of stuff needs do be done through the sudo command.

  • You just need to give root a password in ubuntu-based distros. 'sudo su -c passwd' – prestomation Dec 24 '09 at 20:19

I'd start with that link provided in the comments by Sathya. Another place you can look is distrowatch.com Put the fun back into computing. Use Linux, BSD. It shows which are the most popular and you can click on each one to read a bit more about them.

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