Everyone needs to start somewhere, and Linux is no different. Even though it became a meme, telling newcomers to install Gentoo isn’t very productive, and it harms the community as a whole.
There are distributions that work to make themselves accessible to people of every skill level and technical aptitude. They’re often called “Beginner distributions”, but they aren’t just for beginners. Actually, any one of these choices would be great for everyone, but they’re also the best places for newbies to start.
Linux Mint is probably the most user friendly distribution around. It’s based on Ubuntu, so it shares all of the same benefits. That includes a gigantic and active community as well as a vast package library.
Mint also features one of the simplest desktop environments to use and navigate, Cinnamon. The Mint team developed Cinnamon themselves, and they still maintain it to be as user friendly and intuitive as possible, while still looking great.
There’s another factor that’s very important for beginners. Mint is dead simple to set up. Mint uses a modified version of the Ubuntu installer that’s even easier to use. It includes third party packages and other extras that most people commonly set up after installing their system. So, with Mint, you get everything you need out of the box.
ElementaryOS is probably the best looking distribution on this list. Actually, it’s a top contender for best distribution period. That’s thanks in large part to its own custom desktop environment, Pantheon. Pantheon looks and feels a lot like MacOS, but on Linux. That might sound like a bad thing to hardcore Linux users, but for newbies, that’s an awesome and inviting fact.
ElementaryOS is also based on Ubuntu. That means loads of packages, a giant and supportive community, and more third party support than you could ever need. All of these factors come together to form a picture where you have a highly usable system with all the benefits of a popular Linux distribution and the polish of a commercial operating system.
There’s one main downside to ElementaryOS. It’s based on the LTS releases of Ubuntu, meaning that packages can get very outdated. This usually isn’t a big deal for new users, but for anyone who knows their system and wants updated versions of key packages, it’s a substantial downside.
Zorin OS was doing the same thing Elementary is now long before Elementary arrived on the scene, and plenty of the same principles apply. Zorin is based on a combination of both Ubuntu and Deban, and like Elementary, follows the LTS releases of Ubuntu.
Zorin has its own styling too. It doesn’t have a unique desktop environment, but the developers have customized GNOME to be much more traditional and friendly to new users. Zorin is a great option for Linux newcomers. It has the same strengths and faces the same challenges as Elementary. Pick whichever one is more appealing to you.
KDE Neon wasn’t necessarily made to be a beginner distribution. It was actually made for developers to try the latest features coming to Plasma, but it a great option none the less.
Neon is based on Ubuntu, but is also the perfect showcase for Plasma. Plasma, despite all of the power that it puts in your hands, is actually a great option for newbies too. Plasma, by default, has a similar layout to the traditional Windows one. It’s also one of the most stylish and modern desktop environments available on Linux today.
Plasma isn’t just a desktop environment. It’s a complete desktop suite that comes equipped with all the additional pieces of software that you need for a robust and fully functional desktop. Plasma doesn’t just have basic utilities like file managers, PDF viewers, and archive managers. It comes with some excellent innovative tools too, like KDE Connect and Plasma Vault. KDE Connect allows you to bridge your Android phone and your desktop, sharing files, controlling and viewing text messages, and even using your phone as a trackpad.
With KDE Neon, you not only get a solid Ubuntu-based distribution; you get a well polished experience with Plasma. That combination leads to a smooth and user friendly experience.
SolusOS a unique distribution. It’s completely independent and was built from scratch. That means that it doesn’t owe any lineage to another distribution and doesn’t inherit anything, including its package manager, eopkg.
Solus is a rolling release distribution, but unlike other big names with that model, Solus moves at a more conservative pace, electing to thoroughly test each package first. They still release everything in a timely manner, and you get the benefit of never requiring a full system upgrade.
Solus has another usability trick up its sleeve, Budgie. Budgie is the Solus project’s own desktop environment. I was built with new users in mind and brings a sleek and modern appearance without distractions. Budgie is intuitive, and it’s such a pleasure to use, many other distributions have ported it over. Budgie isn’t the only card Solus has. They’ve built a ton more usability improvements into their distribution, including an excellent graphical package manager.
There’s an Arch derivative on the list. Cut and run now, clearly we have no idea what we’re talking about. In all seriousness, Manjaro isn’t like plan Arch Linux. Think of it as the Ubuntu to Arch’s Debian. They share many of the same qualities, and Manjaro comes from Arch, but they tend to feel very different.
Manjaro removes the barrier to entry that usually prevents Linux newbies from taking advantage of some of the greatest benefits Arch brings to the table. It provides a simple graphical installer based off of Ubuntu’s, and offers a selection of desktop environments, complete with a set of applications that users normally install themselves. What really makes Manjaro stand out is just that selection.
Manjaro also offers all of the same choice as Arch in package selection, making it fantastic for gaming, multimedia, and just about anything that benefits from having new software and a wide range of choices. Manjaro is also a rolling release distribution, but it moves slightly slower than Arch, allowing the developers to more thoroughly test changes before bringing them live.
Because Manjaro is based on Arch, you can still dig around inside the system, when you feel ready. You can also take advantage of features like the AUR that allow community members to create their own packages for up-and-coming software.
If you’re feeling more adventurous as a newbie, but you still want a safety net, Manjaro is an amazing option. You can really test the waters in a meaningful way without getting in over your head.
Here’s the most obvious option. If you’ve ever asked for recommendations in starting with Linux, Ubuntu has come up. How could it not? It’s the most popular distribution in the world, with a vibrant community and all the brand recognition you could hope for among both technology enthusiasts and software manufacturers.
There are plenty of Ubuntu’s “children” on this list, but you might want the genuine article, the one that started it all. Using plain Ubuntu has its advantages. You can be sure that your specific configuration is the one being targeted by the software you’re installing. That goes for getting help too. Canonical, Ubuntu’s parent company, officially supports Ubuntu with paid contracts for servers, so if you plan on using Linux in a professional capacity, this is a great option.
In fact, there are plenty of major players in the tech industry that rely on Ubuntu. Wikipedia runs on Ubuntu. Google developed Android on Ubuntu up until just recently. Much of the startup world runs on Ubuntu too because it’s a great option to get running quick on the cloud.
While there are Ubuntu derivatives on this list that bring extras to the equation, sometimes, there’s no substitute for the original.
Which is the best distribution for beginners? If you’ve read our other article, you know that Mint is at the top of the list. That doesn’t mean, tough, that these other distributions are in any way worse. They’re all amazing choices. Your best bet is to try them out, and see which one feels right to you. That might sound like a weak answer, but Linux distributions are a personal choice, and as such, they depend on the person making it.