HOW do I choose a distro?

I don’t know if this is the proper place to post this question. The beginner’s sub has this as one of its 4 specs: “* Discussions regarding planning and implementation regarding switching from Windows and macOS to Linux.” Choosing a distro is certainly “planning”, but then I figured here’s a sub thats called “Linux Distributions”, so I should post here. But then I see its “a good place for questions and answers that are specific to certain distributions”. Finally I just figured I’d post the question here, and if its in the wrong spot let me know. And with all of that said, you see I have somewhat of an OCD over details.

I’ve been trying to pick a distro. Here’s my system list:

iBook G4/something (this is the one I installed Linux Mint on and it was so incredibly slow I couldn’t do anything with it)
MacBook 2009 (works beautifully but its not supported for security updates anymore, so I use it for ripping and burning cds)
iMac late 2012 (I had Elementary running on this prior to HD replacement)
iMac 2017 (my current workhorse)

I think the MacBook or 2012 iMac would be ideal for Linux. Ultimately I’m going to get a modern iMac and retire the 2017, so that can go into Linux land as well. Whatever machine I use, whatever distro, it needs to communicate with my Apple Airport Extreme, 6th gen, btw.

I have the same question every newb has: “which distro?”, and the answers either point to a guide article/video that allegedly shows the differences, or else they say “just try a few and see which one you like”.

My ish with the first answer is that those articles and guides and videos really don’t show the differences. They tell you a little about each one and why you might like it, but they don’t get into any facts. Why would one distro really be more secure than another? It can’t just be because it has fewer open ports on install, because you could just shut the ports on any other install, right? So it has to be something more technical. It can’t be look/feel, because thats just the desktop/window manager, and those can all be installed across different distros, right? So there has to be something more. So none of the guides explain real differences between distros. If there’s one out there that actually does that, I’d enjoy seeing it.

Which leads to the inevitable second answer - “just try a few and see which you like”. Well, I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing with Linux that would enable me to tell distros apart. I suppose it would be like Mac vs Windows: it sucks to install or uninstall software on Windows, to add new hardware, or a million other things, compared to the Mac. Is that what I’m supposed to be looking for here?

Finally, I should say what it is that I hope to do with the Linux machine. Browse, email, post on dozens of forums, read/study, those are my main things. I also have a lot of music and movies stored on my router drive, so maybe it would be cool to have a distro serving that? I have attempted programming at various times but I’ve never been any good at it. Maybe that’ll change if I have Linux running, so being able to run some IDEs would be a good thing, I guess.

I’m sure there’ll be more things that pop in my head if I’m lucky enough to get a convo started about this. Any help would be appreciated.

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Hello @MarkLX!

The variety of distros that exist have little to no differences down to the core, which is the Kernel. It’s mostly about the directory structure and the way packaging and system control is implemented. The two major ones - today - that started early on were RedHat (with the RPM package manager) and the Debian (with the DEB package manager). When you download a Linux binary (not a package), it will run on all of Linux distributions - provided it is compiled for the right CPU architecture (32-bit, 64-bit, ARM, etc.).

A couple of the major differences between the flagship distributions are the securities implemented, such as SELinux (for RedHat) and the AppArmor by Debian/Ubuntu (Ubuntu derives from Debian).

Most distributions became “forked” (took a different development path) from the initial ones, with several adjustments. Those included desktop environments, software managements, utilities, etc. However, there are also those who tried a completely different approach, such as Slackware, Arch, and Gentoo to name a few. Gentoo especially is all about compiling everything from source code to build your system the way you like it.

The distros you are probably looking at are based on different - sometimes customized - desktop environments and different types of Kernels and libraries (in versions only). Some distributions fork desktop environments and maintain them. However, those desktop environments soon become available for other distros as well. A popular example is the Budgie DE (Desktop Environment), which is a fork of Gnome 3 - mainly maintained by Solus. Also, Cinnamon, which is a fork of Gnome 2, mainly maintained by Mint.

Per the general security and ports, it all depends on how locked-down you want your system. If you block all ports, then your browser will not be able to connect to the Internet. For example, in order to connect to HTTPS (Secure), your browser will need to open Port 443. If you lock it, well… then it’s locked!

The Cinnamon you loaded on your iBook is quite heavy. That’s because that DE is on the flashy side, so you would have a better experience if you installed the XFCE DE version.

Elementary is really good on an iMac, but then again, so is Zorin - which is also Ubuntu-derived (like Elementary), and gives you different desktop environment options. However, all of them are different setting-combos that are based on the Gnome 3 DE.

If you are looking to utilize AirDrop with Linux, I can assure you that this is Apple proprietary and no other OS utilizes it. However, you can create a SAMBA environment on your Linux OS and be able to share files back and forth via network folders. Though the setup can be a tad-bit tricky - on the user and permissions section. The reason is that unlike macOS or Windows, your Linux network password will be different from your account’s. That’s what gets most people confused.

On the security side, all Linux distros are very secure. They can be even more so than a Mac. It all depends on how you act online. A couple of extensions on your browser (like Privacy Badger and uBlock Origin) will automatically block all code-running which could “invade” your system. However, to do any system damage, that’s virtually impossible. That’s because you will be called to manually intervene with a SUDO (Super User DO/Act) command. However, even that one cannot do much to the core system. To do that, you’ll have to go full ROOT. And there are absolutely zero malware out there that have the capacity to call such a function (in most distros, even engaging full root access can be a pain). So, security will not be an issue, as long as you are mindful of what you install.

For your needs, I would recommend either Zorin OS - as I mentioned above - or Ubuntu Budgie. Both are great distros with a huge amount of software and support. As a secondary option, if you want to go more… bleeding-edge (newest versions and all), you can go for Manjaro or even Fedora (RedHat’s). Though the latter will need quite a bit of setup with its Desktop Environment to match your preferences. This will mean that you will have to install the Gnome extension on your browser and pay attention to the Gnome Shell extensions - which can essentially tweak the entire DE into entirely new levels. The Gnome-Looks.org website also has a ton of customization options and themes. From icons, to cursors, to full appearance styles.

Don’t disregard the KDE environment too. It’s more Windows-like, very flashy, but it also happens to be - by far - the most customizable DE in existence today. You can find it as Kubuntu. For Fedora, you will have to search for the “Fedora Flavors” - which come with a DE that needs less tweaking to come to your liking. Manjaro comes with KDE pre-installed as one of the download options.

The last thing is the version-types of the distros. These are the:

  • Bleeding-Edge (latest software), that get renewed every 6 months
  • Rolling Distros, which you install only once and get constantly updated with the newest software and the latest kernels (even more Bleeding-Edge)
  • Long-Term-Support (LTS) Distros, which are based on what is tested, stable, and works. Those are released every two years and have a 5-year support range.

Whatever distro you end up choosing, the first thing you will have to look is for the amount of available software (mainly DEB and RPM packages), as well as the size of the support community. The largest one is currently on the Ubuntu side, on which many other distros are based on (including Mint, Elementary, Zorin, etc.).

I hope my long rant answers your questions!

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Hello Vasileios,

I’m going to address the OS portion of your response first, and then get into the DE in a followup message.

I remember RedHat. I was about 3 years into the PC business when they came on the scene. Up until then I think the biggest *nix were BSD and System V. I wanted to get into those but the equipment cost was huge at the time. Years later when I got into Macs, I managed to get MkLinux R1 in 1999, I think, but never did anything with it.

When I was trying to get started with MkLinux, the guy coaching me online told me that “you really should think about compiling your own kernel” as opposed to installing from the CD. When I asked him why, he said something like “then you can set it up the way you want it” or something like that, my memory is vague. Now I see you’ve said something similar: “Gentoo especially is all about compiling everything from source code to build your system the way you like it.”
Since you’ve said that most distros are the same down to the kernel, and since they’re all set up using package managers to install the options you’d like, I don’t see what the benefit is to “compiling” vs just installing an image or package or however Linux is installed. Maybe I don’t understand the usage of the term, but when I was dealing with compiled vs interpreted languages in the 80s, the point of compiling was that the program would run in either assembly or machine code instead of a high level language. Interpreted programs were translated at run time, line by line, which made them slower and used a lot of resources. I doubt you’re interpreting your OS, it must be running in machine-level code, and my experience holds no weight here. So, I’d like to understand this. Could you please give some detail about Gentoo and what “compiling” is as it relates to that OS?

So far I’m looking at recent Mint and Elementary (the version I installed on the 2012 iMac was exceptionally smooth), and you’ve recommended Ubuntu Budgie and Zorin. Additionally, Jeff has been posting messages on Telegram from other newbs who’ve come over from Windows and MacOS, and they’ve mentioned installing Manjaro and Arch, which do not seem to be rookie-oriented to me.

I know this sounds a little rough - and please don’t take it that way - you gave me a couple of recommendations (which I appreciate, but…) I’d rather have a good handle on any disinctions between the various distros so I can make an informed choice. By your earlier statement, they’re all pretty much identical under the hood, they all have a DE that is interchangeable with others so it doesn’t matter which one you have. All Linux distros are secure, they all have repos ranging from big to gigantic, and they’re all run through graphical interfaces and package managers. If I go to the Mint site, the Elementary site, the Zorin site, they all say the same thing “Better, faster, more secure, private” and they have some pictures of nice desktops. So… now what?
Again, I’m back to what I asked, which is HOW do I know which one is right for me? On a side note, if they’re all essentially the same, then how do we end up with these “holy wars” between fans of each distro?

And to close out this first reply, no need to apologize for the length of your post. Its not a rant to a person like me who has a long attention span and really wants to learn, so therefore your reply has been very much appreciated. Thank you!

Here’s the DE side of the discussion…

You mentioned Cinnamon as the DE for my iBook, but I recall it had KDE on it, and it was somewhere between version 10 and 12, I think. I lost the power adapter so I can’t even bring th thing up now to verify this. It was incredibly slow, and I think there was some sort of memory leak or resource hog because the longer the computer sat there running, the slower it got. When I drag a window and I have to watch it redraw the outline every few centimeters, I gave up on it. It sounds like you’re saying if I install the XFCE version of Mint the thing will speed up, but you based that on your impression that I had Cinnamon on there, not KDE. Does your opinion change now that you know differently?

But leaving that aside, I see all these different flavors of GNOME and KDE, basically, and every distro has their own versions of these flavors, and one can be made to look like another, so again there’s my question : “HOW do I decide?”
What is the big difference between GNOME and KDE? Are there “holy wars” between different DE crowds like the distros? I recall when I was trying to learn about Linux back in 1999-2001, I got involved in an online chat room for Linux enthusiasts. Coming from the Mac I wanted a GUI, so I asked about window managers, and a couple of people in the room started telling me "well there’s KDE, or you could try GNOME. If you’re more… alternative… you could try Enlightenment, if you’re into that kind of thing ". I’m paraphrasing but that was the main point of their “advice”. Over 20 years later I still have no idea what they were talking about.

Linux Mint has always been on the GTK environment development. They never touched the QT that is the base for KDE. So, it must have been a version of Gnome 2 or MATE (fork of Gnome 2) DE. Cinnamon is an evolution of their Gnome 2 fork attempt.

In short, if I may say so, you are overthinking it. There is only one person on this planet who can decide which distro and desktop environment is good for you: you. Nobody else. Unless you experiment with a few of them, everything else is just - please forgive the term - useless theory.

Eventually, no, not all distros have gigantic repositories. Since you mentioned that you are new, I recommended the most commonly welcoming distributions. For more details, you can visit:

https://distrowatch.org

As a note, KDE apps run on GTK (Gnome) environments and vice versa. And from the uses you mentioned you need Linux for, virtually every distro has the capacity to accommodate these tasks. Unless you are looking for specialized applications.

My best advice is to grab a few USB Sticks (they’re quite cheap nowadays) of 8 or 16GB and flash a few of them with different distros. Do a few test drives and keep your files in an external SSD/HDD. Linux doesn’t cost anything other than the time you invest to see what works for you. That’s the long and short story about it. :slight_smile:

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I finally remembered which Mint I used - it was Jeroen’s MintPPC. Perhaps thats why it had KDE?

I’m headed out to the local BuyMore in a few minutes to pick up some USB drives so I can give these distros a try. I figure about half a dozen oughta do for now. I’m also going to grab a 2TB external, move my TimeMachine backup to that, and then repurpose my current 1TB backup drive as a data drive for Linux.

BTW, I plugged in my 2009 MacBook and it booted right up - as long as it was attached to the wall. The battery has gone bad, the center of it is swelled a bit. I have to get another one from OWC to make this usable. I also found my old MacBook Pro Core Duo machine from about 2005, but I don’t think that thing is worth trying Linux on. Not as bad as my old G3 tower, but still pretty dusty.

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Was that a shout out to the the old TV series “Chuck”

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Hello,
If I change from windows 10 to Lubuntu instead of Ubuntu, am I limiting my self on a solid state computer?
Ubuntu has firefox and I only want brave.
And if I start out with a light distro can it be added too, built up over time with things that are in the computer already, like activating the graphics card to a higher standard than the light version.

Hello @CC and welcome to the forums!
It really doesn’t matter. Lubuntu is indeed very light to begin with, but it doesn’t mean it won’t recognize the hardware you have. You can also install expansion apps, like Plank (that looks like the macOS dock) and have it running on your system as well.

Additionally, you can install an additional desktop environment and switch back and forth, depending on your mood. There are but a few limitations on that, which are only confined to the fact that there might be some settings conflicts (it depends on the desktop you’ll want to install).

As for Brave, it always comes as an external browser (additional), which is easy to install. I actually conformed all the necessary commands in a simple script. You’ll find the instructions below: :slight_smile:

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You got it! The greatest tv show of the past 20 years, IMO. I use the term BuyMore to represent any big box tech store, especially BB (not that there’s really much else left). Occasionally you will find people working there who are serious about technology and get into things like Linux.

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Hello @vasileios,
Thank you for the warm welcome and answering.
Will happily install your Brave Browser dl, nice work.
Aggh In class just then, we looked at another distro.
Which one to choose? Got Ubuntu on a flash ready to go…
I want to take the plunge but being cautious is delaying the inevitable. lol
This week I’ve got to do it, because yesterday windows slowed my mouse to half speed, among other things and freaked/creeped me out.
Going to watch the class videos one more time and just jump in the water, choose a distro and leave windows in my wake.
:grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes: :mermaid:

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Hello here @CC!
I took several deep dives with distros before I decided. The reason I showed Zorin Pro 16 yesterday was because it comes nicely packed with everything you’ll need. That was one reason. The second was to support the people who put in the effort building it in the first place.

Initially, I just wanted to check it out. In the end, I found myself installing it on three systems. The good thing about it is that it’s Ubuntu-based, so everything that applies for Ubuntu, also works in Zorin.

As for WindowZzz, out of curiosity I upgraded my now empty Windows 10 Pro to Windows 11 Pro. I think I may have spent a couple of days with it and then I switched back to Linux. That’s when I picked up Zorin Pro. :slight_smile:

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Would you recommend distrotest.net?

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Yeah, that works. It is an easier way of testing a distro out before really diving in.

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Hey @CC!
I am so happy for you! :smiley: You’re almost there! I’ve played around with distros myself for years, but I seem to be sticking with Zorin now. Perhaps have a second system to just play around with distros to get creative ideas (or keep my brain under constant challenges)!

Yes, I pop a little on Telegram here and there. I rarely have time to do so this past month or so. I noticed that the chat there is for more quick solutions, while I tend to go deep into investigative mode to try and research or reproduce the issues people are encountering. I’ve actually installed distros just to take screenshots! It’s hard to do the on a chat channel. Today I left two-three responses on Telegram to help with some of the problems, but I have yet to hear back. Oh, wait, I just got one response back!

Anyhow, I do enjoy the forums a lot more, as we get to build a database with good references. Also, I believe it’s much better structured, where people can ask and find what they need much easier and at a comfortable pace. :slight_smile:

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LOL @vasileios , you seem to be making up some lost time on telegram this morning.
One thing, could I still use the purchased security until I work out how to do the VPS keys?
Would love to drop windowzzzzz, now…
Need that VPN. Wont do it without it. :grimacing:

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Hey @vasileios,
Getting very excited about this new chapter free from the viruses and general trouble of windowzzz…
The more I look at Linux and everything it offers, the more baffled I am that it’s not used by the majority of domestic users.
Makes sense why all the operating systems are based on it and why the baddies keep that information to themselves.
You, Will and Jeff are deeply decent men, thanks for sharing your knowledge.
CC
:grinning:

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Hey @CC!
Yes, LMS, HelpDesk and the Forums were cleared, so I dropped by Telegram to check things out. It turned out to be productive, since we were able to finally deal with the Mac’s toughest WiFi module successfully. This was the last tough one - per my knowledge - to handle on Linux. Especially on a system that couldn’t connect to the internet via Ethernet, due to a faulty port.

Which security software are you using? You may have informed me of it in the past (Kaspersky?).

Thank you so much for your kind words, @CC!
The reason Linux hasn’t spread out much is because of the fact that it doesn’t have an advertising budget. Therefore, awareness is not at the levels it should be.

I suspect, especially now that its reputation is rising, there will be hit-pieces paid for by Big Tech. One was brought to my attention today, regarding DNS. I read through it and it’s so full of holes that it made me cringe! :laughing:

What I know about Linux can fit on the head of a pin, but I got all ready with my flash drive to format one of my two desktops that sit side by side, but then I ran into this video about virtualbox and ended up installing it on my windows computer, and installing the Kali Linux ISO (no usb flashdrive required) on virtual box, and got to test out Kali Linux (or whatever ISO you want) without formatting windows. Virtualbox is a computer inside your computer that you can use to install linux without blowing up your windows. Worked for me because I got to install KALI then test to see if gab, telegram, darwinex, etc would run on it. Keep in mind, this was my first experience with any linux computer, ever. Everything worked great. I even installed Brave browser in the terminal. Only spotify wouldn’t fly on Kali. Apparently it doesn’t like it. But take a look at this video. you need to learn Virtual Machines RIGHT NOW!! (Kali Linux VM, Ubuntu, Windows) - YouTube You might end up trying this too. Pretty fun. With low if no risk, really. You can partition a portion of your HD as a virtual machine to have two or more different distros on your computer depending on how much ram you have to work with. And you can delete your virtual machines at will with no damage to your windows/mac set up; you can clone distros once you make them, snapshot them before you do something crazy, then reinstate your saved distro like a video game if something goes wrong… I’m on to Ubuntu next. After I try out and install a bunch of them and know what I’m doing, one of these desktops is going full Linux, probably. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX75Z-4MEoM&t=3s