Which Linux distro should you choose if you are a new user coming from the Mac?

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The many Linux distributions (distros) means that finding one that you really like is possible for almost anyone, but for a new user, it can be a bit confusing to have so many different distros to choose from. However, since Linux distros are made for different purposes and audiences, there are lots of distros that you never really have to care about. If you want to browse a lot of different distros, then Distrowatch is a good place to have a look, but do not take the page view statistics on the right hand side of the front page as any indicator of anything else than how many people are interested in a distro. It does not really relate into real world user numbers or the best choice for a new user. For most people, a general purpose Linux distro with good software availability, lots of support and information available online and an easy to use, good looking and efficient desktop environment would be a good distro. In this blog post, I will describe a few distros that I would recommend to new users. There are countless others, and

Ubuntu LTS

If you buy hardware with Linux preinstalled, then you usually get Ubuntu LTS (Long Term Support) which delivers both 5 years of security updates, has a lot of software available, has the Unity desktop environment which is sleek and efficient (even if many long time Linux users hate it with a passion because it broke with the “traditional” Gnome2 desktop style) and has the largest mind share of any Linux distro which means that finding information online is easy if something goes wrong. Of course, if you buy hardware with Ubuntu preinstalled, then you also get support by the hardware vendor.

Ubuntu LTS is probably the most used Linux distro, and for many good reasons. It delivers five years of security support, which means that you do not have to upgrade to a new version of your operating system very often. It is also the distro with the largest mind share, which means that most developers make their software available for Ubuntu, if not in the official repos, then at least in the form of a .deb file, a snap or a Personal Package Archive (PPA). You get a stable system that will not get new versions of the software in the repos, but will receive security updates for those programs for five years. The exception to this rule is web browsers like Firefox and Chromium, which are updated every time a new version is out. It is also possible to add PPAs to the system to get newer versions of other programs. The idea is that you get a stable experience where the programs do not change during the course of the five years of support unless you specifically make them. This is great for people that do not want to adjust their workflows very often.

Ubuntu is a project backed by the commercial company Cannonical that also hosts the infrastructure for Ubuntu and its official flavours. Ubuntu is based on another distro called Debian and shares many tools and software packages with Debian and contributes many changes back to Debian. This is why third party packages for software not available in the Software Centre comes as .deb files and both distros share the apt command line tools for package management. Debian is a great system for more experienced Linux users that want to tweak their system to their liking, but it demands more work from the user than Ubuntu, while Ubuntu was made to make Linux available “for human beings”, as their old slogan said. Ubuntu is definitely a better choice than Debian for a new Linux user.

Ubuntu LTS comes out every even year (12, 14, 16, 18…) in April. Ubuntu and its official flavours use version numbers where the first number is the year, the second is the month and the last is the revision. The newest Ubuntu LTS as of writing this is 16.04.2 which is the second revision of the LTS that shipped in 2016. The older 14.04.5 is also still supported until April 2019. In addition to the LTS version, there is also a new Ubuntu every six month in April and October. These are used to test new ideas and technologies that will go into the next LTS version. In these versions, you will also get newer versions of software than in the LTS version.

The downside to using the interim releases is that you only get nine months of security support which means that you have to upgrade to a new version quite often. It is possible to upgrade from one version of Ubuntu to the next by using the system settings to set your OS to either tell you every time a new LTS’ first revision is out (which is the default setting in the LTS) or when a new six month release is out (which is the default in the interim releases). For most users, staying with the LTS is the better choice in my opinion. If you read about a new version of a program you use that you absolutely have to have, then there is usually a PPA available to help you get that, while the rest of the system can stay the same.

Ubuntu LTS is my recommendation for new users coming from the Mac. The Unity desktop environment you get with Ubuntu is somewhat Mac-like with its global menu on top and its dock on the left side. To find stuff, hit the windows or command key to invoke the Dash where you can type to search or choose categories (called scopes) from the bottom to only search within Programs or files. The alt or option key is used to get the Heads Up Display (HUD) where you can search for menu options within most programs.

Unity is very efficient both in its use of screen space and with the HUD and the Dash. When first run, it shows a list of keyboard shortcuts that are useful to make it even more efficient. Unless your machine is really old or you are unhappy with how Unity works after trying it for some weeks, I would stay with Ubuntu LTS. When you get more experienced as a Linux user, you might want to try another distro with other core technologies or desktop environments, for but for new users, Ubuntu LTS is the best choice in my opinion. You can stop reading here if you are not particularly curious.

Official Ubuntu flavours

In addition to Ubuntu with the Unity desktop environment (DE), there are other distro projects based on Ubuntu which have gained official status which means that they can use Cannonical’s servers and contribute code upstream to the Ubuntu and Debian software repositories. These distros give users Ubuntu with other desktop environments, icon themes and programs installed by default. The official flavours are Lubuntu (with the LXDE desktop environment), Xubuntu (XFCE DE), Ubuntu MATE (MATE DE), Ubuntu Gnome (Gnome DE), Ubuntu Budgie (Budgie DE), Kubuntu (KDE’s Plasma DE), Ubuntu studio (XFCE DE and multimedia programs) and Ubuntu Kylin (for Chinese users with the UKUI DE).

Using an official flavour is a good choice if you do not like the Unity desktop environment, but still want to get the software availability, loads of available documentation and support online and like the LTS or the six month release cadence of Ubuntu. If you have a spare computer, you might want to try them out on real hardware, but usually, trying them in VirtualBox will give you an idea of how they work. Just beware that 3D acceleration is needed for some desktops like Gnome, Budgie, Unity and Pantheon to really shine.

Ubuntu MATE

Ubuntu MATE is very popular with long time Linux users, as it resembles how Ubuntu used to look before the introduction of the Unity desktop, but also adds newer conveniences like the possibility to change the look and feel of the desktop between different layouts. One of these layouts is somewhat Mac-like with a dock, except that the top panel is not a global menu bar like on macOS, Unity or Pantheon, but a traditional panel.

Lubuntu

Lubuntu is particularly well suited for lower end hardware since it uses the less demanding LXDE desktop. It is also a good choice if you want maximum speed (and battery life) from newer hardware. There is also a PowerPC version available for PowerMacs which means that you can use your old PowerBook G4 or Cube with the newest version of Firefox and LibreOffice for modern day productivity. There has been some trouble with sound and graphics drivers for iBooks (at least with Lubuntu 14.04 LTS), so you might be better off with Debian. Check out the Ubuntu PowerPC FAQ for more information.

Ubuntu Kylin

Ubuntu Kylin is the Chinese version of Ubuntu. It ships on most computers sold in the People’s Republic of China after the Chinese government decreed the ban on using Microsoft Windows on government computers. The default language is Chinese with simplified characters and popular software titles in China are used instead of some of the programs more used in the west. WPS Office and the UKUI desktop both mimic the look and feel of Microsoft’s Windows 7 and MS Office, which many Chinese users are accustomed to. This makes the transition to Linux easier for the millions that previously used Windows 7.

Ubuntu Studio

Ubuntu Studio is a distro made for multimedia use. There are a lot of music production, score editors, video production, image editors, vector graphics and other multimedia programs installed as well as some core technologies like the JACK audio server for MIDI and sound routing between music programs. This is a great distro choice if you want to get familiar with some free and open source multimedia programs and at the same time want to have the aforementioned benefits of using Ubuntu. In addition to the programs installed by default, since this is an Ubuntu based distro, most commercial multimedia programs for Linux can also run on it, which means that you can use a combination of commercial proprietary software and free and open source software. You could do this on any distro, in principle, but since most developers making proprietary commercial software for Linux usually develop for Ubuntu, it is often easier to get these programs working well by using an Ubuntu flavour or derivative than other distros.

Xubuntu

Xubuntu is the official Ubuntu flavour with the XFCE desktop. XFCE is a slow changing, well functioning desktop environment that is a bit lighter on RAM, CPU and GPU than some desktop environments, while still being highly functional. The Whisker menu with its search capability is one of the main advantages that sets it apart from the even lighter weight LXDE desktop. If you want a really light weight desktop for speed on an older machine, then Lubuntu is a better choice, but if you like a Windows 7 style interface with search in the menu, then Xubuntu is a good choice.

Ubuntu Gnome

Ubuntu Gnome gives you Gnome on top of Ubuntu. Gnome is a sleek and stylish desktop environment that recent versions of macOS has lifted most of their “innovations” from. Full screen apps and the full screen application launcher were features of Gnome long before they were incorporated in macOS. By default, Gnome looks stylish, but I always feel that it wastes a bit of space with the top panel always there. That is where extensions come into play. On Gnome, you can change the look and feel by adding extensions. One such makes the top panel into a global menu like on macOS, while another makes the dock always visible. The bad news is that these extensions have a tendency to not work after every update to a new version of Gnome. However, this is not a problem on Ubuntu Gnome, as the version of Gnome you use will be the one you use until you upgrade to a newer version of Ubuntu Gnome. With Ubuntu Gnome LTS, you only have to upgrade every five years, so a few annoyances once in five years will probably not put you off the otherwise really nice Gnome experience. Personally, I prefer Unity over Gnome, but Ubuntu Gnome is a good choice if you prefer Gnome.

Kubuntu

Kubuntu delivers KDE’s Plasma desktop on top of Ubuntu. Plasma is a sleek desktop that comes with a Windows 7 style panel on the bottom by default, but which is highly customisable. In the past, I usually found Plasma to be unstable, but recent releases have been much more stable while at the same time looking very polished. On the other hand, the many customisation options make the system settings in Plasma feel a bit like Windows (although much better looking) to me. Trying to please all often leads to not be very pleasant at all. I still think Plasma is a tweaker’s heaven, but maybe not the desktop for a less nerdy, more normal user. Your opinion may well be different and in such a case, Kubuntu is a solid choice.

Ubuntu Budgie

Ubuntu Budgie is the newest official flavour of Ubuntu. You get the sleek Budgie desktop from the Solus project on top of Ubuntu. Budgie is quite similar to Gnome, but has a brilliant notification and system settings panel that slides in from the right side of the screen in a similar fashion to the notification area on newer versions of macOS. It is meant to be simple and elegant and achieves both. If you like the Budgie desktop, then Ubuntu Budgie is a good choice. You get all the advantages of running Ubuntu, especially the better software availability compared to Solus, but can reap the benefits of the Budgie desktop non the less.

elementaryOS

Another well designed distro is elementaryOS. It is built on top of Ubuntu, but has the Pantheon desktop environment that is very well designed and quite Mac-like. I like the idea of a Linux distro with the same software availability as Ubuntu, but with even more attention to detail when it comes to the desktop environment, but in reality, if you use other programs than the few made specifically for elementary, then the programs will not blend in to the otherwise beautiful desktop environment and will look a bit out of place. This means that instead of getting this fantastic look and feel as a whole, you get it for some core programs and the desktop environment, but when you start using most other programs, your desktop feels like a mish-mash of design philosophies. That is why I have never gone beyond testing elementary for shorter periods of time in VirtualBox. It looks very good by default and is a good choice since you get the same software availability as on Ubuntu, but it is not for me. Try it out for a while in VirtualBox with 3D acceleration on to see if it will be good for you.

KDE Neon

KDE Neon is a distro made by the KDE project. It delivers the newest Plasma desktop on top of Ubuntu LTS. The KDE software and Plasma desktop is rolling in new versions as they are out, but the Ubuntu LTS underneath has the long term stability of Ubuntu LTS and the software availability of it. There is also a KDE Neon LTS which gives you the latest long term support version of the Plasma desktop on top of the latest Ubuntu LTS.

The Plasma desktop is sleek and user friendly by default, but is also extremely customisable. By default, it looks quite similar to Windows 7, but it is possible to change it to look and behave very different if you like. You can for instance turn on a global menu and have a menu bar on top of the screen like on the Mac if you like, and the panel on the bottom can be moved to the side and be changed into a dock.

I think KDE Neon is a good choice if you like the look and feel of the Plasma desktop. You get all the advantages of Ubuntu LTS while at the same time getting the newest and most exciting Plasma desktop. On the other hand, getting your desktop environment updated whenever a new version is finished also means that workflows may be interrupted. If you dislike this, but really like the Plasma desktop, then KDE Neon LTS is better for you. For a new Mac user, it is not an obvious choice, but if you, after testing it for a while in VirtualBox, find that you prefer the Plasma desktop over Unity or other desktops, then it is a solid choice as it gives you the best of both Plasma and Ubuntu LTS.

What about Debian, Arch, Antergos, Manjaro, Solus, SolydXK, PCLinuxOS, Linux Mint…

I would not recommend these distros to new Linux users coming from the Mac, either because of their design decisions, their security model, that the distros demand more user tweaking to get them up and running or that they are aimed at more experienced users. If you are interested in trying other distros, then VirtualBox is a good way to get a feel for how they look and behave. (I would not recommend that people use Linux Mint unless they change the security setting to include all updates including kernel updates. They rarely break anything, but it is vital for security to get all the updates.)

Conclusions

I would recommend Ubuntu LTS for new users coming from the Mac. If you do not like the Unity desktop environment after trying it for a while, then Lubuntu, Ubuntu MATE, elementaryOS, Ubuntu Gnome, Bohdi Linux, KDE Neon LTS or any other Ubuntu official flavour or Ubuntu-based distro is a solid option. Then you get the same software availability as on Ubuntu, you can use all the same online information and support, and in addition you can use the desktop environment of your choice.

If you want to explore other distros, the best way if you do not have a spare computer is to use VirtualBox (or Gnome Boxes) and try them out for a while in a virtual machine. If you want to switch to another distro after trying it for a while in VirtualBox, take a backup of all your data and install it on your hardware and copy your data back from the backup. It is fun to try other distros, but is better to stay on a distro that is a bit “boring” which always works and gives you lots of software available than to distro hop on your main machine in my experience.

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