Vinícius Gabriel Linden

Difference between Linux distributions

The way I see, there is some confusion among people that recommend Linux distributions for desktop use. Sometimes, the person recommends based on his/her presumptions of how computer-savvy the "recomndee" is, or how he/she will be using it. For me, this is acceptable only in some special cases (e.g. elderly people whose entire computer-life was spent with Windows). With that in mind, I believe the best way is to always inform the person about the fundamental elements and how they affect the distribution.

Therefore I would consider the most fundamental elements for choosing a Linux "distro" to be (in order):

  1. Is it maintained?
  2. The package manager
  3. What comes with the distro
  4. The system update style
  5. Resources available
  6. How libre is it?

In those in mind, we can easily observe different "distros families". To name a few:

For the complete list, see the list of Linux distributions Wikipedia page.

Is it maintained?

Well, I see no use to spend time with a distribution that will no longer be updated. This is not only for security reasons, but also for everything else: if no one will be updating it, there will probably not be a community to help, nor new packages, nor new documentation.

The package manager

Most important things to look for when choosing a package manager are:

For the arch-based distributions, there is also an "Arch User Repository" (AUR) which complements the already extensive official repository.

Typically, one would only use software like "Snap-packs" or "Flatpaks" if your package manager is insufficient (i.e. their repository is not wast enough).

What comes with the distro

Are you a person who wants something that just works out-of-the-box? Or are you willing to spend a little bit of time to set things just the way you want? If you are the latter like me, you will not like that most of the major distributions (with the notable exception of Arch) comes with a lot of stuff that you will have to spend time uninstalling, which will never be completely removed.

The system update style

What is the frequency in which you will be using your computer? Do you prefer to be more "cutting-edge" or stable? Stable means that for a given period of time, you will not have to update the kernel (that is Linux); and cutting-edge, that the kernel will be updated as often as there is an update available (every week or so). But be careful: cutting-edge is not suited for computers that are not updated frequently. I strongly discourage installing cutting-edge distributions that you know you will not update: this may break the operating system. But I don't mean that you may either choose stable or cutting-edge: there is a almost-continuous line therein. For example, Ubuntu Desktop has two versions: normal and Long Term Support (LTS). One might think that the normal version is cutting-edge, but I consider somewhere more to the LTS side. For a cutting edge approach, I would choose an arch-based distribution. The image belows shows the Linux kernel being updated as any other package would.

kernel being updated

kernel being updated with other packages

Resources available

When I write "resources" I mean documentation, community forums, community wikis, etc to interact with. When you come to a problem, it is much better to see a documentation that specifically refers to how it works on your specific distro rather than taking a look at a generic solution - or even at different distro solution forum. Notable Linux communities are:

How libre is it?

I normally am a fan on libre software (open source), but I don't fool myself thinking that since I am installing a free operating system, I am installing a libre system. There are distributions specifically target to people who only use libre software: but these are few. If you are interested taking a look at these, the GNU Operating System maintains a list of the libre-approved distributions.

A word on changing to Linux or "difficult Linux distos" or anything similar

I first started with Linux, as many people do: with vanilla Ubuntu, because it was recommended to me. I don't particularly like Ubuntu, for many reasons. Then I went to CentOS, once again, because it was recommended to me. People normally tell you to install Ubuntu (or distributions alike) because it is today the most used distribution, works out-of-the-box and it is the go-to assumption when you talk about Linux. I particularly think that changing from Ubuntu to some other "difficult" distribution (like Gentoo) is similar from changing from Windows/Mac to Linux/BSD. What I mean by that is: it will always be different at the start, but at the end you will not be missing anything.

After words

Some people would also consider, when choosing a good distro, the initialization system (init system). However this is not fundamental for choosing a distribution. Today Red Hat's systemd comes with almost all the distributions. Most people consider to not follow the UNIX philosophy - it may be but it does the initialization job.

My intention with this article is not to extensively compare the distributions, but to give my thoughts about what to look for - thus, hopefully helping someone. I am always trying to improve myself in this topic, and there are many distributions that I am unfamiliar with. If you think different, I would like to hear your thoughts.


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