Linux distributions: Recommendations for a novice

I was recently asked to recommend a Linux distribution for a Linux novice. Here is my reply.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

The Samsung N150 netbook.

Image: CNET

I was recently contacted by someone who owns a Samsung N150 netbook, and who had seen that I have written about owning the same netbook and installing various Linux distributions on it.

The reader said that he had given up on Windows on the N150 (good decision), and asked me to recommend a Linux distribution to install on it -- keeping in mind that he is a Linux novice.

After writing a rather lengthy reply, it occurred to me that my response might be of more widespread interest, and might serve to spur some interesting discussions. So here's my take.

The first thing that absolutely has to be considered is that the Samsung N150 Plus is quite old (I first wrote about getting mine at the end of August 2010), it is a very small (10.1-inch screen and correspondingly compact keyboard), and it is very weak by today's standards (Intel Atom N450 CPU, 1GB memory, 250GB disk). All of these things have to be considered when deciding on a Linux distribution to install.

The second thing to be considered is the user. This reader said they are a Linux novice, which I take to mean that they have never tried to install Linux before. That means I am going to try to choose a distribution which is easy to install.

However, I'm not a big fan of the Linux distributions which try to recreate Windows on Linux for novice users. I think a good desktop is usable by anyone, especially so if they go into it with an open mind and a willingness to explore and adapt.

Finally, I want to state this as clearly as possible: the following recommendations and statements are based on and oriented toward this specific case where the target system is a six-year-old netbook. They are not generally applicable for any other target system.

With that out of the way, I think the logical starting point is looking at what Linux distributions I currently have installed on my N150 Plus. As it happens, the timing of this question was particularly good, because I had neglected my N150 for quite a few months, but I got it out last week to use in preparing for my recent post about Fedora 24, where I loaded the LXDE distribution on it.

As is my habit, once I had it out and booted up, I went through and updated all of the other distributions which were installed on it.

I currently have it loaded and configured to multi-boot the following:

  • openSuSE Tumbleweed KDE
  • Fedora 24 LXDE
  • Debian 8.5 (Jessie) Xfce
  • Manjaro 16.06 Xfce
  • Linux Mint 17.3 Cinnamon
  • Linux Mint Debian Edition 2 (Betsy) MATE
  • PCLinuxOS Xfce
  • Ubuntu 15.10
  • openSuSE Leap 42.1 Xfce

One thing that you probably noticed is glaringly missing from that list is Windows. I long ago gave up and wiped that from the poor little Samsung N150 Plus; it came loaded with Windows 7 Starter Edition, and it was absolutely hopeless both in terms of speed and capacity.

For a Linux novice, the first and hopefully best advice I can give on the choice of distribution is that you really can't make a wrong choice when choosing from any of the above. They will all install essentially the same underlying operating system, the difference will be in what the graphical user interface looks like and which programs, utilities, and applications are included in the base installation.

Also, keep in mind that you are actually in a very good position right now to start to learn about and work with Linux, because installing Linux from scratch on the N150 takes less than an hour, and being able to do so without having to worry about retaining dual-boot Windows capability makes everything a lot faster and easier.

So you have the luxury of being able to choose a distribution, install it ,and try it out for a few hours, days or weeks, and then you can still simply change your mind, copy whatever personal files and data you want to keep to a USB stick, and choose some other distribution to install and try, until you find one that you really like and which works well on the N150.

From the list of Linux distributions above, if I were making a recommendation for a Linux novice who will have to perform the installation without help from an experienced Linux user, I would rate them in the following order (with comments):

  • Linux Mint 18 MATE: I think this gives the best combination of a good, stable, well-known and well-supported distribution, an easy desktop for novices coming over from Windows to understand and use, and a very good set of applications and utilities in the base installation. Mint 18 is the absolute newest release, and in fact it is still a 'beta test' image that is currently available, but I have installed it on a number of my laptops (not the N150 yet, but I will probably do that tonight), and it has worked perfectly for me so far. The Mint developers have already said that it will be possible to simply upgrade the beta release to the final release, without requiring another fresh installation, so that is good; also, Mint 18 is a 'long term support' release, so you wouldn't have to be concerned about being forced to install a new release in six months or a year. I am specifically recommending the MATE version in this case because it is somewhat lighter-weight than the Mint Cinnamon desktop, so it should work a bit better on the N150. But in fact I believe that Mint Cinnamon would also work pretty well on the N150. The release announcement for this Beta version, which includes a list of mirrors where it can be downloaded, is here.
  • Manjaro 16.06.1 Xfce: This distribution is my personal favorite, but I chose not to list it first because Mint is a larger, better-known, longer-established distribution. The Xfce desktop is what Manjaro considers to be their flagship distribution, so it always gets the most attention to detail. If anything, I think this distribution might have a slight advantage over Linux Mint in terms of being up to date with the latest developments (it is a "rolling" distribution, while MATE is a "point release" distribution), so it gets updates and such faster than Linux Mint gets them. However, Linux Mint is particularly well known for including a very wide variety of multimedia applications and codecs in their base distribution, so if you want to use the N150 for web surfing, playing YouTube and other videos and such, Mint is very likely to be a better choice.
  • PCLinuxOS MATE: I don't have as much direct experience with everyday use of PCLinuxOS as I do with Mint or Manjaro, so I put it slightly below those two. But it is definitely a good, solid distribution with a long history, and it includes a very good selection of utilities and applications in the base installation. The only thing I would rate significantly below the previous two is the PCLinuxOS installer - it has been around, essentially unchanged for many years, and there are parts of it which are showing their age. PCLinuxOS's strongest point, however, is the extremely dedicated and amazingly helpful user community in the user forums. They are simply amazing, and if you were to install Linux and then need help with something, this is the one place above all others that I would recommend to you. Mint and Manjaro both have good, active and helpful communities, but the people in the PCLOS forums are just incredible. I would recommend the MATE version of PCLinuxOS, even though the KDE desktop is still their "flagship", first because of the obvious difference in system load and overhead between KDE and MATE in general, but also because the graphic adapter in the N150 causes some pretty serious performance issues with the latest KDE releases. These performance problems can be fixed fairly easily (just changing one setting in the KDE desktop configuration), but I don't think that is something a Linux novice should be subjected to on their first installation. Also, PCLinuxOS MATE just got a new release (16.06), so the installation should be a bit cleaner and perhaps a bit easier, and it will need less updating immediately after installation.
  • Debian 8.5 (Jessie) and Linux Mint Debian Edition: I would put both of these distributions below the previous three, because I consider them to be generally less novice friendly than those first three. It's not really fair of me to lump LMDE together with Debian in this situation, but they are close enough that I don't feel like typing essentially the same thing about them twice. Both of these distributions include a bit less in the base installation than the previous three, and they are updated and patched a bit less frequently, It also seems to me that there are a lot less novice Linux users who use either of these two distributions.
  • Ubuntu: First, I am absolutely not a fan of Ubuntu, neither the distribution nor the company behind it, so I never recommend it, period. However, beyond my personal prejudices I would say that the Ubuntu Unity desktop is dramatically (totally) different from anything you have seen on Windows, so there would be a very steep learning curve to start with, at least. I would also say that the Unity desktop is not particularly well suited to the N150 in a lot of ways - the small screen and the very limited graphic adapter, for example. There are other Ubuntu flavors which do not have the Unity desktop, but I don't see any significant advantage of those over an independent Ubuntu derivative such as Linux Mint, and if anything I have the feeling that the future of Ubuntu flavors is always questionable from one release to the next. However, on the positive side as I said, I have it installed on my N150 and it works, and Ubuntu has a very, very large installed user base. Ubuntu is almost as good as Linux Mint in the installation and availability of multimedia applications and codecs, however they choose not to include some of them in the base installation so you have to go through at least one and perhaps two or more additional steps to get to the same point that you have in the Mint base installation.
  • openSuSE Leap: Although this might also be a good choice, it is more commonly used be business/corporate users who also use SuSE Linux Enterprise distributions at their workplace. The distribution is good, I have the Xfce version installed on the N150 and it seems to work just fine. But I think it might be more difficult to find novice help if you really needed it.
  • Fedora: I would simply not recommend Fedora for a novice. It is a very cutting-edge distribution, and it is not always easy for an experienced user to keep up - so I really fear what it would be like for a novice. There is another issue, though - pre-installed utilities, applications, codecs and such. Fedora is very conservative about non-FOSS software, so a lot of things are not included in the base installation which are in most of the others I have listed above. The situation is even worse than that, though, because the Fedora Gnome distribution is their flagship, so it gets the most attention and the best and most complete selection of applications - but there is absolutely no chance that you could install and use Fedora Gnome 3 on the N150. Their other spins (desktops) are hit-and-miss on what they include and what they don't - take a look at the table I included at the end of my recent post about the Fedora "spins" and you will see what I mean. I assume that the MATE or Xfce versions would work well on the N150, but then you would have to figure out which additional programs and packages you needed to add, and sometimes where to get them from - often requiring you to add the RPM Fusion repository. This is just not something I would recommend to a Linux novice. Oh, and the Fedora LXDE version that I just installed on my N150 seems to have a couple of significant problems, so I would avoid it for now anyway.
  • openSuSE Tumbleweed: This is a "factory" or "development" distribution. You don't want this as your first-ever Linux installation.

So, there you have it. Please keep in mind that these recommendations are based only on my own experience, on the specific Samsung N150 Plus target system, and on the variety of Linux distributions I currently have installed on my own N150 Plus. I did not consider a few others which I currently use on other systems (Sparky, Korora, KaOS and a few others), and I did not consider anything that I do not personally install and use.

I'm sure there are going to be plenty of "How could you possibly recommend xxyyzz" comments, and probably even more of "Why didn't you recommend my favorite distribution" comments.

Please do me just a little favor: when you post such comments include at least a little bit of information about why I should (or should not) have mentioned a distribution. What makes it better or worse than those that I did mention? I would like to think that this will lead to an interesting and useful discussion.

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