What is the best Linux distro for beginners?

Note: Our best Linux distro for beginners feature has been fully updated. This article was first published in January 2014.

For those folks dipping their toes into Linux waters for the first time, the choice of various distributions or 'flavours' of Linux can be truly overwhelming, especially if you're not sure what to look for.

In the early days of Linux, choosing a distribution (distro) was much simpler. You usually selected one you had heard about or with which you had a small amount of experience. There were also far fewer choices beyond Red Hat Linux, Debian and Slackware. 

While you can still make a choice based on these criteria, the sheer number of Linux distros available now, and their ever vocal fan bases, makes it difficult to settle on one and get started.

So let's ignore those voices altogether, and add one of our own. We've deliberately shied away from the popular mainstream distros here, as we didn't just want easy-to-use distros. Instead, we've selected four that we believe are ideal starting points.

We have not included the regular version of Ubuntu as in our opinion it isn't exactly right for beginners as is. However, three of the four versions of Linux we'll be discussing are based on the Ubuntu operating system, with a few important changes.

We've also picked one that's specifically aimed at those switching from Windows – in previous years, we were also able to feature a distro that was specifically aimed at macOS users too, but it (Pear Linux) has sadly been discontinued. However, both Pinguy and Elementary contain elements that will definitely appeal to Mac switchers – Elementary, in particular, has a macOS feel.

How we tested…

All distros were tested on the same dual-core machine with 4GB RAM. We've selected the latest 64-bit stable releases for each one. Some distributions are available for 32-bit processors and can run with less RAM. We encourage you to visit the developer’s website and discover the current requirements for yourself. 

The distro also needs to be easy to install as most users will probably never have installed Linux before. We have also focused on software management and the kind of applications that are included with each distro. 

Apart from these major points, the distro also needs to be easy to use for day-to-day activities. The ideal distro for newbies is one that does all of the above and also makes it easy to tweak some settings.

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Linux’s Live CD approach allows you to test a distribution and familiarise yourself with it without having to first install it to your hard drive. This is a great way for new users to ease into Linux, and you can usually install the distro direct from the Live environment if you like it.

Most of these distros have an icon on the desktop you can double-click to launch the installer, making it very simple for newbies. If you already have an operating system on your machine that you want to keep, you will need to resize and partition the hard disk, at which point most people switching to Linux hesitate. This isn't an issue for beginner-centric Linux distros. Indeed, many mainstream distros don't enjoy much popularity with beginners because their installers aren’t very user friendly.  

Solus is the one distro not based on Ubuntu in this guide. It was created in December 2015 and follows a rolling release model, meaning it updates automatically. The most recent version, Solus 3, was released in August 2017.

Solus is under active development but the installer bears a strong similarity to Ubuntu's and as such is very easy to use. You may find some of the terminology baffling, plus the aforementioned partitioning and formatting can be tricky, but overall the process is neat and tidy.  

The remaining Ubuntu-based distros all use a slightly modified version of Ubuntu's Ubiquity installer specifically designed for beginners. The installation process can be completed in around half a dozen steps and will guide you through the process of formatting your hard drive, creating a user, setting your time zone and choosing the keyboard layout. 

The most important step is partitioning, where you can erase the entire disk and use it to install the distro, or specify a custom partitioned layout. More importantly, if a version of Windows is detected, the distro will allow you to install it alongside in dual-boot format.

The best thing about using Ubiquity, when you're a newbie, is that there's plenty of documentation. Plus there are YouTube videos that take you through the installation process of each of our Ubuntu-based distributions. Because these distros are based on Ubuntu, you don't get to choose the software that’s installed. Once you specify the disk and configure the partitioning, the distro will automatically install all software for you.

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 5/5
  • PinguyOS: 5/5
  • Elementary OS: 5/5
  • Solus: 4/5

Linux distributions are usually designed to appeal to the largest number of potential users. This philosophy also underpins the applications which are included. All the distros in our guide offer the bare minimum in terms of programs, such as a web browser, email client, text editor, media player and so on, but some include much more than this. 

Solus includes some basic apps – Firefox, Thunderbird and Transmission BitTorrent Client, VLC Media Player, as well as the office suite LibreOffice. However, there are no graphics or other media editing tools, nor any games. 

Zorin is bristling with apps, such as LibreOffice and the Chromium web browser. Also included is GIMP image editor, an image viewer, Empathy IM, Rhythmbox music player, Cheese Webcam Booth and OpenShot Video Editor. It also carries Wine and PlayOnLinux, which allows you to install Windows-only apps and games.

PinguyOS is similarly well blessed, and ships with Thunderbird, LibreOffice, Empathy, the Deluge BitTorrent client, Clementine music player, Shutter, Wine, PlayOnLinux and much more. 

Elementary OS has a much more elegant design which is reflected in its apps. It uses the Epiphany web browser, and also includes custom applications such as Photos, Music, Videos and Calendar. There's even a custom Mail app which is based on the former open source client Geary, which goes well with Elementary's user interface. Although the selection of apps is minimal, the essentials are covered and you can use the built-in app store to add more programs if you wish.

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 5/5
  • PinguyOS: 5/5
  • Elementary OS: 3/5
  • Solus: 2/5

For most new users, the default set of apps should be more than enough to get started. As you become more accustomed to your distro, you may wish to install additional programs. Software repositories may seem like a strange concept at first, but most distros provide useful tools to help you install applications easily.

Solus provides its own frontend which links to both its own repository and a number of third-party apps. This can be a little restrictive for more advanced users, but there's a large selection of consumer-grade apps to choose from, and it's very well laid out. 

Elementary OS once shipped with the Ubuntu Software Center, which allowed you to install a huge range of programs. Since development was discontinued, Elementary now comes with its own package manager, AppCenter, which is perfect for new users. 

AppCenter offers a wide range of apps in a number of clearly defined categories. However, new users may struggle to find the exact application they need without trawling through long lists, as there isn't much in the way of description. This is a common issue with software managers in Linux.

Zorin, like Elementary, has its own Software Store as well as the less glamorous Synaptic Package Manager. It supports the installation of Google applications and the Opera web browser.

Pinguy is based on Ubuntu 14.04, which is an LTS (Long Term Support) release. This means it still uses the now defunct Ubuntu Software Center as well as the Synaptic Package Manager. By default a number of software repositories are enabled, allowing you to install programs designed for other operating systems such as Linux Mint. There's also an extensive selection of themes for programs like the Clementine music player and Gnome desktop. There's also a tool to help you manage PPAs (Personal Package Archives).

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 4/5
  • PinguyOS: 5/5
  • Elementary OS: 4/5
  • Solus: 4/5

You can tell a user has found a distro that they like when they begin to tweak its different aspects. Moving away from the default options is a sign of maturity for any user, but especially so with new Linux users.

People often say Linux distros are extremely customisable – but what does this mean for new users? Sure, you can change the desktop background, the icons theme, define keyboard shortcuts, configure power management and make other changes to the appearance and behaviour of the distro. But is it easy for a first-time Linux user to do this?

While all the distros in our list allow you to do all of this and more, they each go about the process differently. If the distro is aimed at new users, it scores highly if it includes special custom tools to help the user easily customise the distro to their liking.

Zorin is one of the finest distros to attract inexperienced Linux users. It has everything in terms of offering a friendly and usable experience to those coming from another Linux distro or even from Windows or macOS. Besides its Windows 10-styled desktop, the custom application launcher also does a pretty good job of mimicking the Windows 10 Start menu. 

The Core edition has enough to whet your appetite, and you can shell out some money to get the specialised versions if you prefer. Zorin also instils good desktop practice by regularly reminding users to run backups using the built-in app. All in all, the distro has the right mix of the best of Ubuntu sprinkled with some custom Zorin apps, such as the Look and Theme Changer apps.

Elementary is one of the simplest Ubuntu-based distros available, and as such is a good starting point for beginners. The distro places great emphasis on design, and this has resulted in a curious choice of integrated applications. While these may not be to everyone's liking, the apps are highly usable and a suitable replacement for their more popular alternatives. It uses a dock to emulate the look of macOS, but it's not particularly configurable – and the same is true of the desktop as a whole. 

Pinguy once released new stable versions to coincide with the latest underlying version of Ubuntu, but it's at a standstill recently as its creator is not seeing a positive reimbursement on the time he is spending creating and maintaining it. That said, the distro is wonderfully stable and a very attractive option for all Linux users. Whether you're an absolute beginner or someone looking to switch to another distro, this OS is definitely worth your time.

Pinguy also ships with Docky, a tool you can use to create any number of customised docks. You can add docklets to each of these docks, such as weather, a network usage monitor and a workspace switcher. It also includes the Tweak Tool to help you easily configure many different aspects of the desktop.

One area where Solus closes the gap on its rivals is in terms of desktop configuration. That's largely thanks to the fact that its own Budgie desktop has a number of configuration options, making it relatively easy to customise it to your tastes.

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 5/5
  • PinguyOS: 4/5
  • Elementary OS: 3/5
  • Solus: 4/5

A distro can have several reasons for offering paid add-ons. More often than not, it's because the developers are trying to make some money so they can justify running a free operating system. This is why some distros also offer the facility for users to make donations to the project.

Zorin OS produces an Ultimate version that can be downloaded after making a PayPal payment of €19 (around £17.30, $22.30). It offers tantalising extras like macOS desktop layouts and 20 games. You'll also receive premium support. The distro supports one-off donations, too, and more specialised versions are on the way.

PinguyOS also has an extensive store on CafePress, from where you can get all kinds of merchandise, such as mugs, T-shirts, bags and baby bibs. You can also donate via PayPal, or on Patreon.

Elementary's website gives the impression you need to pay a fee for the OS before downloading it (type 0 into the 'Custom' box to skip this). It also has a US-only store offering merchandise. Furthermore, it supports ongoing monthly donations through Patreon to aid future development.

Solus encourages both one-off and monthly donations via Paypal or Patreon, offering early access to developmental versions and premium support in return.

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 4/5
  • PinguyOS: 3/5
  • Elementary OS: 3/5
  • Solus: 2/5

Regardless of a user's past OS dalliances, Linux beginners will encounter a vastly different way of doing things, in terms of everything from appearance to the alternative apps they will need to master. This is why your chosen distro must provide extensive documentation.

Additional resources, such as forum boards, mailing lists, wikis and so forth, which can help a newbie tap the collective experience of the community, are also appreciated.

Elementary OS provides to-the-point, easy-to-understand documentation on its website. The project also has an Answers page, where anyone can post questions in order to get, well, answers.

Solus organises its extensive support materials in the Help Center on its home page. There are community forums offering tutorials, installation support and more, plus access to more help resources via Google+, IRC and Reddit. Things are rounded off with a nascent wiki that should help with more technical questions.

While it provides only a barebones installation guide, Zorin OS makes up for this elsewhere. There's a handy Help button on its Start menu that leads straight to its user forums, with sections including how-to guides, install help and more. The project also has an IRC channel (#ZorinOS), which aims to answer your questions instantly.

PinguyOS offers its users everything that Zorin does – what's more, there's also a very thorough step-by-step installation guide to help you out.

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 4/5
  • PinguyOS: 4/5
  • Elementary OS: 4/5
  • Solus: 5/5

There are three popular ways that Linux distributions are developed and updated – fixed schedule, fixed feature and rolling release. 

Linux distributions running with a fixed feature methodology are released when everything is ready – there's no specified date for a release. Elementary is a fixed feature distro despite being based on Ubuntu, which runs to a fixed schedule. The current Loki release is based on Ubuntu 16.04 LTS (Long Term Support), and Elementary has made it clear that it only ever plans to build releases from the LTS branch.

The fixed schedule is one of the most popular release cycles, and is followed by the majority of distros. In a fixed schedule, a new release is pushed out at regular intervals, usually every six months. Ubuntu follows this twice-yearly release cycle and so, naturally, most of its derivatives do the same.

Zorin OS is based on the latest Ubuntu release. Work on a new edition begins as soon as a new version of Ubuntu is made available, but it takes time for the developer to produce the different editions.

Pinguy's six-month-releases shipped with bleeding-edge software, and were not considered stable, but no new version has been pushed out since the distro based on Ubuntu 14.04. The stable releases are based on Ubuntu LTS releases which are supported for five years. The original Pinguy developer has recently released an updated version of Pinguy via the forums, and has also promised to release an official version of Pinguy based on Ubuntu 18.04 in 2018.

Solus is the exception here as it's been built from scratch rather than being based on an existing OS. The project developers plan to release quarterly minor point updates (1.1, 1.2, etc) and one major update each year. Each major release will be supported for two years, so support for 1.x will continue throughout 2017 alongside the new release of version 3 in August.

Verdict

  • Zorin OS: 3/5
  • PinguyOS: 4/5
  • Elementary OS: 5/5
  • Solus: 3/5

The Linux ecosystem is often praised, and sometimes criticised, for giving users too much choice. This is true not just for applications, but also for distributions. There was a time when it was considered the height of cool for experienced Linux users to complain about the proliferation of a particular distro, but it did nothing to stem the tide.

Linux desktop machines still account for only a very small portion of computers but this is slowly changing with each new release. 

As a new Linux user, you might get vertigo browsing through the list of distros, but this isn't a bad thing. It means you've a greater chance of finding a distro that's right for you.

If you can't wait to find the perfect distro for your needs, then obviously one of these designed-for-newbie distros is a good place to start. Pinguy, unfortunately, is no longer on the top spot due to its stalled development. It's worth checking out, but the developer has sent out mixed messages, stating on his website that he may kill off development of the OS altogether – but subsequently releasing an updated version of Pinguy via the forums. 

Elementary OS started off as a contender for top dog, but small niggles such as a reduced selection of default apps mean that it finishes in third place.

Creeping up the list fast is Solus. This project was recently resurrected after being dormant for a while, but has rapidly made strides throughout 2017. It also seems to be running a consistent release schedule, and is improving all the time. 

Zorin hits the top spot for 2017. It has several commercial variants, includes custom tools, and will appeal to Windows switchers with its custom desktop.

So, here are the final results in full, along with download links for the distros in question:

1st: Zorin OS

  • Web: https://zorinos.com
  • Version: Zorin OS 12.1 Core
  • Verdict: Very thoughtful distro. Good for most new users

2nd: Solus

3rd: Elementary OS

  • Web: https://elementary.io
  • Version: Loki 0.4.1 (Based on Ubuntu 16.04.02)
  • Verdict: Very useable but initially sparse

4th: PinguyOS

  • Web: http://www.pinguyos.com
  • Version: 14.04.4 (Official)
  • Verdict: A pleasant-to-use distro, but there’s a danger it’s dead

In this guide we have chosen not to focus on any of the mainstream distros in favour of those we think are ideal for newcomers. There are Linux users who believe there's no such thing as a distro which is friendly to beginners, and the trick is to persevere. We've often seen more complex distros such as Arch and Gentoo recommended to new users, along with more familiar versions of Linux such as Debian, Slackware, Fedora and Ubuntu. 

Gentoo and Arch can certainly teach you about the workings of Linux like no other distro, but experienced Linux users still shy away from them, as you're more likely to give up in frustration at the complex setup process.

In the end, the best course is to use the Live mode for each of the operating systems we've covered to experiment and find a distribution that’s suitable for you.

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