Open Ballot: Beginner's Distro


We often introduce new people to Linux, and there's always that niggling question, what distro to start someone on. Not so long ago, the answer seemed obvious: Ubuntu. However that's falling from grace at the moment (Ben says: I actually like Unity. Efy, Graham and Andrew disagree).

We've found Fedora isn't as user-friendly as it used to be (if Jon were still here, he'd stick up for Fedora, but he's not). Mint is one option, beloved by many for graphical slickness, but then at the other end of the scale many people are now getting their first taste of Linux through LXDE and Debian on the Raspberry Pi, and they seem to be doing fine. A part of us is always tempted to go with Arch (sure it'll take them a while to get going, but when they do, they'll be able to look after themselves).

Our question this fortnight, then, is what's the best distro for beginners?

Perhaps you think one that mimics a more familiar environment (like Zorin's Windows-alike themes) are the best bet, or maybe you think ingraining the free software philosophy is more important, so only Trisquel will do.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments and we'll read the out on our upcoming podcast.

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Your comments

Beginner Distro

I believe that going with Ubuntu Unity or Gnome is the best distro for any beginner.

There is no beginner's distro

I've been using Linux for about ten years.

I do not believe there is currently a distro that is friendly to beginners.

I used to recommend Ubuntu with Gnome, but since the advent of Unity, Gnome doesn't run very well on Ubuntu. And the latest versions of Gnome are just disastrous, of course. Ubuntu is now a tablet-only interface.

A good project for someone might be to develop a user-friendly Linux distro for desktops.

Maybe Depends on Ability

I think I'd have to weigh a recommendation against the ability and interests of the person I'm recommending to.

For an older person who barely understands e-mail, I'd consider Ubuntu, although I haven't honestly played with Unity much. It all seems pretty point-and-click, which is ideal.

For a middle-of-the-road user who pretty much wants something pretty and that does all the usual stuff in the way they expect, I'd almost certainly choose Mint Cinnamon.

For someone with a little more time on their hands and who is already a power-user and used to getting things "just so", I might suggest Mint KDE for starters.

For a power-user who is looking to get into a little programming and who is genuinely interested in a full immersion in the Linux/UNIX mindset without any fluffy cotton wool confusing things, I'd suggest ArchLinux, which is a wonderfully easy distro for those actually want to understand what's going on. Not a bad option for e.g. a fast-learning IT professional looking to broader their horizons.

Beginner Distro

Psychologists tell us that we've already judged someone before they open their mouth simply by how they look.

Many distros now have a functionally rich enough GUI for a beginner to use out of the box, but none look as coherent, polished and downright attractive as Elementary.

I personally went back to my old XFCE-based distro after a fortnight of using Elementary, but only because I'd previously put so much effort into getting it set up exactly how I wanted. However, if asked where to point someone coming into the Linux desktop world for the first time, with no baggage, Elementary is now my go-to distro.

For beginners and anyone interested to focus on their work only

Mageia KDE. By far the best desktop distro out there.

Probably not too popular

I'm still sticking with Ubuntu and Unity. I liked it in Netbook remix, and it fits in well with the way I use my systems.

I have introduced a few people to Unity, including Mac, Windows and PC Virgins, and it seems to fit well for all of them. It is the right amount of helpful to allow casual users to accomplish what they want without getting lost - and it looks different enough from Windows that they don't get stuck in the Windows mindset.

what else

Mint KDE.

It combines the features of Mint with the familar interface, since KDE is so close in appearance with windows 7.

Or Mint MATE for the same for Xp escapees.

Ubuntu, of course

I also think as many of you Ubuntu Unity is the most intuitive and usable for the newbie.

Still ubuntu

All the criticism of Ubuntu I have ever heard has been from people who have already been using Linux for a while (either older versions of Ubuntu or different distros). I started out with unity (11.04) and loved it. So has everyone I have since introduced to Linux. Mint is great, with cinnamon topping the other environments in terms of newbie-friendliness, but I still prefer Ubuntu. Also, as people get used to Linux and want to scratch an itch they can then choose a different DE closer to what they personally want or customize their current one beyond recognition so it doesn't matter anyway :)

Mint for beginners

Mint gets my vote....
Over the years I have tried many distros including Redhat, IBM's internal Redhat Client, Ubuntu, Debian... etc etc. I then found Mint about a year ago and was instantly impressed by it's close resemblance to Windows XP architecture. Since then I have tried Zorin... couldn't get it working at all... not sure why,but I am still testing Mint (15) at the moment on a Lenovo S10e Netbook and an IBM T60. Both run well and have some excellent built in tools.... I have spoken to friends and family who still have XP and suggested that they could upgrade to Mint and carry on using their old machines without much trouble. Have also tried running Office 2003 on Mint using Wine and that is pretty good as well...

Doudou Linux!

Doudou Linux - start them early!

Whatever you know best

As you've said, there really is no good singular answer to this question.

In my experience, the best "beginner's" distro is whatever you're most familiar with, For a true beginner, learning how to use Linux is really only going to happen if they have a personal IT minion babying them every step of the way, there to answer all of their questions. Let's face it, most computer users *don't* want to find the answers themselves. They want it told to them.

Call me cynical, but that's how it's been with everyone in my family I've ever introduced to Linux.


... if you have a close friend to show the first steps (including the community) and to fix the initials mistakes a beginners would probably fall into.

Linux Mint

Linux Mint, very user friendly

Friendly Forum

When I first tried Linux I tried Ubuntu because it was said to be user friendly. Worst description ever, wouldn't recognize half of my hardware and no way to get answers. Forum help, yeah right. Instead I found someone on a windows forum who suggested a distro and said he would help. It was Kanotix and the best forum that provided answers. If you are going to learn find someone to help and a distro with a usable forum. I like Fedora and Xfce and put that on a couple of computers for relatives and point them to the forum and offer help. BTW I have been using Linux for about 8 years and turned 70 this year.


I have tried Ubuntuubn in various forms, and It is not for beginners, mostly because every 10 minutes or so it spews out errors and asks if you want to send the issue. uggf. But Mint or Elementary on the other hand are great for beginers :D


Gentoo Linux or Archlinux :D
Best for beginners. Some problem - use your Brains. Not have a problem? - good, but you beard is 50 cm now :D

Depends on the Type of "Beginner"

There are two concepts that I think are most important to consider:

1) First impressions (can the user find their way around well enough without much help?)

2) The first problem (when the user hits trouble, how easy is it to get over the first stumbling block?)

This varies a lot depending on if the beginner is a new Linux enthusiast or hand-held grandmother.

I would recommend Ubuntu for for the young enthusiast because it's intuitive enough, but more importantly the repos are large and the various Ubuntu forums are very quickly Google-able.

ElementaryOS is a more appropriate choice for the latter, where the emphasis should be on eliminating distraction, but still allowing to add some new software from a good repo if so desired.

Ubuntu Gnome/ Mint Cinnamon

For total newcomers (newcomers to computers in general, not only to Linux), I'd definitely recommend Ubuntu Gnome:
Ubuntu because of the great range of packages available, which is undeniably among the best of all Linux distros, and Gnome for the general ease of use. This combination should usually just work and not overwhelm an unexperienced user.
However, most former Windows users might already have a hard time switching to a new OS, so a completely unfamiliar desktop environment is probably one more unfamiliar thing to throw them off. In this case, I'd rather recommend Mint Cinnamon, as it at least loosely resembles the traditional Windows desktop (I'm not talking about Windows 8 here!).
What I would definitely NOT recommend is any KDE- based distro. While the looks might resemble Windows, it just has way to much customization options to be recommended to new users.

It depends.....

There are so many factors that can influence the recommendation of a distro for beginners.
Will they be using a desktop PC, laptop or a tablet?
Are the from a Windows or Mac background?

So many distros that would be ideal for a beginner fall at the first hurdle by making the codex needed to play modern media difficult to find.

Linux Mint Cinnamon is good but I have found quite a few apps in the software center that appear to be broken.

Salix is based on Slackware but it is as easy to install software as Mint and it is easy to customise and remaster.

Elementary OS has much to recommend it such as good looks and an intuitive interface that also seem lightweight.

Why are people saying Unity???

I really don't know which orifice Canonical pulled their "Usability Testing" statistics from but it must have been a very deep-dark one. Regardless of the rubbish they claim to have found through usability testing, since the release of Unity, every single person I have tried to convert to Linux has failed miserably with the Unity desktop, these are people from a variety of computing levels so there is no bias towards people from a specific background. I used to default straight to Ubuntu when attempting to convert people to Linux but since Unity I have completely given up and switched over to Linux Mint Cinnamon with a 100% success rate. Therefore I can quite confidently say the Linux Mint Cinnamon is the most user friendly distro. In fact I think I'm paraphrasing Graham in a Tux radar podcast from some time ago when I say "Mint is just Ubuntu 4 years ago, which is quit honestly the highest praise I could give to a distro right now"

None really, but all maybe.

I'm not sure which one is more user friendly but I must say I have been running into a lot of trouble installing distros in friends computer.
I usually convince them to try linux because they have outdated pc's and they say they need to buy a new one. I come in with the magic solution: "linux will make your old pc run faster!"
I don't think the user friendliness come from interface, but rather from setting the sistem up without much of an hassle, and i must say that, lately, I have been struggling with several variations of linux: from ubuntu and friends, to puppy, crunchbang and Mint.
I had problems to be solved after installation in every single one of them!

Regarding the interface, it doesn't really mater, nowadays everyone can learn how to use any desktop environment pretty fast with a little help from friends.

Beginners distro

Linux From Scratch. Get an intimate understanding of what makes the OS tick by compiling a compiler and tools, to compile another compiler and tools, then a kernel etc. how to learn the OS inside out!

Apart from that Mint KDE. It is pretty, slick and close enough to other operating systems that they will transition to desktop use easily enough.

I guess it all depends upon who the new user is and what they will be doing. For many the fact that it "just works" is the appeal of the BSD based OSX. We technical types often forget that most computer users are not willing or confident to get "under the hood" and want to point and click. Sadly the human species seems to have lost much of it's sense of adventure.

Surely it has to be...

...Linux Mint with Cinnamon.


Elementary LUNA OS without a shadow of a doubt the easiest distro for beginners, zero fuss and no frills but smooth as butter and hassle free

gnome fallback in ubuntu

Unity is rubbish for beginners and power users. Maybe even for intermediate users too, hell ANY USER !!!

But login to Gnome fallback (without compiz) and you have something wonderful. Super small (200mb ?), massive stability and super simple. You can even set up the panels and applets (via alt-right click) to resemble windows 98/xp. So it's more like windows than windows is now ! Runs fast and stable on any hardware.

100% ubuntu (software centre, paid apps, PPAs, .debs, apt, gtk3, gnome/debian underpinnings, etc...) with non of the stability, performance or user experience problems of compiz and unity. Even uncomposited video performance is good with the latest intel and nvidia graphics drivers and GPUs.

Not Everyone Is The Same, so...

For the wary macintosh convert, I would probably give it to ElementaryOS. A few months ago I would've said Ubuntu.

For the adventurous Windows user, definitely Linux Mint with Cinnamon.

Mint 15

Been using Linux now since the first Fedora Core and love the simplicity of Mint 15 Cinnamon.....

Experience leads to overthinking

I've recently had the same dilemma - one for a colleague whose Vista installation managed to corrupt itself and another for my aunt with an old XP laptop slowly grinding to a halt. I must have installed about five distros in Virtualbox in prep for my neighbour thinking of all the likely problems he might need solving that "just worked" on his Vista machine, including playing Blu-Ray discs. In the end I lent him Ubuntu to try, and when I went round the next evening (with Mint and Mageia in hand), discovered he'd already installed Ubuntu without problem and was already setting up a media server using something he'd found in the Software Centre! He didn't know any different, just accepted Ubuntu for what is was, and by all accounts found it easy enough to use without the need to ask.
For my sceptical aunt, addicted to Windows XP, weaning her off her beloved-but-slow system is currently a work in progress. Using the city of Munich as an example, I decided that I would install Lubuntu as a dual-boot option so she could play around on it, but knows XP is still there to ease any problems or doubts she has. She has been told MS will drop support for XP next year, so on this premise, I have given her until Christmas to learn Lubuntu before I remove XP for good. So far, she hasn't really noticed the difference except that its "much faster". Her offer to pay for the new software was amusing, but finding it a bit tricky to explain Free Software philosphy, I just said it was a gift "on me"!

In both cases I underestimated how able the average person is in adapting when required, and actually, how easy (L)Ubuntu makes it for users.

Elementary OS

It is a great desktop for beginners, just so easy and straight forward. No tinkering needed, and very intuitive. Really is built with the end user in mind.

It's Ubuntu

Once i figured out how to use unetbootin The installation of Ubuntu was easy and once installed i found using it was for the most part straight forward.

Firstly, I think we need to

Firstly, I think we need to get over this idea that in order to attract new users a desktop needs to look and work like Windows. OSX didn't go from nothing to ~10% market share by looking familiar, it got there by offering something (for some users) *better*. The same can be said of iOS and Android growth - neither was harking back to tired old desktop metaphors during its meteoric rise.

New users want something that is attractive and makes sense. Unity seems determined to do things that don't make sense (pointless unified menus, window buttons that play hide-and-seek).

Mint is (whether we're talking about Cinnamon, Mate or the epitome of dull crustiness, Xfce) an ugly, poorly designed (these being entirely different things, one is about aesthetics, the other is about coherent interactions, semiotics, workflows etc.) mess.

I agree with the above poster, the only one offering an attractive, rational, clean UI currently is ElementaryOS.

But, obviously, it's very much going to depend on the user in question and their particular preferences and expectations.



A KDE based distribution

Mageia, Mint or PCLinuxOS how long is running KDE as desktop.
While some complain about too much settings, the truth is that you do not need to tweak it too much if it came nicely set up out of the box. And this is the strong point of Mageia compared with the rest.
KDE is by far the highest quality desktop out there, IMO surpassing both Windows and OSX with room to spare.

Gnome is passe and improperly maintained and Ububtu Unity it totally unusable and an exercise in frustration. LXDE is a nice alternative for a low powered netbook but for a full featured desktop KDE is the only contender.

Minty Goodness

I would only recommend what I'm using so I don't have to say "I use SuperDuperLinux because I'm smarter and more advanced than you. You should use LoserLinux because you're too new to use the great program I've picked for myself." Currently, I use Linux Mint with Cinnamon because it's easy to find answers to problems with Google. - I had to connect a Windows 7 computer to my network today. It was a complicated and un-intuitive process. The only reason people think Windows is simple is because it's what they're used to and not because it's a well organized system. It's anything but, imho.

Mint / Ubuntu

I would suggest either Mint or Ubuntu I generally have no problems with getting these installed on peoples computers.
I have a friend in his 70's who is quite happily using Mint and he has now found a local IT shop in his local village who can support him as it is Ubuntu based. (This is in a small village in the North-East of Thailand)

The thing I do is people try Mint (Cinnamon) and Ubuntu to see which desktop environment they prefer.

Linux Mint

Linux Mint is easiest. However, if you get used to the Unity desktop or even Gnome 3, you can try Linux Mint with XFCE and position the panels in a manner that they simulate it. It's all about choice and convenience, end of day.


I personally love KDE, but I think it might be too much for someone coming from Apple or Microshit. So for someone new to Linux I would, and have , recommend either Zorin or Xubuntu, or Lubuntu, depending on how computer savvy they are. If they struggle with Microshit then I suggest Zorin, for obvious reasons. Don't change the look too much.

I have lost my respect for Ubapple with the mess that Unity is so maybe the Mint versions of Xfce and LXDE might also be a good choice.

Not so long ago, the *wrong* answer seemed obvious: Ubuntu.

(Now, the wrong answer is obvious: Ubuntu.)

I usually recommend OpenSUSE.

One more for Elementary os

Gets out of the way and lets you do stuff. Not very configurable but good for beginners who just want things to work.
Not my cup of tea but would go down well with the i-pad generation.

I usually recommend Ubuntu

I usually recommend Ubuntu or Mint. Distro-hopping is a young person's game and I've stuck with Ubuntu for a while now, so if the person I have recommended Linux to has a problem there's a better chance of me being able to help them out. If down the road they want to become an acolyte of Stallman and admonish me for calling it Linux and having propriety graphics drivers installed then good for them - I may have created a monster, but it's a monster that uses Linux and that's still a win in my book!

For me the best starter

For me the best starter distro was Slackware, once Knoppix had convinced me I wanted to give Linux a try.

I wanted to _learn_ GNU/Linux so Slackware was the right starter distro. It comes with any DE you want, but you're still forced to learn the inner workings of the system. I miss that on my current Fedora install, which will be replaced with Slackware again.

For people who just want an operating system, however, I am now recommending Mint. I will install Linux Mint for my mother-in-law this weekend. Since Unity invaded Ubuntu, the DE gets too much in the way, so Mint it is.

For professionals, I let them try OpenSUSE with a few KDE tweaks. I don't see why OpenSUSE isn't more widely deployed in small to medium businesses.

PC Linux OS, KDE

Easy to setup, add devices or packages, and runs in a variety of hardware.

Unity? Intuitive?Are you freakin' high?

Recommending Unity is like suggesting BDSM to the couple next door just because you're into it. Sure it might be great for you, but you gotta realize it's not for most people, in fact it's probably a turn off.
My first exposure to Linux was Unity when it was first introduced. I found it pretty but unusable and would have given up on Linux, but luckily I found out that other DEs were available. I tried Xubuntu next and was much happier but still not convinced. Tried LXDE next. Ehh. It was okay. But then I discovered KDE, and thought "Yeah Baby! That's what Daddy likes." But I realize that KDE's not for everyone. I like to tweak, and unlike most people (it seems) I found KDE completely intuitive. I still love and use KDE, even on my netbook (yes, I'm cool from 5 years ago) but have since moved on to Mint Cinnamon as my permanent desktop install because I wanted to move as much of my computing away from Windows as I could and Mint, although not cool, is dead reliable. The Labrador Retriever of distros and the one I recommend to 75% of new users. But there is no one size fits all. Depends on the user, use, and hardware. And no, I'm not into BDSM.

And Don't Get Me Started On Zorin

Horrible choice for beginners. Seems to be recommended only because it's made to look like Windows. It's not enough to just LOOK like Windows to convert someone. If Chevrolet built a car that LOOKED like a Mercedes would you recommend it to someone who's only driven Mercs? My apologies to Mercedes for comparing them to Microsoft in the analogy.
I installed Zorin on my desktop's distro hopping drive years after I'd started using Linux myself to see if it was a viable replacement for Windows 8 on my wife's new laptop (she's only ever used Windows). Buggy, buggy, buggy piece of crap. Downloaded and burned a new ISO after running a checksum to make sure that wasn't the issue. Installed it another computer to rule out a hardware compatibility problem. Still just random buggy-ness. I can't believe there's a pay version of this.
I beg anyone who wants Linux to thrive, and to convert more users from Windows NOT to put this on a noob's computer. Give them something you've used yourself and know will work and keep working.

I think some of the Puppy

I think some of the Puppy based distros like Macpup, LegacyOS for old machines and Absolute linux based on Slackware are good beginner distros.

Manjaro could be a good

Manjaro could be a good choice

Keep it simple at first . . . . Then progress after about a year

I first installed ubuntu 11.04 with a gnome2 classic flavor with no desktop effects on my wife's basic toshiba satellite laptop (17 inch screen ) I took a lot of time setting it up so that everything (all hardware - including the fan ) worked. Then I set up all the software that she would have expected on a windows system. Then I located the icons in positions that she would expect. She loved it. And loved the speed compared to Vista.

Then a year later I upgraded to a Kubuntu 12.04 Long term Release. This made use of a more flashy desktop, backgrounds that change every hour. Desktop Widgets that work and transparent panels and Desktop effects. "Then I set up all the software that she would have expected on a gnome system. Then I located the icons in positions that she would expect." Success she loves it and I can leave it on for a few years.

Lesson: Start Basic and add linux cool in stages.


I briefly considered Elementary, but the core applications are either obscure or unstable. That is without bringing up the extremely limited icon set they use, which makes installing any third party application undesirable, as it looks out of place in both the menu and on the dock.

With that in mind, Mint, with its very standard style and conventional desktop paradigm, all the while making use of applications we all know and love, is a far better choice.

Ubuntu or Linux Mint

I've played with a number of different distros over the years but I think it still comes down to Ubuntu or Linux Mint. They're both easy to install, have interfaces that are easy to learn and just plain work. I've used Fedora and OpenSUSE in the past, but they've become too ponderous and unfriendly for a newbie. Mint looks like Windows and comes with a number of applications that the new user can find on most PCs. Ubuntu has a bit more glitz, but adds a Mac-like interface and with Unity breaks away from the "me-too" look of most distributions.

I'm now dual-booting Windows 7, Linux Mint and Ubuntu on my desktop (and Windows 8, Linux Mint, Ubuntu and Pear OS on my laptop). I like the ease of installation and the ability to load a variety of apps to the operating systems. Plus it makes a great way to show the variety of Linux to people who aren't familiar with it.

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