I'm currently looking at putting a Linux (although BSD is still an option) distribution on my old laptop. However, I'm not sure how to wade through all of my options - rolling releases versus not, Distribution X versus Distribution Y (I, personally, have been looking at Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, Arch, and OpenSUSE, but I suppose that's a personal preference), and so on. To be honest, it's difficult to make a choice.

When you are installing a distribution, how do you decide which one you want to use? Is it personal preference (you use your favorite distribution) or is there some guidance as to what distributions are better at specific tasks or for specific users?

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    making questions cw doesn't magically make them better questions. either a question is ok or it isn't. this question, i find acceptable.
    – user601
    Aug 31, 2010 at 23:06
  • Perhaps rephrase it to something like, "What do you look for when choosing a distribution?", or "Which distribution would best suit scenario X?"
    – invert
    Sep 1, 2010 at 8:06
  • "Debian ubuntu fedora arch and opensuse" I would suggest out of that list fedora, ubuntu, or opensuse in no particular order. Arch after you get your feet wet. Also there is chakra which is a step up from arch but still similar and documentation for arch can apply to chakra as well.
    – Chris
    Sep 1, 2010 at 12:10
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    Personally, I'd think it a better question if you'd tell us what you want to do with your old laptop, how much time you want to devote to using it as a Unixy laptop rather than fiddling with the system (both are worthwhile, but very different), that sort of thing. Sep 2, 2010 at 15:15

15 Answers 15


I start by looking at what I want to use the machine for:

  • Primary machine — distro I know well and I'm comfortable with
  • Spare machine — distro I don't know, and I want to learn it
  • Special cases: HTPC, MAME box, proxy — distro catered to these needs

The great thing about the *nixes is that you can configure any one of them for any specific need you want. Distros just allow you to reach those niches without all the manual config.

DistroWatch would be a good place to research. You can find the latest distros if you want to go the cutting-edge route, or the most popular if you want to go that route. The Weekly column could also give you some insight.

I don't have too much BSD experience, so I would go that route. But that's just me.

  • If it is a machine that is even remotely at risk (local media server, printer server, stash of music collection) I'd suggest going with the same (or intimately related) than the primary one: You will have to keep it up to date and troubleshoot, and being fluent in two divergent distributions is surprisingly hard (more so if you use one of them rarely).
    – vonbrand
    Jan 18, 2013 at 2:19

If you know polish there is wonderful quiz and 1 vs. 1 comparation. Unfortunatly I don't think it was translated (maybe Google Translator would work?) - there are however other quizes

Generally it depends how much:

  1. You know about systems
  2. You want to have it automated — do you want to fine-tune system or have it 'just working'
  3. What is the purpose

Especially if you don't know anything and you don't want to spent much time I would advise Ubuntu as both user-friendly and having large and active community. You may want to try other user-friendly systems.

If you want to go into deep of system I'd advice using more command-line oriented systems like Arch Linux, Gentoo Linux or Slackware. IMHO especially Gentoo Linux is good for crash run as you will run into various problems from inexperience and you will learn to solve it.

On servers traditionally Debian or Slackware is used however there are many other systems.

However there are people who uses Debian testing or unstable as desktop systems successfully or use Gentoo Linux on production servers.

As of BSD they tend to have smaller communities which is disadvantage with the first-contact-with-*nix situations. FreeBSD traditionally is all around operating system while NetBSD tends to run on everything. OpenBSD tends to sacrifice everything in name of security and is considered rock stable even if sometimes somehow slowish.

The good thing is that most distribution are free so you can just try them. Many have Live CD or Live USB which allows you to try them without installing (some of them functions only as Live CD - such as for example Knoppix or System Rescue CD). There are many distributions which I haven't listed such as those written specificly for router.

Yes, the variety of choices is a mixed blessing, and I'm afraid the only way is to try them to find something for yourself. If you don't want to try and you want to have something just working — probably Ubuntu should be your first shot.

As of my configuration — I use Gentoo Linux on semi-production laptop and FreeBSD on home server but I would considered myself an advanced user.

  • Gentoo. Talk about problems. Took me 3-4 times to get a install not messed up. I also reinstalled a few times when I messed things up. But wow, talk about learning. I learned so much. Aug 31, 2010 at 17:38
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    The same quiz in English: polishlinux.org/choose/quiz
    – pbm
    Nov 26, 2010 at 18:31
  • @pbm: I see no quiz there?
    – vonbrand
    Jan 18, 2013 at 2:24

I think the various major distros have few if any large differences in technical merit between them, and such differences tend to be greatly exaggerated by the partisans.

In light of this, my theory is that the more users and developers are on a distro, the faster things will improve, the more hardware combinations will be well-tested, and the more software packages will supported on it. So I favor picking one of the most popular, and sticking with it until it is clearly eclipsed by another.

Exception: There are special cases for which this rule can be superseded — for example, if you work in an industry that favors some particular distribution, it may be more important for you to be just like everybody else in your industry, rather than use the most popular distro in the Linux world as a whole.


The differences among Linux distributions are not cosmically significant.

In fact, it is something of a mystery why there are so many different distributions, each claiming “easy installation” and “a massive software library” as its distinguishing features. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that people just like to make new Linux distributions.

The most viable distributions are not necessarily the most corporate. For example, we expect Debian GNU/Linux to remain viable for a long time despite the fact that Debian is not a company, doesn’t sell anything, and offers no formal, on-demand support. Debian itself isn’t one of the most widely used distributions, but it benefits from a committed group of contributors and from the enormous popularity of the Ubuntu distribution, which is based on it.

When you adopt a distribution, you are making an investment in a particular vendor’s way of doing things. Instead of looking only at the features of the installed software, it’s wise to consider how your organization and that vendor are going to work with each other in the years to come.

**Some important questions to ask are:

• Is this distribution going to be around in five years?

• Is this distribution going to stay on top of the latest security patches?

• Is this distribution going to release updated software promptly?

• If I have problems, will the vendor talk to me?**

alt text

If you're looking for a GNU/Linux distro you should definitely check these websites:

If you're looking for a BSD you should check: http://bsdstats.org/

Credit: Some information in this post is taken from "UNIX and Linux System Administration Handbook"

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    Surprised to see linux mint on there. I love it geez it came out of no where and went right to the top.
    – Chris
    Sep 1, 2010 at 12:12
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    The table would be better as text imho. Dec 24, 2011 at 1:09
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    Fedora is a distinct distribution, sponsored by Red Hat; not something "decorporatized". Sorry, but Debian was officially excomulgated by RMS a while back for even mentioning the existence of not-completely-free software, and Debian considers the FDL unfree, so unacceptable. No, Debian is in no way, shape, or form "GNU near". And please don't tell any Debian fanatic that Ubuntu is "cleaned up Debian".
    – vonbrand
    Jan 18, 2013 at 2:27

Personally I prefer to use a Debian based distro, I like aptitude better than yum and I know you can use another package manager if you want, but I still prefer to have the one I like preinstalled. It just feels snappier.

I've been using Ubuntu on my main machine, but if you want better performance you should try Crunchbang Linux.


Generally you choose the distribution you are most familiar with and you tend to get to be familiar with the distribution you like the most.

If there is no particular feature in a distribution that is unique to one distribution (user-friendliness in ubuntu, commitment to open source in debian, commercial support in SuSE and Red Hat and so on) that is a must-have for you then you'll just have to choose any one and stick to it for a time.

If there were no reason for a distribution to exist and be popular, it wouldn't be around any more.


The one with the prettiest desktop.

Admittedly, I only see it for a few seconds before opening an application, but basically there is surprisingly little difference between the distributions. For me, they all work well, and all have the same functionality. I don't care that the graphical package manager has a different name or looks a bit different. I don't care what form the packages come in. I don't care what the file manager is called.

For a new user interested in finding the best distribution for him or herself, there are some points that I would make.

Firstly, use a major "easy to use" distribution. The major distributions are not labeled "easy to use" in competition with each other, but as a comparison with the "hard to use" (or "not quite so easy to use") stuff like Linux From Scratch, Arch etc. Similarly they all have a "great range of software" to distinguish themselves from stuff like Damn Small Linux.

Secondly, try different distributions. As said in the question, personal preference is a large part of the choice, so make sure that you try the choices available. As you try different distributions, you will become more familiar with Linux rather than, say Fedora, and with your experience you can try those "not quite so easy to use" distributions. (But don't feel like you have to try them all. And don't feel that you have to change to a schedule. Something along the lines of install a new distribution rather than install a major update.)

Thirdly, try the software that is available. You may like Banshee or Amarok or something else as your media player and you should be able to install them all in any distribution. This particularly applies to the available desktops, Gnome, KDE, XFCE, LXDE etc. At least try a couple of them.

For a new user not all that interested in trying different distributions, I would suggest just going for one of the top 5 on Distrowatch. Personally I'd suggest Opensuse, because that at least manages to have lots of desktops available and working properly.

  • Look around you, check what the friendlier Linuxers are using. You will need their help sooner or later.
    – vonbrand
    Jan 18, 2013 at 2:33

If you have a friend which is using a specific distro, and is often reachable for question and discussion: go with that.

Else go with a popular distro for the beginning, where you find much advice, like Ubuntu.

If you start to swim on your own, you can look here and there and might have a feeling, which attributes fit to your needs. Maybe you like to dive in deeply, and go via Gentoo to LFS (linux from scratch) to your own distro, and then, in the end, back to ubuntu again. :)


Assuming you want it as a laptop to get some sort of work done, not as part of learning a new distro or the Linux kernel or something like that:

Get a fairly popular one with a package manager and a desktop you like. Then install whatever else you want. The desktop is how you're going to interact with the system, the package manager is how you're going to get the software you want, and the people who use it are your support system. All else is minor.


I currently use openSUSE, but have used Fedora in the past. I changed because Fedora stopped working for the video card I had. openSUSE is sensitive to video cards, too. Though, most of the Nvidia cards work. An ATI board I bought once, didn't work, and it is still in the box unused.

Check as much as you can, before deciding, whether a distro supports your video card. If you have problems with the video, it's probably easiest to try another distro.


I run about three different Linux distributions - two at work, and one at home.

At work I run Redhat and OpenSuSE. I like OpenSuSE a little bit better between the two because it seems to have more up to date packages (although the free version of Redhat - Fedora - may differ).

At home I run Linux Mint, which is a variant of Ubuntu. The reason I chose Mint is because all of the codecs are there right out of the box, so to speak. I like it better than OpenSuSE because Mint is much faster to install and update between the two. I also like how Mint has all the software you need in the Software Center, including Chrome, Opera, Skype. In OpenSuSE you have to hunt these third party programs out - not a huge deal, but it's nice to have most of your software managed in one place.

Another big choice is your desktop environment. I know nothing of Ubuntu's Unity, I'm just familiar with Gnome and KDE. After running KDE for 5 years, I switched to Gnome. KDE seems a little flashier and is more bleeding edge, but it seems to be less stable. Gnome doesn't seem as pretty, but everything works.

  • RHEL is enterprisey (long-term support, software versions are pulled forward only under extreme duress), OpenSUSE is a community distribution, up to date software with relatively short life. No wonder you like OpenSUSE better. I only wonder why not RHEL + Fedora, they are a better match.
    – vonbrand
    Jan 18, 2013 at 2:37

I'm using Gentoo since 6 years now and would never use another Distribution again. But starting with Gentoo can be really difficult — like others already wrote here but you are going to learn a lot about Linux and how much faster it is to use a command line rather than a GUI.

But Gentoo is not the best choice for a old Laptop some software takes hours to compile (Libreoffice, gcc, qt, boost) using distributed compiling with distcc is a nice idea but not always possible.

About the other distributions our there

At work I manage different servers most of them are running with Debian. Debian is a great distribution, huge software catalogue... with dated software packages, long term support, big userbase, easy to install and easy to administrate.

Ubuntu is like Debian but more beginner-friendly, my grandma uses ubuntu on her old vaio and likes it. But Ubuntu can be really slow, Linux Mint or Lubuntu fits better for your old Laptop.

SuSE — I haven't used SuSE for years, one of my best friends uses it (switched from Gentoo to Debian to SuSE) and is happy with it. For me SuSE still is something like a pile of software with a linux kernel.

Fedora is nice, you can run into some minor Problems if you want to listen to your MP3 Collection.

Distributions (almost) no one knows

Zenwalk Linux — Light Linux based on Slackware, works good on Low End Systems
PCLinuxOS — used it for a while, has its roots in Red Hat Linux

And don't forget: Ubuntu is Linux, Linux is not Ubuntu — many people seem to forget that.


I guess you choose; you are the one that is in need of a operating system that will accompany your needs. I didn't really choose what I'm using now, linux mint, I just fell onto it. I've only tried one other, ubuntu, for fun on live CDs. Then when I acquired a spare laptop I needed an operating system so I looked around my CD cases and the only distribution I could find was linux mint. I put it in installed, and just messed around with it and now I'm attached to it. It works great, smooth, and it's appealing. I couldn't choose with so many different distributions, I'd try them all and find what works and what doesn't, but for now I'll stick to one and see how far I can advance overall.

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    This should be a comment, I think. It is generic and doesn't give what to look for in choosing a distribution. Helpful, but maybe not as an answer.
    – vgoff
    Nov 14, 2012 at 22:20

Normal PC/laptop/notebook?

Stick Ubuntu on and that is it. No thought involved.

There is no 'specific tasks for specific users' aspect to one's choice. It is all about community support and Ubuntu has the biggest community including SE Ubuntu.

If you need help getting a given PC hardware setup to work with Linux then it helps if the answers are google-able. Same with software. It helps if you have the .deb file and can 'just click on it' rather than have to compile it from source. There is no conceivable reason why you would want a less popular distro. OpenSuSe gets bigged-up by some, but isn't it tainted by Microsoft?

We all like video and music, Ubuntu — being South African and not bogged down by U.S. laws — gets a lot of better CODEC support out the box. The Red Hat distros (including Fedora) don't have the CODECs — and you don't want a mute notebook do you?

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    I've not seen other distro's with more or less support for codecs? and size of community is important... but more important is quality and that the community is at least of size X (I don't have a # for X just that it has to have a community big enough to sustain it). Gentoo has a small community these days, but gentoo-ers and prior gentoo-ers can answer more questions about Ubuntu, than most ubuntu-ers. They simply had to know more about how things worked to use gentoo. Jun 5, 2011 at 14:43
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    Why do you say Ubuntu is South African?
    – tshepang
    Jun 5, 2011 at 18:29
  • "no thought involve"? That's quite brutal and you seem to politicise a distribution. All distributions have communities behind them, and the size of the community is not necessarily an advantage if it is not well organised or does not listen to its users. Dec 24, 2011 at 1:13
  • "Support for CODECS" is really exactly the same... just that some distributions can't ship them for legal (and/or philosophical) reasons, others don't care or live in a different legal environment, and ship them with no concience qualms.
    – vonbrand
    Jan 18, 2013 at 2:40

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