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The Best GNU/Linux Distribution For Beginners

Posted on: 2022/04/15 | Author: Lian

One of the most common questions posted in GNU/Linux spaces online is how someone interested in a GNU/Linux system chooses which distribution goes on their virtual machine or directly onto their actual device as a first impression of the GNU/Linux world.

Traditionally, answers to this have been homogenous: try Ubuntu as it is the most popular and you can do practically everything using graphical interfaces, it is stable and long time supported, and you will find loads of tutorials and resources online about Ubuntu systems. I have a different opinion on how to approach this common problem.

What A New User Needs

The Free Software world, and by extension, the GNU/Linux world, is about choice. But if there was only one real correct choice, we would not need the concept of distributions at all. Obviously, different people have different needs, and different distributions are created and maintained in order to serve these needs.

Generally, choosing a distribution means choosing a package manager (e.g. the system for installing, updating and managing programs you have installed) along with its default repositories (e.g. which software is actually available pre-configured for the system), and the pre-installed software that comes with the distribution. For advanced users, the latter is negligible, as choosing and installing software to their liking at that point is not an issue. On a tangent, the concept of "distro-hopping" (e.g. constantly migrating from distribution to distribution) seems a bit silly as the main thing making an impact on people's experiences with a system is desktop environment/window manager, not the distribution itself.

This all is to say: while for advanced users, the choice of distribution comes down mostly to the package manager and repositories of choice, for beginners, the pre-packaged software and defaults are vastly more important and should be taken into account more.

In my opinion, the most important factors for the average GNU/Linux beginner are the following (assuming they want a daily driver that can browse the web, play media, use office suites and play video games):

I have not included the need for graphical user interfaces, as I have argued in another blog post that it is not easier to use one over the terminal. Despite being a member of the Free Software Foundation, I hold the opinion that free software is a great thing that not many people are willing to dedicate themselves to; and for a beginner, the hurdle of migrating to a GNU system is high enough and does not need to be artificially increased. I would love a world with exclusively free software, and do not support people who willingly choose to license non-freely, but I also see that right now, this is not entirely feasible for users to switch over. Free Software is a decision that has to be made by those who produce software, not by the end user. Given these requirements, it seems natural that Ubuntu is not the perfect candidate for a new user as-is. Yes, it is so popular that most questions are answered online, and yes, it has a lot of support, regular updates and an extensive repository, and its installation process is probably the easiest around. But there are some major issues that new users encounter with Ubuntu that might turn them off the GNU/Linux world as a whole long-term.

I have started with Ubuntu too, specifically Xubuntu, when I first tried out GNU/Linux many years back. And it was not exactly a pleasant experience. It worked, yes, but I ran into issues fast that I can now confidently say would not have ocurred using other distributions. First of all, the version of the Telegram messenger in the Ubuntu repositories is so old that it does not allow you to login with it anymore, essentially making it entirely useless. To my knowledge, this persists to this day. This is not an isolated issue. The slow update rate of Ubuntu and its repositories means that you trade stability for some programs not working at all, being outdated or not available in the first place.

Additionally, Ubuntu is comparatively slow, and many of the features it sports today are utterly useless for someone merely looking for a replacement for their Windows computer. If you have a problem, you will find loads of forum threads and official help threads from all over the last years and even decades, but no centralized knowledge base for troubleshooting; which can seem overpowering at first. It stands safe to say that if you want a computer that "just works", you do not necessarily want a Ubuntu computer.

The Solution

So, what is the best beginner distribution? As I have alluded to before, different people have different needs, but assuming the average beginner with the criteria I structured before, I am actually leaning into controversial territory here by recommending EndeavourOS.

To get the elephant in the room out of the way first, yes, Endeavour is Arch-based, and many people hold the firm opinion that anything Arch is not suitable for beginners. But why? Arch Linux itself has a technical installation process, but Endeavour has a graphical installer with extensive assistance and clear instructions. Its repositories are updated with lightning speed, avoiding situations like the Telegram debacle I recalled before. Like all Arch derivatives, it sports the great advantage of the AUR, the Arch User Repository, bringing its list of available packages up to the likes of Debian. Its installer gives you the choice of many different Desktop Environments but also explains what the pros and cons of each are, allowing even new users to make an informed decision. It has an update notifier that by default reminds you to update your software daily, and recommends reboots for extra stability.

Image: Screenshot of EndeavourOS' Welcome Screen showcasing many different beginner-appropriate options like automatically updating software or the mirrors.

If people overlook that Endeavour is based on the Arch boogeyman, it turns out it is a distribution with an easy installation process, great introductory software with its Quickstart Center, and even a menu shortcut to update packages without relying on the command line, if that's an issue. It comes with beautiful default themes and sensible default software, and even gives you a prompt to choose your favorite software in various fields on first startup, installing with a simple click. And with the Arch Wiki on your hands, no beginner is going to stand there wondering how to fix a common problem.

The only reason it is not often recommended is because of a general beginner aversion to the command line, which I have explained before I strongly disagree with for various reasons documented in the blog article linked a paragraph or two above this one.

If a beginner is able to go start their GNU/Linux journey with an open mind, Endeavour might just as well be the best choice for them.