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Best GNU/Linux Distros for you Grandma and You

Written on 05/07/21

If you still don’t know about GNU/Linux, and still use Windows/MacOS in 2021 (8 years after Snowden), you should really consider switching to GNU/Linux for a more secure, convenient and private computing life.

What is GNU slash Linux??

GNU/Linux is a family of Free and Open Source Operating systems. The development of this operating system was started by Mr. Richard Matthew Stallman (aka RMS) in 1983 when he announced the GNU Project, which was aimed at giving computer users full freedom over their software, right down from the operating sytem up to the userspace programs.

In 1991, when most of the components of the ‘GNU Operating System’ were complete except the kernel (also known as ‘the heart of an operating system’), Mr. Linus Torvalds of the University of Helsinki, Finland, created his own kernel named Torvalds’ Minix at the time. This kernel, due to the incompleteness of the GNU Project’s ‘Hurd’ kernel, was chosen as the kernel for the GNU Operating System for the time being, after Torvalds released it as ‘Free Software’. ‘Torvald’s Minix’ was renamed as ‘Linux’ later.

What is Free Software? Why such a long name like GNU slash Linux?

“Free software” means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:

For more information, you can refer to the official definition and explanation of Free Software at https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html.

This operating system is called ‘GNU/Linux’, because the GNU operating system is incomplete without a kernel (provided by Linux) and the Linux kernel is incomplete without a full operating system (provided by GNU). You cannot call the full operating system (along with the kernel) the GNU operating system, as Linux is not a GNU Project program, and you cannot call it just ‘Linux’ either, as Linux is just a kernel and needs other components of the operating system (provided by GNU), and by not using GNU’s name, you shall be disrespecting the works of the GNU project (on a purely ethical basis, you’re not obliged to say the GNU Project’s name).

Sounds cool, how can I install it? Do I have to buy it?

As GNU/Linux is Free Software (free as in freedom), everyone is allowed to modify and redistribute it. Due to this, there is no single packaged GNU/Linux operating system, as in the case with Windows or MacOS. Instead, different groups people package this operating system with various other tools, required to setup the system for actual work effortlessly, and each software collection is called a ‘Distribution, often shortened to ’distro’. There are hundreds of such GNU/Linux distributions for different use cases. For example, we have Ubuntu, which is the most popular GNU/Linux distribution currently, Debian, on which Ubuntu is based upon, Arch Linux, a distribution popular among power users, Fedora, an IBM-backed distribution for people who want their system to just work, Linux Mint, a beginner-friendly distribution, and many others.

Although there are some distributions which are sold for a price, most distributions are both Free as in Freedom, and Free as in Free Beer. Yes, you don’t need to pay for most distributions. Just download the ISO files for it, flash it and install it!

What distro should I use?

Depends on your use case. You can have a difficult time trying to find the best distribution for you, as nothing is perfect. That’s why there are thousands of guides on the internet for it, with me adding another one to it here. The list which I am going to provide, is purely my recommendations. There are hundreds of distributions which may be better suited for a usecase, but I am only recommending those which I find good.

Best Distro for Beginners - Linux Mint

Linux Mint is the best distribution I can find for beginners. With a Windows-like user interface, inbuilt Device Driver Manager and several drivers, and lots of preloaded applications to get you setup and running in minutes, this distribution works out of the box. Based on Ubuntu/Debian (by using the same repositories and package manager) , this distribution boasts a huge software library, with more than 50,000 packages (packages as in an app store, like Microsoft Store in Windows, Play Store in Android).

Best Distro for Beginners coming for former Mac users - elementaryOS

elementaryOS is yet another Ubuntu-based distribution, but instead of having a Windows-like feel as in Mint, this distro has a Mac-like feel, with a dock at the bottom and a bar at the top. If you want to get out of the proprietary walled-gardens of Apple, but still want the cohesive and beautiful user interface of MacOS, this distro is perfect for you. The Software Center of this distribution has a unique feature, instead of making you pay for every single thing like in MacOS, this Software Center gives you the option to pay-what-you-want. Yes, you can pay 100$ if you like the app, or pay 0$ (nothing) if you don’t want to pay. Some hail the user interface of this distro as the most beautiful you can get. Beauty still lies in the eyes of the beholder though.

Best Distro for experienced users - Debian

After you get some experience with GNU/Linux with beginner-friendly distributions, you should switch to other distributions to learn more about this Free Operating system. Debian is one of the oldest GNU/Linux distribution alive, with history dating back to 1993. This distribution is so stable, that stability has become synonymous with Debian in the GNU/Linux world. However, this stability comes with a price, and the price is having horribly old packages, which are kept to ensure stability. Luckily, there are options to be more ‘bleeding-edge’ while still using Debian if you’re experienced enough, with its two other Stability-levels ‘Debian Testing’ and ‘Debian Unstable’. Debian Testing is just a testing build of the next major version of ‘Debian Stable’. Debian Unstable is the bleeding edge version, which is doomed to never be released and has constant inflow of latest packages, which often result in unstability.

Best Distro for Power Users - Arch Linux

Arch GNU/Linux is one of the most popular distributions. Installation is done with the command-line, no official graphical installer, which results in a highly customized system. This distro is a so-called ‘rolling release’, which means that as soon as the software developers release a new version of the software, it is pushed to the users as updates. There is no holding back of releases to ensure stability. One of the other important features of this distro, is the existence of the ‘Arch User Repository’, which contains software that is not in the official repositories, and is fully maintained by the community. Due to the Arch User Repository (AUR), Arch has probably the most number of packages in the GNU/Linux distribution world.

Best Distro for people who want absolute customizability - Gentoo

Gentoo GNU/Linux is probably the most customizable distribution you can get other than creating a distribution yourself from scratch. Ever piece of software is compiled from source with a program called ‘Portage’, with several build-time options to configure your software with features not available to add/remove with pre-compiled packages as in other distributions. This results in more customizability than you can get with Arch GNU/Linux. Due to this high level of customizability, this distribution is also called a ‘meta-distribution’ to create your own personal customized distribution. This insane customizability comes with a price, the huge compile times. Large programs like a web browser can take 5-24 hours to compile and install!

Best Distribution for full freedom - Parabola GNU/Linux-libre

All these distributions (except maybe Gentoo) provide you with non-free software, which are meant to take away your freedom just for some little convenience. Non-free software is down from the kernel level to the user-space program level. If you don’t want to be controlled by your software and want yourself to control the software, you may want to get a fully free distribution like Parabola GNU/Linux-libre, an Arch based distribution without non-free software. It also uses the Linux-libre kernel, which is a non-free ‘blob’ removed kernel based on Linux. This freedom comes at a price, and that price is lack of device drivers, which may mean that your Wifi card may not work, or your nVIDIA GPU will not have hardware-acceleration and instead have stuttering and screen tearing.

These are all my personal recommendations. Other people may recommend other distributions, I won’t disagree with them unless they do too wrong in their work. I personally use Gentoo on my desktop, and an Ubuntu-based distro (KDE neon), on my laptop. The desktop also has a Linux Mint dual-boot, but I rarely use it.

This is boring to read

Alright, come back next Monday to read new blog posts. Au revoir!