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The Buffet of Desktop Linux Distribution Choices

The Buffet

Nearly every person in the western world has experienced a buffet meal where all of the choices are laid out in plain view with as much or as little of each item ending up on the plate as desired. This concept is virtually unknown in the poor places of the world where food is so scarce the only choice is between eating or not.

The first introduction to a buffet can seem overwhelming and confusing for those not used to so much choice. Having a selection of totally unfamiliar foods only makes the process of choice that much harder.

How do you find out what you like and what you don't? The most direct way is to take a small taste of everything and then go back for a larger helping of only those things you liked.

What if the buffet has too many choices to taste everything? This is where it helps to listen to the experience of others. If a lot of other people like something, maybe it is worth a small taste to see if you agree.

Step Up To The Buffet

If you find yourself sitting at the Microsoft® dinner table with your only choice between small and large Windows™, maybe it is time to check out the Linux buffet. Don't worry. Just like your first introduction to the buffet concept for food, this will take a little exploring but you just might find something both tasty and satisfying.


Since Linux is a free operating system that encourages everyone to take the source code and build their own operating system, a large number of different projects have started packaging Linux each in a different way with a different collection of programs and different default settings. These packages are called distributions. At first this may seem a little confusing or overwhelming to someone coming from the commercial closed-source software world where the only operating system choice is between home and professional versions. The adventure of taste testing can be very enjoyable and educational at the same time.

Some Perspective

The Linux choices get a little easier if you can step back and look at more than just the distribution itself, but also at the group working to create that distribution.

For example, we like Linux Mint which is based on Ubuntu (one of the more popular Linux distributions), but Linux Mint and Ubuntu are not the best desktop Linux for everyone. Far from it.

Where To Start

If you are new to Linux, a good place to start your buffet adventure is distrowatch.com because they keep a current list of distributions with their handy popularity ranking to help you start tasting where you see a large number of other people tasting. Consider this ranking as nothing more than an indication of what part of the buffet is getting the most attention at the moment. Sometimes the attraction is a novelty that grabs the imagination. Sometimes it is a hot juicy dish cooked just right. Sometimes it is a creative confection. In all cases, the fresh item always seems to attract attention.

I periodically download the latest ISO (CD or DVD disk images) from the most popular distributions and boot them up on a spare PC or in a virtual machine just to see what they have to offer.

Some of these distributions are professional and very solid. Some are jam packed with eye candy sometimes even pushing the limits a little too far for my modest hardware. Some have a customized Graphical User Interface (GUI) that can feel a lot like like Mac or Windows. Some are obviously aiming in a different and more creative direction. Personally using and exploring these different distributions is the best way to find something that fits your taste. Every now and then I find something interesting, but most of the time this review process just helps me feel comfortable with my current choice.

I still choose Linux Mint which is a little less slick and flashy compared to some. I choose Linux Mint mostly because it has a very active development team, a reliable release schedule twice each year and a core mission statement declaring their best version will always be free. It also helps that they have real funding behind the effort. This is important because lack of funding is where historically popular distributions like Mandrake (now known as Mandriva) lost their momentum and early market lead. On the other hand, lack of a free taste version keeps purely commercial distributions like Linspire (formerly known as Lindows) and Xandros from ever gaining much popularity in a buffet otherwise full of free tastes.

The Live CD Experience

It also helps that the Linux Mint DVD boots directly into the fully functional operating system before it installs anything. Look for other distributions with live CD or live DVD versions. If you like what you see and everything works to your satisfaction, an icon on the desktop installs to the hard drive. Oh, and while you are installing your new Linux distribution you still get to do other things like play games and use Firefox to surf the web.

Well, that is my suggestion for something to taste while visiting the desktop Linux buffet. Do a little taste testing of your own and see what you like.

First published 2007-12-21. The last major review or update of this information was on 2013-03-15. Your feedback using the form below helps us correct errors and omissions on this page.