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Ubuntu? Fedora? Mint? Debian? We'll find you the right Linux to swallow

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Distro guide Linux, it is said, is all about choice. Indeed, the ability to choose, well, pretty much everything, is probably the best thing about Linux. But the huge variety from which you can choose - ranging from distro and desktop to window manager - can also be overwhelming for newcomers.

If you've ever thought about abandoning Windows or Mac OS X for Linux, but stopped short because you weren't sure which variety of Linux to choose, this guide is for you.

It would be impossible to filter through every single Linux distribution and attempt to find the definitive one for every situation. There are simply too many distros out there - DistroWatch, a site devoted to tracking such things, lists hundreds of distros you can choose from.

Noobs will likely be best off sticking with one of the "major" distros. That is, distros with a large user base and a lot of developers working hard to improve them on a regular basis. Currently that means Ubuntu, Mint, Fedora, OpenSuSE and perhaps, for those that want more of an adventure, plain Debian.

While I suggest actually installing a big-name distro to start with, that doesn't mean you shouldn't feel free to experiment with distros of all shapes and sizes. In fact, just because you've settled on one distro for a while doesn't mean you can't jump ship whenever you want. Just install VirtualBox and try out any distro that catches your eye in a virtual machine. If you find one you like better than your current choice - install it. It's that simple.

So how do you find the right distro for you? First off you need to figure out what's important to you. Do you want something where everything works out of the box or are you looking for something where you can customise every detail of the user interface? Do you want only free software or are you okay with proprietary drivers and non-free apps like Adobe Flash?

Figure out what your priorities are and then see how each distro addresses them.

In my experience there are three good indicators of how well a distro will suit the Linux newcomer switching from Windows.

The first is, how big and how active is the community around the distro? And I don't just mean the user forums on the distro's website, but the global community of users, bloggers, IRC chatters and so on. If you're new to Linux you're going to have questions. Sometimes the answers you need may be in the documentation, but more often than not you'll turn to Google for help and that's where popular distros with lots of users and dedicated sites can be a huge help. Want to know how you can customise Ubuntu? There are dozens of blogs out there that can walk you through the process. Need to know why Gnome Do isn't working quite the way you'd like in Mint? Again, dozens of sites that can help.

When it comes to active, helpful communities, it's hard to beat Ubuntu and its cousin Mint. Fedora also has a rich community, though there don't seem to be quite as many Fedora blogs. OpenSuSE seems to be a distant third choice when it comes to community, though that may be because it has some of the best documentation you'll find in a Linux distro, which means there's less call for in depth tutorials elsewhere.

The second thing to look for in any prospective Linux distro is the software setup, namely: how good is the software manager and how big are the distro's software repositories?

There are thousands and thousands of open-source applications waiting for you in Linux land, but that variety is worthless if you can't find the best app for your needs. To do that you need a software manager with powerful search features and preferably some extras like user ratings and ideally some screenshots.

And of course you need access to a wide variety of apps. Adding new repositories to your list of software sources is not terribly difficult, but ideally you shouldn't need to do that when you're just starting out with Linux.

Again you'll find that Mint and Ubuntu are the standouts here. Both come with a wide variety of the basic apps pre-installed, and offer easy access to all the multimedia codecs and proprietary drivers you might need. Both also have very easy-to-use software managers.

OpenSuSE likewise has a slick software center and offers a large selection of apps.

Fedora doesn't rank quite as high in terms of the software installation interface, which lacks a powerful search function. Fedora does have a great selection of software available, but finding it and installing it can sometimes be a chore.

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