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Best stability & security
The most stable and secure
Debian has a special team focused on auditing the most important packages for any security issues. If anything arises, it’s quickly taken care of and the security update is released as soon as possible. The Debian team has always been able to patch security vulnerabilities in time and this has earned them a great deal of trust and respect in the community, that is why most production servers in the wild are running Debian or some Debian derivative (such as Ubuntu). Debian follows a long-term support release schedule. When a new stable version is released (about once a year) the old version will be supported and will receive security updates for one more year. This means that a Debian version will stay very secure for up to 2 years.
Very large and active community
Debian has a very large following. It’s one of the most popular distributions out there and the community is very helpful. Any questions asked in the Debian forums or mailing list is answered in a timely manner, sometimes as quickly as 15 minutes. Because of this large following, there’s also a lot of packages being developed for Debian with the official repositories having over 37,500 packages available.
No support for non-free hardware
If you're using hardware with closed-source drivers, it may be a bit of a hassle to set Debian up properly. You need to search and track down the drivers yourself because they may not be available from the Debian repositories. Most of the time you’ll need to compile the drivers yourself, not an easy task for someone without much Linux experience.
Other things to note
Debian has the largest support for hardware architectures than any other distribution. Making it a great fit not only for desktops, but for other kinds of computers as well. However, because of the focus on stability, most of the packages being used are not always updated to the latest release versions.
I have been running Debian in production servers and my laptop and desktop for years now and I never had a crash or any major issue which has not been as a direct consequence of my actions. It has always worked on any laptop or desktop I’ve put it on and the installation has always been a breeze even if sometimes it failed to find drivers for my graphics cards or Wifi so I had to hunt down and find the necessary drivers myself. It has some minor annoyances that don’t make it an ideal distribution for a total beginner but for anyone who wants a distribution that will get things done and needs minimal maintenance, Debian is the way to go!
Best for beginners
Linux Mint is the best distribution aimed at people who have never used Linux before or those who want a simple Linux distribution. The installation process is very easy and straightforward and takes no more than 15 minutes to complete. The bare installation comes with lots of software that the average user needs, such as LibreOffice and GIMP.
The easiest Linux distribution
Right from the start, when installing Mint, it’s immediately apparent its main goal is to be as easy as possible. The installation procedure is done through a graphical user interface (no command line knowledge needed), it’s very straightforward and all the complicated procedures are automatically done. Mint comes bundled with software for completing the most common tasks such as browsing the web, editing pictures, browsing files, watching videos and even a full office suite (LibreOffice). An average user can use Mint right away after a fresh install, making use of all the software that comes with the distribution to complete most of their daily tasks.
Aimed at people who have never used Linux before
Mint is designed to “just work” out of the box without any additional configuration for people only interested in getting their work done and not spend time tinkering with their operating system. But being a Linux distribution, it also allows a degree of control that is perfect for a beginner who wants to learn more and perhaps use something more customizable in the future. Mint’s default desktop environment is very similar to Windows and with an application menu reminiscent of the Windows 7 Start Menu, making the switch for people coming from Windows even easier.
Prone to security issues
Auto updates for some critical parts of the system such as Xorg and the kernel are turned off by default. This is done to help beginners from accidentally ruining their system in case an update causes issues because of incompatibilities with hardware or other software already installed. However, this also becomes a big security risk. Since a lot of updates also fix security vulnerabilities, users who do not know about this may not update their system frequently enough, increasing the risk of receiving an attack through a bug or issue which has been fixed in newer versions of what they are running.
Other things to note
Mint uses the same package ecosystem as Debian, giving users a massive amount of packages to choose from. However, it has some issues with the update process, where system updates sometimes cause problems and may make the whole system unstable. The package manager is also not as powerful as what you may find in other distributions, even though it’s a modified version of Debian’s package manager, a lot of the features are blocked for the sake of simplicity.
I moved to Mint from Windows when I decided to try something new. I had heard about Ubuntu and Debian before as user-friendly distributions but I decided to go with Mint since the UI seemed much more familiar coming from Windows. As soon as I installed it (the process is quite easy even if I had never done it before) I was ready to get to work and do my usual tasks like browsing the web and checking my email. Maintaining the system is extremely easy as well, things almost never break and if they do, it’s very easy to find the solution online. Highly recommended for beginners or even experienced users who want a distribution that simply works.
Best for customization
Arch is the most customizable Linux distribution. You only get the bare system to work with when doing a fresh install which can then be customized to be as slim or as copious as you want it to be. All the packages (including the kernel) are always updated to their latest version, making it possible to always be on the bleeding edge.
The most customizable distro
Arch tries to be very simplistic, giving users a blank slate to customize their system how they see fit. Everything is as minimal and simple as possible out of the box and everything is left to the user to customize. On the first installation, only a bare system is set up and the user only has a terminal window to work with, then it’s up to the user to install whatever they need and customize everything how they see fit. This, coupled with the huge amount of packages available in the Arch repositories, give users more power than any other Linux distribution.
Most up-to-date software
With Arch, users are always using the most up-to-date software. Arch Linux follows a rolling release model which allows users to stay on the bleeding edge of both the operating system and software they are using. This means always having the latest features available and increased security, since new security issues are always being patched as soon as possible.
No hand-holding, everything is done manually
Even before installing it, there’s a lot of reading to be done. The install process for Arch is manual and is done through the command line, unlike most distros that have GUI-based installers. Most of the configuration is done with configuration files which understandably is not something everyone is comfortable with. The documentation and Arch Wiki, however, are excellent at explaining almost everything and are great learning resources not only for Arch but for Linux in general.
Other things to note
The documentation and support is excellent, If something runs on Linux, chances are you can find it as a package in the Arch repositories or the AUR (Arch User Repository) and the package manager itself is excellent. However, you need to know what you are doing and adapt the information from the wiki to your use-case. Upgrading the system without prior reading is always a gamble, since the rolling release model means that packages are not tested thoroughly.
I was a little hesitant at first, having heard a lot about how hard Arch is to install and configure. Despite being relatively inexperienced with the command line, it was easy enough to install the OS following one of the hundreds of guides that can be found online and with a bit of research for things that were unique to my use-case. Even with the so-called fragility of the system, being bleeding edge, I've found support for this to be much better than, other distributions I have used in the past. While you can have updates/upgrades that break things with any distribution, with Arch I can fairly quickly find bug reports of the issue and discussions, along with pending fixes.
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How they compare
Ease of use
The installation process for Mint is very easy and straightforward. It’s GUI installer allows even someone who has never installed an operating system before to complete it in around 15 minutes. If you want all the default settings, just hit next every time, set the timezone and locale and you are set.
The bare Linux Mint installation comes with almost everything an average user may need to complete their daily tasks. This includes a web browser, image editing program, and a full office suite. Everything is configured to be able to be used out of the box so most of the time there will be no need for unnecessary configuration.
The default desktop environment has a start menu similar to that of Windows 7, making the transition for Windows users as painless as possible.
The Debian installer is GUI-based and pretty straightforward. Even a beginner can get up and running in about 20 minutes by following a tutorial for some complicated parts (such as disk partitioning). Other than that, everything should be easy enough and all the user needs to do is choose the locale, timezone and the desktop environment they need to use.
Comes with some applications needed for day-to-day use such as a web browser and much more depending on the desktop environment of choice.
- Debian needs a bit of configuration during the first set up. Nothing extreme like Arch, but some parts of the OS need a bit of tweaking to work as needed. For example, the desktop environment or window manager will need to be configured to work and look how the user wants them to. The user may also need to add additional sources in case they want to use non-free drivers or packages (such as Adobe Flash), which requires some knowledge on how the package manager and configuration files work.
The installation procedure for Arch is not as streamlined as it is for other distributions. Even an experienced Linux user will need to keep the documentation and the ArchWiki on hand when installing Arch the first couple of times. Everything is done through the command line without a GUI to guide you through.
There is very little hand-holding that Arch does for its users. While the documentation is great, you are expected to know what you're doing. The result is that when you find the solution for a problem on a forum or elsewhere, the response may be completely over your head. If you're not well-versed in Linux, what would be a minor issue on another distribution can become a drawn-out research project on Arch, as you learn all the inner workings of the operating system, until you understand it well enough to solve your problems yourself.
Arch comes with very little out of the box. A bare Arch installation includes only the core packages and very little else. You need to install X and a window manager or a desktop environment yourself from the Arch repositories if you want to have access to a GUI for example.
Debian is one of the oldest and most popular distros out there. Its popularity means you will almost always be able to find a solution for your problem just by doing a web search, or if by chance nobody has had the problem you are having it's very easy to ask the community and quickly get a solution.
Because of its popularity, Debian has a lot of applications available which range from productivity programs to business software, games and development tools. It comes with over 37,500 packages (software that is precompiled and ready to be installed on a local machine)--all of them for free.
- The official documentation is decent, but not as good as the Arch Wiki. In fact, even the Debian project leader admitted to being jealous of the Arch Wiki in an AMA.
The preferred way to get things done with Arch is through organized and well-documented configuration files, which in turn help keep everything as organized and simplistic as possible. This focus, combined with the community's recognition that configuration files can be intimidating, has resulted in excellent documentation that's accessible to newcomers, and very instructive about how Linux actually works. The documentation is often so thorough that, when searching for solutions to problems while using other distributions, such as with video card drivers, oftentimes you'll find the most effective solution in the Arch Linux wiki or on the forums.
If searching through the wiki or the forums for any problems turns nothing, any question on the official forums, Arch subreddit or the IRC channel will be answered within minutes. There will probably be no hand-holding however, as Arch users prefer to point anyone to a resource that may help them instead of trying to outright solve their problem in a forum thread. This is quite helpful for people who want to really learn how their system works but also for other people who may stumble in that thread considering how most problems don’t have a universal solution.
The ArchLinux User Repository (AUR) is a large repository with over 36000 build/install scripts maintained by users. If you want to install a package and it’s not available on the official repositories, chances are it will be available in the AUR. This means that an Arch user will have to compile a package from source very rarely and almost any package can be installed through a package manager.
- Arch users are usually experienced Linux users or at least very willing to learn how their system works. This is reflected in the forums as well where users will rarely spell out the solution for you, instead they point you the right way (usually an entry on the Arch wiki) where you can look for the solution to your problem.
Linux Mint has been gaining a lot of popularity lately. It is the most hit page on DistroWatch and has a dedicated user base that is constantly growing. Mint’s following is still much smaller than Debian or Arch though.
Mint, being an Ubuntu derivative, supports both Debian and Ubuntu packages. While the number of Mint-only packages is fewer compared to other distributions, this is because those packages are versions of existing Ubuntu or Debian ones that do not work on Mint.
- Since Mint’s community is quite small, it may be hard to find an answer to any Mint-related problem you might have just by doing a web search. The community is very helpful though and you will quickly get an answer in the Mint official forums. However, if the problem is not a Mint-only problem, you will probably be able to find the solution by searching the Ubuntu or Debian forums.
- Even though the release schedule for Debian is slower than Arch, security updates are released on a timely basis whenever the need arises. This means that constantly updating a Debian system will ensure that the packages you are using will be as secure as possible.
Arch’s focus on simplicity and customizability forces the user to learn about their system and what every package does. A careful user can take extra steps to make their system as secure as possible when configuring it.
Packages in an Arch system are always up to date. Frequent updates are an extremely important feature that a secure system must have because any new security vulnerability that is discovered is quickly patched. Compared to distributions that have a slower update schedule which are vulnerable to certain attack vectors for a longer time, Arch is much more secure as long as everything is configured correctly.
- The extreme freedom that Arch gives its users can be a security vulnerability in its own right. If something is not configured correctly or if the wrong package is installed from AUR it can mean trouble.
- Mint uses packages from both Ubuntu and Debian, which means as long as updates for important parts of the system (kernel and Xorg) are turned on, it should be almost as secure as Debian.
- Auto updates for some critical parts of the system such as Xorg and the kernel are turned off by default. This is done to prevent beginners from accidentally ruining their system in case an update causes issues due to incompatibilities with hardware or previously installed software. However, this also becomes a big security risk. Since a lot of updates also fix security vulnerabilities, users who are unaware about this may not update their system frequently enough, increasing the risk of receiving an attack through a bug or issue which has already been fixed in newer versions.
- Arch comes with very little out of the box. A bare Arch installation includes only the core packages and very little else. This gives the user complete choice of packages to use, even for low-level tasks such as what display server or network manager to use. You can easily get the other applications through the package manager. That way you don't have to waste time with software you don't need or want.
- Arch does not restrict the user as far as configuration goes, nor does it do any hand-holding. If something can be changed to behave how the user wants it to, Arch won’t stop it.
- If you need to install something, chances are someone in the Arch community has already made a package for it. This makes it incredibly easy for you to install and maintain all of the non-media content on your computer.
- Debian offers users different installation images for lots of desktop environments. There are images for GNOME, KDE Plasma Workspaces, XFCE and LXDE. You can also install other, less common desktop environments or window managers from the Debian repositories once you have installed Debian on your machine.
- Setting up and using closed-source software in Debian is a bit of a hassle. You have to enable the non-free repository in your repository sources list. Hardware with proprietary drivers are also hard to setup and configure in Debian. You have to track down the driver and if it’s not available in the repository, you have to download it and build it yourself.
- Mint’s focus on being as simple as possible comes with the cost of severely limiting the user’s control over the operating system. For example, it comes ready to go with lots of applications out of the box, most of which a user may never need. It also makes a lot of assumptions on what settings to use for things like updates and the package manager, which is a very limited version of Debian’s and Ubuntu’s package manager.
- APT is the most popular package manager for Linux used today. This is a result of so many Linux distributions that have been built on Debian and also use the same package manager. This makes the transition from one Debian-based distribution to the next a breeze.
- The syntax for APT is very easy to understand and remember. Instead of using flags like
-sS, APT uses natural language keywords such as
searchwhich are easier to remember.
- Pacman (Arch’s package manager) works much faster than apt-get or yum due to better mirrors than other distributions tend to select by default. There are fewer default repositories to download from though all package management is combined into one tool instead of being split into dpkg, apt-get, and apt-cache like on Debian distros.
- The AUR is a repository with a very extensive catalogue of build/install scripts that are contributed by users. While these scripts are inherently less secure than conventional packages maintained by a distribution's authors, it's still way easier to verify the security of install scripts than it would be to write them yourself.
- Since it mainly uses flags (for example
-Ssfor searching) it is a bit hard to learn and memorize pacman’s syntax. This forces users to consult the manual every time they want to do some non-trivial things with it.
- Mint uses the same package manager as Debian. It inherits most of its advantages, at least superficially. It uses the same syntax as Debian’s APT but is a much more restricted version of that package manager. It’s much slower and forces the user to select and install one package at a time, instead of allowing the user to install multiple packages at once like Debian does.
- Every time an update is released for the current stable version, all packages have been thoroughly tested on multiple hardware and configurations. It’s highly unlikely for an update to break anything in a Debian system.
- The LTS release cycle means that a Debian version will be supported and remain stable for at least 2 years if not more.
- Being a Ubuntu-based distro which in turn is based on Debian, Mint is a very stable distribution in its own right. Ubuntu updates are usually the same as Debian which then translate to Mint updates. While not as stable as Debian (which relies on a huge community of users willing to test packages and versions) it’s still quite stable in its own right, hardly ever breaking after an update.
- Updating an Arch system is always a gamble. The problem could be as simple as a package having a bug causing a program to crash on start; or it may be something bigger like the WiFi or Bluetooth no longer working. There is also the slight chance the system may not even boot at all after a large update.
- Every year or so there is a update to ArchLinux that will break your system unless you first read the front page of archlinux.org. This may happen with an update to any critical part of your system (such as the software that runs the graphical user interface or the network connectivity).
Is there any way to try a Linux distribution on my computer without having to delete my old OS?
Yes. Many distributions have
.iso images that can be flashed on a USB Flash Drive which you can then use to boot your PC from without installing or deleting anything. This allows you to try out a distribution without having to do a long-term commitment.
If you want to have more than one operating system installed on your PC, you can multi-boot and have two or more operating systems installed on your PC (for example Windows and a Linux distro). This way you can use both Linux and Windows if you want.
Can I use Windows applications in Linux?
Yes. You can use Wine which is a compatibility layer between Linux and Windows and lets users use Windows applications in any Linux distribution. Most popular applications run fine but some applications which are not that well-known may have some issues and may be slow.
What is a desktop environment?
A desktop environment (DE for short) is a bundle of programs that run on top of the OS and that share a common graphical user interface. In other words, the visual interface in a Linux distribution is the desktop environment.
If a distribution is Ubuntu-based and has access to Ubuntu's package repositories. Is it possible to install Unity from that?
It may be in their repo, been a while since I tried it out, so am unsure. I think with the themes switcher and themes they offer, they are just mimicking popular DE looks, with a custom Compiz plugin (similar to Unity). So basically have two themes locked behind purchasing their Business and Ultimate versions.
Do you really need to read on the forums or Reddit before updating an Arch system?
Usually I don't check forums or anything before updating, because there are a lot of packages and a lot of potential issues. If something is messed up after an update - I will notice it and then will go googling. In most cases i can find solution in first 10 links of results.
If you want to use Arch for production servers - it won't do, because there is always a non-zero possibility