THE POST IS A BIT OUTDATED AND IT'S BEEN AGES SINCE I'VE BEEN HERE, I WILL UPDATE IT SOON!
If you're new to Linux familiarize yourself with all the different versions, aka "Distros", which you can find at Distrowatch
If you consider yourself the average, or below average computer user, looking for the simplest path to Linux, then you'll want one of the Top Five Distros on Distrowatch
You can't always get away from learning, even with the simplest of Linux distros there's still a learning curve. Sooner or later with any operating system you're going to run across problems, because software isn't perfect, and you'll need some knowledge.
If you're not sure about your hardware, and the software support you need with the ease of use, again pick one of the top five distros listed on Distrowatch. They are the top picks simply because they support the widest range of hardware and software no matter what your needs are. If you don't read on, you're going to miss out on some cool stuff to help you make life easier in Linux!
To begin, I'm not here to tell you one is better then the other, because the truth is there are many great distros. Linux is about making choices for yourself, rather than someone else telling you which one is the best.
In all Linux distros there are many different desktops out there to choose from, but Gnome, KDE, and Xfce are the most popular. Gnome: http://www.lynucs.org/?gnome KDE: http://www.kde.org/screenshots/ Xfce: http://www.xfce.org/about/screenshots New Edition(s) that started becoming popular: LXDE: http://lxde.org/
Next we have Window Managers. This means something that "Manages Windows". Gnome, KDE, and other desktops have their own, but these can be replaced by other managers to give a new look, feel, and functionality. Many window managers can also be run by themselves as a "Stand Alone" desktop.
What does all this mean regarding desktops, and window managers? It's called productivity, the ways in which you want to handle your tasks. These choices will help you to bring out, find your best efficiency. Here is some Information on Wikipedia about X Window Managers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Window_managers
There are several window managers out there. These are only a few of the more popular ones. AfterStep: http://www.afterstep.org/look.php Blackbox: http://blackboxwm.sourceforge.net/BlackboxStyles Enlightenment: http://www.enlightenment.org/ Fluxbox: http://fluxbox.sourceforge.net/screenshots-dev.php FVWM: http://www.fvwm.org/screenshots/desktops/ Openbox: http://openbox.org/wiki/Openbox:Screenshots Window Maker: http://www.windowmaker.info/gallery.php Xwinman is the most complete list of desktops, and window managers for Linux: http://xwinman.org/
Windows management in Linux has never looked better since OpenGL acceleration came along. This provides different ways and looks in managing these windows with new enhancements, and visual effects. Compiz provides Linux this new direction in window management. Compiz: http://compiz.org/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compiz Compiz-Fusion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compiz_Fusion http://wiki.compiz.org/ProjectHistory#Compiz-Fusion Here you can watch Videos of Compiz in action: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=compiz&search=Search
Moving on to packages, distros all incorporate their own ways of managing them. Besides the basic functions of installs, updates, and removal, these programs also handle other tasks dealing with packages. Some of these programs are more varied then others depending on the developers intentions, flexibility, and the ease of use intended. These programs are called "Package Managers".
These are a few of the common types of extensions you'll find with the different versions for package management, along with various spin offs from these. .deb (Debian GNU/Linux package manager): http://www.debian.org/doc/FAQ/ch-pkg_basics.en.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deb_(file_format
) .rpm (originally Redhat Package Management): http://www.rpm.org .tar (Tarball Files): http://www.gzip.org/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.tar .tar.gz (Tarball Files): http://www.gzip.org/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TGZ .tgz (Tarball Files): http://www.gzip.org/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TGZ Here are some popular package managers: Apt-Get: http://www.debian.org/doc/manuals/apt-howto/ KPackage: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KPackage Portage: http://www.gentoo.org/doc/en/handbook/handbook-x86.xml?part=2&chap=1 Rpmdrake and URPMI: http://wiki.mandriva.com/en/Docs/Basic_tasks/Installing_and_removing_software Synaptic Package Manager: http://www.nongnu.org/synaptic/action.html YaST: http://en.opensuse.org/YaST http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/YaST Yum: http://yum.baseurl.org/ Yumex (Yum Extender): http://www.yum-extender.org/cms/modules/news/index.php
Package management in each distro allows you flexibility to work with the packages to a degree, and some more then others. How flexible you want to be is up to you, the system you choose, and what your needs are. Just because a certain distro comes with it's own default manager doesn't mean you can't install another one to meet your needs better, but this isn't typically done. Some distros actually incorporate a few package managers to work with, or their default manager will run from either a GUI (Graphical User Interface), or a command terminal, where you can type commands, both allowing you different levels of flexibility by the choices you need.
So what does all of this package management mean, and how is it really going to help? Simply put, it means, "Management", the way in which you'll be able to manage them. What you really have to ask yourself here is, what kind of management would you really like to have? Here's a look at the common command terminals: Konsole: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konsole Gnome Terminal: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNOME_Terminal Xterm: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xterm
Moving on to another subject, Linux like Windows during the start up, and shutdown goes through what are known as runlevels. Different functions of the startup, or shutdown processes are accessed, known in Windows as, Normal, Safe-mode and Command prompt, etc. In Linux these are known as the User Modes, different ways in which to access the system. Besides the different modes in Linux, Services, and Daemons also come into play in these runlevels, basically in the same way as Windows does. The advantage Linux runlevels have over Windows’ boot modes is that Linux runlevels can be changed on the fly. Here is some information on runlevels, services, and daemons: Daemons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daemon_%28computer_software%29 Linux Services, Devices, and Daemons: http://www.comptechdoc.org/os/linux/howlinuxworks/linux_hlservices.htm
The runlevels most distros make use of are either the, "System V" init style, or the "BSD" init style, or a slight variation of them. Runlevel Init Information - Init Runlevels: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Init
What this runlevel system means to you is the flexibility to change the way in which a part of Linux behaves, and how you manage certain parts of it. No matter what you use Linux for, this is an important aspect of system administration, helping you to manage, and customize Linux to your needs. Runlevel information: Run levels on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runlevel Run levels on Linux.com: http://www.linux.com/news/enterprise/systems-management/8116-an-introduction-to-services-runlevels-and-rcd-scripts
With everything that has been mentioned, basically what separates most Linux distros is package management, runlevel operations, and various tools for system management.
Linux means not only choices, it's also about personal tastes, yes your own personal tastes, and that is another great quality of Linux, the ability to make it your own. That is why it's generally never wise to decide based on someone's own belief. After all we all have our own likes, and dislikes, and that is what makes Linux so attractive, customization to satisfy the needs of everyone.
I touched on a few of the differences, but there are even more. There are many cool things each one has to offer, but when it gets right down to it, no matter what all the differences are, "Linux is Linux", and you just have to decide what works for you.
Basically what you'll see as an inexperienced user until you get familiar with Linux is that hardware out the box is working in some distros and in others it's not working. This isn't correct then in assuming that one distro over the other is better because one works and the other doesn't, it's simply that the developers have configured things for you, something that can be done in any distro. This means some things have already been setup, and some have not. Distros that are not so setup are considered more hands on distros, designed for those that want to do it them self. In the end this means what one can do so can all the others, it's just a matter of what the goal of that distro was built for, new users, ease of use, or for more experienced users for a more hands on approach.
Now if you're really saying here at this point in time that this is for you, and you consider yourself to be a power user, or quite an enthusiast, then the sky's the limit, but go slow, or you might frustrate yourself with some of the more hands on distros that require more user intervention, setting up, tuning, and tweaking.
For the power user, or enthusiast that wants to jump right in then I'd suggest these distros listed below in this order, afterwards just use Distrowatch as a guide, meaning the farther they fall down the list, the less popular they become for many reasons. Debian: http://www.debian.org/ Slackware: http://www.slackware.com Gentoo: http://www.gentoo.org
Linux is a Unix http://www.unix.org/
based operating system, and if want to start out using the purest form of this, then start out with Slackware.
If you find yourself after trying any of these distros falling flat on your face in disgust, then don't worry, we've all been there. Go back to the "Top Five" picks, and get comfortable with one of them for awhile. Once you've gotten comfortable, and somewhat use to this new world, then try your luck again. Don't give up, because if you think Linux is your thing, then go for it, and have fun, but if the learning is going to be in frustration, then the journey is going to be even more painful. Just remember a good attitude learns more.
Once you've made a go of it with Debian, Slackware, and Gentoo, then after Gentoo just have at. Go where you want to go next, and have fun, but remember go slow. Linux has a lot to offer, but there is also a lot to learn.
For the hardcore that wants to learn it all, and do it all, and really take the leap off the deep end, this is the direction for you. Linux From Scratch (LFS)
For those that would like to read a comparison of Linux, and Windows, Wikipedia provides some excellent information. Comparison of Windows and Linux: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_Windows_and_Linux
Here is a comparison of Windows programs with their equal counterparts for Linux to help you with your transition. Alternatives to Windows software: http://www.linux.ie/newusers/alternatives.php Equivalent Windows applications: http://www.physics.drexel.edu/liki/index.php/Equivalent_Windows_Applications Linux software equivalent to Windows software: http://wiki.linuxquestions.org/wiki/Linux_software_equivalent_to_Windows_software Programs to help you run Windows applications and games in Linux. CodeWeavers CrossOver Linux: http://www.codeweavers.com/products/cxoffice/ QEMU: http://wiki.qemu.org/Main_Page Transgaming: http://www.transgaming.com/ TransGaming (Cedega Games Database) http://www.cedega.com/gamesdb/ Vmware: http://www.vmware.com/ Wine HQ: http://www.winehq.com/ Here are a few Linux sites with a wealth of information to help point you on your new way. The Linux Foundation: (Where The Man Linus Works!) http://www.linuxfoundation.org DesktopLinux.com: http://www.desktoplinux.com/index.html GNU.org: http://www.gnu.org/ JustLinux: http://www.justlinux.com/ Kernel.org: http://www.kernel.org/ Learning Linux.com: http://www.learninglinux.com/ Linux Central: http://linuxcentral.com/_v3/ Linux.com: http://www.linux.com/ Linux Devices: http://www.linuxfordevices.com/ LinuxInsider: http://www.linuxinsider.com/ Linux Online: http://www.linux.org/ Linux Pro Magazine: http://linuxpromagazine.com/ Linux Format: http://www.linuxformat.co.uk/ Linux For You: http://www.linuxforu.com/ Linuxhelp: http://www.linuxhelp.net Linux HQ: http://www.linuxhq.com/ Linux Journal Magazine: http://www.linuxjournal.com/ Linux on Laptops: http://www.linux-laptop.net/ Linux Magazine: http://www.linux-mag.com/ Linux Planet: http://www.linuxplanet.com/linuxplanet/ Linux for Playstation 2: http://playstation2-linux.com/ Linux for Playstation 3: http://www.playstation.com/ps3-openplatform/index.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux_for_PlayStation_3 http://psubuntu.com/ LinuxPrinting: http://www.linuxfoundation.org/collaborate/workgroups/openprinting/group LinuxQuestions.org: http://www.linuxquestions.org/ LinuxSecurity.com: http://www.linuxsecurity.com/ Linux.sys-con.com: http://linux.sys-con.com/ Linux Slashdot: http://linux.slashdot.org/ Linux Today: http://www.linuxtoday.com/ Linux USB: http://www.linux-usb.org/ Linux User and Developer: http://www.linuxuser.co.uk/ LWN: http://lwn.net/ Newsforge: http://newsforge.com The Linux Documentation Project: http://www.tldp.org/ Wii Linux: http://wiibrew.org/wiki/Wii-Linux Xbox Linux: http://www.xbox-linux.org/wiki/Main_Page http://www.free60.org/Main_Page
Down the road awhile, and after all the reading, and brain absorbing, you still find you need help, IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is one of the best ways to get live real time help.
The best OpenSource server in the world is Freenode
On freenode's site is a list for the servers to join, but the most commonly used one in North America is, irc.freenode.net. Xchat
is the tool of choice for IRC, and the most popular GUI (Graphical User Interface), IRC client that you can use. Most Linux distros either come with Xchat installed, or available to install. There are 320 distros listed on Distrowatch. The HOME page lists the Top 100 and this link
, http://distrowatch.com/stats.php?section=popularity lists the other 220. So use Distrowatch as your guide, first starting at the top, and then going from there as I have outlined in this post.
Here's what you've learned. You're going to pick a distro, it will have it's choice of desktops, window managers, package managers, runlevels, and other various tools, and overall a look, feel, and functionality that you'll either love, or hate. You'll find what you're comfortable with and that is what you're going to stick to. The key here is, YOU, what you find that suits your needs, no one else's. Through trial and error you'll find the best Linux distro, the one you like. Everyone will have their own idea of what's best, and you need to figure out yours, it's a personal choice.
Learn what the name Linux really means. Linux is the kernel, not the complete system as some believe.
Now go have fun! :)