There are more interesting Linux desktop distributions to choose from than ever before. However, if you're looking for major distros with a great deal of support, you'll want to look at the big four: Fedora, Mint, OpenSuse, and Ubuntu.
Each has its own outlook and methods. Thanks to Linux's customizability, you could take any of them and completely revamp it, if you wish. But unless your idea of a good time is operating system hacking, chances are you'll want a distribution that already meets your needs.
Three of the four -- Fedora, Mint, and Ubuntu -- use Gnome (Gnu Network Object Model Environment) as their default desktop interface, although they use it in very different ways. OpenSuse, on the other hand, uses KDE for its default interface.
Both Gnome and KDE have moved away from their early days when their interfaces resembled that of Windows XP. Each now tries to integrate all available resources and programs, both on the computer and online, into a single, integrated whole.
For the Gnome-based distributions this means, to one extent or another, making the Activities Overview the single portal to access windows, applications and messages. With KDE, this concept is called the Workspace. In all cases, the idea is to give you a customizable environment for running your favorite applications and accessing your information no matter whether it's a local program or a cloud-based application.
There are many ways to try to deliver this integration of the local and Internet resources. Some developers, such as those who worked on Mint, apparently tried to deliver it in a way that's as close as possible to the traditional desktop. Fedora's team, on the other hand, has fully embraced the Gnome approach, while Ubuntu's crew taken a more original approach. Which one will work best for you is really more a matter of personal taste than it is of one being better than the other.
How I tested
I looked at four major Linux distributions: Fedora 16, Mint 12, OpenSuse 12.1, and Ubuntu 11.10. I used each for several weeks on multiple PCs.
My primary test box was a Dell Inspiron 530s powered by a 2.2GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800MHz front-side bus. This box has 4GB of RAM, a 500GB SATA drive, and an integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chipset.
I also used the Linux distros on a Lenovo ThinkPad R61 laptop with a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500processor and 2GB of RAM. In addition, I ran them as virtual machines on VirtualBox 4.1.6 on a Dell XPS 8300 with a quad-core Intel 3.4GHz i7 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 500GB SATA drive, and an AMD Radeon HD 6700 graphics card.
How to install Linux
Once there were significant differences between how you installed the various Linux distributions. That's no longer the case. Today, the same method is used for all but a few obscure distributions. Here's how it works.
First, you download a live ISO image of the operating system. You then burn the image to a CD, DVD, or USB thumb drive. Be aware that you can't simply copy the files or the image -- you need to use a program such as PowerISO or Ashampoo Burning Studio to burn the ISO image to your media.
Once that's done, you place the disc or USB drive into your computer and reboot it. During the reboot process, you'll need to set your computer's BIOS so it will boot from your optical or USB drive. This will bring up the operating system.
This lets you try out the operating system. (Keep in mind that if you're not using a USB drive you won't be able to save any changes, or you can install it to your hard drive.) Once you've decided to commit to installing the Linux distro, you can either completely replace your computer's existing operating system or set up a dual-boot system.
The look of the installation process varies from distribution to distribution, but they all include the same basics: stating your time zone, setting up a primary user ID and confirming what kind of keyboard you're using.
Immediately after installing the operating system for the first time, you should run a system update. While Linux doesn't require you patch your system for security reasons on a regular basis, Linux distributions are constantly adding minor improvements, so keeping it up to date usually leads to better performance.
Note: As recently as the mid-2000s, a Linux distribution might have had trouble with your hardware. In particular, Linux wouldn't work well off the disc with some Wi-Fi network adapters. That's no longer the case. Today, all these distributions should work automatically with your network and all the rest of your hardware.
However, if you're not ready to install a new OS yet, or want to see if the distribution will work properly on your computer, you can use a "live" disk, which will let you run the operating system on a computer before actually installing it.
When it comes to interface, the Linux distributions all go in their own directions. Indeed, if you didn't know what you were looking at, you might well not realize that you're looking at Linux with any of these distributions.
Fedora's current default desktop is Gnome 3.2.1, which bears only a passing similarity to the popular Gnome 2.x interface. I find this new version annoying because so much has changed from the previous iterations -- for example, when you turn off the computer you must press the alt key to get to the shutdown menu, instead of simply choosing to turn it off from the top-level menu, and you can't easily shrink or re-size windows.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about Gnome 3.x is that it really doesn't work or feel like Gnome 2.x or any other desktop environment I've ever used. It requires you to learn a new interface to do even the most basic of things. It's a heck of learning curve.
It does have some good features. For one, you can manage all your default online accounts settings from one place. So, for example, you can set all your Internet applications to automatically use Google services for your e-mail, instant messaging and calendar tasks. You can also, if you use Gnome 3.2's default Web browser Epiphany, save Web sites such as Gmail as if they were local applications. They will then start automatically when you turn on your PC and you can use them with a single click.
You should note that Fedora 16 and Gnome 3.2 require 3D-capable graphics cards. Otherwise, as was the case with my laptop, Gnome defaults to "Fallback" mode, which (ironically) looks and feels a lot like the earlier version of Gnome. In fact, I actually found it to be far more usable than Gnome 3.2.
Mint, on the other hand, tries to do it all. While it uses Gnome as its foundation desktop, Mint gives you three different spins. You can, a la Fedora, use Gnome 3.2 but you can also use MGSE (Mint Gnome Shell Extensions) -- a desktop layer that sits on top of Gnome 3.2 and tries to make Gnome 3.2 look and feel like Gnome 2.32 -- or Mate, which is a Gnome 2.32 fork.
You can install all of them and then choose which one to use when you log in to the system. Of the trio, I like MGSE the best. While it doesn't make Gnome 3.2 a perfect clone of Gnome 2.32, it does make it far friendlier to experienced Gnome 2.x users. I want to like Mate, but at this point in its development it proved to have many compatibility problems with Gnome applications.
OpenSuse uses KDE 4.7.2 for its standard desktop. This is an excellent example of the KDE family; all the applications work smoothly together. While at one time, I felt that KDE 4.x was dreadful -- for example, it crashed frequently -- it's gotten much better over the years. KDE 4.7's Plasma Workspaces and Applications are well integrated, offering a very smooth user experience.
The KDE desktop also proved to be much quicker than the other desktops. While it's impossible to benchmark such very different approaches to the desktop, both the desktop and applications felt faster to me. It was like the difference between driving a car with a bad transmission and a smooth transmission.
Ubuntu Unity is Ubuntu's own take on Gnome 3.x. Unity is designed to be a universal interface for desktops, tablets and smartphones. It is also based on Gnome 3.2, but it's hard to tell that from its glossy, tablet-like interface.
While not as fast as OpenSuse's KDE 4.7, Unity is very fast and smooth. After some rough patches in early versions, it's now quite stable. It's also an interface that many hardcore Linux users hate -- for the same reasons that many BSD Unix fans have never warmed up to Mac OS X. Both interfaces make it very hard to get at the underlying operating system.
The interface is well done and designed to make Linux friendly to an audience that's more comfortable with smartphones and tablets than they are with traditional desktop interfaces. However, if you're a long-time Ubuntu user who prefers a less consumer-oriented interface, I recommend you give Mint MGSE a try.
Which is the best? That really depends on you. Personally, I'm happiest with both Mint's MGSE and OpenSuse's KDE desktops. I can live with Unity, but I really, really dislike Fedora's Gnome 3.2. It simply doesn't work like any other desktop interface I've ever used and I, for one, don't see any advantages to its approach.
Included open-source software
Each of these Linux distributions is built on top of the Linux 3.1 kernel. As a result, the distributions reviewed here will, quite naturally, have several third-party open-source applications in common. OpenOffice, for instance, a long time office suite favorite, has been replaced on every major Linux distribution by the OpenOffice fork LibreOffice. Meanwhile, Firefox remains the standard Web browser choice.
At the same time, however, while you can run almost any software on any Linux distribution, each has its own particular software selections.
Fedora, as you might have guessed, uses Gnome software. Thus, its default e-mail client is the excellent Evolution groupware client. (OpenSuse also uses Evolution.)
Where Fedora veers from the others is with its use of Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) for virtualization. While all the distributions include KVM, Fedora takes it to the next level with new features such as USB network redirection, which lets you (and authorized guests) use USB devices over your network.
Fedora also includes a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) based on Simple Protocol for Independent Computing Environments (Spice). This is a Linux equivalent to Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) and Citrix's Independent Computing Architecture (ICA). As a result, it enables you to use a Fedora system to run Linux thin clients across your network.
Mint 12 also uses Gnome software, and adds the Mono-based Banshee 2.2 for music management and playback; Pidgin 2.1 for instant messaging; and Thunderbird 7.0.1 for e-mail. Except for Thunderbird, which I find to be far too slow and sometimes unstable, all of Mint's default choices are good ones.
OpenSuse defaults to the KDE software family (with the exception of Evolution). While I'm not that impressed by the individual standard programs such as the Konqueror Web browser (which is not nearly as fast as, say, Google Chrome), I do like the smooth integration between KDE and its applications. Once you know how to use one KDE application, you'll know how to work all the other KDE programs.
I'm also impressed by how easy OpenSuse makes it to start up server applications. In a manner of minutes, thanks to the YaST setup wizards, you can configure an e-mail, LDAP, file or Web server without any undue fuss or muss.
Another nice addition is a pair of applications: Snapper, which enables you to retrieve older versions of files and roll back system updates and configuration changes; and Tumbleweed, which you can use to update your system with rolling updates that contain the latest stable versions of all software. What this means is that you can explore software with Tumbleweed, but then head back to safety with Snapper if a program's cutting edge turns into a bleeding edge.
Besides the usual array of Gnome applications, Ubuntu opted to use Thunderbird in this latest update. However, while Thunderbird normally uses Mozilla's XUL interface, not Gnome's default GTK+ interface, which means the application tends to look a bit rough in Gnome-based Linux, Ubuntu has cleaned up Thunderbird's looks in Unity so that it looks better than it ever has (although it is not faster or more stable). Ubuntu also includes the Gwibber social networking client.
Most Linux distributions have made it easier to add software these days, but Ubuntu Unity's Software Center is the best of the lot. Besides making installing applications a one- or two-click operation, it includes ratings and reviews.
There's little to differentiate between the distributions. Personally, I like Mint's selection, except for Thunderbird, the best. That said, Ubuntu provides the best way of finding and installing new programs.
A lot of longtime Linux users see proprietary software, at best, as a necessary evil. On the other hand, pragmatists just want to use whatever tool works and don't care about its origin or license.