Which Linux Distro Should You Choose?

Which Linux Distro Should You Choose?

Okay. So there I was. I had finished my Masters in physiotherapy some months ago and I was unemployed. Sure – I was searching for work like mad, but it’s not easy being a physiotherapist in Denmark. While I was productively spending my time unemployed, there was also days where I used 10 hours or more just watching House of Cards. It was a waste and I wanted to learn something instead – preferable something that was different from what I had used the last 7-8 years studying. Things needed to change, and like most other times that I want to start something new, it is often motivated by videos on YouTube. E.g. the urge to learn to skate was motivated by Aaron Kyro and later I wanted to learn to roller-skate which was motivated by Bill Stoppard. In the same way, I was browsing around on YouTube and ended with something about Linux. I’ve had the thought previously that I wanted to learn to use Linux as a daily OS on my Laptop, so it seemed like a good idea. I don’t really recall why, however, I have often thought back to my FreeBSD-days about 15 years ago. There was a special kind of satisfaction when I ssh’ed into a server to add torrents in rtorrent or talking to my friends in irssi – all terminal. It was so beautiful, simple, and seemed so powerful. Back then, I had friends to help me out since I didn’t really have the motivation and inclination to learn the commands or how to solve the problems which arose with the OS. Forward 15 years and now I sit here with loads of motivation, vague memories and an urge to learn what I did not understand back then, however, without the same network as I had back then.

Not knowing where to start I fired up good ol’ safari on my Macbook Pro 2010 and hoped to get a nice overview of the different distros out there. Sure there are some nice sites for that like DistroWatch, but this didn’t really answer the question: “Which is the distro for me?”. I rarely just dive in and started reading a lot of reviews and watching reviews of different distributions. Mostly I was looking for something really minimalistic since I’m “that kind of guy”. If I can save 10 minutes of my laptop by only running terminals then that’s what I’ll do. I stumbled upon a few guys who had a really nice setup on their laptops and I was instantly intrigued. One of them was Luke Smith, and he quickly became a great source of inspiration. First I saw his take on choosing the right distro – cool – Luke seemed to have a rather nice setup on his laptop and I started looking into what he was using – Arch Linux. I like watching things instead of reading them so YouTube was the first stop when looking into install process. Apparently it’s kind of a daunting process to install Arch and therefore, there are like a gazillion videos of people explaining how to install. Are you using UEFI/EFI or BIOS? Is it GPT or MBR? Systemd, Syslinux, or GRUB? These are all things, that you should either know or be ready to read up on before the install. Of the bat it seemed like an utterly insane install process and I would really have to learn a lot to get through it. It was perfect.
I decided to give it a try and I started my old self-build stationary computer with an old Intel E9300 CPU, a Samsung 120B 850SSD, and 4GB RAM, and a nVidia 750GT. Hopes were indeed high. However, the first attempt failed miserably. I guess it took about 10-15 attempts on the install which nearly decimated all motivation – finally it succeeded! It booted and setting up the GUI was rather easy so I got an GUI up and running, which ran for a few hours and then it crashed. Apparently nVidia drivers are not really great on linux. I tried with my Mac Mini 2015 and it worked way better than expected. At that time I was really getting into Arch Linux and my motivation was back. As I mentioned before, Luke was a pretty big inspiration and he had a video about Libreboot and Thinkpads and all of a sudden I also wanted to Libreboot on a Thinkpad. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Look up intel backdoor on google, and you’ll see what I mean. So I looked at the second hand market in the city where I live and quickly found a Thinkpad X200S which was great for this purpose – cheap too. Arch install was a breeze (apparently there is something about those Thinkpads) but the Libreboot was way more complicated than I had first anticipated. Don’t like soldering? Then don’t even think you will be able to libreboot a Thinkpad X200 – sigh. So I decided to drop the part about librebooting even though there was some exiting incitements for it. At this point I had been using Arch for a few weeks and I had learned a lot, not only about Arch but also about what distinguishes other distros, and I had become a more adapt Linux user – quite satisfying.

So, what separates Arch from other distros? Well.. First and foremost it’s a really minimalistic distro. When you start out with this distro you have just about nothing installed and even the install process is really minimal only including a bare bone terminal for the purpose. What does this mean? Well, where you could install i.e. Ubuntu without touching the terminal and thereafter have about 1500 processes running at boot – Arch will drag you through all kinds of nasty choices during install and have like 10-15 processes at the end of the install. After finishing the install of Ubuntu I have seen RAM-usage up to 1.5GB as opposed to Arch which will be boot with about 50MB. If you are into minimalistic installs, battery life and disk space conservation then Arch is for you. Moreover, this is also a quite modular Linux install which means that there are a lot of different opportunities out there i.e. you could install whatever GUIs you like, if you don’t like kde then you could install gnome or I3-wm, or DWM – anything really. You want a GUI- or terminal-based wifi-manager? Sure! Do whatever you want. Don’t want to use Dropbox, Bluetooth or a calculator – then just leave it out. The only question is “what do you want in your install?”. Seriously it’s like 300MB install without a graphical interface and 800KB more with I3-wm installed. There are surely a lot of choices out there.
Ubuntu always seemed a bit too easy for me. I liked the thought of getting my hands dirty and I really wanted to get used to the terminal. That feeling of typing in certain commands and then have your screen explode in matrix-style text. Who wouldn’t love that?! Moreover, I also like a somewhat secure installation and whenever you install an application in Linux you are also introducing vulnerabilities and therefore, it seemed only fair that I choose all of my own applications instead of having bunches of them which I knew nothing about. Sure this takes time and a lot of reading but I promise that it’ll be worth it – really!

So, is there anything special that separates Arch from other distros? Yes, actually. The Arch User Repository (AUR), which is a collection of a lot of applications – all maintained by the users of Arch. This could be like Spotify, Steam or a lot of other applications found on github. I may fail too explain how awesome this is but other distros do not have this and you could be forced to go through cumbersome process to get a single application working as oppose to Arch where a secondary package manager has to be installed and then you are good to go. Often I’ve searched through the AUR to try different applications because they sound exiting. I haven’t seen anything similar in other distros – unless they are also based on Arch Linux like Manjaro or Antergos. These distros are more like Ubuntu when installed. All packed with applications and settings that make it easier for the end-user – I.e. not very minimalistic.

Anything else? Yes! The Arch Wikipedia! When starting out with Linux you might have been introduced to the man-pages, which is a manual written about most applications. Simply type man and the name of the application and you will be greeted with something between half a page of text or thousand pages. The Arch wiki is like a soft approach to this. Again all user-maintained and a massive hub of information. It takes a bit of practice to get used to the wiki but when you get there it’s solid gold. However, the wiki has great explanations that teaches you to fish with only few copy paste-solutions. Not really into weird wiki-documentation? Well there is also a newbie-section in the forums and newbie-IRC channel where people are really really helpful if you did your homework.

So where does this leave us? Should you choose Arch? I don’t know. What are your own demands for a distro, how experienced are you how much time do you have? I had a LOT of time and I think it was well spent. Others might not have the patience to learn everything from the ground up. They might be better suited with something like Manjaro or Antergos that supplies the best of the Arch experience – the AUR, the wiki, and the community. It is also possible to install the same applications on other distros but Arch makes it so much easier.

So.. Why not choose Manjaro or Antergos if they are more “complete” than plain “vanilla” Arch? Well. If you are feeling ventures then vanilla Arch Linux is just the thing for you. The learning curve is insane if you don’t already have a firm grasp on Linux. If that is not your thing then there are a lot of distros out there that could suit your needs. Ubuntu, Mint, Debian are just some of the more popular ones. I’m not saying that you should try them all out but if you are new to Linux then I would recommend that you ease into the whole experience. However, don’t be scared of by the “crazy” install process of Arch Linux because it’s not that hard really. My next post will explain in details how you should proceed with the installation of Arch. But – let’s look at what the pros and cons are for vanilla Arch.

1. Really minimalistic
2. Surprisingly stable
3. The Arch User Repository
4. Highly configurable
5. Light on you system

1. Rather complicated the first time user
2. Requires time for reading and for trial and error
3. You need to learn about ALL the applications you want to use
4. Updates could kill your install since it is a rolling distribution
5. It could break you mentally (rage quit)

09/10 I would install Arch any day.

Now, I know that Arch can seem a bit daunting but it really isn’t. I just takes some time to learn a few things. Even though I’m against it, I would really like to help first time users through the install process and maybe explain some stuff along the way. If any of then intrigues you and you are wondering if there is something else out there besides Windows, then please spend a weekend or two to experiment with Linux.