Linux distribution is a coherent collection of free software with the Linux kernel (operating system) at its center. To run Linux, you normally need a Linux distribution on a CD.
The differences between the various Linux distributions ("distros") are minor: the installation program, choice of the bundled applications and tools, arrangement of a few things on the hard drive. Regardless of your choice of distro, most of Linux is still at the same, and standard hard drive locations are used for essential items. Whichever distribution you decide to install, you will end up with essentially the same Linux.
We mostly use Mandrake Linux (sometimes called MDK) or Fedora (former known as "Red Hat Linux" "RedHat" or RH) and for the following reasons:
1. They are both very popular (both an advantage for a newbie and a testimony to their quality).
2. They are both general-purpose distributions.
3. They both come with relatively easy setup programs.
4. Both Mandrake and RedHat contributions to Linux are "open software" (this means that all the software written by the packaging corporations and included on the distribution CDs is licensed under the General Public License, GPL, so that it can be legally copied, given away, reused, etc.).
5. Both Mandrake and Fedora can be obtained cheaply or free if you don't care for commercial support. This is a consequence of (4).
6. Mandrake was once originally based on RedHat, so both distributions are quite similar. Software packages for RedHat often work on Mandrake (and vice versa) without problems. However, Mandrake is a bit more automatized and makes a somewhat nicer desktop than RedHat. At the same time, Mandrake sometimes is not as rock stable as RedHat.
In short, as a newbie, you can safely bet on "Mandrake" or "Fedora" unless you like something else or have specialized needs, or your environment suggests using something else (e.g., if you have an experienced guru nearby, or a bunch of friends who are using Linux, you may want to use the same distribution - makes getting help a whole lot easier).
The most recent distributions we recommend (December 2003) is Mandrake 9.2, and "Fedora Core 1" (the predesessor of Fedora was "RedHat 9.0"). These are both excellent distributions. Be sure to specify the most recent version if ordering your software from a dealer--many dealers like to clear their inventory by sending you an older version (this applies not only to Linux). Generally, development under Linux is fast, and you don't want to waste your time with older distributions. The authors of this guide have no connection to Mandrake or RedHat (or any other Linux distributor) whatsoever.
Our recommendation of Mandrake and Fedora for newbies does not mean that other distributions don't offer benefits or unique features which may surpass Mandrake or RedHat in specific areas. We do believe that we benefited from exposure to a different distribution because it helped us understand Linux better.
We tried Debian and we liked it very much. It was probably as easy as RedHat, but Debian seems less common (hence, being newbies, we picked up Mandrake or RedHat). The great benefit of Debian is that it is 100% non-commercial (put together by volunteer hackers, the true Linux way) and it probably most strictly adheres to Linux standards (it probably sets the standards too). Another great benefit is that Debian crams on their numerous distribution CDs thousands of tools and applications--easily much more than any other distribution. All these tools/apps are nicely "packaged" (for ease of installation) and tested for compatibility. This makes Debian distro look monumental, safe, conservative, and always somewhat outdated. So yes, we would not have a problem recommending Debian as a great general-purpose Linux distribution. Debian calls itself "The Universal Operating System" for a good reason. At any time, Debian carries 3 versions. (1) The "stable" version (sometimes called "potato"), and we would not recommend it, unless you are really paranoid on stability and don't mind quite outdated packages. (2) The Debian "testing" version (sometimes called "woody") is probably as stable as the latest RedHat, and more stable than your current Mandrake. It is much more up do date than Debian "stable". Debian Woody is the version we like. (3) If you don't mind occasional trouble, you can also the the third branch called "unstable", which is likely quite up-to-date.
S.u.S.E Linux distribution (http://www.suse.com) is very popular in Europe. It surely looks German--a solid, general-purpose distro with an easy setup and an excellent reputation. Many users swear by SuSe. We couldn't find cheap Suse CDs though but it appears you can download it (I cannot find a link). Their product includes propriatory additions that will satisfy enterprise-level need to interface some popular propriatory applications (MS Exchange, Cross-over office, etc).
Slackware seems to be favorite among "hard-core hackers" who like customizing scripts. We would have trouble recommending Slackware for Linux newbies unless the newbie likes to feel cool. Our reviewer Bill Staehle says: "The real 'reason' for a newbie to avoid Slackware is that it is much more command line oriented, and lacks some of the 'cutsie slick and drool' tools that the other distributions have." We received feedback from Linux newbies who use Slackware and it works very well for them. It seems that Slackware is relatively simple and cool because of the lack of automation. Therefore, with a bit of effort, a computer-literate administrator can actually understand what is going in her operating system (this is not something I can always say about Mandrake, or MS Windows for that matter).
Knoppix Linux (http://www.knoppix.net) is another distribution worth consideration. The main point of Knoppix is that it is a "live distro", i.e., it can be booted from a CD, without installation. This is excellent for trying Linux (if you like it, you can also install Knoppix on the hard drive). It is also makes a perfect disaster-recovery tool (distro on a CD is also safe because no malicious program can do anything to your executables, and non-invasive for the local storage as required for post-mortem analyses). Knoppix is also useful if you have to work under Linux on sombody elses computer: you insert Knoppix CD into the CDdrive, and perhaps exteral storage on the usb port (for personal storage), and you are all set to work in your own environment. When done, you take your chips home. You can mount the local computer resources if you have to. Interesting tool.
Gentoo seems to have some strong following. In Gentoo (hearsay, never used it), they have a cool installation/upgrade system which does anything from sources (a local compilation is required). Long compilations can be joy to watch but, well, they can take time. The resulting executables are taylored to your hardware so they are perhaps smaller or faster than those on a more-standard "already cooked" (binary) Linux distribution.
Corel was once working on their own Linux distribution apparently geared towards a nice and easy platform to run the Corel suite of office applications: WordPerfect wordprocessor, QuattroPro spreadsheet, Corel Presentations, Paradox database, CorelDraw artist package.... The Corel Linux was based on the Debian distribution. It looked initially very promissing, but it is unclear to me what Corel has done with it (was paid by Microsoft to drop it?). In brief, Corel Linux is dead now, and I would never recommend it to anybody because it it a dead-end. The only reason to mention it here is that Corel Linux once received lots of publicity, so you may still hear about it. It seems like a sad story, particularly for Canadians.
Caldera was once another well-known distribution. It was said to be aiming at corporate users, had a fancy (and pricey) configuration tools, and other corporate goodies. In Aug.2000, Caldera purchased SCO Unix (the original trademarked ancient UNIX) which gave them an even more "corporate" look in my eyes. Caldera did not seem to care too much about home Linux users, so I never considered it for my home use. In early 2003, Caldera (renamed SCO) evidently swiched to different, perhaps more profitable, business model ("fire programmers, hire lawyers"). I will surely stay clear of anything that might bear the name SCO or Caldera on it because I do not like the idea of paying US$1399 for the right to run Linux on a single-processor computer or being sued. Caldera/SCO Linux distro certainly does not have any future.
There are "localized" versions of Linux for specific countries or languages (Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Hungarian, French, ... )--they likely contain (on default) all the hacks and docs (documentation) that the users in these countries want to see. Says Bill Staehle: "You may want to mention the Conectiva Linux distribution, loosely based on RH from Brazil. As such, it is in Portugese, and is also available in Spanish. Try:http://www.conectiva.com.br/". I heard several good things about Conectiva, so if Portugese or Spanish was my language, I would probably give it a try.
There are also "special purpose" distributions, e.g. the "real-time" editions of Linux (might be useful if you are in for automation, robotics, fast speed data acquisition, etc.), very small distros (if you like the idea of running Linux from a single floppy which can be useful for system security or recovery), Linux for embedded systems (if you wanted to customize Linux as a small "special purpose" device, which could be good for the next-generation stereo, MP3 player, palm computer, or a fancy cellular phone), parallel computing and clustering systems (might be great if you plan to do your own weather forecasting or at least nuclear explosion simulations, etc. Here the differences will be larger, but these distributions are not meant to be "general purpose". As a newbie, you likely don't want to start with any of these, although you might be tempted to. (They surely show Linux strength and viability--Linux runs on toys, even a wrist watch, as well as computer clusters that make the currently fastest systems in the world.)
The distribution you need is of course specific to the hardware platform you have. This means that for your PC hardware containing an Intel 386 processor, or Intel 486, or Intel Pentium, or Intel 586, or Intel 686, or Cyrix, or K6, AMD, or similar, you need the binary distribution called "Intel" or "386" or x86. [Unless you are prepared to start with your own compilation of the Linux source code, which is not typical for a newbie] . This happens because there are binary distributions for other hardware platforms too: PowerPC, Alpha, Apple, IBM mainframe, "Intel StrongARM", Transmeta, and perhaps a dozen more--you don't want to get those binaries for your PC clone; they surely will not work on a PC machine with an "Intel" or "AMD" processor inside. If you have no-Intel hardware, you may want to search the Internet to find who supports it (chances are Debian does, they seem to support even the most exotic ones. Then, you need to obtain "Debian ARM" or "Debian Motorola 680x0"or "Debian PowerPC" or "Debian SPARC ", ...). In short, although newbies get confused with the multiple Linux distributions, there are reasons to have different distros. They should be viewed as a Linux strength rather than weakness. Linux is simply filling all application and hardware platform niches. The drawback is that there are some "funny" distribution to avoid if you plan your serious business to depend on Linux. This guide concentrates on RedHat and Mandrake for the PC (Intel) platform. Many of the answers will work fine on other distributions or platforms, but we did not try them.