If you’ve seen a modern Linux desktop, you’ve probably noticed it’s come a long way since the early days. No longer solely limited to hobbyists, several distributions have built polished installers, automatic driver detection, and desktops that rival Windows and MacOS. Further, companies like Valve, who run the popular Steam cloud gaming platform, have seen the direction companies like Microsoft are going with vendor lockdown, and have started developing for the Linux desktop. Is it time to take a look at Linux?
The first thing to think about is your use case. Are you a hobbyist, and do you enjoy tinkering around with your computer in your free time? If so, your choices are more open. If, however, you’re the kind of user who wants to turn on the computer and have a web browser and word processor available, and you don’t want to put up with a whole lot of nonsense, you might want to stick to one of the most popular distributions. If you also want to play games without a lot of fuss, Linux is getting there thanks largely to Valve, but it’s got a long way to go before it’s competitive with Windows. Benchmarks show it to be roughly on par with Windows, but the less than 2% desktop share scares off a lot of developers. To help counter this, Valve has been working on a tool called Proton to seamlessly install and run Windows games.
The top two distributions are Ubuntu Linux and Fedora Linux. Despite being architecturally dissimilar, the two distributions are fairly similar on a macro level. Ubuntu is based on the popular crowd-developed distribution Debian Linux, with an emphasis on up-to-date packages, polished installers and desktop experience. Fedora is the open-source branch of Red hat Linux, the first billion-dollar Linux company. Both distributions have releases in the spring and fall, every 6 months, and both have a software store-like GUI package manager as well as several desktop environments to choose from. Both distributions also have their own packaging systems for installing containerized desktop apps, with Ubuntu having Snap, and Fedora having Flatpak. They both have their advantages but are largely the same to the end user. Both seamlessly integrate into GUI package managers.
In terms of desktops, the two most popular are GNOME and Plasma. Both distributions focus their main attention on the GNOME desktop. Ubuntu started out as a GNOME-centric, desktop-centric Linux distribution with their own extra improvements to the desktop. Fedora has been a long time developer on the GNOME project, beginning back when plasma was called KDE, and there were licensing issues between some of the base libraries and the desktop. Now that there are no licensing hang-ups, both distributions have variants with the Plasma desktop.
Now, which one should you choose? Ubuntu will be the more user-friendly experience for the casual user. The distribution has tools built in to help make room for your Linux install, if you’re wanting to keep Windows, and is optimized from the start to run on the desktop. Fedora is a close runner-up, but tools like SELinux can add a layer of minor frustration. Both distributions have a protection layer to make it harder for hackers to get into your system, with Ubuntu is being more like Windows 10, and Fedora being more like Windows Vista. It’s possible to set SELinux to simply log any hacking attempts instead of prompting for permission every time. If you have any friends that also run Linux, find out what they’re running, and as long as it’s not something like Arch Linux, it’s probably a good idea to stick to what they’re using in case you need help.
For casual users, either GNOME or Plasma should be fine. GNOME is the primary development focus of both Ubuntu and Fedora, so they’ll both work best on those distributions. Ubuntu’s main install of GNOMER is slightly modified to work like previous versions of Ubuntu, when they had their own desktop, but it’s close enough to vanilla GNOME that it shouldn’t be an issue. In fact, the Ubuntu desktop can be set to vanilla mode. However, GNOME can seem alien to a Windows user, so for those people who want a more Windows-like experience, Plasma is probably the best bet. In fact, it takes probably less than 5 minutes to modify the default plasma desktop to work almost exactly like Windows 10.
So if you aren’t scared off by a scarcity of games and a lack of tools like Microsoft Office or Adobe Creative Suite, a Linux distribution might before you. Ubuntu might be the best for the absolute newbie, while Fedora is a close second; GNOME will have the tightest integration with the OS, while Plasma will give you a polished, Windows 10-like experience.