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Distros DO NOT matter. Get over it.

I have been asked many times “what is the best distro for gamers” or “which linux distro should I pick”. There is this huge misconception in people’s minds that some Linux distros are better than others, that they have to pick the right one. The truth is, all distros are fundamentally the same. There is no such thing as ’the best Linux distro'.

Most Linux beginners download a lot of ISO images and judge the distros on their look, preinstalled apps, and desktop environment. To be frankly honest, I did the same thing when I started with Linux. But it is the equivalent of going to a computer store and choosing a laptop based on its default wallpaper.

To understand this you need to look at what a distro even is. A distro is a set of packages. You might have heard this joke:

What you guys are referring to as Linux, is in fact, GNU/Linux, or as I’ve recently taken to calling it, GNU plus Linux. Linux is not an operating system unto itself, but rather another free component of a fully functioning GNU system made useful by the GNU corelibs, shell utilities and vital system components comprising a full OS as defined by POSIX.

That is because Linux is the kernel. The kernel is a piece of software that acts as a layer between the software and hardware. But with only a kernel you can’t run applications, play fancy games, or even have simple shapes on screen. We need other software for that: Xorg or Wayland for the display, PulseAudio or ALSA for the audio, and NetworkManager for wifi to name a few.

A Linux distro is a set of packages to provide you with everything you need. But most of the time distros use the exact same packages. And preinstalled themes or applications can be easily changed within a few minutes.

So, what purpose do distros serve? Most of the differences between distros are their software repositories. That is the spot where they get their software from. Arch Linux, for example, has newer packages than Debian. That means your apps will be updated more frequently, but the chance of unstable software is also greater.

For new beginners, the only thing that truly matters is the desktop environment. That is the way the UI looks. I do not mean themes, they’re about colors and can be effortlessly changed. No, desktop environments are about the system UI. The panels, system applications, and applets. They are what end-users really need to worry about. For each major desktop environment, I picked a Linux distro that ships it preinstalled. Take a look at the list!

Some readers might notice I didn’t mention Ubuntu at all. That is because I think their UI is confusing for beginners, and I don’t like the direction the distro is going. It also doesn’t offer a better experience than vanilla GNOME, and I don’t like how they’re trying to push snaps down your throat.

I hope this post will help some people. I’m open to debate if you think differently about this topic. Let me know in the comments!

Cheers! Robin

Posted on 16 January 2022

Last updated on 3 October 2022

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