The 5 Best Linux Distros for Beginners in 2020

Want to try out Linux but not sure where to start? Check out our picks

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There are so many Linux distributions available. If you’re new to the platform, you might not have any idea where to start. We have selected our top 5 distributions for new users … so your first exposure won’t be your last.

What You Need to Know

Before we dive into the distributions, there are a few things you should know:

  • The distributions found here all run very well on standard PC hardware (both desktops and laptops).
  • These distributions are free and can be downloaded as .iso image files.
  • ISO images need to be to burned to either a CD/DVD or USB flash drive (This can be accomplished with a tool like Unetbootin).
  • All of the Linux distributions you’ll find here can be run as “live” instances (which means you can boot the operating system from the CD/DVD or flash drive and run it directly from your computer’s RAM, without installing a single thing).

And with that said, let’s take a look at the 5 best distributions for beginnings.

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Elementary OS

The Elementary OS desktop.
What We Like
  • Ease of use

  • Minimalist interface that resembles macOS

  • Outstanding hardware recognition

  • Ubuntu foundation

What We Don't Like
  • Minimal number of installed apps

If you’ve ever used macOS, the Ubuntu-based Elementary OS might look familiar to you. The developers of this elegant, Ubuntu-based distribution have gone out of their way to not only make the desktop instantly familiar, but the design is global, meaning every element of the desktop has a similar look and feel.

That unification helps to make the Elementary OS experience very user-friendly and pleasing. The layout of the desktop will be instantly familiar. Applications can be launched from the Applications menu or from the Dock. Gain quick access to your calendar by clicking the Date/Time in the top bar (called the Wingpanel). At the right side of the Wingpanel, you’ll find sound, notifications, network, and power options.

Out of the box, Elementary OS comes with a slimmed-down selection of applications, but fear not; included with Elementary OS is an AppCenter, where you can install everything you need to get your work done. Elementary OS is a perfect Linux distribution for beginners. It’s painless, pretty, and performs like a champ.

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Ubuntu Linux

The Ubuntu Linux Desktop
What We Like
  • Outstanding community support

  • Elegant design

  • Ease of installation

  • Solid collection of installed apps

  • Modern interface

  • Zero learning curve

What We Don't Like
  • Higher system requirements than some distributions

No list of Linux distributions would be complete without including Ubuntu Linux. While Ubuntu is based on Debian, a host of Linux distributions are based on Ubuntu. There’s a reason for that: Ubuntu is one of the single most stable and user-friendly distributions available.

A recent iteration of Ubuntu (18.04, aka Bionic Beaver) makes outstanding use of the GNOME 3 desktop, with a decidedly Ubuntu-like look and feel. Instead of only having the GNOME Dash for which to open applications, the developers added a handy dock to the left edge of the desktop, where Favorites are pinned.

Like all good modern operating systems, Ubuntu includes it’s own app store, called Ubuntu Software, where thousands upon thousands of applications can be found and installed. Although the Ubuntu Linux desktop might not look immediately familiar, anyone that has used a computer or mobile device will feel immediately at home, with nearly zero learning curve involved.

Unlike Elementary OS, Ubuntu Linux does come with a bit more software installed. You’ll find the LibreOffice office suite, Firefox web browser, Thunderbird email client, Cheese webcam software, and more.

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Linux Mint

The Linux Mint Desktop.
What We Like
  • Ubuntu foundation

  • Next to no learning curve

  • Simple interface

  • Outstanding collection of default apps

  • Low hardware requirements

What We Don't Like
  • Interface seems slightly old school

Linux Mint is another distribution based on Ubuntu. The difference between Ubuntu and Linux Mint lies primarily in the choice of desktops. Whereas Ubuntu Linux opts for the GNOME 3 desktop, Linux Mint offers users three choices:

  • Cinnamon
  • Mate
  • Xfce

Each choice has its strengths and weaknesses, and beginning users should definitely consider either Cinnamon or Mate over Xfce (as Xfce does have a bit more of a learning curve to get the most out of the desktop). Nearly any beginning Linux user would feel right at home with either the Cinnamon or Mate desktop. Why? Because the developers understand that change isn’t exactly easy for everyone. To that end, Linux Mint uses familiar elements on the desktop (clickable icons, “Start” button, system tray, etc.). So if you’re new to Linux, and are looking for a somewhat familiar desktop, Linux Mint is a fine choice. And considering it enjoys a rock-solid Ubuntu base, you can be sure the Linux Mint desktop will work without fail.

The Linux Mint Mate edition is also very lightweight, running on as little as 512 MB RAM and 9 GB hard disk space. That means you can load it up on your older PCs and give it a test, before installing it on newer hardware.

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Zorin OS

Zorin OS desktop
What We Like
  • Interface can be changed to suit users taste

  • Elegant interface

  • Outstanding collection of installed apps

  • Windows users will feel right at home

What We Don't Like
  • Slightly steeper learning curve to get the most from the desktop

If you were a fan of Windows 7, Zorin OS might be the perfect Linux distribution for you. With a desktop interface that will look and feel instantly familiar, Zorin is as beautiful as it is easy to use. If you didn’t like Window 7, you can select a different interface for Zorin OS. That’s right, included in the Settings window is the means to switch between a very Windows 7-like interface, a Windows XP-like layout, or a traditional GNOME 3 layout. The Desktop theming tool also allows you to switch the title bar buttons from the right side to the left side, enable/disable specific icons on the desktop, and enable/disable desktop animations.

Zorin OS has been designed, from the ground up, to make Windows users feel right at home. In fact, Zorin OS is the only distribution listed here that includes Wine. Wine is a compatibility layer that makes installing Windows applications on Linux possible. And with Zorin OS, Wine is actually quite easy to use. In fact, the distribution even includes PlayOnLinux, which is a graphical app store for Windows applications, to be installed on Linux.

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Ubuntu Budgie

The Ubuntu Budgie Desktop.
What We Like
  • Absolutely gorgeous interface

  • Ubuntu foundation

  • Next to no learning curve

  • Great collection of default apps

What We Don't Like
  • Support can be iffy

Yet another Ubuntu-based Linux distribution, Ubuntu Budgie is not only very newbie-friendly, but it’s also gorgeous! The name Ubuntu Budgie comes from the desktop used for the distribution … Budgie. This desktop isn’t a fork of GNOME or any other desktop, it’s a one of a kind. But don’t think that because the designers and developers of Budgie opted to make something new, that it’s beyond the scope of beginners. In fact, quite the opposite holds true: Budgie is a great desktop for beginners.

On the Budgie desktop, you’ll find a dock, a main menu, and a panel that includes notifications and a few extras. Click on the main menu to get instant access to everything installed. Speaking of which, out of the box you’ll find everything you need to work:

  • LibreOffice
  • Chromium web browser
  • Geary Email
  • Cheese webcam booth
  • Rhythmbox Music Player
  • GNOME MPV movie player

Budgie also includes a night light option, for those who tend to do a lot of work at night and want to cut down on the brightness. There’s next to no learning curve for this Ubuntu-based Linux distribution that will impress with its beauty and its simplicity.