Linux is an amazingly powerful, flexible, fun, and unique computer operating system. There are many different variations of Linux (called “distributions,” “distros,” or “flavors”). Because of all the variations, the Linux community is very strongly opinionated on certain things that just plain don’t matter to a newbie or “casual” Linux User. Over the years, the advice newbies get from experienced Linux users has become a little less opinionated, but there are still plenty of people who will give overkill suggestions, or not fully listen to a use case before giving recommendations.
The Linux community is very strongly opinionated on certain things that just plain don’t matter
Granted, I’m not a “Linux expert.” I have been interested in Linux since about 2006, and have been using it just as long. I have tried just about every distribution of Linux there is at some point, settling longer on some than on others. I have spent a lot of time on forums and in chat rooms discussing Linux, and have learned some very useful, very interesting things. Linux has captured my interest, to say the least.
That being said, I have come across a lot of advice, suggestions, and opinions posed as fact over the years that I have found to be very open to debate or just plain useless to the average Linux user, or to someone who is just getting started with Linux. The point of this article is not to bash people who voice their opinions, because most of the time, their opinion is requested. The point of this article is to give new or less experienced Linux users some confidence in taking advice with a grain of salt, and using the advice they get as a starting point for finding the solution that works best with them. The beauty of Linux is that it can be whatever you want it to be. That is also its downfall…because of so much flexibility, sometimes you have to actually know what you want.
My version of Linux is the best version of Linux
There are a lot of things in life people get passionate about, and when you have passionate people, you have people who believe their specific use case is the best or only way to do something. Ironically, the flexibility of Linux that first draws a lot of people in tends to disappear when the topic of “best Linux distribution” comes up. People spend many, many hours finding their “perfect” distribution, the one that meets all their needs, and often exceeds them, and will fiercely debate with people who have other opinions.
The problem with arguing that your version of Linux is the best is that not everyone is going to use their computer the same way you do. What works perfect for one person might be another person’s nightmare! The other problem with this area of Linux is that a lot of times, new people (me included, at one point) feel compelled to ask which version of Linux they should use. This can be a fantastic starting point, because you will hear about versions of Linux you didn’t even know existed, but most of the time, you should look more into the purpose and philosophy of a Linux distribution before taking someone’s advice as gospel.
Without rambling on about the advantages and disadvantages of the many different kinds of Linux distributions, I will summarize this section as “use what works best for you.” You will have people arguing that their version of Linux is the best because it is the most stable (Debian), or the most user friendly (Ubuntu), or has the most up to date packages and customizability (Arch), or because theirs is backed by a large corporation (Redhat/SUSE). Because of how many different variations of Linux there are, each with their own philosophy of what a Linux distribution should be, you will have people who have settled into their distribution of choice, and tend to think their version is the best version. And in some cases, it absolutely is… but for them, not necessarily for everyone. However, you will hopefully be using the version of Linux you pick for a long time, and you will pick your version of Linux based on how completely it meets your needs for a computer.
When this question is asked, take a look at all of the answers, and do your own individual research. Read about the project’s history, their philosophy (do they prefer stability over up-to-dateness, or are they willing to take the newest version of software, bugs and all?). Who is their target audience? Do you fit with that audience? This question can be very exciting, because you will find a lot of interesting answers. But don’t take someone’s advice of “my distribution is the best” as gospel…read about it, and decide if it truly is the best distribution for you, because after all, you are choosing the operating system for your computer…what do you want your computer to do?
What Kind of User Interface Should I Use?
Oh boy, now here is a hotly debated topic with a lot of history. You have people who are ridiculously passionate about why their interface of choice is without a question the best, and you have people who will ridicule others and attack their character based on what interface they have chosen to use. What makes this even more ridiculous is how easy it is to try something new…just install a new “desktop environment” and try it out. If you like it, great, customize it to your liking; if you don’t like it, even better: uninstall it and try a different one.
When people ask what desktop environment is best, you will have people from all over the spectrum answer. Gnome users will say that Gnome is creating a standardized, customizable, and unique experience for its users…and you will have people who argue that they make executive changes without asking, they are locking people into their way of doing things, and they are abusing their status as a highly used desktop environment.
Unity users will either argue that their desktop environment is the best because it is simple while still being customizable, it is maintained by a very large company (Canonical), it is designed for Ubuntu so it works very smooth with that specific OS, and it takes a lot of the mystery out of Linux in many ways. Then, you have the people who have not gotten over Ubuntu pushing Unity unexpectedly, who will vehemently argue that it is a “child’s toy” piece of software, that it locks you into one “wrong” way of doing things, and that it takes all of the fun out of maintaining and customizing your Linux distribution.
To summarize the drama around Unity, Canonical, publisher of Ubuntu (arguably one of the, if not the most used, versions of Linux), out of the blue decided they wanted to reinvent the desktop environment wheel, and they released a new version of Ubuntu with this Unity environment as the default. It was a shock to many, and the Linux community largely does not appreciate being artificially forced into something. People can easily uninstall Unity and go with something else, but the fact that it seemed Unity was forced on them left a very bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. Newcomers don’t seem to mind Unity very much, and in fact a lot of people love it. Some people have even learned to love Unity after hating it before. But you will find people who argue that if you are serious about Linux, you won’t use Ubuntu or Unity, and that is just silly. Ubuntu/Unity may not work for them personally, but steering someone who will potentially find their home with Ubuntu/Unity away because of a personal opinion is the embodiment of Linux’s biggest problem: divides in its own community.
Similar to the drama behind Unity, many people will argue that Gnome is the best desktop environment…but they are speaking of Gnome 2. Gnome 3 (the current iteration/the one you will most likely experience installing it on your system) was another sudden and dramatic change from its predecessor. The Gnome team completely overhauled their environment moving from Gnome 2 to Gnome 3; there is an “activites” window, which shows a dock on the left where you can put your “favorite” apps, an overview of your open windows in the middle, a revamped status bar, and a new menu for managing virtual desktops. If they had slowly transitioned to this, the communities’ tone may have been a bit more receptive, but as I stated before, the Linux community does not appreciate change that they have no say in! I do not know as much about the decisions behind Gnome 3 as Unity, but from the aggravation surrounding its launch, it seems safe to assume that the Gnome team did not do much in the way of surveys regarding the changes, instead putting the update out and suddenly disrupting a lot of peoples’ workflows.
This is an area that gets confusing when it comes to Linux users; most people love updates and new software, but they also tend to get very upset by sudden change. This is fair, because a large portion of the community uses Linux for their jobs, and having your workflow become disrupted because of a large user experience change is shocking. When this happens, like in the case of Gnome 3 and Unity, the community takes to the forums to voice their rage, and oftentimes, it is hard for software projects to overcome this apprehensions about the new product. There is still some dissent over Unity and Gnome 3, about 6 years later (Unity was originally released in 2010, with Gnome 3 being released in 2011). The opinions have died down a bit as both projects have matured, and many people have migrated to Unity and Gnome 3, whether out of necessity for a supported software package, or because they were able to swallow their aggravation and try the product out.
The release of Gnome 3 caused so much unhappiness that spinoff desktop environments were created, namely MATE and Cinnamon, 2 environments based on Gnome 2. These environments work very similarly to Gnome 2, but are updated and supported (with Cinnamon being developed for the Linux Mint distribution by the Mint team). People who were unwilling to jump to Gnome 3 had a chance to continue their lives with a similar workflow if they chose to install the MATE or Cinnamon desktop. And there lies the beauty in Linux: if you don’t like something, try something else!
There are more desktop environments to write about than would fit into one article, so I will briefly summarize the others from the picture at the beginning of this section.
XFCE, my personl desktop of choice, is touted as a “lightweight and customizable” environment, and in my experience, rightly so. The user is presented with a simple “session,” and XFCE uses the concept of “panels” to aid in customizing your desktop. A panel can serve many purposes…you can put a panel at the top and add a status menu, clock, and applications menu for a status bar similar to Gnome 3 or Unity. You can have a panel on the bottom, left, right, that you resize and add items to it to make it like a dock, similar to the Mac OS X dock or a Linux dock like Plank. All of the panels have a multitude of settings, like changing its transparency, setting it to hide when an element overlaps it, or after a specific amount of time; XFCE also has loads of plugins for various functions, so you can really customize it to your liking.
For those who have a very low end computer, but still want a graphical environment that is customizable, there is LXDE. I have not used LXDE personally, but taking a look through screenshots and forum posts, it seems to be very similar to XFCE, only lighter weight and with slightly fewer customization options. LXDE seems like a step before using a window manager, but still has plenty of graphical customization options without having to edit text configuration files. In fact, people coming from Windows may find LXDE a very comfortable environment!
The last environment pictured above is KDE. I have a complicated relationship with KDE, however plenty of people have found their home with it. KDE is extremely customizable, even moreso than XFCE, in my experience using it. It is very graphical…there are a lot of great animations, and the KDE team spent a lot of time making their environment look nice. The newest iteration, KDE Plasma 5, is especially nice looking, with a beautiful flat theme, some toned down animations, and an overall quicker and snappier feel. I used Plasma 5 for a short while when I was trying out openSUSE, and while I enjoyed the desktop a lot, there were more crashes and bugs than I’ve experienced with other environments, which seems to be a common sentiment among the Linux community. However, that does not stop people from using it. If you decided to go with KDE, you will find a huge offering of forums offering help, tips, customizations, and recommendations.
Next, you have people arguing that a desktop environment is the worst way to use Linux, and instead suggest that new people use the command line, or that they use a window manager. This is just insane to expect newcomers to use the radically different concept of a window manager, or a text-only operating system. What about people who want to browse the Internet without worrying about viruses, or a graphic design professional looking to use Linux and free design software? People suggesting this way of using Linux typically are not even listening to the question asked, and are trying to feel elitist because they use Linux in a different way than most.
Having said that, this way of interface is actually the best way in some situations! If you are a software developer who values their workflow and screen real estate, a window manager may be your best option. Window managers are highly customizable, more-so than a desktop environment in most regards, and are largely keyboard based. When you are developing software, the less your hand touches the mouse, the quicker you work. Being able to navigate your screen using only your keyboard is a very efficient way of working, and so learning a window manager may be worth it in this case!
Also, let’s say you are working on a Linux server. Sure, a desktop environment or window manager will run on a server (after all, a server is essentially an outward-facing computer). However, on a server, you typically want the computer to be maximizing its CPU/memory efficiency, and running a graphical interface takes some, in this case, unnecessary resources. If you are using a server to serve a webpage that gets a high amount of traffic, you want your computer’s power dedicated to serving the webpage, not to keeping a graphical environment running. In this situation, a text only environment is the best option, leaving the computer’s resources largely to serving its intended purpose.
This section could be an article on its own, so I will leave it with the same advice as the last section: try them all, find the one that fits most with your idea of how a computer should work for you, and tune out the nonsensical ramblings of overly-passionate users from any end of the spectrum.
F(L)OSS Only, or Proprietary?
Here’s a difficult subject to discuss without making some enemies. I’m sure even writing about it, this article will lose all of its integrity with certain people.
You have a whole school of thought that no Linux computer should ever have any software running on it that is not free and open source
First, some background. Linux began with the idea that software should be free and open source. From the beginning, anyone could download the Linux kernel’s source code, read through it to learn how it works, and make changes either for their personal computer, or send it back to the project to be implemented in the next release. For many cases, this is an awesome way of developing software. You have many eyes looking at the project, contributing help, and bringing the project closer to its goal. Because of Linux’s background, you have a whole school of thought that no Linux computer should ever have any software running on it that is not free and open source. In some cases, this is a very realistic goal, and actually a core philosophy of some Linux distributions (Debian, for instance, has a huge preference towards F(L)OSS (Free(-Libre) Open-Source Software).
If you want to play MP3s or open certain picture files on your computer, you may need to download some closed source codecs.
However, especially in recent years, the need for proprietary (closed-source, often developed by a corporation) software has risen for the average user. If you want to play games on your Linux PC using Steam, and you have an AMD or Nvidia graphics card, chances are you will need a closed-source driver for your computer to recognize and use the graphics card. If you want to play MP3s or open certain picture files on your computer, you may need to download some closed source codecs. This really does not sit well with a lot of Linux users, but the fact is, Linux’s use case has evolved over the years. It is not just a distribution “for nerds,” or for hobbyists, or server administrators anymore. You have people unhappy with paying for software updates from Microsoft, or sick of Apple’s closed-garden feeling, who stumble upon Linux and find their haven. But people growing up with Microsoft and Apple will miss being able to play games, listen to music, and open pictures on their computer. They opt to clash with the original Linux philosophy of free, open-source only, so that they can have a computer that works the way they want it to.
You will make enemies, or at least upset people, by allowing closed-source software on your computer.
You will make enemies, or at least upset people, by allowing closed-source software on your computer, but if you’re like me and want to replace you Windows environment with Linux, you are going to have to make compromises, and if you don’t mind causing some dissonance on forums because of your use case, tune out the people adamantly persecuting you for having closed-source software on your computer, and accept the fact that you are not a Linux purist, but someone who wants to use their computer in a realistic way for the average person.
I will end this section by saying in a perfect world, all software would be FLOSS software, and this debate would not even need to be a thing. Introducing closed source software would have you forced into open sourcing it if you were serious about progress.; the government could not force companies into introducing vulnerabilities in their software that get through because there are not enough eyes reviewing the software; and security vulnerabilities would be fixed before they were even released because of people looking through the code and catching the problems. Unfortunately in this case, we live in a very capitalist society, and many large companies have made a lot of money on closed-source software, and for the foreseeable future, we need to have a computer that can handle running closed-source software so that the average person can use it, like it or not.
Should I Use Linux?
This should be a fun one to close with. None of these other questions will even matter to you if you decide your answer is “no” to this question.
When first tip-toeing around the idea of Linux, most people ask if they should even use it at all. No matter where you go with this question, you are going to get a biased answer. If you are asking on Linux forums, the answer will be a resounding “yes,” and will start the debates above. If you ask on a Windows/other forum, you should be prepared for a different kind of answer. Some people will give you their experience with Linux, and if their case is similar to yours (they found Linux, tried it out, and found it was too unfamiliar), listen to their reasons and decide if you are up for the challenge! If they begin to bash Linux and give insubstantial reasons why their OS is better (like “it looks nicer” or “it works better” or “Linux is for nerds”), you might want to think twice about taking their advice. Just like with any forum, you will get rational, well put answers, and you will have people voicing silly opinions with foolish reasoning. Just like the rest of this article states, you need to sift through the noise to find the actual answers to your questions.
To put it simply, the answer to this question of whether or not Linux is for you is “yes, if it is what you are looking for.” No matter what answers people give you to this question, it will ultimately come down to “are you willing to deal with the differences, problems, and aggravations that come with having an insanely customizable, open source, community-supported operating system on your computer?”
The answer to this question is “yes, if it is what you are looking for.”
Linux is not always easy. If you are used to Windows, you are going to be thrown for a loop the first time you open a file manager and see a Unix file system. Coming from Mac will be a little easier, but even in that case, things are different. For one thing, you are no longer pigeon holed. You have choice! But with this option of choice comes some confusion. You may never feel completely at home, even if you have found your answer to software troubles in Linux. You may become a chronic “distro-hopper,” which is what the community calls people who try every new version of Linux they find, either because they haven’t found what they are looking for, or because they love the option that they can.
When you use Linux, you are not being forced into one way of thinking/using a computer. Some people like the safety in knowing that a company has done research and developed an operating system specifically for their philosophy. Some people like that Apple is very strict with their operating system, which in turn develops a level of safety you simply do not have in other operating systems. But some people are also frustrated that their customization options with a Mac are very limited, and there is a common sentiment that people are “using the computer the way Apple intends.” They mean to say that a company has decided how their computer will be used, and that is the final say.
Linux is for enthusiasts, tweakers, modders, curious people, the oppositionally defiant, the unsatisfied, the fickle, and sometimes, the brave. It can be a difficult beast to master, but one of the most common things you will hear is “once you get over the learning curve, you will never want to go back.” There mere fact that there is content for an article like this shows how many options you will have for things all the way down to what you want your user interface to look like if you switch to Linux. That choice may be overwhelming for some. This will be hard for the community to hear, but LINUX IS NOT ALWAYS THE ANSWER! You need to decide if it is right for you, and then go on and take every bit of advice you find with a grain of salt, testing it against your idea of what your computer should do, and disregarding advice that does not fit with this philosophy.
But my personal recommendation is to give Linux a try, because you will almost definitely be surprised by how much you like it!
I’d like to close with this picture of Linus again, because if you know anything about him, it is just such a fantastic picture. I like to think that this is his response when people start to get all elitist about their personal setup.
Thanks for reading, and remember that any of my personal opinions here are the same as every opinion I wrote about: they’re just opinions. It’s up to you to decide if I’m right.
(This article has been edited to add more content and remove some bias)