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To make the process of choice less painful for potential new Linux users, this article contains tips and points to resources to help finding the right Linux distribution.
Before you start looking for another operating system, make a list of the things you currently do on your computer and the programs you use. Basically, you can do anything on Linux you can do on other operating system, nonetheless your favorite applications may just not be available for it.
If you don't have to stick with certain programs, e. g. for professional reasons, and are not a hardcore gamer, there is probably an alternative available for Linux, that provides all the features you need.
So if your specific requirements don't rule out using Linux, read on about things to consider and resources to help making a choice.
According to estimates of the Linux Counter there are currently about 60 million people worldwide who run Linux on one or more machines. Thus, chances that you know a Linux user are not too bad.
In my experience people who use Linux do it deliberately, are passionate about it and generally tech savvy, so don't hesitate to ask them for help on choosing the most suitable distro for you. Make sure you know what you want and need before though.
Hardware support is obviously an important consideration and often heard as an argument against using Linux. I'd argue that Linux hardware support is very good in general and if you choose one of the major distributions you should be pretty safe.
On the other hand, you may run into trouble with external devices connected to your computer, like printers, scanners or phones as vendors often don't provide drivers for Linux.
Many Linux distributions offer information on supported hardware on their Web sites, search for DISTRONAME hardware support and you'll find results like the following:
Or just go to linux-drivers.org, a great resource to find Linux hardware compatibility lists and information on Linux drivers for several device categories.
The Linux Distribution Chooser is a handy online tool that guides you through the process of finding a suitable distro by asking questions with preset answers you can choose from.
Once you finished the test one or more distributions that best meet your requirements are listed on the result page. Currently "only" 11 of the more popular Linux distributions are being matched against your answers, but it certainly gives you an idea.
Somewhat more simplistic but more comprehensive is The /g/ OS Guide from 4chan's technology board. This flowchart guides you on your way to make a choice from dozens of operating systems, many of them Linux based, by asking easy to answer questions.
Though, it may not help to take a choice, I use this opportunity to also mention the GNU/Linux Distribution Timeline here, an impressive visualization of the history of Linux distributions and their origins.
Provided you found one or more distros that seem to be a good fit, I highly recommend testing them before installation on your computer. Many distributions can be booted from CD, DVD or USB drive. Check out the LiveCD List for available distros and UNetbootin or LinuxLive USB Creator for creating bootable media.
Alternatively you can download an image of your preferred distro and test it using virtualization software like VirtualBox.
Building your own distro may sound like a crazy idea to people new to Linux, but can make a lot of sense, for example if you want to create a distributable system for demonstrating software.
Again there are several tools that help you walk this path, some of them listed below.
If the tools above do not offer the level of customization you are looking for and you really are an advanced user, you've probably heard of the Linux From Scratch project, which provides step-by-step instructions for building your own custom Linux based system, entirely from source code.
Choosing the best Linux distribution for one's needs is not an easy task. I myself have used different systems including SUSE, Red Hat, and Ubuntu, each of which for several years on desktop computers and tried out others including netbook distros like UNR, Moblin/Meego, and Joli OS.
From my experience I can tell that there are very usable Linux distributions well suited for both new and advanced users. My recommendation for those new to Linux is to go with one of the major distributions at first and install it as an additional boot option. In the end the only way to find out whether it's right for you, is to actually use it.
If you can recommend other useful resources or want to share your own tips to find the right Linux distribution, feel free to do so in the comments below.