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What's the best Linux for beginners?
by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (Oct. 9, 2006)

I recently received a letter from a computer pro who's nearing 80. He's disgusted by "how [Microsoft] things have developed, and how most software is put out there full of errors and omissions. Help is virtually none existent. One really has to dig to find answers."

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"So I am interested in learning more about Linux and Firefox, and what it entails to switch from MS and their assembled products. I am sick of the constant vigilance it takes to keep from being attacked and destroyed. But I need something less complicated, and requiring less diligence to keep things running. My needs are not great, but I do spend a lot of time on the computer."

He's not the only one. There are many users, some with far less experience than he has, who are sick to death of Windows and the constant need to keep it, and third-party security software, up to date to even have a chance of having a healthy PC.

But, at the same time, many of these users aren't interested in learning Linux. They just want an operating system that will let them get email, browse the Web, and run a few simple office applications.

So, here's my list of the best Linuxes for people who just want a working PC, and could care less about the differences between KDE and GNOME.

The easiest way to get up to speed on Linux is Robin "Roblimo" Miller's book: Point and Click Linux.

Robin walks users through the basics of using Linux. This is a book you can hand to your mom and she'll be able to use Linux. Heck, with the included DVD of Robin showing you how to do the basics, many users won't even need to read the book to get up and running.

The book includes an older version of MEPIS Linux. This edition of Linux is still quite usable. It also has the advantage of running on very minimal systems. I've run it myself on systems that only had 128 MB of RAM and an early 1.5 GHz Pentium IV processor. That makes it ideal for home users who aren't going to buy a new PC until the old one rusts underneath them.

For a Linux that's a lot like Windows XP in look and feel, I recommend the home edition of
Xandros Linux. This Debian-based distribution might frustrate a Linux power-user, but it's great for someone who's just looking for a Windows-replacement.

The Premium Edition Xandros Desktop Linux 4.0 comes with CodeWeavers Inc.'s Crossover Office 5.03 Standard Edition. With this, you can run many popular Windows applications. These include Office 2000 and 2003, Quicken 2004, and iTunes 5.01.

This Xandros distribution also comes with Versora Progression Desktop, a Windows-to-Linux migration tool. With it you can transfer basic system settings such as your wallpaper and screen saver to Linux. It will also transfer your email and documents from Windows applications to their Linux equivalents. For example, you can move Outlook email to Evolution or Thunderbird for email and Word documents to formats.

On the other hand, if being able to play as much Windows-specific media as legally possible on a Linux system is what you want, Freespire is your distribution of choice. If a device or a file format is technically and legally possible to support on Linux, Freespire supports it. For example, it supports proprietary hardware, such as many WiFi cards, and proprietary media formats, such as Windows Media Format.

That may sound like no big deal to some of you. But, for a user who doesn't know -- and doesn't want to know -- about the details of installing ipw2100 firmware so that a Centrino-based laptop can work with the local WiFi, or how to find a Windows Media codec, it's an enormous deal.

Most people just want a computer that works, not a computer that makes them work. Freespire excels at this.

Are these the best Linuxes for everyone?

No, although I will say that I've used all three of them with my work, and I've been happy with all of them.

What they are, though, without any question in my mind, are the best Linuxes for someone who just wants to get out of the Windows horror-show and use their PC without security worries.

So, if you're new to Linux, give them a try. You won't be sorry.

-- Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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