Which Linux Is “The Best Linux” for Windows Users?

If you are ever bored and want to inspire a heated debate, ask your online friends the question, “Which Linux is the best Linux distro for Windows users?” Then kick back and watch the feathers fly. I don’t think I’ve ever met a passionate Windows user, or an indifferent Linux user. Linux users pick their particular Linux for a variety of reasons, which they are usually enthusiastic to explain.

Full disclosure: I’m currently the editor of Ubuntu User magazine, but I have friends who run a variety of Linux distros, sometimes several at the same time. In my house, you’ll find a Mac, an Android tablet, two Ubuntu systems, a Linux Mint laptop, and a variety of Live DVDs that I pop in as needed. Despite our Ubuntu and Mint systems, neither distro is my first pick for “The Best Linux” for Windows users. I asked my online friends for their picks, too, and here is my un-scientific analysis of responses:

1. Knoppix

Why do I pick Knoppix as The Best Linux for a Windows user? I have to agree with Mayank Sharma, who picked Knoppix, “Because it showcases the best of Linux, and for everything else it’s got Wine and VirtualBox!”

Windows users are most open to trying a Linux when you are sitting at their desk, rescuing their system — vacation photos, music, documents, and so on — with a Knoppix Live DVD. At least this was my experience when I saved my friend’s system a couple of years ago, and her kids were relieved that I rescued some homework assignments along with their music collections. As I saved all of my friend’s files onto an external hard drive, I had her full attention while I lectured her on the importance of backing up her system. She also got to hear my rants about how the system she’d paid for also required a “virus protection” program, which still managed to let someone in her family accidentally install malware.

Knoppix wins first place because it will save a Windows user when their own operating system has failed miserably, but Knoppix also wins for being packed full of great programs, including a nice selection of Universal Access tools. ADRIANE (Audio Desktop Reference Implementation and Networking Environment), for example, has been included in Knoppix since version 5.3. Knoppix might not win a popularity contest among other Linux users, but don’t underestimate its cool factor when it comes to inspiring Windows users to reconsider their choice of operating systems, particularly after it has rescued their files.

2. Ubuntu & Ubuntu derivates

Whereas Knoppix acts as a life raft a disgruntled Windows user might grab, Ubuntu is more of a gateway Linux that lures them in. After I rescued my friend’s files from her wonky Windows system, I installed Ubuntu on her machine. My friend was impressed and happily kept Ubuntu on her system after I left.

When it comes to popularity and cool factor, Ubuntu is no doubt ahead of the pack. And when it comes to evangelists, Ubuntu is leagues ahead of the other distros. “Fedora/OpenSuse and Linux Mint are not nearly on the same level as far as users on Forums/IRC,” explains Ubuntu evangelist Benjamin Kerensa. “Fedora has 2,657 active forum members where Ubuntu has 37,610 and Linux Mint disabled the Active Members stats on their Forums.” And he’s right — a Windows user who moves to Ubuntu will have an easy time finding online help resources and other Ubuntu users.

Dave Andrews, iheartubuntu.com blogger, thinks Windows users will settle in easily on an *buntu system. “I think Kubuntu has the same look and feel, considering Windows copied the KDE desktop style,” he says, “So Windows users are going to immediately know where pretty much everything is and, if not, can easily search on it.”

2. Linux Mint

Based on Ubuntu, Linux Mint ties for second place, but stands out among other Ubuntu derivates. And I predict that this tasty “little system that could” will be a stand out and bump Ubuntu down the list within the next few months.

Even though Dave Andrews hearts Ubuntu, he adds, “Linux Mint is just as straightforward for a Windows user.”

Ken Starks, founder of REGLUE (formerly The HeliOS Project), doesn’t think numbers of users necessary equates to best distribution. ”Mint, and recently added efforts like SolusOS, in my eyes address the problems that the ‘father’ distros haven’t bothered with for years. Kororaa and ZorinOS are much easier to use out of the box than Ubuntu, but who’s heard of them? Popularity doesn’t always mean ease of use.”

Long-time technology journalist Steven Vaughan-Nichols also sees Mint as a great distribution for Windows users. “If you want a Linux that feels like XP, I recommend Linux Mint with the Cinnamon front-end,” he says, adding, “If you use a browser for pretty much everything, look into Google Chrome OS, or more practically, a Chromebook. And, if you just want something that’s really ease to use, say ‘hi’ to Ubuntu 12.04 with the Unity interface.”

Linc Fessenden, an IT manager and senior Linux systems administrator, says that his parents, in-laws, and other relatives use Linux Mint, but most importantly, “They have been doing so for years with nary a support call.” And really, do you want to be tech support for every Windows user you move to Linux? I didn’t think so.

Eric Geissinger, a systems analyst, says Linux Mint and SolusOS have both worked best “out of the box” for him. “Both picked up all devices as requested,” Geissinger says. “Linux Mint got my dual-head video card to work properly after Mageia and Ubuntu had failed. I know we’re supposed to play until it works, but sometimes you just want to install and go.”

Geissinger has a great point — Windows users who are trying Linux for the first time are not likely to stick with it if the system requires a bunch of tweaking. Yes, I realize that Linux is dramatically easier to use now than it was a few years ago, but that still doesn’t mean our relatives who forward every chain mail and write in all caps will warm up to it easily.

Scott Winberg, a fire district IT lead, thinks Ubuntu is less user-friendly now with its new user interface, so he thinks Mint will be more welcoming for Windows users. “I have used Ubuntu for years and still have issues figuring out the UI,” he explains. “Windows users would be lost.”

3. None of the Above

“I don’t think there is one, because most of the time they want a Linux Desktop that acts just like Windows,” says Todd Robinson, co-founder of Webpath Technologies. Robinson knows a thing or two about Linux distributions. This month he is releasing a different operating system every day for his experiment.

Robinson thinks Windows users who want the Windows experience on Linux should just stick to Windows. “I had many OS requests for the 31 Flavors of Fun experiment to build a Windows clone and I turned them away,” he says. “They wanted an OS that looked like Windows and ran Windows programs, so they probably won’t be happy with anything less than a perfect re-creation. They mostly wanted the clone to save a few dollars or to get away from malware.”

“Let me say that you only get one chance to make a first impression,” says Larry Cafiero, a software developer and Fedora fan. “I’d stay away from distros either based on Unity or GNOME 3 because they’re going to be foreign to what the Windows user is used to. That pretty much leaves Linux Mint with their GNOME 2.x-like desktops.” Still, Cafiero thinks that anyone who isn’t willing to put in the small amount of effort required to learn a new system might as well stick with Windows.

4. Any Linux

Which Linux is best for Windows users? “Isn’t that like asking ‘What style of cooking is best for a starving man?’” says Michael Hall, Upstream Liaison at Canonical Ltd.

“I’d have to say that determining the best Linux distribution — or any other operating system, for that matter — for anyone involves asking the question ‘What do you want to do with it?’” says Jeff Osier-Mixon, Yocto Project Community Manager at Intel Corporation. He has a good point. If an experienced, tech-savvy Windows user is eager to move to Linux, he or she might be ready to dive into Fedora, openSUSE, or one of the other distros that aren’t as newbie-friendly, but might better suit the user’s needs.

“If a Window’s user is serious about using Linux, the distribution doesn’t matter,” says James Schweitzer, Software Engineer for Watson Managed Services. “It is an attitude and effort thing to commit to change and stick with it. Considering the cost of Windows is hidden in the cost of a computer, most current Linux users made a choice to use the OS. You can never underestimate the value of what is handed to you and what you reach out and grab. Ever notice how converts are more zealous than the ones born into a religion?” [Author's note: Oh goodie. I already see an idea for my next article: If your Linux distribution was a religion, which one would it be?]

“Whatever you do, don’t pick a distribution based on who’s the last Linux nerd left standing in the ‘what distribution should I run’ thread,” says Don Marti, Perforce Software Technical Marketing Manager and former editor of Linux Journal. ”Consider your best source of Linux help and pick based on what you’re likely to get help with.”

Marti has a few tips for Windows users who are considering which Linux distro will provide the support they need. First, he recommends going through mailing list or forum archives to see what kind of help is available, then find the most helpful posts and note who posted them. When you determine who the most helpful people are, figure out what they run and then go with that distribution.

If you had to recommend a Linux distribution for a first-time Linux user, which one would it be? Let me know on Twitter: @rikkiends