While Windows tends to be the most widely used operating system among regular desktop users, Linux has shown its prominence in things like servers and back-end systems. In fact, the vast majority of websites today are served by a Linux machine of some kind. It’s clear that there’s a lot of merit to how Linux works, but is it appropriate for everyone to use, server or otherwise?
The answer depends on what variant of Linux you’re talking about. The “Linux” part of it only describes the very core of the operating system–the kernel. The rest of the OS–mainly, the software and applications–are what the user sees, and this is something that can vary quite profoundly depending on which distribution of Linux you’re looking at. Want to become familiar with Linux? Follow this easy tutorial.
Going over all of the possible Linux distributions would probably take a few novels, so we’re going to focus on two fairly popular, but very distinct flavors: Arch Linux, and Ubuntu.
If you read the Arch Linux website, you’ll note that they emphasize how “simple” and lightweight it is. It’s simple in terms of its structure, and lightweight in terms of how much resources it requires from your computer. Something that’s important to remember, though, is that simple doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy or obvious to use. This is exemplified by the fact that the base installation of Arch Linux gives you nothing but a command line terminal, access to your internet connection, and a package manager for installing software. It’s up to the user to install and configure things like a server, a desktop environment, and so on. The base system itself is simple, but you certainly wouldn’t want to install Arch Linux for a person who’s not computer-literate. It’s simple in that it’s very barebones.
On the other end of the spectrum, going towards ease of use and intuitiveness, you have a Linux distribution like Ubuntu. In the Linux world, Ubuntu happens to have the highest amount of mainstream penetration, with well-known computer manufacturers such as Dell offering systems that have Ubuntu pre-installed instead of Windows. Ubuntu’s main appeal is that they’ve put an enormous amount of effort into making everything as user-friendly as possible, so that even those who are learning computers can easily approach it. It might be “simple” in terms of how you use it, but with all of the bundled software and components needed to make it user-friendly, the underlying structure certainly isn’t simple. It’s still pretty easy (to use), however.
Which one is best?
If using the command line scares you at all, then between the two choices mentioned here, Ubuntu would probably be best since it tries to make everything work out of the box (so to speak). It’s still very much possible to use the command line in Ubuntu, but it isn’t at all required like it is in Arch Linux. If learning the Linux command line sounds appealing, look no further!
On the other hand, if you’re a tinkerer or a do-it-yourself type of person, Arch Linux can be a huge boon for you. Arch allows the user to mold their operating system into whatever they want, whether it’s a user-friendly GUI with flashy eye candy, or a fast and lightweight server, or anything in-between. The base system can run on an extremely wide range of hardware, new and old, and whether it runs efficiently for you depends on what you decide to install on it.
Ubuntu, meanwhile, has a set of software packages that have been pre-installed and pre-configured for you. There’s a baseline of hardware that it can run on because all of the fancy user interfaces, eye candy, and overall polish requires a fair bit of hardware power. But with Arch Linux, it will only require as much power as you need. You have complete control over how the system uses available resources.
So, to answer the question, which one is best depends on what you want out of the system. If you just want to install something and have it work right away, Ubuntu is your best bet. If you like having a lot of control over what your system is doing, and don’t mind learning quite a bit about the command line in Linux (in case you don’t have the knowledge already), then Arch Linux might be a better fit.
Another significant issue could be software compatibility. Both Arch and Ubuntu are Linux systems, but given that Ubuntu has more mainstream appeal, you might find that there’s a lot more official support for it in terms of third-party software. Granted, not a whole lot of third-party software designs for Linux in the first place, but when they do, they often turn to Ubuntu as a primary target for testing their software and offering technical support.
That said, even if not officially supported, any software that you install and run on Ubuntu can likely be found for Arch as well. If Arch doesn’t have a piece of software in their official repositories, then it’s fairly likely that the community-maintained repository (called the AUR, or Arch User Repository) has it in some form.
One Last Detail
So then, we know that Ubuntu and Arch can run the same kinds of software. Wouldn’t that make them equally viable, at least once everything is set up? Well, there’s one more detail that sets the two distributions apart, and it can be fairly important.
Arch runs on what is called the rolling release model. In this model, all software on the system is kept on the bleeding-edge. The newest versions of software are uploaded to the central repository all of the time, allowing the user to keep everything fresh.
Ubuntu, however, is not on a rolling release model. What this means is that the versions of software that you can install is effectively frozen at the point when the last major version of Ubuntu was released. For example, at this time of writing the last major version was 14.04, which was released in April 2014. This means that the vast majority of software you install from Ubuntu’s central repository will be from April 2014 or older. They do make exceptions for certain pieces of software that require more frequent upgrades (such as the built-in Firefox browser), but for the most part you’re stuck with what they have.
Arch Linux has no such restriction–it is constantly evolving. Some people may like this, but others may desire a more stable and predictable system, which is where Ubuntu might be a better choice. Find out how to install and use Ubuntu, step-by-step.
In the end, Ubuntu and Arch are aimed at two very different audiences. Ubuntu is aiming for mainstream appeal in the same vein as Windows and Mac. Arch doesn’t care about mainstream appeal; it only cares about providing the user the tools that they need to build their ideal operating system. It’s like playing with a fully assembled, pre-built gadget or toy as opposed to building with Lego blocks. It’s up to you which one sounds more appealing, but whichever direction you decide to take, you have a ton of information and resources at your fingertips. Arch has a wiki containing detailed installation guides and recommendations, as well as a sizable community of users, while Ubuntu has wide support both professionally and from the community. You’ll never be on your own.