We tested openSUSE, Ubuntu 8.04, PCLinuxOS, Mandriva Linux One, Fedora, SimplyMEPIS, and CentOS 5.1. All performed well, and each had at least one truly outstanding feature.
In the last couple of years, desktop-friendly Linux distributions have taken enormous leaps -- they're easier to install, better maintained, and more powerful than ever before. There's also that many more of them -- which means that many more possibilities to sift through.
openSUSE's menu system keeps its roster of applications well-organized.
In this roundup I've looked at seven Linux distributions, all mainly aimed at desktop users. Some ought to be household names; some are less widely sung but still worth looking at. All are meant to be top-of-the-line, "throw-and-go" distros for general use, so I paid careful attention to how they behaved on a fairly broad range of hardware -- how display, networking, or other default configurations were set to behave both out of the box and after an update (if one was available).
Each of these distributions was installed on five machines:
Sony VAIO TX series notebook; Intel Pentium R 1.3-GHz processor; 1-GB RAM; 80-GB hard disk; 1366 x 768 widescreen display; Intel 915GM integrated graphics controller.
Dell XPS 420; Intel Core 2 Quad 2.4-GHz processor, 3-GB RAM; 160-GB hard disk; 1680 x 1050 widescreen display; ATI Radeon 2600 HD 256-MB graphics.
VirtualBox virtual machine with 1-GB RAM and 128-MB video running on Dell XPS 420.
Even if some of the distros shone brighter on the whole than others, most of them did fairly well -- and all of them had at least one truly outstanding feature that might be the deciding factor for you. I should also note that many of these distributions either have commercial support options (like Ubuntu) or full commercial versions (openSUSE) available, in case you want to graduate to something a little more aggressively supported.
OpenSUSE is Novell's general-purpose version of the SUSE Linux distribution. It's available in 32- and 64-bit x86 editions, as well as a PowerPC build. It didn't run as well as I would have hoped on my notebook machines, but it's still quite good for desktops.
The 10.3 installer has many individual steps, but the defaults for each are generally perfectly acceptable. For the desktop, you have your choice of Gnome or KDE; I prefer Gnome, but I tried both just for the sake of comparison. It's also possible to install with a minimal desktop or a bare command line interface if you want to strip things all the way down. (One of the other expert options is your choice of global I/O scheduler for the kernel, although the default choice is also fine for that, too.)
One possible gotcha during the install is that you will be prompted to agree to install some un-free/proprietary packages; if you're a stickler for a totally unencumbered installation, pay close attention to what you're agreeing to here. AdobeICCProfiles, Agfa Fonts, Flash Player, and Java all have click-to-OK licensing agreements that pop up during this phase.
There is, unfortunately, no migration assistance from Windows in the installer, as there is in Ubuntu, so if you have an existing Windows installation you'll have to either create a new partition or migrate in your data by hand. You do have the option of upgrading an existing SUSE install, though. One very nice feature of the installer is that it switches to the newly installed instance of openSUSE without forcing a full reboot.