Deciding which Linux distribution to install is more of a personal choice. You should install a few of them to see which version do you like. However, there are some characteristics that could identify among the different distribution. The most popular Linux distribution is Fedora and Ubuntu.
If you are new in Linux, Ubuntu is the only choice. Ubuntu is design for people who are migrating from Windows or Mac. It is novice friendly and easy to use. Its documentation is very rich and clear. Ubuntu also has a very large support community. Furthermore, Ubuntu focus its feature enhancement more on the desktop experience. Compare to Fedora, Ubuntu is more concern of stability and therefore it won’t adopt any new technology that is too new and unstable.
If you want a stable and user-friendly desktop experience, Ubuntu is the choice. If you do not like to tinker with operating system and just want to use it for normal usage, choose Ubuntu.
Fedora, however, is the most technically advanced distribution. Any new technology will be adopted by Fedora first. If you want the latest and most advanced technology, use Fedora. Therefore, Fedora is not as stable as Ubuntu. Sometime you would get a problematic kernel update which forces you to switch back to older kernel for a while. Fedora is more suitable for season Linux user who wants to try out the latest. You must not be afraid of tinkering with the operating system when using Fedora. If you are technically inclined but new to Linux, you could try Fedora. The support community for Fedora is good.
For feature enhancement, Fedora is more concern of security and it may include enterprise feature which might not benefit you. Fedora is the test bed for trying out new technology before such technology is adopted by its sponsor Linux Red Hat in their enterprise operating system. If you are an IT professional considering adopting a new skills in Linux administration, Fedora is the choice. By learning Fedora, you will be sure that Linux Red Hat would adopt some of the technology eventually. For anyone who would like to learn some system administration that could help in their career in IT, Fedora is he choice.
Enterprise: Linux Red Hat and CentOS
In the enterprise market, Linux Red Hat is the most popular open source distribution. However, Linux Red Hat is not free. You can download Red Hat for a free trial. After which, you have to pay for any updates and support. For those looking to learn the skills in administering Linux Red Hat, you could use Fedora or CentOS. CentOS is very similar to Linux Red Hat. In fact, what CentOS did is to get the source code from Linux Red Hat, remove its trade mark and marketed as CentOS.
Please bear in mind that CentOS is not 100% compatible with Linux. CentOS is trying to be as similar to Red Hat as possible. I could say that CentOS is 99% compatible with Linux Red Hat. For those who want to learn Red Hat administration, CentOS is the choice because you can download it for free. In the enterprise market, some companies try out CentOS before adopting Linux Red Hat. There are some companies who would not like to pay for updates and support would use CentOS operationally.
Mobile Distribution: Knoppix and DSL
Beside the two popular desktop distributions Fedora and Ubuntu, I would like to introduce you to some light weight and mobile distribution. Such distribution is not rich in software but it is good enough for simple usage. Knoppix contains in a bootable CD with a collection of GNU/Linux software. There is no need to install Knoppix to the hard disk as you can boot it up from CD.
Another mobile distribution is DSL (Damn Small Linux). It is derived from Knoppix and it is much smaller in size. It contains only 50MB and could be stored in a thumb drive. Mobile distribution could be used for demonstrative or educational purpose. However, Linux administrator uses it frequently for hardware troubleshooting or repair.
Distribution for Hardcore Geek: Gentoo and LFS
Gentoo Linux was designed for power users. Its installation could be cumbersome although recently it includes an installer to simplify the installation. If you would like to modify your operating system to your liking, Gentoo could be your choice. Gentoo also got a good support community with comprehensive documentation. Gentoo users are more technically inclined. In fact, Gentoo forum provide a lot of the highly technical solution to the common problem in other distribution.
If you want to build Linux from scratch, you should consider LFS project. Linux From Scratch (LFS) is a project that provides you with the steps necessary to build your own custom Linux system. The most important reason for using LFS is to learn how a Linux system works internally. Building an LFS system teaches you about all that makes Linux tick, how things work together, and depend on each other. Along the way you could customize it to your own taste and needs.
Finally, I would like to mention Debian. Before Ubuntu arrives, Debian got the largest support community with a large collection of software. Debian also got the largest group of developers working on the project. The existence of Ubuntu, which uses the base code of Debian, split up the manpower and resource from Debian. In fact, a lots of other Linux distribution are derived from Debian.
With all the different Linux distributions mentioned above. I would like to highlight that the usage between these distributions can be very different especially in the area of software installation and distribution. We can categorize most Linux distribution into 2 classes.
The first class is the Red Hat class of distributions. Red Hat uses rpm files to package their software and it uses yum for software update and distribution. Red Hat class distribution includes Linux Red Hat, Fedora and CentOS.
The other class, is the Debian class of distributions. Obviously, these distributions use the base code of Debian. Debian uses deb package for software packaging and it uses apt-get for updates and distributions. Debian class of Linux includes Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Knoppix and DSL (via Knoppix).
I hope the analysis above will help you to make up your mind on which Linux distribution to choose.