Distro-Hopping, What, Why & How Explained!

As a beginner to the Linux world some time back, when I came across the word Distro-hopping, I thought it is some kind of a game that Linux users play and that idea sounded so cool that even I wanted to be a part of it and play this distro-hopping game!

What is Distro Hopping? Distro-Hopping is a term that refers to the activity or hobby of Linux users to switch between distros frequently, exploring them and trying several distros out in an attempt to find the one that best suits their needs.

That’s the short version of the answer to the question of “What is Distro-hopping?”. In this article let’s look at why Linux users play this game of distro-hopping, how they play it and see if this game is worth playing this game at all.

Why people do Distro-Hopping

To understand why people do distro-hopping, let’s look at the main factors that differentiate the distros so that we can understand the reasons behind doing distro-hopping.

Reason#1: Each distro is unique

Some of the factors that differentiate these distros include the following

  • The goal of the distro (as we saw in the previous section)
  • Target use-case (e.g. Servers vs General users)
  • Business model (e.g. Community driven vs Commercial distros)
  • Usage of free software vs proprietary software (as some hardware like network cards and graphics cards always only came with proprietary software)
  • The package manager (used to install and uninstall software on the system)
  • Ease of Use (beginners vs advanced users)
  • Init system (sys init vs systemd)
  • Stability (Rolling releases vs Standard releases)
  • hardware architecture (x86, x64, ARM, etc.)
  • Security (decides the level of anonymity)
  • Resource constraints
  • Aesthetics (how the desktop and related apps look like)
  • Support (free and paid support)
  • Release cycles and Long term support (for example Ubuntu’s Long Term Support version is 2 years, which means you get security updates till that point and after that, you need to upgrade to their latest versions)

In the previous article, I have explained the reasons behind the existence of so many Linux distros. In that article, I have explained the spirit behind Linux distros through some stories about the initial era of Linux, and the factors that differentiate each Linux distro. You can find that in the link below.

Reasons Behind The Existence of SO MANY Linux Distros: An Analysis!

If you haven’t already, I suggest you read that before continuing this article.

Reason#2: The Linux World Has Choices

Unlike Windows and Mac OSX, Linux doesn’t take the “one size fits all” approach. Instead, Linux Distros is all about “tailor-made” Operating Systems suitable for a specific purpose.

As mentioned in the article linked above, these purposes maybe include

  • producing documents
  • writing programs and creating software
  • editing pictures, videos, audio and multimedia-production related works
  • securing the operating system so that no one can hack into it or
  • just browse the internet and consume media.

Reason#3: To Learn

This is one of the main reasons people distro-hop, which is to learn more about Linux and in a fun way of tinkering around. I believe this is what separates everyday users of computers and the Linux community, as Linux users usually love the idea of customizing everything and tinker around to make things work the way they want it to!

Each distro has a different way of doing things since there is no such thing as “one best way”, as its all about tradeoffs. Thus switching between distros is an excellent opportunity to learn!

For example, I used to think each given distro is different when it comes to how its desktop looks. Once I hop over a few distros, I saw that many distros are similar looking and I inevitably got into the confusion of “why these are different distro’s even though they look alike?

Then I understood what desktop environments are, how modularly they are constructed and the reason behind having so many Desktop environments. I suggest you take a look at the article below, which I wrote recently regarding Desktop Environments and their place in Linux.

Linux Distros vs Desktop Environments: Differences Explained!

Thus through distro-hopping, people learn a lot about how Linux works and how the operating systems and computing industry works in general.

Reason#4: To Explore

The next reason is to explore the world of Linux. There are situations where you don’t really know what you want till you actually see it. Linux world is one good example of this. By exploring more distros, you get to experience several flavors and cuisines before you can figure out what your staple food is!

Reason#5: To Stay Updated

This is another reason people distro-hop. There are new technologies and innovations coming up all the time in the Linux world and people don’t like being left behind as their distro is not implementing certain innovations. So in order to keep up with the latest trend, people happen to hop between distros all the time!

Reason#6: Boredom and Lack of Satisfaction

This is the same trend we see in the smartphone industry, people get bored of their phone so every year they buy a new one even though the one they have is working perfectly normal and is more than enough for their needs!

Similarly when people get bored with their present distro and they tend to switch to another one, and then another one and then another and so on. They can never stick to one distro for too long and they tend to get bored easily.

With smartphones, you need to spend money, with distros you don’t. This just makes it that much easier to distro-hop. There are even Reddit groups for Distro-hoppers!!

But I would caution you against using this as a reason to distro-hop, as even though you don’t have to spend a penny, you will be wasting precious time doing it. Unless you actually commit to a Distro for a good amount of time, you will not get to learn anything (other than installation procedures!!) and you will not be able to mature as a Linux user!

So if you want to distro hop, do it for the right reasons!!

So to summarize

Why Linux Users do Distro-hopping? It’s because each distro is unique, the Linux world has choices, a general sense of dissatisfaction and also distro-hopping helps them to explore the Linux world and stay updated on the latest features, philosophies, and technologies.

Now that we have seen the reasons behind distro-hopping, let’s proceed to the next section and look at some information that you need to be aware of before you can start distro-hopping.

How to do Distro-Hopping

If you are reading this article, I guess that means you have already started your journey of distro-hopping. In this section, let’s have a quick look at some of the popular distros and some suggestions that I would like to leave you with as you continue your Distro-hopping journey!

Beginner Level

Most users start with some easy to install distros like Solus, Ubuntu or one of its flavors (like Kubuntu and Xubuntu) or derivatives like Linux Mint. These are the popularly suggested “beginner distros” since almost everything can be done through using graphical tools and software.

But these easy to use distros usually come with their own set of constraints. If you are a person who wants his computer just the way you need it to be then you will have a difficult time later on with these distros.

So usually beginners Linux enthusiasts hop away from these beginner distros after spending some considerable time to learn what it offers and what are its limitations.

Intermediate Level

Okay so once you have learned everything you can about beginner distros and you are ready to move on to the next level, the type of distros you should hop to must be the original ones like Debian, Fedora, Slackware, and OpenSUSE. (stay away from Arch Linux and Gentoo until you are familiar with all the above distros as its too big a step from the beginner distros!)

Each of these distros is different and they have their own characteristics and these are the distros that will teach you tons about the Linux world!

All of these distros are still easy to use once you learn the basics and you can exercise a very good level of customization with these distros.

Also, these distros don’t differ by look much as you can install your favorite Desktop Environment on any of these, but internally they differ a lot, for example, factors like the default package management system, design philosophies, init systems, communities, and values, etc are so different in each of these distros.

So you will get to know the pros and cons of each design philosophy as you experiment with these distros and you will mature as a Linux user.

If you are at this point in your distro-hopping journey, then I suggest this book

Introducing Linux Distros. Apress by Dieguez Castro, Jose. (link to Amazon)

The author has collected loads of information about several distros and presented it in a very nice format for easy learning in this book. This book will teach you stuff about the Linux distro world in general and the author has covered all the important distros with enough detail. I suggest you give it a go!

Advanced Level

Now that you have familiarised yourself with the Linux world and you have reached an advanced level of Linux users, there are only 2 more steps in your distro-hopping journey which is to use distros like Arch Linux and Gentoo Linux.

These distros are exclusively for advanced users who can basically do anything and everything they want to customize these operating system to fit their needs

How it differs from the ones we have seen above is the fact that all the distros in the beginner and advanced levels had a specific need in mind, be it use cases like desktops and servers or the need to have the latest features vs a stable system, etc.

But these advanced distro’s is all about giving you a platform to make the distro fit your specific needs!

A good analogy is these advanced distros will give you the clay and you have to make your own sculptures with those!

Users of these distros typically end their journey of distro-hopping as

  1. They have finally found a distro that will let them customize their computers to their own needs and
  2. They have already reached a good level of expertise in Linux

But if you are ready to go on there is one more level!

Ultimate Level

This is the last level of the distro-hopping journey, which is to make your own distro!! After using the advanced distros like Arch Linux you already have almost enough knowledge to make your own distro.

At this point, I suggest you give LFS distro a look. LFS stands for Linux From Scratch. Although it is technically not a distro, this distro is more like a DIY kit with instructions to make your very own distro and you can make it exactly the way you want it to be!

Tips for Distro-Hoppers

I would like to leave you with a few tips, which I feel are useful for your journey in exploring the Linux world.

TIP#1: Have a goal

Try to avoid distro-hopping without a specific goal in mind. Try to have a systematic approach and have an end goal in mind. Be it learning Linux or finding the best distro to suit your needs or simply exploring or a combination of these!

TIP#2: Give some thought to distro selection

Don’t just google top 10 distros and try all 10 of those. Like I have mentioned in the previous section, each distro needs a level of expertise associated with it, so do some research and give it some thought every time you jump to another distro.

TIP#3: Stick to a distro for a good amount of time

Try to avoid jumping distros on a weekly basis. If you have given some thought to distro selection, then you will know more about the distro that you just installed and I suggest you explore the distro completely and learn as much as you can before hopping to another one.

To answer the question “how long is enough?” I would say it depends on how often you use your computer and how often you actually tinker with it and learn.

By tinkering, I mean customizing your system by installing software, configuring them, removing them, etc. and not day-to-day activities like browsing, seeing movies, etc.

I would say anywhere between 100 to 400 hours of usage is recommended, so if you tinker with your computer for 4 hours a day, then depending on the distro you are using and your level of expertise anywhere in the range of 25 to 100 days can be considered as enough time.

TIP#4: Back up

If you really want to learn, you must use it as a daily driver and do all your computing tasks on it! At the same time, this brings in the risk of you breaking the operating system through tinkering, so ALWAYS KEEP THE IMPORTANT DATA BACKED UP!

Also, keep a Live-USB with your favorite Linux distro always ready so that you can go in and fix your system if it breaks!

TIP#5: Try Participating

Participating in the community is an excellent way to learn and you can also help the developers by identifying bugs in the latest versions of the software or you can even contribute your own code to the community to help make the distros better!

If you are interested in learning more about Linux, be sure to check out our step by step plan to master Linux here.

And with that, I will conclude this article!

I hope you guys enjoyed this article and learned something useful.

If you liked the post, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

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Balaji Gunasekaran
Balaji Gunasekaran is a Senior Software Engineer with a Master of Science degree in Mechatronics and a bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering. He loves to write about tech and has written more than 300 articles. He has also published the book “Cracking the Embedded Software Engineering Interview”. You can follow him on LinkedIn