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Unfortunately, I couldn't find a graphics driver for my Ilyama flat screen and got so frustrated I eventually gave up - not something that happens often. I expected to have another look 6 months on and never got to it.
So thanks for asking, if there is a clear answer I'd be interested too..
live cd version
You should probably take a look at the ranked list on Distrowatch.com (right hand column), and try some of the ones listed under the top 20 or 25 distros. Most have a live cd version, either a full version or evaluation cd. From reading forums and mailing lists, Ubuntu, Mandriva, Mepis, PCLinuxOS and Knoppix seem to be the most popular among those just starting. I'm partial to Knoppix, but that may be because it's what I started with and it's more familiar.
You won't really get to tinker much with a live cd, although you will get to try out a lot of software. To tinker, you'll need to install a distro and just start working with it.
If you really, really want to tinker, and aren't afraid to dive into the deep end, Slackware and Gentoo are great. They require more work, but you'll learn a whole lot more than with some of the friendlier distros.
18 months ago ... couldn't find a graphics driver for my Ilyama flat screen
18 months is a very long time in driver and kernel development. Try again with a current release, and it's likely that your hardware can be detected automatically now. And try some different distros, as they each have slight differences in hardware detection.
Fedora Core is certainly the most ubiquitous. I give it a lot of points just for that. There's no lack of available information, books, etc. I run Fedora Core. The whirlwind pace of updates and upgrades might not be your cup of tea, though. It also shares the problem of all (U.S.-based at least) public releases that it omits anything with restricted licensing terms (a lot of multimedia software) so you have to download these programs seperately. Because of the ubiquity of Fedora Core, third party support is excellent - this is the first platform most vendors will support.
If you are interered in setting up a web server environment (test server, development server, etc.) CentOS would be a good choice. CentOS is a free distribution based on the Redhat Enterprise source. It is more stable (and thus less up to date, though) than Fedora Core. One advantage is that you would have an environment identical or nearly identical to many web hosting services.
I hear a lot of good things about Ubuntu (and Kbuntu) for desktop systems. Haven't tried it myself, though. It's on a much slower release schedule than Fedora Core.
Those were criteria asked for by the original poster, so let's try to stay on topic. The Linux world is confusing enough as it is, without us mixing matters up even more ;)
Another poster mentioned distrowatch. That site has a good standing as a neutral source of information on different linux flavours. Some of that (the fact sheets) is technical, but there are descriptions in common words, too. Here is a link to their page dedicated to LiveCDs:
The only LiveCD ranking that distrowatch does is the alphabetical. However, this page has a nice beginners guide to choosing a Linux distribution, and in the sidebar right you will see some top 5 lists as well, probably measured on pageviews on the distrowatch site:
My personal take on "which ones are most friendly, yet still good" (for LiveCDs only) is:
1) Knoppix, SUSE, or Ubuntu
2) Mepis, Gnoppix, or Kubuntu
(Gnoppix and Kubuntu are slightly modified versions of Knoppix and Ubuntu - basically they use another "skin", or window manager as it is.)
But, I see some others in the top 5 lists, and these names are good too. That's the most confusing thing about Linux; "everything's good" as long as it suits your personal preferences and requirements.
Last, don't be afraid to try a few different ones. That's the whole trick: If one does not please you entirely another one may. There are also differences in how well they will detect your hardware, but that will be specific to the hardware that you have. So do try a few of them before you make up your mind.
My live cd recommendations don't change and stay in the same order.
-- Ubuntu first. It's a good distribution with fantastic hardware support. It has an absolutely gigantic community, is friendly to newcomers, and is very serious about being commercially viable. The software repositories are huge, so if you need some particular software, it will likely be available with an easy installation. And everything is free as in beer.
-- Mandriva next. Also with good hardware support, aiming at commercially viable, good software repository. To get their latest software, you'll need to pay to joing their club. (That only applies if you want to install it to a hard drive and then get updated and new packages. Won't matter if you just stick with the live cd.) Unless their process has changed recently, you can still get software for free, but you'll need to wait for a while for it to be available on the free side. I haven't ever paid and joined, but my understanding among those who have is that it's worth it if you want things to be near bleeding edge but have paid support behind it.
-- Mepis next. Good hardware support, also aiming at the commercial side, and they're working off of Ubuntu's software repository. They also want you to pay to get access to certain things. I mention Mepis mainly because it's just as friendly as the two above, but it has the additional bonus of shipping with things like mp3 and flash support in the cd. Many distros won't do that and make you add that support afterwards for legal reasons. It's usually easy to add them, but it's nice to have them already.
-- PCLinuxOS next. Pretty much the same as the above three, but everything is free like Ubuntu. You can get access to a faster software repository with a small fee, but everything is still available on the slightly slower servers for free. I really like PCLinuxOS becuase they're dedicated to producing a newbie friendly distro, and that has made for a very polished live cd. I put it last because it is still at the pre-1.0 release, and that means they recognize that it isn't as polished as it could be. It's still good, and still worth a look.
I would recommend Knoppix last. It has possibly the best hardware support for a live cd. It's the granddaddy of Linux live cds, so it deserves a lot of respect. But, to be honest, the power of Linux won't really come to you if you only use live cds. Eventually you'll want to install a distribution to a hard drive. Knoppix is excellent as a live cd, amazing at hardware detection, and I carry one around with me all the time, but I found it a bit flakey as a full install. Give it a spin, but over the long haul I think you'll be happier with something that you can eventually install permenantly.
I would not recommend Suse right now. A month ago, I would have. Maybe a few months from now I will again. But, they just put out a new release and it has new software package management. It was unfortunately jammed into the new release at the last minute and is very, very buggy. Since eventually you'll likely want a full install, I'd stay away from Suse temporarily. But, other than the current temporary bugginess, it's a top notch distro.
You also mention, to stay on topic, that you want to tinker. Now I'm not sure how much tinkering you mean by tinker, but I'll assume that you mean to really stick with it. Any distribution gives you the opportunity to explore and learn, especially once you do a full install. I specifically pointed out Gentoo and Slackware above because they almost require you to dig into the guts of things and see how it all works. The day will come when you're ready to learn more, and they're both worth trying when you're ready. (They even each have their own live cds.) But, no matter which you settle on, you can do just about anything with Linux. Keep trying until you find one that suits you.
While you're about to enter some unfamiliar territory, don't be scared off if you run into a difficulty or two or if you don't feel you have enough experience to really use Linux. I started using Linux about 3 years ago with basically no education in computers or programming. My degree was in English, and the only computer related study I'd had was a class in Basic and an introductory class in C++ that I could only barely remember by the time I tried Linux. Three years later and Linux is all that I use and I can't imagine changing. Keep working at it, and you can learn a lot.
Best of luck, and keep asking questions as you have them.
The paid versions are mostly the same as the free - effectively they are. Paid versions are available a bit sooner, but right now there's no difference. I've got the paid version,and never have to use anything from it during the install - I might as well use the free version.
The support, you can get better support on any number of linux forums for free.
In short, don't worry about the paid stuff for mandriva. I pay to support them 'cause I use them all the time - but as a newb there's 0 difference between that and the freely available stuff :).
If you are switching from SuSE and Mandrive are the most Windows like in appearance and feel. I know Mandriva has a live CD, not sure about SuSE.
A distro with a KDE desktop tends to be an easier transition for a Windows power user. Gnome is very elegant and simple to use.
I use Ubuntu, but I have not upgraded to 6.06 (the current version) yet. I found Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE) a rough around the edges. 6.06 is supposed to be better, so it may now be a good alternative to SuSE and Mandriva for your first Linux distro.
As a previous post said, Knoppix is propbably the best live CD, however I am suggesting others because they are better once installed than Knoppix.
Their Live CD however, is just that. You can't install from it. But it's damn good anyway. In my view, definately top three, and for n00b friendly usability, probably the best (I've not tried the latest ubuntu yet).
(just saw brakthepoet msg #8 - grab a version that's not the latest. It's really a good one to try out, I'm sorry to hear they messed something up on the latest version, but you will not risk anything by grabbing an earlier version for a test run. It will be a pleasant experience for a windows user, but for a hardcore linux fan perhaps a bit too polished)
Hardware detection. IMHO, Knoppix and SuSe are best at detecting your hardware as it comes. The latest knoppix is even improved on this issue.
This is important, as when you try a live CD basically you just put the CD in the drive, and all your monitors, pointing devices, hard drives, printers, cameras, scanners, etc, etc ...should work straight away, from the moment you boot.
Not all distributions do a really good job here, and some hardware (eg. Winmodems, and windows-specific tv-tuner-cards) can be more than a little tricky to get to work under linux. So, especially if you're "a n00b" you will want that part of the experience to be as painless as possible.
(I should add that most hardware is really a lot easier to "get to work" under a linux Live-Cd than under windows, as basically it will "just work" - the live CD wil detect it and do what's needed automatically. That includes your internet connection in most cases.)
FreeBSD is also an option
Ah, my favorite, and what I run everywhere... but certainly NOT for the first time user. The FreeBSD manual, while awesome, assumes a basic knowledge of UNIX.
And the LiveCD is great for diagnostics, but not logging onto the internet and surfing.
Stick with one of the Linux LiveCDs for now - in 6 months, come back, and try out FreeBSD.
I use it almost every day - it's a real life saver!
With all due respect - Slakware and Gentoo are probably very nice distributions, but neither of them are "for a n00b" or Live CD's.
Gentoo does have a livecd: [gentoo.org...]
...and I was a noob when I first started with Gentoo Linux. Everyone shoots it right out of the water, yet the documentation is great and you do actually learn alot, even though it is not simple.
Good point. Simplicity is very important. However, as Windows users we tend to forget the fact that Windows is not simple either; We've invested a lot of hours in learning how to operate Windows!
Anyway, I've tried seveal different distributions, and with the nice interfaces they all have (graphical window managers) I'd say that almost every single one of them (as Live-CD) will allow any "n00b" to be up and running, connected to the internet, and have a spreadsheet or word editor open in less than five minutes. Less than two, even.