When it comes to Linux, there is no one size fits all answer. But, unlike other desktop operating systems, Linux doesn't try to squeeze you into a system's that's too large or too small. Instead, Linux offers a wide variety of distributions and one of them is likely be the right one for you.
Linux, you see, is a family of operating systems. They share the same father, but each distribution has its own personality and its own audience. For example, if you really wanted to, you can have a Linux distribution that looks and act like Windows XP, but which underneath its Microsoft-like surface is actually running Ubuntu Linux. Or, if that doesn't strike your fancy, you can always make the popular Ubuntu distribution into a Mac OS X look-alike.
How to give Linux a try
Better still, you can find a Linux that will do what you want it to do. After all, despite silly tales of how you have to be some kind of technical wizard who chants "awk, grep, sed" at a shell command prompt to use Linux, anyone can run Linux these days. The default Linux desktop KDE or GNOME graphical interfaces may not look quite like the ones you're used to but they're every bit as easy to use and as powerful. Yes, once in a blue moon you may need to modify a configuration file by hand, but you'll need to do it no more often than a Windows user has to do the exact same kind of thing with the regedit command.
The real question isn't, "Can I run Linux?" It's "which Linux is best for me?" Here's my guide to help you find the right one for you.
I just want to play with it and see what Linux is like
No problem. There's a variety of ways to tinker with Linux and never have to buy or install anything permanently. For that matter, you may already have Linux on your present PC and never have realized it. Many laptops come with an instant-on setting that lets you browse the Web and check e-mail without ever booting up. If your notebook does that, chances are you're already running an instant-on Linux like DeviceVM's SplashTop.
If not, there are many other ways to give Linux a try without any trouble.
I just want it to run
OK, what you need to do then is to buy a netbook, laptop, or PC that already has Linux installed on it. Once upon a time that was hard to do. These days it's no trouble at all to find vendors that offer Linux already installed and ready to go.
The best known major vendor that wants to sell you a computer with desktop Linux ready to go is Dell. Dell usually offers three to four systems with Ubuntu already installed. The mix always includes at least one netbook and one laptop. At the moment, my favorites of their selection is the Mini 10v, a nice little netbook, and the Studio XPS 13, a powerhouse laptop.
These are easy-to-use, handy systems for both individuals and SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) users. But, say you're an engineer and you want a heavy-duty system with a business class operating system, what then? Dell has you covered again with its Dell Precision Workstations with Red Hat's RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) WS 5.3.
You don't have to go with Dell though. Other major hardware vendors like HP and Lenovo also offer pre-installed Linux on desktop systems. I'm loath to recommend them though because, frankly, they make it very hard to find their Linux-powered systems. Your better choice is to go with a smaller company that stands behind its Linux PCs like Los Alamos Computers, system76 or ZaReason. For a more comprehensive list of companies that sell computers with Linux ready to go see LXer's Pre-Installed Linux Database.
I want an easy to use Linux
Ubuntu is the default answer for anyone looking just for an easy-to-use desktop Linux with a huge, friendly user community who are ready to help. It has that reputation for a reason: Ubuntu really is easy.
What Ubuntu doesn't come with, by design, is some popular proprietary programs such as Adobe Flash or Reader. If you want those programs, but you don't want to bother tracking them down and installing them with the Ubuntu Software Center, what you want is a Linux distribution that comes with these programs either already installed or makes it really easy to install them.
If that's you, what you want is Mint or Novell's openSUSE. Mint is based on Ubuntu but includes most of the more popular proprietary goodies. I've used Mint a lot and I've grown quite fond of it. Indeed, for users who just want something that's simple to use and comes ready to work with Flash, PDFs, and the like, it's probably your best choice.
OpenSUSE is also an old favorite of mine, but it's more of a business desktop distribution, which reminds me...
I want a Linux desktop for my business
Red Hat has a business desktop, but Novell puts more effort behind making their Linux desktops work and play well in corporate offices. If you want an official, fully-supported business Linux desktop then Novell's SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) is the one for you.
I've been using SLED for years and, as far as I'm concerned, it, not Windows, is my business desktop of choice. It's easy to manage, simple to upgrade, and far more secure than Windows will ever be. Besides, it also fits in nicely with Windows Server-based networks so you can slowly migrate your way from Windows to SLED while keeping your existing AD (Active Directory) network infrastructure.
Another plus in SLED's favor is that you can always try its community-based little brother, openSUSE first. I use openSUSE myself both on desktops and servers and I've always liked it. If it works for you too, you can then move up to full corporate support with SLED.
I hate, hate, proprietary software
If you spit when you hear Bill Gates on TV and think Novell is a traitor to Linux for partnering with Microsoft, then there are several Linux distributions just for you. The one I've used the most is gNewSense. A variation of gNewSense is also RMS' (Richard M. Stallman), free software's founder, preferred Linux distribution.
I'm not crazy about proprietary software, but what I really want is cutting edge Linux
Sound like you? Then, chances are you're already using Fedora. This, Red Hat's community distribution, is both an outstanding Linux in its own right and takes Linux about as far as you can go without being a Linux kernel developer.
What's that? You want to be a Linux kernel developer? Well, the other distribution you might want to look at is Gentoo. This source-code based distribution lets you gets your hands dirty with every aspect of the Linux experience. It is, in no way, shape, or form, a distribution for beginners. But, if you really want to know Linux from the inside out, it's the operating system for you. You'll also want to check out the Linux Foundation's free training Webinars to see how the real pros of Linux go about building Linux.
I've got computer troubles and I've heard Linux can help
You've heard right. There are several Linux distributions that are designed to help you bring dead PCs back to life no matter what operating system they're running. I have two favorites in this line: Damned Small Linux, which will run on almost any 486 or newer PC, and SystemRescueCD. With both, I've brought PCs back from fried hard drives, corrupt memory and innumerable cases of Windows malware crud. If you ever do computer repair, you must have at least one of these in your repair kit. They're incredibly powerful and useful.
OK, so what do you use?
Who? Me? After more than a decade in Linux, I use several Linux distributions on a daily basis. These include Fedora 12, openSUSE 11.2, and Ubuntu 9.10. For work-a-day desktop work I tend to stick with openSUSE and one distribution I haven't mentioned yet: MEPIS.
MEPIS is relatively unknown and that's a pity. What I like about it is that it combines ease of use and great stability. Linux systems are known for running for weeks and months without problems, but MEPIS is exceptional even by those exacting standards. I'm sure I rebooted my main desktop sometime last fall, just don't ask me which month!
In addition to those virtues, this Debian-based distribution provides a nice blend of cutting edge software with old favorites and it also includes access to the most important proprietary programs. If it wasn't such a small operation—it has only one developer—I'd recommend without reservation as a business desktop. Some day, I hope some venture capitalist will realize what a diamond in the rough MEPIS is, and give it the kind of support it needs to become a major Linux player. In the meantime, if you know some Linux and you want an outstanding distribution with a KDE interface, may I recommend you give MEPIS a try. You'll like it.
So, did I miss your situation? Drop me a note here in the comments and I'll see if I can find just the right distribution. In the meantime, I'd also like to know what distributions you've found to be your perfect fit and why.
Now, with all that being said, get on and give Linux a try. You'll be glad you did.