When should you switch to or install a new Linux distribution?
When should you switch Linux distributions? The easy answer is never, especially when the current Linux distribution you're running at home or on your server is working as smoothly as James Bond's pick-up lines. It can be very easy for new Linux users to be swayed by the announcements of other Linux distributions listed in sites like Distrowatch and Linux.com. Veteran Linux users and professionals already know the answer to this question. Users of rolling-release distributions from Archlinux, Debian, and openSUSE are pretty much married to their Linux choice. Enterprise IT staff are also generally content with their current setup and are very cautious about any changes to their chosen operating system. Home users and Linux enthusiasts like myself, on the other hand, can flirt with other Linux distributions regularly. So when exactly should you switch to/install a new Linux distribution?
1.You recently bought a new desktop, ultraportable, laptop, or netbook. Ok, so you don't want to dual-boot Linux on your new Macbook Air because the Apple Church will persecute you. But what about the sad Dell Inspiron or Toshiba Portege you left behind? Install Mageia or PCLinuxOS on that rig and give it the old Linux overhaul. You won't be disappointed and you'll probably toss aside that Air when you start enjoying that brand-spanking Linux distro.
2.You're tired of your desktop. Unlike MacOSX and Windows, Linux doesn't force feed you what desktop environment you should use. Does MacOSX cause you to regurgitate your dinner? Does Windows 8's tiles make you want to clean your toilet? Does Ubuntu Unity make you want to cry for your CLI? Instead of slapping on a desktop environment on top of your current Linux distribution, go for a fresh install of any one of the Xfce, KDE, orLXDE Linux spins. Although desktop environments like LXDE are considered modular, installing it over a distro that you initially installed as Gnome 3 or KDE will result in a very unpleasant experience. Native applications will mix with included applications of the new desktop environment. You may even experience system slowdown and crashes due to X issues between the two desktop environments (Gnome and KDE in particular don't play well together). Instead of having to troubleshoot errors, start fresh and install a Linux distribution which has a specific spin for that desktop. Fedora has spins for Xfce, LXDE, and KDE while Lubuntu is the best LXDE distribution out there. Linux Mint, of course, is tops with its Cinnamon release.
3.You tried a new Linux release with disastrous results. It's not uncommon that users make an online upgrade of their Linux distribution using the package manager without checking if the release notes encourage a clean install instead. The transition from openSUSE 11.x to 12.x was one such example with the Yast2 update causing ghostly bugs in KDE. Sometimes, users blindly upgrade to the latest release of their favorite distribution without realizing that the new release might not be their cup of tea. The biggest example of this was the horrible Ubuntu transition from the excellent Ubuntu 10.10 Maverick Meerkat to the terribly disappointing Unity desktop of Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narhwal. Instead of biting your lip at the sheer inefficiency of Unity or Gnome 3, try a different Linux distribution. Moreover, a failed new release is a great excuse to venture out to other distributions that you haven't tried in awhile. Chances are there's one that floats your boat.
4.Your new or old hardware is starting to have issues with your Linux distribution. Contrary to popular belief, Linux handles new hardware very well. However, Linux works best with new hardware with a clean install. If you've been hanging on to your Linux distro for a long time and find out that new Bluetooth dongle or wireless card is having issues, it may be a good idea to reinstall or download the latest ISO of your favorite Linux distribution. This doesn't mean you shouldn't troubleshoot and visit the forums to get it working. This just means that sometimes all you need is a clean slate to get your new peripheral up and running instead of breaking your system with an untested or risky solution. Each Linux distribution has their own ways of supporting specific devices. For example, Fedora has historically had issues with the wireless cards on my laptops, while openSUSE KDE has problems fitting dialog windows in my 10.1" netbook screen. Battery life on my Lenovo Ideapad is better running openSUSE than Ubuntu. There's also the sticky matter of NVIDIA and ATI display drivers. Some Linux distributions work better than others when running open source drivers. Others work best with the official package provided by the manufacturer.
5.You want to learn more about Linux. So you've been using Linux for a few years now and you're very happy with your Linux distribution. You want to learn more about RedHat or Novell-related Linux distributions. You want to set up your own server or build your Linux desktop from scratch. It's time to try a more involved Linux distribution like Archlinux, Debian, or Gentoo. You will definitely learn a lot and will build your confidence in handling Unix-like systems. Moreover, once you've successfully set up your hyper-awesome system, you'll have serious tech cred.
6.You want to specialize. Remember the time when each G.I.Joe action figure had a specialty? Well, there are dozens of Linux distributions designed with a specific function in mind. There are fairly easy ones like the backup image solution Clonezilla and FreeNAS for setting up network access storage. There are also distributions for firewalls (IpFire), security testing (Backtrack Linux and Backbox Linux), system rescue and backup (System Rescue CD), frugal (Damn Small Linux and Puppy Linux), and multimedia (Ubuntu Studio). Some of the software packages in these specialty Linux distros are unique to the developers and can't be installed on other distributions. Even if you don't end up committing to these distributions, knowing about the available software adds even more useful tools to your growing Linux arsenal.