Nothing gets people in the Linux World riled up like comparing distributions, desktops or editors. But for the new Linux user, the whole thing is a bit confusing. What do we tell them? Do we verbally slug it out in forums or do we offer gentle guidance to those entering the Linux jungle for the first time? It's hard not to offer an opinion in such emotional matters. One might believe that Linux, choice of desktop and editors are religious notions instead of technical ones. I offer the following gentle guidelines for the newbie who dares enter our sacred space.
Linux is many things to many people. For you, it is an alternative to Microsoft Windows and the Mac OS. For us, Linux is an operating system kernel that's used in creating Linux distributions. Distributions are a collection of programs, applications, tools and graphics to create an operating system environment comparable to what you experience with Windows or Mac.
The Window environment or GUI as some call it, comes in a variety of flavors or implementations. They all are similar to Windows and Mac but also distinctly different. Your major choices for those are GNOME, KDE, XFCE and LXDE. GNOME and KDE are great for Desktop computers but servers need less graphical interface weight than Desktops, so you probably would choose between XFCE and LXDE.
These days you have choices for almost every type of software that you've grown accustomed to on Windows or Mac. There are office suites (KOffice, OpenOffice), individual applications like Abiword and Siag, games, graphics manipulation programs (GIMP) and just about anything you can conjure up in your mind.
There's no single correct answer for every question concerning Linux or its associated applications since they all work pretty well, it comes down to a matter of choice.
Where to begin?
If you're totally new to the Linux realm, I suggest you try Ubuntu Linux. Grab the latest ISO image from ubuntu.com, burn it to an optical disk, boot your computer to it, install and never look back.
Forget all the rhetoric surrounding this distribution or that distribution--just use it, learn it and go from there.
Don't be turned off by the fanboys, fanatics and others who want to sway your mind into their respective camps--just ignore them, laugh at them and enjoy your awesome new computer.
As you learn more about Linux, you might find that Ubuntu doesn't work for you as well as another distribution--so be it. Choose another. Change monthly if you want.
Realize this: Your Linux distribution is a tool, an operating system--a righteous one but only that--an operating system. Feel free to explore this new world and enjoy it. You'll have allies and enemies no matter which camp you decide to stay in but that comes with the territory.
Welcome Linux newbie, we're glad to have you.
And, if you must know, I prefer CentOS for Servers, Ubuntu for Desktops, GNOME and vi. So there. Flame away.