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Today I read an article from itworld.com where the author wrote about the question which linux dist may be the best for beginners. It's not the first time I thought about it, but today I want to show you my opinions.
My first attempts with linux are around 2002. My father downloaded a few different distributions for me, so that I could try them out. As I owned an Apple iMac G3 with a PowerPC processor, which was not supported by every dist, I was limited in choice. I tried out to install Debian 3.0 (Woody), Mandrake, Yellow Dog Linux, SuSE Linux 7.3 or 7.2 (one of the last PPC editions).
Debian was, if I remember correctly, the first dist I installed. I found it really complex to install, but it worked (side by side with Mac OS X and Mac OS 9). I couldn't get warm with Debian the first time (it looked really difficult to use), so I tried out to install the other ones. However the installation of Mandrake, Yellow Dog and SuSE failed somehow (Mandrake was not bootable, I don't remember the other errors). After that I reinstalled Debian with KDE 3 and used it (besides mainly Mac OS X) until 2005.
In 2005 I installed Ubuntu, as it was declared to be easier to use and the software was even newer than in Debian's stable release. I just wanted to try it out and look for the differences. Looking back from now on, I don't remember any big differences other than new versions of the software. This was version 5.04 ('Hoary Hedgehog'), the second official release.
Back in 2004 I also owned an Apple iBook G4 12", which I wanted to use as dual boot. However instead of simply installing Debian, I wanted to have a machine with maximum performance and don't wanted to use a precompiled distribution for that (thoughts on compiler optimization flags, disk space, only really necessary software etc.). That was the time I tried out Linux From Scratch 6.0. As I didn't have any linux on the iBook, I tried to cross compile the needed packages. This was possible due to the fact, that someone (thanks Martin Schaffner!) went the same way and wrote down what he did. We emailed a few times and I got a partly working system. (It booted up to the point, when a shell should appear, but it didn't and I didn't find out a way to do it until I gave up) The LFS story was the most important part in my linux history, as I learned more of the core and how thinks work in linux than in any other period.
After using Ubuntu from 2005 onwards, I switched back to Debian when I heard, that there wouldn't be any new PPC version of Ubuntu. (Last official PPC version was 8.04 'Hardy Heron'). The reason to switch back was, that I owned an iMac, an iBook and a PC (IBM ThinkCentre) and wanted to have a (more or less) homogenous OS infrastructure.
After that I never switched back to Ubuntu or any other dist. I tried some other dists in virtual machines (VirtualBox), but Debian was my alltime favorite. The only other distribution, which runs in my network is OpenWrt (only on routers here).
Long story short: Most of the time I did my way with Debian and learned much by using it. I got the best understanding of how thinks work internally by doing the LFS part.
I think this question is to imprecise to get a precise answer of what you really want to know. In my opinion, the real question is: What is the right distribution for me to start? Or if it's not you: What is the right distribution for persion XY to start?
To answer one of the two questions from above, you need to know the person who wants to start, because you need to know, what the person wants to do with the operating system.
This person wants to know how the system works and what he or she can do cool stuff with it. OK, the person also needs to have a system you can use to e.g. hear music, watch videos and surf with a browser etc. So to start, I would recommend a dist that demands a great deal on you, but when you know what you're doing, it also gives you much back. So to do the first footsteps I would recommend Debian. Learning the shell and package managers etc. will be difficult enough to start. When you are quite familiar with that, you should try out Gentoo and after that Linux From Scratch (LFS) or directly LFS.
I can tell you, that you'll switch back to Debian after you did LFS for some time 😉 Package managers are really handy tools and binary distributions don't take so much time for updates and new software.
The average user, like your mum or probably most of your friends, don't want to learn something about the internals of an operating system. It would be good for them to know, but they have other interests. They simply don't care about it. (It would be great if they'd even care about doing backups of their important data...)
So, whats the best operating system for these people? Well, these people need a system which is easy to use and (if possible) doesn't stand in their way. They just want to use it.
From the usability view, I wouldn't recommend a linux system in the first place. The easiest operating system to use (and also most consistent one) is Apple's OS X. To use OS X you really need a Mac. Most Hackintoshes, which are genuine PCs with a 'hacked' version of OS X, aren't really usable at all, as you cannot update the whole system to every new version and sometimes the performance is far away from usable. To buy a Mac may be too expensive for some users. Others may not want to dive into unknown waters, so they'll want to stick with Microsoft's Windows.
However a linux distribution has some advanges over the proprietary operating systems (incomplete list):
So, for the average user, who wants to have a working operating system which is free and doesn't stand in his way and also has some similarity with Windows, I would recommend Linux Mint with a flavour you like most.
Normally Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, but there is also LMDE (Linux Mint Debian Edition) where Linux Mint is based on Debian. LMDE is a rolling release, which means: install once, update any time. The Ubuntu based Linux Mint gets released every 6 months and also has releases with support for many years (Long Term).
Link to the article from itworld.com: http://www.itworld.com/open-source/379175/best-linux-distro-beginners