When I decided to come back to Gnu/Linux, I first installed Red Hat. No real selection process, I just happened to have the disks for it laying around.
Sorry, but it did. In fairness, it was several years old by then, and I was fairly clueless myself. But it really, genuinely, sucked. Numerous things didn't work, and because it tried to be helpful and do it all for me, when it couldn't do it for me, I had no idea how to do it myself. All the helpful stuff got in the way. Plus, it kept on crashing. I wiped it off my hard drive and, after some research, bought & installed Slackware 9.1
Or, tried to. After painstakingly choosing each package that I did or didn't want, the bloody thing crashed, and I had to do it again. And it crashed. Time after time, it would get mostly thru the install and then crash.
Eventually, I did the tiniest install possible, and then installed everything from within a functional but sparse installation. Eventually, it worked. But still crashed regularly.
At this point, I decided something was badly wrong, and went hunting for the cause. I found it. The error message, Signal 11, was indicative of hardware problems. The software was fine, my PC was crap. Coincidentally, shortly afterwards a a power surge fried the PSU and I had an excuse to buy a new one.
I spent a lot of time on the new one: I ordered every component and assembled it myself. Everything was cross-checked for quality and Linux compatibility. I installed Slack again, and this time it screamed through the install like a rocket. No crashes, everything installed in minutes. Great
I learned a lot about Slack and Gnu/Linux over the next few months. But there were a few things I didn't like.
Firstly, far too often, I would hear about a bit of software and think "Sounds great, I'll download that!" only to discover I already had it installed. KDE and Gnome were responsible for a lot of this, but not all. I didn't like not knowing what I had installed.
Secondly, I didn't like the package management. I didn't like being reliant on unofficial packages because I didn't know how to compile from source myself, I didn't like the manual dependency checking, I didn't like the amount of effort it was to keep up to date.
After upgrading to Slack 10 and having a multitude of problems, I gave up. Slack had become slow and buggy, and I hadn't got the heart to fix it. I added a partition to my hard drive, and began installing LFS.
As a cure for CompilingFromSourcePhobia, LFS is hard to beat. It's a worthwhile distro for anybody who wants to learn a few things about Linux, GNU, and FOSS. If nothing else, it makes you appreciate how much work package managers take off your hands. Thanks to LFS, I finally acheived a working custom kernel and understood how compiling works.
But after I had gotten Xorg and FVWM and Firefox installed, I again lost heart. I had had to chase down so many dependencies to get this far that, once again, I had no idea what was installed on my PC. And now that the challenge of getting it working was gone, I was left with a working but not terribly functional distro.
I decided that now, finally, it was time I got myself a distro with a good automated package manager. I dismissed RPMs, and decided it was either Debian or Gentoo that I needed. Appreciating the benefits of compiling-from-source, and liking the online documentation, I went with Gentoo.
Or tried to. I burned the iso to CD, rebooted, and went straight into my normal Grub screen. BIOS settings were fine, my install CD just wouldn't boot. I tried to take the "install from another distro" path, but it all went pear-shaped and I gave up.
Until I saw a Linux magazine with a Gentoo DVD - a full Stage 1 install with no downloading. wOOt! At last, I might stand a chance.
Nope, the DVD wouldn't boot. *sob*
Finally, I tried to kludge my way through a compromise between the instructions for installing from a DVD and the instructions for installing from an existing distro. To my surprise, I managed it. I wound up with a working Gentoo distro.
Some heavy use of Portage later, and I had just about all the functionality back that I'd had with Slackware, plus extra stuff like a 2.6 kernel and Xorg translucency.
Ever since then, I've used Gentoo and been persistently impressed. No distro, even Slackware, makes it so easy (and so necessary) to really understand how all the GNU and Linux stuff fits together. The online documentation and support is second to none. The only downside is it takes a lot more disk space than the other distros. But I can live with that.
One other distro deserves a mention, although it isn't installed on my PC. It's a Live CD, less famous than Knoppix, but IMHO superior in many ways. It's called DamnSmallLinux, and it fits on a 50MB business card. I know this for sure, as I downloaded and installed it on one. (And made a donation at the same time, as I hadn't bought one of their own very cool CDs).
Knoppix is a great LiveCD, but I don't like it as a rescue CD - far too much software involved.
DSL, in contrast, has so little space it can't help but be a nice minimal distro. It's easy to use the CLI and get things done. What's more, I can take it anywhere because it can live in my wallet's credit card holder. It's actually much more intuitive than Knoppix, even though it's tiny. And it's a lot less downloading to do to keep current. It's my rescue disk of choice, and a very cool Linux demo CD as well.