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I work professionally on Linux and Unix systems. Primarily Red Hat and SCO boxes (hey, I don't own their systems, I just work on them!). I've toyed with a few other flavors such as Ubuntu, FreeBSD, etc. I'm looking at switching my primary machine over from a Windows box to a Linux box, but I only know the differences between a few of the distros.
Some people swear by Slackware, some by Ubuntu, some by CentOS, etc...
My technical knowledge is far above the average PC user. I can use ifconfig to change IP addresses. I can manually work with routes just fine. I do not know anything beyond rudimentary C/C++.
I don't need a distro that will hold my hand through everything, but I want one that WORKS and works well. My primary use is personal use and will also be hosting a few minor network daemons on the box. http, ftp, etc as well as a Media Player gateway application over Wine. I will be playing video games (World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, etc.
My system specs are 2.8 GHz dual core 64 bit AMD. 4 gigs DDR2. GeForce 8600 GTS. Logitech G15 keyboard (has additional keys and an LCD screen which would require drivers).
1. If I want to change my gateway or change my IP address from DHCP to static, I want to be able to just go into a config screen and make the change and have it stick (and save after a reboot!) with a few commands or entries into a gui.
2. I want it to be stable.
3. I want it to work with 3D applications (requiring Wine is perfectly OK for some stuff).
4. I want it to recognize all of my hardware. If I have to manually install drivers for a DVD burner, that's fine. If I have to toy with Atheros drivers for wi-fi, then that's ok too.
5. I want one that has a large community from which to draw information. If I'm having an issue setting up a printer in cups and it isn't recognizing PCL codes, then I'd like a few people that have had prior experience with toying with it to help out with the issue if need be.
6. Most importantly, I want one I can LEARN Linux more with.
With THOSE questions out of the way, what are the different desktop environments and what are their advantages/disadvantages? I know of Gnome and KDE, but I've never used either. I work over telnet at work, so it's all toying with things over vt100 or wyse50. What other desktops are available? Can you use any Linux compiled program written for a gui in either desktop environment? How does that work?
I apologize as I know some (if not all) of these topics have been covered in the past, but they're spread out everywhere.
You might want to visit the distrowatch website to get an idea of different distros.
Most distro's have utility programs that will work either graphically or use the ncurses library if you are working in the terminal. You will also be able to edit config files directly, such as the ifcfg-eth0 file to manually change the IP address or other options. Many distro's have an /etc/sysconfig/ that contain most of the files that the graphical versions use. Since you are familiar with Red Hat, you might give Fedora Core a shot. You can open a terminal program in any Desktop environment. You don't want to run a telnet server however. I'm surprised that ssh isn't used instead.
What about desktop environments? What's the difference between KDE, Gnome, and any others out there? I've NEVER used one except for a 1 hour jaunt through an Ubuntu live CD. Are there any major (dis)advantages to any particular one?
Your choice of distro is how you want to install packages and have your system set up
Desktop environments is the real choice of uability
KDE=oldest, most configurable, complex, able to look/do/simplify/complicate as much as you want it to
Gnome=usable, few less of the questionably needed configuration options from KDE, still very configurable to the way you want it to be
XFCE=easier on system resources than KDE/gnome, based on the same libraries as gnome has same programs appearing native, quick, less configurable (though check out Dreamlinux's work with xfce)
Enlightenment=beauty - think out of the box (not really a desktop environment, but almost there in DR17)
Fluxbox=geeky, VERY configurable, a lot of work setting up, but exactly the way you want it (not a desktop environment)
You can almost always install all you want to find what you like to work in. I am in Gnome on the box I am typing from right now, but I also have KDE, XFCE, and fluxbox installed. I like Gnome for playing around, like browsing, playing games, attempting to mess with multimedia, but I use KDE (mostly on my laptop) for doing my work related activities.
Tallmtt, I understand most of what you're talking about, but a few questions. You say they're based on the same libraries. Coming from a Windows environment and working with mostly proprietary software at work, I don't do a ton with the OS itself. What do the libraries mean as far as what I can and can't install? If the wrong library is installed, would it be possible to swap in order to use a specific piece of software or would you do it the other way around and get a software package based on the libraries already existing?
If you go with a DEB based distribution (Debian, Ubuntu, etc) or RPM based distribution (Fedora, Mandriva, etc) you shouldn't need to worry about library versions. Any software packages that you download from their repositories will also download the necessary libraries (if they're not installed already).
I would suggest trying at least Debian/Ubuntu, Fedora/Mandriva, and Slackware so you can weigh the positives and negatives of each before making your choice. You may discover things about each distribution that you initially didn't think would be important to you. Only you can decide which one(s) best fits your needs.