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By mephisto786 at 2006-01-26 07:20
Just what the world needs: another 'How To Choose a Distro' article. And yet, we still read them along with distro reviews, not so much for information as for a sense of how others see the tools we use every day. And in spite of the numerous flame wars which are sometimes sparked off accidentally, I think we can safely say that no distribution is as bad as the alternative. The OS THAT SHALL NOT BE NAMED.

The number of people who would fail a spelling test on the word DISTRIBUTION because they unconsciously now mispell DISTROBUTION is growing. So too are the options. This can only be good.

So here it is, another view on distros for new users and users with special needs in Linux flavors. The premise is simple. Since we can only speak of what we know, I'm not going to go into distros I haven't personally run, or at least tried to install. What's more, since tastes vary widely, I'll state at the outset that I like a good looking gui and set of themes. I came to Linux from Windows and tend to favor -if not rely- on KDE as a working environment. Lately I've been experimenting in Gnome as well, but it is by no means my desktop of choice. I use it enough I suppose, to make sure I have Gnome, even on distros where Gnome must be downloaded and installed afterwards, such as Slackware, Mepis and Suse. (Well it is included on Suse, but not installed automatically if you choose KDE.)

I won't go into networking, modems and connections all that much because where I live the internet is still a dicey proposition of very uneven quality and the company that networks the office where I work has done a pretty poor job on Windows, much less adding a *NIX box to the mix. I suppose you could say it's a desktop survey, of distros for use mainly on single machine, whether it be a notebook or a desktop.

I tend to lean more towards a Debian philosophy of Open Source rather than that of an Enterprise or commercial distribution. As a bonus there will be a brief section on Live and Mini CDs, where most of the above rulings apply. The following tend to be in relatively chronological order, which may reflect why some distros seem to work better at different times.

Red Hat 9 / Fedora Core (3)
The first one actually installed was Red Hat 9. With the BlueCurve theming that tries to streamline KDE and Gnome. Immediately after install - and surrounded by massive tomes since Red Hat is a prolific distro when it comes to docs and books- I made do without sound and a few other things. Till I read and experimented and tweaked. Many of the redhat-config tools gave poor defaults if they couldn't solve the problem at hand. A 'sorry, you'll just have to do without sound' attitude that is not really acceptable given the variety of Linux available. Several weeks into my first distro, I had nearly everything running except usb hardware. And running quite fast. It was installed on a dual boot with XP and never caused a problem in that department. Overall I find that the RedHat theming in KDE came across as old, plain and uninspired. The overall look was cheap when you compare it to XP and even Knoppix gave it a run for the money. Things wouldn't improve after RedHat unceremoniously dropped their community to chase the commercial market. Fedora Core, with more experience under my belt, was even worse configuration-wise and the look just never got past the last Red Hat release. It is misleadingly called a "newb" distro, but it is nothing of the kind especially now with the 'bleeding edge' Fedora line. Why bleeding edge doesn't include better graphics as high as FC 3 is beyond me. I attribute it to the RH focus on servers and now enterprise. They will probably fall pretty far behind as the desktop race continues to heat up. Not a newb distro and not quite the hacker's distro it is trying to be in FC.
Grade: C+

That's right, the old elementary school grading system. Which seems as arbitrary and pointless as it did way back then. Not to mention wholly subjective. It is perhaps unfortunate that any deep seated issues and repressed conflicts from grade school days is now wreaking its vengeance on Linux, but, there you have it. :)

No, I won't say Mandriva, because my 10.1 still boots with a Mandrake splash. It is apparently true that they took the Red Hat lead and improved on it in terms of eye candy, an excellent installer and even more excellent partition tool. The more I stuck with Mandrake, the more I found to do with it. Things like usb and sound were eventually fully configurable. Without, I should add, sacrificing the tools that advanced users depend on. Any distro that doesn't include an emacs tool (or at least a variation on emacs like zile) should be taken out and shot. (Thankfully SUSE rectified that error with Open SUSE 10, or things could've gotten nasty. ) It is, in my experience, much more user friendly than Red Hat and consistently so, across a wide range of criteria.

One reason is the Drake tools and configuration Center. A bit sloppier than YAST it provides a central place for users to check into when they wish to make changes in their configurations. Package installation on Mandrake is one of the smoothest and, unlike some distros, does not force you to enter a root password for each individual package. Nor does it expect new users to run the awkward and command-line-only rpm tool that Red Hat still seems to favor. This is a distro you can point and click on till you've got more unix under your belt.

The fact that it is built to i586 arch specifications means it tends to run quite fast out of the box. I would venture to say that without tweaking it is noticeably faster than both Red Hat and Suse.

Drawbacks are also package related and the issue is twofold. One, they have diverged enough from Red Hat to require specially built rpms. Usually recognizable by the mdk in the version name. As a shameless abuser of third party software, I admit that many packages not made for Mandrake do run. I may have also hosed my system more than orthodox users. Yes you can break your system quite easily by such promiscuous package managing.

Problem is, between the overly commercial Mandriva folks who wish everyone would pay up and join the Mandriva Club and the limited availability of some of the newer packages to those who aren't members; it is often easier to try RedHat, Suse and Fedora packages. The last few years at Mandriva have been a classic marketing case study in how NOT to run a Linux distro. Linux is not known first and foremost as a system where a monied elite gets special treatment. Because money is not the issue. Many of us out there, myself included, live in societies where credit cards are NOT the preferred mode of payment, and where overburdened and understaffed post offices are notorious for losing things. Since there are no Mandriva retail outlets where I live (which is the direction Mandriva seems to be heading) I can simply wait for the latest KDE.

Or, and there is an 'or', start using the Penguin Liberation Front which is already illegal in the US. Initially organized as part of an open source solution to the media restrictions on dvds, MP3s and other 'questionable' media practices, it also provides, along with the Cooker project some of the latest and more experimental wares out there, specially geared to the MDK world. An example of poor marketing mars this very useable and popular distro at present.

There are a number of excellent forums and boards for those not in 'the Club.'
Grade: B+

SUSE (Open SUSE 10)
Just when you thought Novell was turning this old, German distro into a more commercialized and club-minded version than Mandrake, there was the announcement of Open SuSe – a very Fedora like attempt at giving Linux back to the masses of developers, hackers, techies and generic Linux users who do not want corporate support and did not intend to see their distro turn into a glorified Caldera or Solaris. (Okay, with version 10 Sun's Solaris went open in a big way as well, I'm biting my tongue.)

While there was much to like in the last Pro series, there is even more under OpenSUSE and the more is noticeable and almost always an improvement. Suse 9.2 for example left out quite a few standard Linux packages and went so far as to make things like findutils not part of a default install. And Suse was never known as a distro with overstuffed repos for downloading packages. In version 10, access to a repository is almost unnecessary. I'm tempted to say they got a glance at the Debian 'Popularity Contest' results and made sure to include a number of quirky packages usually found on Debian distros. Suprises like Solar Wolf and Ajunta in addition to AppArmor and the highly experimental Xen Virtual Machine packages does much to reestablish Suse as a cutting edge distro once more.

And there's YAST of course, the set up tool that people love to hate; or vice-versa. Like most setup tools added to distros it can be invasive at times and it tends to run quite slow. Not as slow as old Suse-heads may remember but its not a lightening fast distro by any means. And as you dive deeper into the Unix guts of any system you find such tools can often complicate things and configure things a bit overzealously.

It's too early to tell, but the first reports coming in on the latest Novell incarnation of SUSE seem overwhelmingly positive. This is one of the slickest, user-friendly and full-of-eye-candy distros around and the newfound community might draw in more than a few disgruntled Fedorans and Debian users who just want a system that works. It is ultra newb-friendly as well, with a gui driven install that completes in a little over a half hour. Adding all the goodies you can't live without afterwards can take one to two hours, but its automated and requires little or no interaction once package selection is made.

One nasty habit we hope Suse will grow out of is the crippling of multi-media tools that may lead to patent infringement lawsuits. Why they feel the need to cripple Kaffeine, Xine, Amarok and other players instead of just leaving out the libdecss and w32 packages is anyones guess. Its a situation that is soon rectified by a quick google and download but its one more step in replacing crippled media players with the latest uncrippled ones that seems unnecessary.

There are numerous forums that are quite sophisticated in appearance and function to keep users busy as well.

A bit of trivia: Suse is the acronym for System und Software Entwirklung. German for System and Software development.

Definitely worth a look. Grade: B+ / A-

Heading into deeper waters now, with this classic distro for politically correct hackers. Still the largest volunteer effort in the Linux world, it continues to set standards and establish precedents. The standard 'stable' distribution can often be recognized since its usually sporting the oldest looking desktop on the planet. When Debian says stable, they're not kidding around. Sarge was considered a tad liberal by Debian standards when it made it through the door last year with KDE 3.3. For most others, 3.4 was already standard. Add to that a packaging system capable of giving William Gibson a wet dream if he knew anything about computers. (The father of cyberpunk got his first computer in 1992, sorry to be the one to break it to you.) That's Debian, or part of Debian anyway...

Free as in freedom is what Debian eats, breathes and dreams. Easily the most 'politically correct' distro in the open source world they struggle to make their system free in ways others never dreamt of. Should anything make a package non-free, Debian will be the first to junk it, even if it turned out to be the linux kernel itself. They're probably the only folks capable of making the GNU and FSF people look wishy washy.

What does free mean, here? Software isn't free if it cannot be inspected, modified, used by poor as well as rich, irregardless of race, creed, color, profession and so on, which does not require internet access, and does not prohibit the user to use the goods in any way he sees fit, which has documentation which may also be reproduced and modified (a major bone of contention with the GPL people at the moment) and whose parts and pieces do not restrict users in any of the aforementioned aspects. Though some packages are included that have restrictions they are clearly labeled as 'non-free'. One of Debian's aims is to ensure that Debian users will not find themselves in a situation where todays software package is tomorrows lawsuit or where a user cannot run Debian if they have one of the 'other' computers whether it be Mac, SPARC or 15 other variations on the word computer. Admirable. Though sometimes this absolutist stance leaves some Linux people wishing they'd never heard of open source. Fortunately, some of the best live cds and the latest newb friendly and/or specialty distros from Adamantix through Mepis, Progeny and Ubuntu are Debian based. They're just not free enough to be Debian, so they become Debian derivatives. One could argue there is a 'Debian' for nearly every type of user.

What? The Operating System? Oh, yeah...okay, hold your water.

Time to say goodbye to warm and fuzzy gui configuration tools. If KControl on KDE ain't enough for you, there's a bus leaving at sundown. Be on it. But seriously, Debian prides itself on doing absolutely nothing that you the user did not specifically tell it to do. It's time now to crack open the books and learn command line and File System Hierarchy. If you have made it past one of the most complex installs intact, and have a running Sarge Debian on your box you can rest assured of one thing: Stability. Nor does stability come at the expense of speed. As a Linux users distro, you can endlessly tweak and fine tune and get things just the way you want them provided you know what you're doing.

If you find yourself drawn to Debian, but feel you need the latest apps and bleeding edge toys, have no fear. Till now I've been discussing the latest stable release. There are two other release trees, dubbed quite appropriately as “testing” and “sid/unstable.” Testing is for those wishing to keep up to date without sacrificing too much stability. Those using testing are in essence, working with the upcoming release of Debian, where testing packages that pass muster and prove themselves are eventually frozen into the next stable release. Sid/Unstable is the playground of developers, hackers and the lunatic fringe who are willing to exchange stability for the chance to run tomorrow's system today. But unstable here is a bit of a misnomer in that many Debian unstable packages appear in other distros with lower standards of security, safety and 'open-sourceness'. One is almost tempted to say that a Debian unstable package is still more stable than most other distros experimental releases. This is not quite the Mandriva Cooker. Which is why many Debian derivatives attach themselves to the unstable branch in order to keep ties with Debian and still be able to supply us with the newest toys. Popular derivatives like Kanotix, Mepis and Ubuntu are based on unstable Debian trees.

Package selection? How does (approximately) 17,000 packages appeal to your hoarding and collecting instincts? If it's out there, chances are Debian has it. The full distro comes on 15 cds. Without source code. You want the source, Luke? It's 28 cds. This distro repeatedly emphasizes they are not catering to a market or wining and dining the rich and famous to promote their system, but rather, they exist for the end user. Someone looking for a distro that has it all, often ends up at Debian. Or a Debian based distro.

Quite simply Debian is more than a Linux distro. It tends to become a way of life. I have yet to see any article less than book length cover the possibilities inherent in the system known loosely as Debian. Given the wide range of systems available to you under that rubric, it would be hard to give these guys less than ...

Grade: A+

Debian? Thats the Deb from Deborah, and Ian from Ian Murdoch, her husband. He founded Debian.

Debian Deviants: Ubuntu and Mepis
Loyalists will no doubt be offended at my lumping these two together, but they are both based on Debian: one-cd, newb friendly distros, albeit with slightly different approaches. There is much to recommend both but a couple of drawbacks as well.

You can't dislike Ubuntu. The distro with a humanitarian philosophy makes me feel I'm committing genocide whenever I install another system over it. Focusing on simplicity, freedom and ongoing development, it has quite noticeably forked from Debian. They claim their aims are different and there's room in the Linux world for both. The fact that their Debian package compatibility is becoming less and less means you had better love Ubuntu since you will – for the most part – be dependent upon Ubuntu upgrades and repositories. Instead of creating a medium size distro, users are required to decide between KDE or Ubuntu. The desktop receiving most of Ubuntu's attention at present is Gnome. If you want KDE, download Kubuntu instead, or add the KDE metapackage and libs to have a Gnome and/or KDE distro. Even the DVD version seems to maintain this distinction, which seems wasteful since there's room for both on a DVD sized release. I have yet to check out their DVD release but have plans in the near future to see what they're up to.

If you like a small, comfortable distro with regular six month releases, and utilizing a slew of deb tools, Ubuntu is a pleasant walk in the woods. I found running it so easy that I soon grew bored with a *nix flavor where you needed online access to their repositories and even then, some of my favorite deb packages were absent. Very good for newbs, especially in view of the lack of a root account, relying instead upon things like sudo, and if you can find and install it, fakeroot. Don't mix Debian packages with this one though, it is clearly a fork that does not support a lot of standard Debian. Forums tend to focus on the newb experience so its my guess that people delving futher into Linux or looking for system building tools on a larger scale would drift on to Debian itself.

Backed by billionaire Mark Shuttleworth of South Africa and managed by Canonical, this "little distro that could" has come a long way and appears set to distinguish itself as a separate distro in its own right. Its hard to do anything less than wish them well. Especially in light of their advocacy methods, which include shipping out free packages of Ubuntu; all you need is a mailing address. Freedom of a slightly different kind than Debian proper but freedom nonetheless.

Mepis is a bit more problematic. Designed as – thus far – a one man distro set to replace Windows on desktops, the one cd install offers a ready to go out of the box, KDE based desktop system packed with tools and apps. They include a number of non-free packages so you have things like Java, Flash and the latest Acrobat Reader out of the box. The apparently non-GPL autoinstall and OSCenter are lifesavers in the sense that, using Mepis as a live cd, you can repair partitions, the Grub bootloader and even rather than face a reinstall. Then again, a Mepis install takes around ten minutes, with a maximum of four or five mouseclicks.

The problem is the distro was apparently at the center of a flame war over this very non-GPLed addition. Although such 'click to install me' style installers are growing, someone depending on Mepis is faced with a very strong “Club” feel where paid subscribers get extra cds and support, and the rest of us must make do with the free download versions of Simply Mepis. Which is no mean offering; it is quite utilitarian and useable and is especially friendly to newbs. In addition, I decided to push the envelop on the Debian compatibility issue and loaded Sarge and Sid into the synaptic repositories. Two KDE upgrades later, it still runs without any of the Ubuntu bugginess. This is deb-compatibility at its finest. Which, to a non-member, is a godsend. I suppose a member might be able to favorably compare Mepis to Linspire and Xandros, which says a lot.

The above mentioned flaming involves GPL advocates, a developer at KDE and, apparently, a lot of nastiness between maintainer Warren Woodford and a developers team leaving one wondering how long they will last in the rough and tumble open source world. Therefore I find myself hedging my bets and not trusting in the system as my default production machine. Emailing the maintainer will get you nowhere and the forum sites go beyond newb friendly and take on an almost cultish, us against the world, manner that does not tolerate criticism and tends to be condescending to those not properly converted and Mepisized. The Mepis .org site maintains a degree of detached intensity while the Mepis Lovers sites are so ultra groupy as to be distasteful. One user described this Mepis cabal as a matriarchy, so if you enjoy asking a question and being lectured to by your mom, this is the distro for you.

Which, at the end of the day, is a shame. The software is that good, and not easily hosed once installed. But since part of the Linux experience is having a community to fall back on and this community feels a bit too Spanish Inquisition at times.

Problem is, no one ever expects a Spanish Inquisition.

These two distros with a their odd mix of pros and cons are – as of this writing - certainly in the running for a usable distro. Should they decide to expand the idea of what a distro can be, they could easily be major contenders.

Grade: B-

Yes, those are ominous moody chords you hear; chords that - in movies - usually warn us of the monster's approach. Slackware still reigns as the granddaddy of Linux distros. But why? With a notorious reputation for complexity and a rabid appetite for newb flesh, it is one of those distros that can make virgin Slacker's tremble as they insert the first cd and reboot before an install.

Which is part of the fun of Slackware. Firstly because this reputation is for the most part unfounded. Once you've got your Slackware installed, you are quick to realize that this distro's founding principles are stability and simplicity. Granted, it is a simplicity that means you are editing configuration files instead of clicking on the latest flashy, gleaming Control Center, but it is a simplicity that will forever enable you to get to the root (pun intended) of every other system's quirks and bugs by cutting through the bloat and glitter. Like the famous adage: "learn RedHat and you've learned a distro. Learn Slackware and you've learned Linux". This is not a Windows replacement and the migration to Slackware assumes you have the stamina to persevere and at least three changes of underwear for the trip.

The first surprise – given such a reputation- is that I thought I would boot into a desktop that made Debian Sarge look like Las Vegas. Surprise! The default full install left me slack jawed and staring at a gui that is second perhaps only to Suse in its eloquence. These are all KDE I tell myself, but there are subtle decisions made by every distro as to theming and font choices that are included by default. And the speed, upon first booting into it, is something I usually struggle to attain in other config-tool dependent distros. This is yet another Linux flavor that does not make choices for the user. First boot has you on a command line where you need the magic startx command. It only offers a root account and its up to you to - immediately if you're smart - adduser before you do something dumb. The CD drive, likewise, is only permitted to the root user, till you change your fstab file. Are we having fun yet?

Given all of the above, you may be surprised at the number of new users who start out on Slack and survive. There are a couple of reasons. One, is that it is far more lean and sparse in the world of choices than Debian. You will undoubtedly find everything you need to start out, and more, with a full install of the two cd set. A note to Gnome fans, though. Given the tendency of the Gnome desktop to interact invasively with other DMs, it is no longer included as a standard supported Slack package. There are at present two recommended Gnome releases suggested by the Man himself, Mr. Patrick Volkerding, as compatible with the latest 10.2 release.

I chose Freerock Gnome. And was once again surprised to see one of the nicest and least invasive Gnome desktops, crammed onto 450MBs or so as a single download with scripts for full or minimal install and the option for every other install in between. The fact that this distro was created and maintained since 1992 by the same man speaks volumes. There is little to no development team infighting and the end result is a system with a remarkable singularity of vision and execution that Linux users still rely on when the all the other flash in the pans fade and the *nix cowboys (we don't need no steeenkin' configuration tools!) have restored sanity and order to the anarchic frontier town known as Linux.

Just don't come to Slack with whining and demands and 'but why's'. This is the distro to learn on if it's Linux you aim to learn. Given the intimacy of the development process and the community, there is the sense here that even the Debian folks are too often caught up in the trivialities of FOSS to get any work done on their system. Like the name implies, Slack is a laidback, no-nonsense system if you just read the manuals and learn how to learn as opposed to learning how to click on CHAT ROOM/LINUX and type “I have a question....” This commitment to simplicity and space and the unwillingness to be simply a Window's replacement has, in some ways, made Slackware seem more radical a choice of distro than even Debian.

Where's the name come from? You'll need root to access that one...

Its lonely at the top. Grade: A+

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I never said this was another NEW USERS distro article, did I? Partly because many a newb has started on Slackware and floundered with Mandriva, and partly because I'm no longer sure where newb ends and intermediate begins. And there are too many kinds of people coming to Linux for too many different reasons and such a surplus of Your First Linux System guides out there already it made no sense to write about anything other than what I think I know now. I imagine some will find endless cause to flame, and others will wonder how I knew their take on Linux distros, and of course others who will read some or all of this and mutter, “The Web is a vast wasteland.” But if we are, as Eric Raymond points out, a tribe; then we need our histories and chronicles and since I can't code worth a damn, I do this.

Stay tuned for Part Two which looks more closely at Live cds, mini cds and flash drive distros; just in case one of your pet Linuxes hasn't made an appearance yet...


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