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A few quick reviews: Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, and OpenSUSE

Posted 09-21-2010 at 01:06 PM by Lufbery
Updated 01-15-2013 at 08:19 AM by Lufbery

I've been working with QEMU-KVM for the past couple of months. I've found that it is exceptionally useful to have virtual machines -- sandboxes -- where I can experiment with stuff without affecting my configuration or installation. In other words, if I really mess up, only the virtual machine gets hurt.

My primary purpose right now for QEMU-KVM is building Linux From Scratch using Slackware 13.1 as the host in the virtual machine. I created a 60 GB blank disk image, installed Slackware 13.1 and then started with LFS. So far, things are going exceptionally well.

But I've also been doing some work with src2pkg, trying to create and test its abilities building RPM and DEB packages, and for that I needed operating systems that support those package formats. So I installed the most recent, stable (at the time), 64-bit versions of the following Linux distributions:
  • Ubuntu 10.04 (Gnome 2.30)
  • OpenSUSE 11.3 (KDE 4.4)
  • Fedora 13 (Gnome 2.30)
  • Debian 5.0 (Gnome 2.30)

I picked the Gnome versions of most of them because I use KDE on Slackware, so I wanted to see how the "other half" lives. I installed each one into its own 15 GB disk image.

For better or worse, here are my impressions from the completely biased perspective of a dyed in the wool Slackware user.

A few general observations:

Installation -- I'm not going to describe the installation. Too many Linux reviews I've read go into great detail about the installation process and the installer program. That's not necessary anymore. We've reached the point with GNU/Linux that installing the operating system is a smooth process. This is a testament to a lot of hard work by a lot of folks over the years. Hardware compatibility is wonderful too. If somebody can install Windows, he or she can install Linux.All four installed just fine. Read the directions and everything will go swimmingly.

Package management -- all four have dependency-resolving package-management systems built-in. Generally speaking, I found the package management systems to work well. I mostly used the graphical versions; just to be different ( ), but I did find dpkg, apt-get, and yum to work well from their respective command lines.

The biggest problem I had was setting up and browsing the repositories. It seems that no matter which program I used -- YAST in OpenSUSE or the graphical manager from the Gnome menu: System -> Administration -> Add/Remove Software -- there was too much detail. If I wanted to simply install Koffice, I was instead presented with each component of Koffice (Kword, Kspread, Koffice_base, etc.) that I had to select separately from a list. I have no doubt that I was missing something (and I intend to dig into this issue further), but there didn't seem to be an easy way to just simply select the whole of Koffice.

I finally found a better graphical package manager for Fedora in Yumex (the Yum Extender). It worked perfectly, did exactly what I wanted, and I can recommend it without reservation. I did not find something similar for Debian or Ubuntu. Basically, the package management for these four distributions works well and I can see the attraction that dependency-resolving package managers have for people. I can also see some of the disadvantages, but more on that a little later.

As with installation, I don't want to dwell too much on software installation. Again, a lot of reviews I read (after about 500 words on software installation) spend way too much time on package management. It's almost as though folks simply download Linux distribution ISOs, install them, spend time installing a few packages, and then write their reviews. They seldom seem to do any real work with their newly installed OSs. So I did actual work on these operating systems.

However, Open Office, QGIS, and Scribus pretty much work identically regardless of the OS or window manager/desktop environment. So, if the various distributions install without problems, have package repositories that install applications without problems, and the various applications run pretty much the same no matter where they're installed, then there's no practical difference among the distributions -- at least in terms of running common applications.

I'm not saying that there's no real difference between, say, Slackware and Ubuntu, just that running Thunderbird in each of them is pretty much the same. There are differences, though. Building software is different on the different distributions, though, and there is a varying amount of work necessary to set each up as proper environments for different kinds of programming. I'm sure there are differences when setting up a server, though I haven't done that myself. More to the point, different distributions have different user experiences, encompassing tasks like configuration, applying security updates, and various design decisions that influence how users interact with the OS.

Updates -- There've been a rash of security updates lately, even with Slackware. It seems that there are more of them and they're happening more frequently than in the past. But the number of Slackware security updates is tiny compared to the weekly (or even more frequent) updates put out by the four distributions that I tested! I don't think Slackware is being lax about the updates, so I don't understand why the four distributions have so many.

Applying updates was easy though. All four have good, graphical utilities for finding and applying updates. There are a boatload of them, but they don't take much time to apply.

Distribution specific notes
Ubuntu -- I have a soft spot for Ubuntu. I started with Ubuntu 5.04 a few years ago as my first fully-installed Linux distribution. (Prior to that, I played with a Knoppix live CD). I liked Ubuntu then and I like it now. I had no major problems with Ubuntu except for the slightly awkward package management mentioned above. However, Ubuntu felt ponderous and sluggish and I don't like relying so much on sudo for administrative tasks. One of the reasons I moved to Slackware was that I did not like Ubuntu's way of shielding me from the inner workings of the OS. I still don't really like that aspect of Ubuntu, but otherwise it is a fine distribution that works very well.

Debian -- I simply couldn't get my head around Debian. I know that's funny to say after using Ubuntu, a Debian derivative, but I had trouble with Debian. My biggest complaint was that the software selection is/was often a few versions behind the current, stable software available. For example, it came with Open Office 2.4 instead of the more recent 3.2. There is now an official backports repository, but even when I had it enabled, I still couldn't find the latest version of Open Office. Generally, though, there was something sort of bland and slightly stodgy about Debian, although I can't really place my finger on it. Basically, the current stable version of Debian did not seem to have the same polish as Ubuntu, and the out-of-date software was a turn-off.

OpenSUSE -- I also have a soft spot for OpenSUSE. I installed a previous version (on my laptop about four years ago and was suitably impressed with its ease of use and performance. It's still easy to use and its performance is pretty good, but I found it overly fussy. YAST, the control center, is a good tool, but somewhat overly-complicated. The default KDE kicker (which is now the default for KDE itself) takes too long to navigate (in my opinion), so I switched to the classic menu style and still had too many layers. There's no reason that I can see to have subfolders for word processing and spreadsheets in the main Office menu item. So while I have a generally positive impression of openSUSE it seems geared to people who are much more compulsively organized than I.

Fedora -- In contrast to the other tested distributions, Fedora felt positively snappy! There is a certain tightness and fluidity in the user experience missing from the other distributions. From what I've read, that was on purpose; the Fedora team spent a lot of time on user interface issues with this latest release. I found Yumex to be delightful to use. Fedora, with Gnome, did the best job of working well and getting out of my way. I liked that.

Conclusion -- None of these are going to replace Slackware as my day-to-day distribution. In my opinion (and all of this is, of course, only my opinion), Slackware is cleanest, least complex, and most fully featured of the distributions listed in this post. Configuring Slackware is simple and transparent, if not always easy.

Having said all of that, I didn't find any of the distributions I tested substantially harder or easier to use than Slackware and I only experienced a few problems with dependency-checking package managers. None of the distributions could successfully install the Enlightenment window manager, and on Ubuntu and Fedora, LXDE installed, but had errors.

Overall, if I had to recommend a Linux distribution (other than Slackware) to somebody, I'd recommend either Fedora or Ubuntu. In the end, though, you really can't go wrong with any of them.
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