Saturday, March 15, 2008

Which Linux?

"The trouble with choice is you have to make a choice”
A prospective Linux user, who stumbles upon DistroWatch and realizes there are over 500 “distros” or distributions of Linux may be forgiven for running screaming back to Windows (And you thought there were too many versions of Vista! ).
Yet if you are a new user, unless you have special needs or simply a desire to explore the wonderful variety available, you can probably set aside all but a half-dozen or so. I think we can use a few simple criteria to filter the list to a more manageable size:

Ease of installation.
Unless you buy one of the many computers that come pre-installed with Linux from Amazon, Best Buy, Dell, Sears, Walmart, and many smaller companies, you will have to install it yourself, or have someone help you do so. Modern distros are easier to install than Windows, but novices rarely install that either. This shouldn't scare you off if you can follow directions though.

Ease of use.
Many distros are not targeted at newcomers to the Linux world, and will not be a good first choice. Among these are Debian, Fedora, Gentoo and Slackware. All fine distributions, but skip them until you have some experience with Linux (With a new graphical installer, Debian might be the exception here for an adventurous novice).
Even Linus Torvalds himself favors easy to install and use distros.

Major distribution.
You should start with a distro that has a large user base, because there will more likely be better support options, user forums and documentation. In addition, the larger organizations usually are more likely to have the resources to be able to keep the distro up to date and solve problems quickly as they come along. They also tend to have larger package repositories so you have more choices of software to install, and better long range planning and support. Another viewpoint on how distributions are seen by the Linux community (not necessarily by novices).

You're looking for something better, right? So don't tie yourself to an OS that has links back to the proprietary model. Distros that I personally avoid on ethical grounds, include SUSE, openSUSE, Linspire, Freespire and Xandros. They all have ties to Microsoft, the constant enemy of innovation, standards and freedom. You can do better.
(See No Microsoft! for a fuller explanation of why you should avoid them)

(Note that I am not talking to the experienced Linux user here, and perhaps not even to the technically oriented Windows "Power User". The last two points bear thought in any case though.)

So which one to use then?

I wish I had a definitive answer, but this question is hotly debated among Linux devotees, and has been for years. Still, if we apply the four criteria above to the top 50 distributions at DistroWatch (by page hit ranking, an admittedly crude measure of popularity), then I think we are left with:

Linux Mint


(Not in order of preference)

Before looking briefly at each of these, lets get a couple other items on the table. Though not deal breakers, I would also consider:

Software installation & upgrade
Although generally very easy today with graphical software installers, I think the Debian-based distros with their deb packages are more highly regarded in this area. Most other popular distros use the RPM package format--PCLinuxOS, Mandriva, Fedora, and many more.

Desktop, or GUIs (Graphical User Interface)
The two main ones are KDE and Gnome. I think most users coming from Windows will like KDE better as it will feel more familiar. It also has a reputation of being much more configurable and customizable. It also has
higher rated applications, though you can run either one's applications on the other desktop. Some distros, like Ubuntu, let you easily choose either, even after installation.

OK, you're saying,
Ah, if only life offered such absolutes!
All I can do is offer some observations on the seven distros we have selected above:

Nice distro, smaller community than the majors, but many vocal supporters who claim it is THE one for “It just works” functionality. Some say it's popularity is exaggerated. Originally based on Mandriva. Helpful user forum and very good documentation. Glossy monthly magazine with good articles geared to new users.

Started by multi-millionaire and space tourist Mark Shuttleworth, it has grown from nothing to dominating the top spot on Distrowatch. Based on Debian, uses Gnome desktop. Known for innovation and a new release every six months. Dell is now selling desktop and laptop PCs with Ubuntu, but Ubuntu has lately began to attract criticism. Whether justified, or motivated by jealousy and elitism we'll have to wait and see. It has a large helpful user community, lots of excellent documentation, a long term plan, and commercial support for business.

Linux Mint
A very slick smaller distro, based on Ubuntu and has both Gnome and KDE Desktop editions. It has "lots of desktop improvements and a strong focus on making things work out of the box". Integrated and configured codecs makes playing multimedia easier than most and it has a few special applications to manage updates and software installation, etc. More cutting-edge than Ubuntu with all the pros and cons that implies. Large user forum.

An official sub-project of Ubuntu, so all the same comments apply, except it uses the KDE Desktop. Although it usually lags behind it's parent in getting the latest features, it is still very usable, and more easily customizable. Like other KDE distros, it uses the excellent KDE applications, like K3B for CD/DVD burning, Amarok for playing music, etc.
Also like Ubuntu itself, it offers versions with long term support.

Until Ubuntu came along Mandriva (formerly Mandrake) was at the top of most peoples list of beginner-friendly Linux distros.
Trying to get too commercial, financial difficulties, bad customer service and too many bugs dropped them in the rankings for quite some time. Mandriva is seemingly making a comeback and bears consideration again.

Another smaller distro, similar in outlook to PCLinuxOS, but based on Debian, not Mandriva. Has been somewhat commercial in nature, like Mandriva.
Software is not always up-to-date and no obvious long term plan. Nice looking distro with KDE desktop, it retains many fans.

Update Jan. 2009

It seems that gOS (previously included here) has developed a relationship with Microsoft, and is in some sense promoting Windows on it's web site. I would therefore not recommend gOS to anyone who cares about freedom.

So what do I use? Kubuntu since mid 2007 (before that, Gentoo for four years. Starting in 1998 I used Red Hat, Mandriva, Suse, and Gentoo for periods of 6 months to 4 years).

It suits me, and I hope this helps you find one that suites you too.
That, in the end, is the only criteria that counts.


  1. I used to be hooked on PCLOS, but for some reason, it does not support 64 bit (even though Madriva does) and I now have two 64 bit machines. Also, the ease of use of Ubuntu as stepped up over the past few versions, so all my machines will most likely be converted to Ubuntu soon. (I know that Ubuntu and Kubuntu are essentially the same, but Ubuntu really seems to be better configured.)


  2. PCLOS is pretty slick and has lots of fans. I personally like the Debian package management better than RPM though.
    Yes, Ubuntu gets the new features first, but I just like KDE better than Gnome, so thats why I use Kubuntu. I have no problem with either though (I running Xfce right now and use Fluxbox allot too).
    In what ways do you find Ubuntu better configured than Kubuntu?
    I've tested Sidux in a virtual machine and like what I see so far. Mandriva may be worth another look too. Both use KDE, so I should be at home in either.

  3. When I have used Kubuntu, it does not seem to like being "Americanized". They have had a few roll outs since I last tried it, so I may try it again, but my most recent efforts at using Ubuntu were much better than my earlier ones. It just looks like Canonical focuses more on Ubuntu than Kubuntu. Which, Ubuntu is their flagship, so I understand.

    My last experience with Mandriva was not bad. I think it has probably surpassed PCLOS in it's ease and usability. I think that goes back to why each exists. I don't think PCLOS really wants to do what it takes to be a leading Linux distro. Ubuntu, Mandriva, gOS, Xandros and others seem to have a better understanding of what it's going to take to capture the consumer market.

  4. I've been running Fedora Core 5 for several years. I updated FC3 to 4 and 4 to 5 but haven't felt the need to go higher. FC is a good fit for someone who's fairly PC savvy and wants the extra control you get.

    Ubuntu is a nice distro for someone new to Linux.

    Btw, saw your link on Tioga George.

  5. Don,
    I started with Red Hat 5.2 and used it up till version 9. I felt that they abandoned emphasis on the the desktop after that and I lost interest. I agree with you that it is a good option for more technically inclined users, especially if you want to be on the "bleeding edge".

    Ubuntu is a good distro for new users, but I don't agree with those who would limit it to that role. I think it is fine for advanced users too.

    Glad to hear you saw my link on Tioga George. I have been a daily reader for 3-4 years now.

  6. Thank you very much for your visit and the comments.
    Very nice article, I find it interesting and I don't agree on just one point, the one against {Novell, Linspire,Xandros} & Microsot. The agreements between those software giants brought nothing bad to the community, and I believe that OpenSuSE could be a great distribution.
    Regarding the main idea behind your post, I don't have a favourite linux distro, but I would suggest Ubuntu to a novice. Ubuntu is always a Debian-based distribution, and if the beginner feels the courage to use the console, he can always learn Debian basis, while using all the graphical tools if he doesn't or simply gives up.
    An alternative like gOS could really become possible if and only if it becomes more mature and begins to offer alternative administration tools.
    Anyway, I'm currently investigating on Linux Mint, which is simply beautiful. I always desired a Debian-based distribution that offered a graphical customization of Gnome similar to the one made by OpenSuSE people! Mint could be an alternative to Ubuntu for a beginner, too

  7. I agree with your opinions regarding Linux distros, but I can't help but think that nothing good will come from associations with Microsoft. They are the avowed enemy of Linux and open source - Gates and Ballmer have both made statements that make this clear. They are also fighting a proxy war via SCO against Linux. I give Novell credit here for standing up to SCO, but they should know better than to enter a Faustian deal with Microsoft for short term gain. I too think openSuse could be a great distro, if only it wasn't controlled by Novell.

    As I laid out in my No Microsoft! post, Microsoft has done nothing to earn trust - quite the opposite, their schemes and bad intentions have been exposed over and over again. I wouldn't trust them as far as I could throw Ballmer!

    Let me know your experiences with Linux Mint. Last time I tried it I thought it was just a prettied up Ubuntu, with codecs installed. I think it has more to offer now though.

  8. Hello all,

    I personally like Xfce-based distros after trial and error and distro surfing.

    At the beginning of my Post-Windows life I settled on Ubuntu, because my friend used it, and it was backed by Canonical/Shuttleworth. Then when I met Thunar I switched to Xubuntu and it felt Home-y.

    That said, I wanted a distribution that was LONG long term, and after reading about how some Gentoo Installations had survived multiple sets of hardware for YEARS, and I decided I would read the Gentoo Handbook after some urging by other friends, and have handcrafted a superior experience for myself.

    Gentoo is the "easy" LSB distro, with a comprehensive toolchain. It's also one of the "core" distributions, and merits a look once you have the hang of the command line and Linux and want to move to something that can 'magically' do wonderful things: like rebuild itself after broken packages leave it damaged with a reverse dependency rebuild of all your packages. I don't (currently) know of ANY system that will permit that. Gentoo also has a large and lively community, and bar-none the best documentation I've found; even while using Ubuntu/Xubuntu I referred to the Gentoo documentation on the topic-at-hand. Not necessarily for EVERYONE, but worth a concerted effort and looksee.

    Having said all of the above, The latest 2008.0-r1 release allows for easy pre-built binary installation on most hardware, and even though it IS source based, the ebuild (if using Portage) or exhere (if using Paludis) source-based build recipes are a Strength, not a Weakness.

    It _would_ be interesting to see a "source-based latitude" segment including the newer Gentoo offshoots, Lunar Linux, Linux From Scratch, etc...

    While I post this to raise awareness about an excellent branch of Linux (and other architectures) of the Gentoo Distribution, I thought it would be best to mention that source-based distributions are availabe, can be "easy" when following directions, but for carefree installations, perhaps the "candy" distributions are best.

    They at least get your foot in the door, and allow you to learn enough to make an educated choice about your next distribution, and whether you do a lot of reading-up, or distro-surfing the LiveCDs available (which I think everyone should do at least every couple of years, as the landscape changes) I think in general, Linux-based Operating System Distributions, or one of the BSD's, can give the user a wonderful and tantalizing experience.

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