Previously… on Adventures In Open Source 🙂 About a month ago now I decided to spend a week trying out a few different Linux distros to broaden my horizons and get a feel for the current lay of the land. I was interested in ease of use primarily, something I could offer to a friend to try. In hindsight my choice of distros was pretty stupid, Slackware for instance wouldn’t be on anyone’s list of beginner friendly distros. I didn’t know what it was and I learned pretty fast. So after taking these 10 distros for a spin and spending a lot longer than I’d planned on this journey I thought it would be a good time to recap what I’ve learned and reflect a little.
I’m going to rate the distros out of 5 for various different factors I thought were important. This is totally unscientific and it’s just my opinion, in hindsight I should have done some speed tests or benchmarks but it’s no use crying over spilt milk now. I’ll leave speed out of this as it would mostly be guesswork. Here are the categories I came up with:
Ease Of Installation & Setup: This is pretty self explanatory really, how easy was it to install and get a fully working desktop on my hardware.
Stability: How solid was the system, any crashes, problems with bugs etc
Community & Online Support: How easy was it to find support and help on the web.
Features: What kind of software did the distro come with, hardware drivers and so on. Anything particularly new or unique to distinguish it.
Note: You can find a list of my hardware at the start of the Gutsy Gibbon article, link below
Distro 1: Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon
Ease Of Installation & Setup: 4/5
Community & Online Support: 5/5
The community is probably the strongest feature of Ubuntu for me. Help is always easy to find online and the response is usually friendly. It’s a definite plus I think.
There have been a lot of high profile bugs in Gutsy and while it seemed to be pretty stable in every day use I got the impression that the release date had to be met at any cost. I think the agenda of Ubuntu is to march forward adding new features as fast as possible, this has an obvious trade off with stability for me though. Gutsy is a decent release and I might be a little harsh on it because I expect so much I suppose. Its a good distro for home users and the community is always willing to help out.
It is a very stable OS and I think having a large company like Novell with their experience behind it probably helps in this area. You can see that it’s aimed at the business market though I think. I don’t want to upset any SUSE users with the community score, I did find some useful forums but there just didn’t seem to be the wealth of help you get with some distros. I found installing software with Yast wasn’t much fun but the Suse Build Service is a handy feature. Overall I found configuring OpenSUSE as a home / multimedia desktop wasn’t that easy in comparison to other distros. It would be great in an office setting probably but at home it’s not for me.
Distro 3 – Mandriva 2008
Ease Of Installation & Use: 5/5
Community & Online Support: 3/5
My Full Article
This really was a revelation for me. Full 3D support and Compiz Fusion desktop right from the liveCD was impressive. I found the system very easy to use and configure. The software manager wasn’t quite as good as in some distros but I found it easy enough to use. This distro had lots of good features packed in. It did lack NTFS write support out the box which is common in other distros but other than that it was great. Multimedia support was very good. Overall I don’t think you can beat Mandriva 2008 as a newcomers distro. It really does seem to just work out of the box and could be a great introduction to Linux I feel.
The system seemed very stable and I didn’t have any crashes or other problems really but it wasn’t quite the out of the box everything works experience I’d heard so much about. The PCLOS community is pretty strong and it’s grown quickly, I didn’t find a wealth of support and reference material in my searches though. The forums seemed very active though and there was a pretty friendly atmosphere. The system came with a good compliment of software but I found getting hold of the video drivers I needed was not straightforward. NTFS and multimedia support were good and there wasn’t much additional software I needed. Overall I found this distro to be pretty average, I’m sorry I know that upsets some people but I had high expectations and I didn’t feel it met them. For a supposedly easy to use distro I didn’t think it was anything special in this regard. That’s not a criticism but if ease of use is what you want you prize most you should look at Mint or Mandriva first in my opinion.
Debian has a reputation for being difficult to use but I didn’t find it so at all. I was able to get a fully working desktop pretty easily. There was a fair amount of configuration to do and maybe it’s not for newcomers but really it’s not that hard.
Debian isn’t renowned for it’s groundbreaking features with the overall emphasis on conservatism and stability but it had plenty of software out of the box. I did have to do some work to install the video drivers for sure but it wasn’t really anything more than I had to do with openSUSE or Fedora, just to put it in perspective. It’s easy to see why this is a popular server choice. I found it really easy to find tutorials and guides online for Debian, I was surprised by the amount of information available I have to say. I really liked Debian and if the ethics of free software are important to you then it’s a probably the best choice. Not a beginners distribution for sure but I don’t think it deserves it’s “difficult” tag so much any more.
It’s no secret that I found Slackware hard going and by rights it probably shouldn’t be in this collection as it’s something quite different and unique. I should have researched it before I took the plunge but meh. It’s an incredibly stable distro it has to be said and while you basically have to do everything yourself a lot of people like this approach. It’s not for newcomers make no mistake but if you want to learn how the real nuts and bolts of Linux go together then this can be very educational. Be prepared to get your hands dirty though.
I found Sabayon took a while to install because of the sheer amount of software it comes with. The process was easy to do though and shouldn’t phase many users. It was pretty stable but the update system could confuse some people and it’s easy to break your system with an ill advised merge command. The community was very helpful and while not the biggest the documentation and support was very good. The system came packed with features such as VirtualBox, Skype and other things but it did seem a little bloated to me. One of the largest Linux installs I’ve done at 9Gb but it ran pretty quickly on my hardware though the insitial booting was slow. It will be interesting to see how this develops in the future as it’s an exciting distro, if you want a one hit office machine then it could be well worth a look.
simplyMEPIS was very easy to install I thought and it certainly tries to be as easy as possible but I didn’t feel it was quite as foolproof as Mandriva or Mint in the end. It was a very stable system though and it seems the developers prise stability very highly. There seems to be a very close nit community around MEPIS and while it wasn’t so easy to search for good guides I did find the forums very responsive. The atmosphere was friendly and helpful. The system didn’t quite seem to have as many impressive features as some other distros but it did come with a good compliment of software. I found the community repos contained the latest versions of packages like Skype which was very helpful. If you want an easy to use distro that maintains stability then this is a good option but for absolute newcomers it may not be the right choice I don’t think.
I found Fedora was a little difficult to configure with things like video drivers, I know this may be down to the fact that non-free software is discouraged in Fedora but it still doesn’t change the facts. I had a lot of trouble with the package manager locking itself and causing problems which affected the overall stability for me. I think progressive features take higher precedence over stability here in a similar way to Ubuntu. There are some really nice features here though such as Pulse Audio and integrated virtualization support. I get the impression that it’s something for enthusiasts or people who really want a Red Hat system for whatever reason. I don’t think I would recommend it to a newcomer but it certainly has some interesting innovations to offer.
I found Mint was incredibly easy to install and set up, it would be great for a beginner I think. It’s very user friendly and most of the set up is done for you which is nice for newcomers. It seemed pretty stable but it iss based on Ubuntu Gutsy and since I didn’t give that very good marks for stability I suppose that has to be taken into account. The community support was good and I found quite a few decent guides online. I’ve given it a high score for features because the developers have really added a lot of stuff to the Ubuntu base such as the Software Portal, MintUpdate, MintAssistant, MintUpload and more. It’s a really great distro and perfect for beginners but I think there is also plenty here to keep more advanced users happy too.
Get Linux Mint Here
What I’ve learned:
I feel that having done this little tour I have a better appreciation for the diversity and choice you can find in the Linux world. There is a distribution for pretty much every application and taste it seems.
If you are a newcomer to Linux and want a nice introduction then I would say Mandriva 2008 or Linux Mint 4.0 are the best for this. You can learn on other things of course and this is personal opinion but I found them to be the easiest and most friendly to novices.
If stability and open source ethics are your thing then Slackware and Debian offer a great deal. I didn’t find Debian that hard to use and I learned that a lot of the things I love about Debian-based distros are actually inherited from the old master. Slackware is a challenge but for stability and security it’s hard to beat and if you want to really learn about the building blocks of Linux it’s probably for you. Sort of like fixing your own car instead of getting a mechanic, no doubt you learn more if you have the time and interest.
If you need to set up an office machine then I would say openSUSE or Sabayon Professional were the best of the selection I tried for this. You can make an office machine with pretty much any of these distros of course but these seems tailored to it. openSUSE particularly seemed to be made for large offices with Windows domains which is no surprise really.
All of these distros are good in their own way and I suppose the main thing I’ve learned is that variety really is the spice of life. One size does not fit all and different people will prefer different things, so why not try something different and have an adventure of your own. What have you got to lose? Provided you securely back up all your data first of course 😉
Where to next boss?
I think this distro hopping has become addictive, I’ve gotten used to just backing up my data and traveling light, so I’ll continue to try out new distros as I go. What I may do in the long term though is get another machine just for testing and then probably settle down with Debian. I love the philosophy of the distro and I found it very comfortable to use, I think it’s the one for me but I haven’t given up looking quite yet. I guess you could say I’m playing the field hehe 🙂 Care to join me for more adventures?
I will be trying Pardus 2007.3 next which is a distro I’ve heard quite a bit about and I’m anxious to see what it’s like, fasten your seat belts this journey is not over yet….