Thursday, 28 January 2010

Distro choices - hinderance or handy?

I remember the first time that I considered putting Linux on my home machine, my main problem was: which one? I had heard about Linux previously, but I had no idea which to choose from, where to start or even who to ask. In my lack of knowledge I actually believed that there was an operating system called Linux and the rest were simply copies.

After a year trying several different distros and complaining that there was 'Too much choice' I have now completely changed my opinion on this. The choice is what keeps us interested. I never thought of an operating system as being aimed at a specific user.

Ubuntu is clearly one of the most popular distros, mainly due to the fact that a lot works 'out of the box' with little need for any major setup if you do not wish to do so. For the casual user, Ubuntu is simple to use, has a lot of software in the repos, is generally the best known Linux distro and is one of the best supported with loads of forums and magazines appearing on the shelves of many newsagents.

Although I personally did not use Ubuntu for long, I have to admit that it is central to the growth of Linux. It is pointless giving a casual user a Gentoo disc and asking them to give it a try. So not everybody likes Ubuntu, there are plenty of other options for newbie users: PCLinuxOS, Pardus, Mepis, Mint and probably a thousand others I won't name. But the fact of the matter is that the Ubuntu community is growing, Dell have started to sell laptops with an Ubuntu os installed, and the support whether in magazine form or online is probably the best Linux has to offer.

For the users with some experience looking to continue their distro development we have Debian and Fedora as the two main candidates. Debian, which Ubuntu is built on, prides itself on stability. Again this is good for the casual users as they do not need to do much once it is setup and crashes are very rare as the software is very well tested. However this means that users do not get to experience the 'latest and greatest' technologies, but if people are happy with this then it is not a problem.

Fedora is on the other end of the spectrum. It still appeals to mainstream users, however the Fedora team as quite happy to include a lot of testing and beta releases in their main distros. I personally have found Fedora very easy to setup and test, but also quite easy to download an unstable program and wreak havoc on your system.

OpenSUSE seems to be more geared towards office workers, however one thing that the development team have done well with is their implementation of KDE. Should you wish to try out KDE there are few distros that do it better than OpenSUSE. I personally have no experience of Mandriva, but my mates have told me that it is aimed at the programmers among us, a bit more coding and command line functions are used than in the mainstream distros.

Studio 64 caters for the users interested in multimedia, Supergamer and aims for those who have left the old system, but still remain fun loving. However it is worth pointing out that Linux is an age behind other operating systems when it comes to games, all the major releases are for consoles or win, however very few get ported to Linux.

Myth TV is a distro that is designed to be connected to the TV rather than on a desktop. For those of us in the UK it is similar to our Sky+ as it allows the user to pause and rewind live TV, on the plus side you can then also play games, watch video files, listen to music files. However it is difficult to setup initially: you have been warned.

Then there are the power users, easy to spot as they never like anything 'out of the box' everything must be tweaked and I have to put myself into that category. These do not usually come with much pre-installed software, but it allows the user to be in complete control.

Arch is a good place to start if you wish to build your own distro. Some may argue for the packages Ubuntu and SUSE have produced but these are mainly graphical interfaces and won't get you used to the internal workings of a Linux system or using the command line. Arch ships with a small (128MB I think) liveCD that drops the user into the command line. Setup your network and start building up your very own distro using Pacman, not the game, but Arch package manager. It is not difficult to build up your own distro with Arch, the guidelines on the website are very clear and comprehensive, but should not be tried by an inexperienced newbie.

If others want a bit more of a challenge then Linux From Scratch (LFS), Gentoo or Slackware all rise to the occasion. All need a lot of research and sound knowledge of the Linux system and competent command line use. Trust me, it is so much easier to have a laptop beside you when building one of these distros as you may need quite a bit of help.

As I said at the start, I honestly believed that the number of Linux distros available was not a good thing. To a newbie, it confused me, I didn't know where to start, I was diving into the unknown and the problem was I couldn't decide which unknown path to follow.

However after a few years of experience I would be very sad if the Linux distros started to disappear. I would recommend anybody start at Ubuntu, if they are casual users simply wanting to surf the net and write a few letters then don't move. It is a stable operating system with a lot of support. But, if like me, you want to explore then Linux offers the best virtual safari of operating systems. There are thousands of Linux distros: you may not like some, you may love others, but guaranteed there is something for everyone and that is one of the key strengths of Linux operating systems.


  1. I don't see Fedora as a place for beta or less stable software. In fact, I've found it to be very stable. However, it does include preview software like gnome-shell and whatnot ... but it is for those folks who would like to preview software that isn't quite ready yet.

  2. I actually use Fedora as my os of choice along with Gentoo. However I was just comparing it to Debian, still for the mainstream user, but with a little more risk. Not an unstable distro, but seems happy to use software that is not at stable release yet. No bad thing, but I know my wife will not part with Debian. But hey, that's the beauty of Linux, something for everybody.

  3. I am glad you came around to realize that choice is a good thing :-) I was lucky to be introduced to Linux by a very knowledgeable user so I had someone to turn to very early on. I personally like the distros that require you to learn a little more to do much extra. I would argue, however that most distros would be easy for a new user if coupled with a full-featured DE(e.g. KDE)... even Slackware. I definitely believe this is a good analysis though, very nice!