Linux Distributions Compared

Been considering installing or re-installing Linux on a PC? Confused by the wide range of distributions available? This article may not solve all your woes, but it should at least put you on the right track.

Why doesn't Linux Journal recommend one particular Linux distribution as the best? Why not do quarterly awards for the best current Linux distribution? There are at least two good reasons and one not-so-good reason. The good reasons are that different users have different needs, and that a “best” rating for any one distribution would unfairly penalize the other distributors. The not-so-good reason has been that Linux Journal hasn't had the resources to do comparative review.

While we still will not recommend one “best” distribution, we have recently acquired hardware specifically for testing distributions. While we can't begin to buy a full set of hardware that will allow us to test distributions on a wide range of hardware, we can assume that since all the distributions use the Linux kernel with few or no modifications, there are not likely to be too many differences based on hardware. By buying mainstream hardware (see The Test Platform sidebar), we can ignore the hardware problems that do not generally differentiate distributions and concentrate on the other characteristics of the distributions.

You Be the Judge

We are not even going to attempt to rank the distributions. We will introduce the distributions that are the most common in the U.S. as this is written; we will introduce other distributions in future articles. As we explore more distributions, we will update our table for feature comparison, and future articles will include the entire table for all the distributions tested so far for easy comparison.

Our comparisons will be designed to allow you to rank the distributions based on your own needs, rather than our perceptions of your needs. To do this, we will provide a description of each distribution, as well as comparison charts of features so that you can easily see the trade-offs that various Linux distributors have made.

Is this a cop-out? Are we shirking our duty? It has become clear to us that it would be hard for Linux Journal to rank the distributions; our staff members have different personal favorite distributions and defend their choices rationally—occasionally even argumentatively. At Linux Journal, we use Linux extensively—nearly exclusively—and we still don't agree which distribution is the best. We have different priorities, skills, and expectations, and we believe this is true of our readers as well.

We have reason to think that our readership is thoughtful and intelligent, and we have certainly been informed in many letters to the editor that our readers appreciate being given a chance to form their own opinions. So instead of attempting to make up your mind for you, we would like to give you as much material as possible to use to make up your own mind.

Version numbers

Many new Linux users confuse the version of the distribution they are using with the version number of the kernel they are running. As described in the What's a distribution? sidebar, the Linux kernel is just one of the many pieces of software needed to create an entire distribution. Each distribution uses version numbers of its own to keep track of the state of the entire distribution, which has more to do with the collection of programs than with the particular kernel involved. Indeed, many distributions have included two or more different kernel versions in one version of the distribution.

However, it's worth understanding the version numbers used for the Linux kernel itself, since the kernel is a key part of any Linux distribution. Kernel version numbers come in three parts: the major version number, the minor version number, and the patch-level. The Linux kernel is being constantly developed by a large team of developers, and while they add new features, they occasionally introduce new bugs. To keep this from causing a problem for Linux users, the developers periodically dedicate several months to fixing bugs and creating a very robust, stable kernel. When this is done, a stable version is released with an even-numbered minor version number. The developers then begin adding features (and temporarily breaking things sometimes) in development versions with odd-numbered minor version numbers.

Unless you want to live on the “bleeding edge” of Linux development, you will probably want to stick with the latest stable kernel version. As of this writing, the latest stable kernel version is 1.2.13; by the time you read this, preparations will probably be underway for 1.4.0.