/var/opinion - Amazing Free Distributions Abound

Tales of a month's worth of a free distro shopping spree.

I went on a distro shopping spree this month to see what's out there. Okay, it wasn't a shopping spree, per se, because the only money I spent was for blank disks and download/install time. But, I tried a whole bunch of distributions to get a picture of where Free (as in beer) Linux is today.

Despite its many quirks and how annoying it can be to get multimedia working on some systems, Kubuntu is still my favorite. I now run both Kubuntu 7.04 x86 and 7.04 AMD64 as my standard desktops. Why both? I run x86 because there are some things you can't do on the AMD64 version. I run the AMD64 version just for the heck of it.

Kubuntu is, of course, the KDE spin-off of Ubuntu, which is GNOME-based. I ran Ubuntu on my server for almost two years. I switched to Kubuntu recently only because the Kubuntu install disk was easier to find when I replaced the main disk on my server. If I had been more diligent that day, I would have downloaded the server version of Ubuntu and used that.

Ubuntu now has more spin-offs than Happy Days. For those of you who remember that Happy Days was itself a spin-off of Love American Style, you may see why I chose this particular comparison. Although spin-offs of Ubuntu abound, Ubuntu is one of many spin-offs of Debian. I still have Debian installed on its own partition, and I boot it now and then. As Ubuntu matures and offers more frequent stable updates, some former Debian spin-offs are switching to Ubuntu as their base. But I find it reassuring to know that Debian keeps getting better, slowly but surely, and I always can go back to it with great satisfaction. I run the unstable branch of Debian, which is a misnomer if ever there was one. The unstable branch is remarkably stable, but the name does silence critics if something goes wrong.

I look forward to the Ubuntu-based Freespire/Linspire, and I love the new Ubuntu-based MEPIS. But my favorite Ubuntu spin-off is Mint (linuxmint.com). Mint comes with multimedia packages that are non-free, some of which are illegal but shouldn't be, and some that one could argue should be illegal if you don't own a copy of Windows (I do). Mint saves you the trouble of finding these packages and making them work. Mint is still stuck on Ubuntu Edgy (the latest Ubuntu is Feisty), and I don't like that. But, Mint makes GNOME almost enjoyable, and I like that. There's a KDE version of Mint, but it lacks the customized Mint tools, so it seems pointless right now. You can just install KDE on the regular Mint.

Xandros is still Debian-based, and it's a great distro. The only thing I don't like about it is that it uses LILO instead of GRUB, which makes it difficult for me to install it as one of many distros. I work around that fine, though. Knoppix, another distro based on Debian, is still amazing when it comes to hardware detection. I'm losing interest in Knoppix, though, as Ubuntu spin-offs are taking over the world.

Fedora is a fine distro too, but I can't make myself use it. Maybe I'm doing something wrong and you can clue me in, but I can use apt to download, install and upgrade hundreds of packages in the time it takes to use Yum to install/update a dozen packages. And, forget about the graphical Yum updater. More often than not I just assume it's hung and kill it. And, although I never seem to encounter dependency issues on Debian and Ubuntu-based distros, I still run into problems with Fedora.

PCLinuxOS, a souped-up version of Mandriva, is great, but it's currently behind the times. Maybe I'll rave about the next stable release.

OpenSUSE is a great distro too, but I refuse to use it as long it's tainted by association with Novell and its deal with Microsoft. It's not like it offers anything compelling over dozens of alternatives.

I ended my love affair with Gentoo quite a while ago, when it lost its direction and became a source of out-of-date or broken packages. However, the Gentoo-based Sabayon Linux will knock your socks off and make them dance around the room. Sabayon is comprehensive in scope and is the only distro that automatically set up the fancy 3-D environment without my having to tweak anything. The only thing I don't like about Sabayon is that I get errors when I try to update software with the Gentoo portage system. I get the impression you're just supposed to update via new Sabayon distributions as they're released. Eh, okay, but I am still going to see if I can get portage working.

I run Damn Small Linux on my old Compaq notebook with 256MB of RAM simply because it won't run anything more bloated than that.

Believe it or not, I tried even more distributions last month than these, but I've run out of room. I hope you'll try at least a few of the above. I don't think you can go wrong with any of them.

Nicholas Petreley is Editor in Chief of Linux Journal and a former programmer, teacher, analyst and consultant who has been working with and writing about Linux for more than ten years.

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My favorites

Anonymous Brian Masinick's picture

I have settled on SimplyMEPIS as my every day desktop. I have three instances of it across two desktop systems: SimplyMEPIS 6.0, last year's version, but still updated periodically from the Ubuntu LTS binaries, SimplyMEPIS 32 6.5, the current stable release, and SimplyMEPIS 7.0 Beta. All three, even the beta release, are pretty stable and simply nice distributions to use.

I've been using PCLinuxOS 2007 on a laptop when I go to the laundromat. It nicely recognizes the wireless card and gladly connects to the wireless network in the restaurant across the street. PCLinuxOS announces that it is "radically simple" and it is. Everything I need to access the Internet while on the go works right from a Live CD that I use on a work laptop. I cannot install Linux on that box, but when out of the office, I can certainly run a Live system from it and I do, about once a week.

I have been enjoying the many distributions that use binaries from the Ubuntu project, including the Ubuntu distributions themselves. I have been using Kubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon Tribe 5 quite a bit this week. Just about every night it has new updates, and the system continues to work, at least for the basics, so I can use that software to browse the Web and read my Email while reviewing the progress being made as it nears release. One more tribe - the Tribe 6 and Alpha testing finishes, then a relatively short beta test, a one week release candidate, and Gutsy Gibbon gets released on October 18. Though it is not tagged a "stable" release, but a technology release, it should be a very useful release. I think it will be quite popular; I have found it worth using already.

Ubuntu 8.04, the next stable release, was just announced this week. I wrote to Juno Bacon to ask him if they will be providing a clean upgrade path from the current Long Term Support (LTS) release, 6.06, and he replied "Yes" to me with a smile. That should be a great release, especially if the features in 7.10 can be brought to full stability in 8.04.

Linux Mint has been a good project; I've enjoyed using it.

One of the Ubuntu derivatives I have enjoyed working with most is Ubuntu CE 3.3, the Christian Edition based on Ubuntu 7.04. It is more than veneer. It has a lot of useful Bible reading tools and multimedia applications geared to the online Christian. Many of us use YouTube, but UbuntuCE provides browser pulldowns to GodTube videos - some are quite entertaining.

I test Mandriva, Fedora and a few other releases, but I definitely have a preference to the Debian derivatives. There are so many good ones these days that I do not test Mandriva, Fedora, or SUSE, for that matter, nearly as often as I did in the past. That said, I actually bought Mandriva 2007.1 Spring. Very nicely done, one of their best distros ever. I also purchased SimplyMEPIS 32 6.5 and a subscription to SimplyMEPIS to support the project.

What are the favorites of other readers?

At the USALUG where I frequently visit, several people are really enthusiastic about Arch Linux. One of these days I will try it out again.

I signed myself as Anonymous Brian Masinick because Linux Journal knows of an account of Brian Masinick and won't let me post here otherwise - funny site behavior.

Testing various distros

Bertbeau's picture

I for one, have tested a great number of distros over the years and still do regularly.
i look for principally for those things:
1. Ease of installation with options to taylor the system as you see fit.
2. Internalisation with option for multiple languages other than english for install and once instaled.
3. Hardware and software management as well as the updating process.
4. Multimedia play, for music, videos and photos, management and conversion facilities for cd and dvd writing.
5. Web site creation and maintenance tools
6. 3D graphicks and desktop annimation

I must say that very few distros have provided only parts of those requirements. Shure if you tweek and work hard anough, you can bring Ubuntu, OpenSuse and Mandriva to do most of it but not the others, whatever.

In the one hand, it takes the better part of a full day to instal an Ms Window with all the software needed to meet those requirements also, counting with the numerous reboots...

Shurely, Linux which normally commes with all the basic production software should not take as much time to install and to tweek to do what ome wants it to do for one self or for a customer.

Kubuntu AMD64 limitations?

Ivan V.'s picture

Hi,

Currently I run Kubuntu x86 too, but I'm going to upgrade soon to AMD64, to take advantage of the 7 GB of RAM I got recently.

I ran the AMD64 version a couple of months ago, and I didn't recall having any limitations as to what it could do compared to the x86 version. Sure it wasn't as easy to set some stuff up, but in the end everything worked well.

Could you elaborate on what you mean by "there are some things you can't do on the AMD64 version"?

Thanks!

Mostly Flash and Java plugins in Firefox

Anonymous's picture

There are some packages that don't come in 64-bit flavors and you have to install the 32-bit versions, which makes it a bit of a problem.

This includes things like:
- Adobe Flash & Java plugins for Firefox
- Opera
- Wine

You can easily install the correct options if you use Automatix
or you can do it manually - see the sticky threads in the "x86 64-bit Users" forum
http://ubuntuforums.org/forumdisplay.php?f=134

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