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The Spring 2010 Linux Distro Scorecard

 

Which Linux distro should I use? It's one of the most common questions for new and aspiring Linux users. There's so many to choose from, how can you pick the right one? Let's see if we can help clear it up a little and help you choose between all the other major distros.

In order to give each distro its fair share of space, we're breaking this into a two-part series. Today, we'll review Debian, Fedora, Linux Mint and Mandriva. Tomorrow, we'll cover openSUSE, Slackware and Ubuntu as well as reveal our final "scorecard," which should provide you with a quick reference sheet for comparing Linux distros.

Let me start by saying that I'm a fully committed distro-hopper. Aside from focusing on openSUSE when working for Novell, I've run two or more distros since 2000. It's been rare that I'd use a single distro and desktop on the same machine for more than four months. Because I spend my time writing about Linux, it's important to be familiar with all the "major" distributions. When something comes out that looks unique and interesting, I'll also try out new or niche distros. But most users will find advantages to picking one distro and sticking with it.

While Linux distributions are largely made up of the same software and utilities, you will find differences between them. And if you're looking for support, you might want to choose a single distro so you can get to know its community and support offerings, like its forums, mailing lists, and wikis.

Which one is the "best" Linux distro, objectively? Nobody can answer that, because it's a totally subjective choice. Some people find it important to use a distribution that only ships with Free software, and they're willing to put up with usability headaches to get it. Some users just want to use Linux because it's secure and solid, and want something easy to use regardless of the software licensing. Instead of trying to pick the "best" distro, I wanted to give a clear picture of the choices so new users can decide for themselves. I often tell people who ask "which distro should I use?" that it's like choosing underwear. No one else can tell you what's going to make you comfortable. There's no objective metric that says boxers are better than briefs. One might be tempted at this point to draw an analogy between clean underwear and making sure that you run security updates often, but let's not go there.

What were the criteria for choosing distros? I decided to narrow it down to the major community Linux distributions that have demonstrated longevity and a strong user base. It was also necessary to focus on desktop distros, and a limited set of those. This means a few popular distros didn't make the cut, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Don't see your favorite distro here? Please leave a polite comment so we have a better picture of the Linux.com audience.

Debian

Debian is one of the most successful free software projects that many new users have never heard of. Debian is an entirely community developed Linux distribution with no single commercial backer. While many companies contribute to Debian in one way or another, it's a purely independent project, driven entirely by volunteers. Debian has a large developer community and is the basis for many other projects, including Ubuntu.

Debian has a very developer-centric community. It's driven by its Social Contract to remain free, give back to the larger community, be open with its problems, and be guided by the needs of its users and the free software community. There's an intense focus on technical excellence and shipping free software. Debian does allow some non-free repositories, but they're not "officially" part of Debian.

Debian ships when it's ready, and not before. And maybe not even then. Unlike many more recent distros, Debian doesn't have a specific release schedule. Many Debian users are fine with this, and tend to run the testing or unstable branches. Testing (which will be the next stable release) and unstable have more current, sometimes bleeding-edge software — but are also for more experienced and adventurous users. It's not recommended to run unstable on your desktop unless you have a thirst for troubleshooting and the chops to recover from broken packages.

Packages go into Debian with a minimum of customization and polishing, compared to distributions like Mandriva, openSUSE, or Ubuntu. This isn't to say no changes, but there's minimal rebranding and such for Debian compared to some of the major distros that are trying to appeal to a less experienced audience.

You'll get very little hand-holding with Debian. The installer is fairly complex when compared to other distros, and you will have to do much more configuration manually. Users need to make more decisions about which packages to install initially, will find fewer management tools, etc.

Need to install Linux on an old PowerPC Mac, or maybe an old Sun SPARC or UltraSPARC box? Debian is your friend. Maybe your only friend. Other distributions have steadily decreased the number of processor architectures they support in order to focus on the most used hardware. Debian supports x86, x86-64, ARM, Alpha, HP PA-RISC, Itanium, PowerPC, MIPS, IBM's S/390, and SPARC. Not only does Debian support an enormous range of hardware, it also has an extremely large package selection. The packages in the stable release may be a bit crusty and old, but if you want to stay abreast of new software you can do much worse than tracking Debian testing or unstable.

Debian is an open project, but it can be intimidating to get involved at first. The project doesn't have a focus on recruiting new contributors and very little focus on much aside from development. You won't find ambassador programs for Debian, for example. Some members on the mailing lists can be a bit sharp-tongued, and that sort of behavior is more tolerated in Debian than in other communities. Overall, Debian is well-suited for more experienced Linux users and those who are committed to ideals of free software. Users who want a Linux distribution that "just works" will probably not enjoy Debian right away, but if it weren't for Debian some of the "just works" distros wouldn't exist.

Fedora

The Fedora project is sponsored by Red Hat. The project that has a fairly large amount of community involvement and focus on innovation, freedom, and community contributions.

Fedora has a six-month release cycle, but releases can and do slip if they're not up to quality standards. However, the releases tend to be pretty close to the set dates. With the focus on new software, there's not much emphasis on longevity. Releases are only supported for about 13 months. If you're not looking to upgrade frequently, Fedora isn't going to be your cup of tea. But if you can't wait to try out the newest and shiniest packages, Fedora is probably exactly what you're looking for.

You can get involved in the Fedora community very easily, no matter what your skill set. The community is friendly and works hard on recruitment for new contributors.

The distro itself is user friendly, but often has a few rough edges. It's not as polished as some other Linux distros, and Fedora stays fairly true to upstream projects. Part of shipping "bleeding edge" software means that you may encounter some features that are less than 100% stable. Fedora has improved quite a bit in terms of quality over the years, however, and if you're moderately comfortable with computers you should be fine with Fedora. It's also worth noting that, since Fedora focuses on software freedom, the project won't ship media codecs or drivers/firmware that aren't free. So you'll have to do some legwork if you want MP3 support or firmware for wireless cards that isn't entirely free.

The project should also get points for making all of its tools and infrastructure free as well. Though it's unlikely, if Red Hat stopped supporting Fedora tomorrow, the community could pick up and carry on with all of the existing tools. It also means other projects can use the same tools to create their own distros.

Fedora's management tools and installer are fairly good. The installer is a bit more complex than some, and the management tools aren't quite as comprehensive as openSUSE's YaST or Mandriva's. Since Fedora is very popular, you'll find a fair number of hosting providers that offer Fedora as a VPS. Companies like Dropbox and Opera make sure that Fedora packages are available, and so on. With the Fedora 13 release, the project made PowerPC a community supported architecture. This means that if the community steps up to support it, then releases will happen — but they're not mandatory. So Fedora's hardware support is limited to x86 and x86-64. The package archives for Fedora aren't quite as expansive as Debian or Ubuntu's but you can find most popular open source software on Fedora.

Generally, Fedora can be used by newbies, but it may not be the very best introductory Linux distro. It's a great distro, however, for experienced Linux users who like to stay on the edge of development. It's also one of the top distros of choice for Linux and FOSS developers. Want to know what's going to be in Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) in a year or two? Watch Fedora closely. While there's no guarantee that what goes into Fedora will wind up in RHEL, it's a good way to see what Red Hat is focusing on today.

Linux Mint

Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu, and is one of the easiest Linux distributions for new users to get started with, period. This is because Mint builds on Ubuntu and adds multimedia support by default. Out of the box you'll find more support for hardware and multimedia codecs than any other major distro. Mint isn't supported by a major company, but the project does try to raise money to support development through donations.

Mint has an easy to use installer, superior package management tools for beginners, and decent system management tools. Users don't need to know much about Linux at all to get started with Mint, and it tends to be a very stable distribution. The package selection is a good fit for new users and experienced users alike. Mint doesn't focus on cutting edge software, and tends to be ever so slightly more conservative than its upstream, Ubuntu. It derives some of its simplicity from Ubuntu, but isn't a clone of the distro and has innovated in a few areas.

Since Mint draws on Ubuntu for its packages, it has a very deep selection of software. You can also use most third party software for Ubuntu with Mint, so Dropbox's Ubuntu packages work well, VMware tools install without a hitch, etc. For the most part, if Ubuntu is supported, so is Mint.

Mint also follows the same development cycle, though not precisely. Usually Mint trails Ubuntu by a few weeks to a month for the GNOME version and longer for the KDE and other releases. So you can get 18 months of support for regular releases, and three years for Long Term Support (LTS) releases.

Mint has fairly good documentation and the community is friendly to new users. Getting involved isn't difficult, though it's not as well-organized as Fedora or Ubuntu when it comes to recruiting new contributors. The project does not have a resistance to shipping proprietary software or non-free codecs. Folks who are die-hard free software supporters won't be happy with Mint.

You're pretty much stuck with x86 and x86-64 with Mint, so SPARC and PowerPC owners will need to look elsewhere. The distro is also a bit resource-intensive, not really focused on minimal machines. So if you're trying to wring the last few gasps out of that Pentium "classic" computer, you might want to move along. Mint does have a LXDE version, which is better for resource-constrained systems, but the main release will make outdated hardware wheeze. If you have a computer made in the last five years or so, you should be fine.

Have a friend or family member who's entirely new to Linux? Mint is one of the first distros you should put in front of them. Unless they have an aversion to green. Then you might want to tweak the theme a bit first.

Mandriva

Mandriva started out life as Mandrake, which started out life as a clone of Red Hat Linux. This was when Red Hat didn't ship KDE, and some users wanted it pretty badly. Mandrake also was optimized for i586 (Pentium) when a lot of users were still pushing 386s.

Times change, and Mandriva has evolved quite a bit. The company behind it has struggled to be profitable, which is a bit of a concern to users and has been slightly disruptive to development at times. Still, Mandriva has a loyal community and the project has consistently delivered a solid KDE-based distribution. You can, of course, use other desktops with Mandriva — but the focus is on KDE.

The installer and management tools are easy to use, though the installer is not quite as dead-simple as Mint or Ubuntu. The management tools are very comprehensive, and it should be easy to set up everything from new users to Samba shares. It's easy to use, but doesn't hide all of the configurability of Linux from users.

The package selection for Mandriva is pretty good. Note that you'll find several editions of Mandriva, ranging from the free version to "power packs" with support and some proprietary software like the Fluendo DVD player.

The Mandriva community tends to be very friendly, and you'll find plenty of information and documentation on the site. The range of third-party tools is a bit sparse for Mandriva, though, compared to Fedora or Ubuntu. The community is not quite as large as some, but Mandriva has a solid following.

New to Linux or haven't found a distro you love yet? Try Mandriva. It's easy to use and fairly solid. It doesn't ship the most cutting-edge software, but stays fairly current. A lot of work goes into making the distro easy to use, and it should feel fairly familiar to users coming in from Windows.

Phew. That's all for today. More tomorrow on the remaining distros and our Spring 2010 Linux Scorecard. In the mean time, share your comments!

 

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