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The Spring 2010 Linux Distro Scorecard (Part 2)

"Zonker" picks up right where he left off yesterday. In this Spring's Linux Distro Scorecard, he provides brief reviews of Debian, Fedora, Linux Mint, Mandriva, openSUSE, Slackware and Ubuntu. Today, we get his take on the final three, and he delivers the payoff - the Linux Distro Scorecard - which can be a handy reference during the months ahead.

openSUSE

The openSUSE distribution is sponsored by Novell, my former employer. (Just in case that wasn't clear from the bio.) As a result, it's one of the distros I'm most familiar with and try to be as objective as possible about.

The project started life about five years ago when Novell decided to open up SUSE Linux development. It's the foundation of SUSE Linux Enterprise, and it's a good distro for people who want to pay attention to SUSE Linux Enterprise development. openSUSE is now developed fully in the open, and the tools behind it (the openSUSE Build Service) are entirely open source. In fact, the build service is being used by several other projects (like MeeGo) and can be used to build packages for all major distros — not just openSUSE.

The default desktop is KDE, though GNOME is also supported and is the default desktop for the commercial release, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop. Both desktops receive a lot of polish, though the openSUSE developers try not to stray far from upstream GNOME or KDE in terms of developing features. That is to say, if a feature is being developed for openSUSE/SUSE, they try to coordinate with the upstream projects.

As for ease of use, openSUSE is pretty newbie friendly, though it does have some rough edges. The installer is more complex than Ubuntu or Linux Mint. Users have to make a fair number of choices, and can select packages and such during the install if they use the openSUSE DVD. The KDE and GNOME live CDs come with a pre-defined selection of software.

YaST, the system-wide management tool, is very comprehensive. On the flip side, some folks really don't like YaST and find it too intrusive. The package management tools are very well-done, but the actual software center is not as well designed as the Mint or Ubuntu software installers. (This may be changing in an upcoming release, though.) Likewise, the package selection in the "official" repositories is not as good as Debian, Ubuntu, or Fedora. However, the community repositories in the openSUSE Build Service are pretty well stocked, and you can find quite a bit of software through PackMan.

Like most other community distros, openSUSE now only supports x86 and x86-64 officially. The openSUSE Build Service is capable of supporting other architectures, but right now there's not enough momentum behind supporting other architectures and the focus of the project is to support the majority of users.

The default software shipped with openSUSE is entirely open source. The project doesn't ship restricted codecs or proprietary software with the default install, in order to make it easier to redistribute and build on openSUSE. It's not overly difficult to get restricted codecs or drivers for openSUSE, however, and instructions can be found pretty easily.

openSUSE now has a set release cycle of eight months, and the releases are supported for 18 months (two versions plus two months). This means that openSUSE tends to get out of sync with KDE and GNOME at different times, so the "freshness" of the desktops varies from release to release. There's a focus on stability with openSUSE, so bleeding edge software usually won't make it in. openSUSE makes a very good distro for professionals who are experienced with Linux, but also want mostly current software.

Slackware

Even though Slackware is no longer one of the "major" distributions in terms of users, it deserves a mention. Slackware is the oldest surviving Linux distro, and has remained very true to its roots. If you used Slackware five or ten years ago, you'll find that its installer, management and package tools will still be familiar. That's Slackware's strength and weakness. It's a solid and very usable distro for folks who know Linux well, but might be scary for users who are put off by the command line and text utilities. Want an easy to use partitioner? Well, if fdisk or cfdisk meet your criteria, Slack's your buddy. If not, move right along.

Slackware's advantages? It tries to stay very close to the upstream material and produce the most UNIX-like of Linux distributions. It has a devoted, if smallish, community. Slackware is consistent and doesn't adopt the newest technology just to do so — which means Slackware may stick with older software longer than other distros in the name of stability. For instance, it was the last major distro to adopt the 2.6 Linux kernel series. Though it's a KDE-centric distro, it didn't adopt KDE 4 as default until late 2009. And Slackware doesn't ship GNOME at all, though some community projects have offered GNOME packages for Slackware.

Slackware development is sort of open, if you know where to look. Patrick Volkerding has been the driving force behind the distro since its inception in 1993, and does a lot of the work keeping up the distro. You can get involved building extra packages through Slackbuilds.org. Other than that, it's not a big "community" distro in the sense of having a big development community involved in developing it. If you want to support Slackware, I recommend buying the CD/DVD sets and Slackware attire. Even though I don't use Slack as my full-time distro these days, I still buy the occasional sets to help support the project.

The hardware support for Slackware is limited to x86 and x86-64, though a few community projects have sprung up to support it on SPARC and other architectures. They may not stay in step with current or stable Slackware releases, though.

You won't find much support for Slackware via third party tools and hosting providers. Want to run VMware or Dropbox? You probably will have a bit of pain trying to work with Slackware. (As a host — Slackware runs fine as a guest in VMware.)

Slackware is very, very basic. Don't expect a lot in the way of management tools or even fancy package management. Expert users who know what to expect from Slackware tend to be quite happy with it, but new users will probably struggle.

Ubuntu

If you were worried we forgot about Ubuntu, there's no danger of that. We just went in alphabetical order.

Ubuntu is, hands down, the most popular desktop Linux distro around. It's got a strong community, it's easy to install and use, and has a massive community behind it. The project is sponsored by Canonical, which offers the same Linux distro to its commercial customers as to the larger community. Mostly, anyway. Canonical is in the process of offering some "light" builds to OEMs that aren't published for the larger community.

The default distribution is GNOME-based, but the project now offers KDE (Kubuntu), Xfce (Xubuntu), and a number of other 'buntus for folks who enjoy other desktops. Most of the commercial focus is on GNOME, however. Canonical has been focusing hard of late on polishing the desktop and making it easy to use. That does mean that they've diverged a bit from upstream GNOME, but many users like the changes.

As mentioned in the Debian section, Ubuntu is based on Debian and benefits a great deal from the Debian project. Unlike Debian, Ubuntu has a predictable release cycle (every six months). The Long Term Support releases have a three-year lifecycle on the desktop, so users don't have to worry about upgrading to get support. Ubuntu tends to be at the cutting edge of releases without pushing bleeding-edge software.

Ubuntu's installer is dead simple, and the project makes a lot of choices for the user initially. This is great for new users, and tends to rankle more experienced Linux users. Ubuntu hides some system complexity from users, and was the first major distro to get away from using the root user to perform system management tasks. Unlike Mandriva and openSUSE, Ubuntu doesn't have a comprehensive system configuration tool, but does have quite a few tools to ease system management.

The project takes a moderate approach to shipping non-free software. It ships some non-free packages in the form of firmware and such to ensure that hardware works, but doesn't ship non-free codecs by default. However, these things are very easy to install right after the system is set up.

Canonical also integrates its Ubuntu One services into Ubuntu, so users can buy major label MP3s through Rhythmbox and sign up for storage and synchronization services for a fee. Again, some users really enjoy the convenience of these features and others rankle at the commercialism. Ubuntu tends to be an excellent choice for new users looking to Linux for a "just works" experience. But it's not the top choice for advanced users, die-hard software freedom advocates, or folks who want to be on the bleeding edge.

The community is very friendly and the project makes a strong effort to recruit new contributors. If you want to contribute, you can find a way. The support resources and documentation are fairly good, though it can sometimes be difficult to find solutions to problems. Google searches often turn up common questions that have no answers or responses on the forums. (That does happen with other distros as well.) You'll find plenty of third-party support for Ubuntu as well, and odds are if something is packaged for Linux, it's packaged for Ubuntu first and foremost.

In general, Ubuntu is a solid Linux distro that's earned its popularity. It has a few warts, like any other OS, but tends to be a good general distro. Great intro to Linux for new users.

Scorecard and Final Verdicts


Debian Fedora Linux Mint Mandriva openSUSE Slackware Ubuntu
Default Desktop GNOME GNOME GNOME KDE KDE KDE GNOME
Maturity of Software Stale Leading Edge Stable Stable Stable Stable / Stale Stable / Leading Edge
Resources / System Requirements Minimal Modest Newer Newer Newer Minimal Newer
Ease of Use Expert Advanced Beginner Intermediate Intermediate Expert Beginner
Ease of Installation Expert Intermediate Beginner Intermediate Intermediate Expert Beginner
Configuration / System Management Tools Expert Intermediate Beginner / Intermediate Beginner / Intermediate Beginner / Intermediate Expert Beginner / Intermediate
Package Selection Excellent Excellent Excellent Good Good Fair Excellent
Length of Support Good Fair Good / Excellent (for LTS) Fair / Good (for paid desktop) Good Good Good / Excellent (for LTS)
Community Support / Information & Documentation Good Excellent Good Good Good Fair Excellent
Media / Codec Support Fair Fair Excellent Good Good Fair Good
Architecture Support Excellent Fair Fair Fair Fair Fair Fair
Third-party Tools / Packages Fair Good Good Fair Fair Poor Excellent
Community Involvement / Difficulty to Contribute Expert Beginner / Intermediate Intermediate Intermediate Intermediate Expert Beginner
Licensing Strictness Very strict Very strict Permissive / Risky Strict / Permissive for Commercial Editions Strict for Default Install Strict Permissive
Developer Tools and Support Good Excellent Good Good Excellent Fair Excellent

Remember, there is no wrong choice. Whatever distro suits you best is the right one for you, so if you're happy with a distro that didn't get a high score (or isn't listed here) that's OK. It's impossible to objectively say "this distribution is the best one, period." The goal here is to set out a roadmap for new Linux users or experienced Linux users that may not be fully happy with their current distro.

Have suggestions? Please let us know what you think in the comments. There's a lot of Linux to choose from, and new users looking for guidance every day. Let them know what's great about your favorite distro and how friendly the Linux community is.

 

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