June 22, 2011

The 2011 Linux Distro Scorecard

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The 2011 Linux Distro Scorecard
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Picking a Linux distribution isn't always easy. It's one of the most common hurdles for new and aspiring Linux users, deciding which distribution is going to be right for them. With so many to choose from, how do you pick the right one? Let's start with an overview of the major Linux distros, and you'll be ready to jump in right away.

You can find hundreds of Linux distributions, depending on what your needs are. For this scorecard, we're focusing on desktop distributions that are fairly popular, well-supported, and have a reliable release history, and strong community. In last year's scorecard, we started with seven distros — this year, we've narrowed the field to six distributions:

  • Debian
  • Fedora
  • Linux Mint
  • openSUSE
  • Slackware
  • Ubuntu

This isn't to say that a distribution isn't the bee's knees if it's not on the list — but we want to start with a manageable selection for new users. If you want to start at the easy end of the spectrum, we've got good choices for you — and if you want to get your hands dirty and learn all about Linux, we've got a few distros that meet those needs as well.

Which distribution is the best? None of them, or all of them. It's really about what meets your needs. Some people want a distribution that's really easy to use, and don't care much about licensing. Some people choose a distribution because of the licensing, and ease of use isn't really that important. You might only want to look at distributions that have KDE or GNOME as a desktop. It's sort of like picking a restaurant, what makes one person happy is going to be a really bad experience for another person. I like spicy food, other folks can't handle it or just don't like it. What we're doing here is letting you have a peek at what's on the menu so you can decide where you'd like to start.

As with last year's scorecard, the criteria for choosing distributions were the major Linux desktop distributions that have demonstrated longevity, a strong community, and stability. Naturally, that means the majority of Linux distributions aren't listed here, so if your favorite didn't make the cut — don't take it personally. Do feel free to talk about your favorites in the comments, and offer other helpful suggestions for new Linux users.


To start with, let's look at Debian. Debian is an entirely community developed Linux distribution with no single commercial backer. Many companies contribute to Debian in one way or another, but it's a purely independent project. Debian has a large developer community, and is used as the base for Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and a number of other distributions. The distribution started in 1993, founded by Ian Murdock — but out of humble beginnings, it's grown enormously.

Debian has a very developer-centric community, though the project has recently welcomed non-packaging contributors to explicitly acknowledge contributors who write documentation, create artwork, perform translations, and so on. Debian has a Social Contract that requires the project remain free, give back to the larger community, be open with problems, and to be guided by the needs of its users and the free software community.

Debian has an intense focus on technical excellence and shipping free software. With the most recent release, the Debian project rid its Linux kernel of all non-free firmware ("binary blobs"), though the project does continue to offer kernels with the firmware in the non-free repos. Debian does allow some non-free repositories, but they're not "officially" part of Debian.

Debian's release schedule is "when it's ready," and not before. The distribution ships at irregular intervals, though users don't have to wait for stable releases to use the latest and greatest. Many Debian 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. You probably shouldn't run Sid (unstable) unless you have a thirst for adventure and want to get some experience troubleshooting. This isn't to say it breaks a lot, but when it does, it could be spectacular.

Debian stays close to upstream with its packages, and offers a minimum of customization and polishing. Compared to distributions like Ubuntu or openSUSE, Debian makes very few changes. 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.

Debian is a distro of choice for users who want to install Linux on an older non-Intel machine. You can run the most recent stable release on x86, AMD64, ARM, PowerPC, Itanium, MIPS, SPARC, and IBM's S/390. Note that Debian dropped support for PA-RISC and Alpha chips with the Debian 6.0 ("squeeze") release.

Debian is also unique in our list because the project now offers a FreeBSD-based release as well, so if you want the Debian userland software with a BSD kernel, you can give it a shot. Not only does Debian support an enormous range of hardware, it also has an extremely large package selection. The packages in the stable release are likely to be a bit behind the upstream's most recent release, but if you want to track new software you might want to run Debian testing or unstable.

Debian is an open project, but it doesn't have as many resources to induct new contributors as Fedora, openSUSE, or Ubuntu. Overall, Debian is best-suited for more experienced Linux users or those who want to learn more about their systems. It's also an ideal distribution for those who are dedicated to the ideals of free software. If you want a distribution that "just works," you probably won't enjoy Debian as much. But without Debian, many of the "just works" distros would not exist.


The Fedora Project is sponsored by Red Hat, but has a fairly diverse set of contributors outside the company as well. The project has its focus on innovation, freedom, and community contributions.

Fedora has a six-month release cycle, but releases often slip if they're not up to quality standards — almost every release cycle has a few slips. But the release dates tend to be close enough to the schedule that users have a fairly good idea when the next release is going to be out. Tracking release dates can be important — the releases are only supported for about 13 months. Users who don't want to upgrade frequently should choose another distribution. But if you want to ride the "cutting edge," of software, Fedora is going to be an excellent choice. Fedora ships the latest software that's stable, or (in some cases) almost stable. New technologies often debut in Fedora.

Fedora is fairly user friendly, but can have a few rough edges. It's not always as polished, and sometimes Fedora ships software that's brand-new — like with the Fedora 15 release that ships with GNOME 3.0, a new init system, and more. The next release is expected to default to the Btrfs filesystem, another technology that's not been widely deployed. Part of shipping "cutting edge" software means that you may encounter some packages that are less than 100% stable, or may not be feature complete. It is worth noting that the quality of the distribution has improved greatly since the early days of Fedora. If you're comfortable with computers and not afraid of the command line, Fedora is a good distro to consider.

If software licensing is important to you, Fedora is one of the top distributions to look at. The project only ships free software, and won't ship media codecs or much else that's not open source or might be legally encumbered. You may have to do some extra work to get MP3 or DVD support, but that's part of the price of freedom.

Fedora takes software freedom very seriously, and makes its tools and infrastructure free as well. If you want to set up a Fedora derivative, it's not hard to do. The project supports a number of spins (Fedora-based distros that differ from the default set of software), and has the tools for users to create their own. Whether you like GNOME, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, or another desktop, you're good to go.

The management tools and installer are fairly good, though they assume some understanding of Linux. The management tools aren't quite as comprehensive as openSUSE's YaST, but you'll be able to do most system administration using GUI tools if you choose to. You'll also find a fair assortment of third-party packages and support for Fedora, including hosting providers that offer Fedora as an option if you want to extend your Fedora use to a hosted server.

The hardware support is more limited than Debian, though — so no Itanium or MIPS for you. If you have x86 or AMD64 based systems, though, you're good.

Generally, Fedora is OK for new users, but might not be the best introductory Linux distribution. It's great for experimenting with new technologies, and to see what's coming in the future for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL). If you're a developer, Fedora is also a great choice. 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.

Linux Mint

Linux Mint has undergone a lot of change in the last year. Historically, Mint has been based on Ubuntu (which is in turn based on Debian, of course). In September, the Mint folks introduced a Debian-based release in addition to the Ubuntu-based main release. What does that mean? Users who want to get the most polished and stable release should choose the main Mint release, which is based on Ubuntu. Users who want to use a "rolling release" distribution should look at the Debian version.

Whether you go with LMDE (the Debian version) or the usual Mint release, you'll get an easy to use installer, slick package management tools, and out of the box support for MP3s, Flash, DVDs, etc.

Many of Mint's packages come from Ubuntu, but the project does customize or provide its own packages for some software. You'll also note that the latest Mint release (Mint 11) does not share Ubuntu's default desktop — instead, Mint 11 sticks with GNOME 2.32 and is taking a more conservative approach to its desktop. Because of its Ubuntu heritage, Mint has decent third-party support. You'll be able to install packages for Ubuntu on Mint most of the time with no problem.

The Ubuntu-based release also follows Ubuntu's development cycle, but trails by a few months. So when Ubuntu 11.10 is released in October, for instance, you'll see a final release of Mint 12 a few weeks afterwards. Support, likewise, follows Ubuntu's schedule. You get 18 months of support for regular releases, and three years on the desktop for Long Term Support (LTS) releases. The LTS schedule is determined by Ubuntu, of course &mash; but there tends to be an LTS release about every two years. These are strongly recommended for folks who want to install Linux for friends and want to have a hassle-free support scenario.

The Debian-based release is a rolling release, which means that there are fewer releases but you should be able to track LMDE by installing just once. If you're unsure which release to choose, go with the the standard release. Note that you can also grab a release that doesn't include the multimedia support, if you're worried about running afoul of the law with patent-encumbered codecs and such.

Mint has a friendly community, though contributing to Mint is not as easy as other distributions. The core team is small, and there's not a major focus on contributing. However, the Mint folks say they're willing to take contributions and dedicated contributors have launched Mint flavors based on KDE and LXDE.

Mint is x86 and AMD64 only — no support is forthcoming for PowerPC, SPARC, etc.

The bottom line on Mint? It's a great distro to start with if you want a replacement for Windows and want a distribution that "just works" right after the install.

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