Demystifying the Distro Decision– One of the most confusing things that confronts the Linux newbie is the
multitude of available distributions. It’s common to see posts to Linux
newsgroups along the lines of “I’m new to Linux. Which distro should I
use? ” The usual response is twenty or so replies, recommending nearly as
many different distros. I’m not about to name any particular distro as the
best (there is no “best”), but I’ll try to help you narrow down the
list to some distros that will suit your own needs.
Does it Really Matter Anyway?
Linux is an extremely configurable OS, and can be shaped (bashed?)
into almost anything you want it to be. So it follows that no matter what
distro you use, it can probably be made to suit your requirements. Keep in
mind though, that it can take a long time (and more than a little
expertise) to configure a distro that was designed for something completely
different to your intended use. In other words, selecting a suitable distro
will allow you to get your machine up and running with much less time
How the Distros Differ
Distros differ in lots of ways, including, but not limited to these:
- Intended Users, e.g.. Distros such as Debian and Slackware seem to
appeal to the more experienced users, who have less need for graphical
configuration tools, easy installers and “hand holding” in general.
- Intended Purpose – For instance, will it be used as a server , a
workstation, a game playing box or some other specialized use? Some distros
such as Caldera are aimed at business, while others like Lycoris are designed
primarily for ease of use. Many distros (RedHat, Mandrake, SuSE, Caldera, etc)
will allow you to select an installation type when you first install Linux.
These installation types typically allow you to choose from classes like
workstation, home user, developer, minimal, server, or “the works”.
- Hardware Requirements – Some distros (eg. Mandrake) are compiled
specifically for Pentium class processors, while others are designed to be
useful for owners of older, less powerful hardware. Linux can also be used on
other platforms besides Intel PCs, e.g. PowerPCs.
- Included Packages – These range from the tiny Linux-on-a-Floppy
distros that include a shell and a few tools but not much else to the
full-blown multi-cdrom installations that include multimedia support, office
suites and much more, and that can take up a couple of GB of disk space.
- The Kernel Version Used – Most current distros are using the 2.4
series, though some still include the 2.2 version, either as the default or as
Before You Start
- Spend as much time as you can browsing the various distros web sites. If
you only go to one site, make it DistroWatch.
Find out what’s available, what’s included, what the hardware requirements
are, and anything else specific to your needs. There’s a lot of material to
wade through, so keep some notes, or save the relevant pages.
- Write down a list of the programs that you are using under your current
OS. Now find Linux equivalents to these programs so that you can see if they
are available for your intended distro. This list will also be handy at
installation time; you can use it to make sure your needed apps will be
installed. You can find info about various Linux apps at sites like Freshmeat;
if you find the available choices a bit overwhelming try asking for advice at
one of the newsgroups, or your nearest Linux
- Most modern distros do a pretty good job of detecting hardware, though
it’s still a good idea to jot down a few details before you start. In
particular note your monitors vert. and horizontal frequencies, and be aware
that software modems (“winmodems”) often cause problems.
Making the Choice
Consider these factors before making your decision:
- Your Linux Experience – If you’ve never used Linux or Unix before,
you might want to consider those distros with relatively painless installers.
Caldera, Mandrake, RedHat, SuSE and so on generally have very polished
installation routines that include easy partitioning tools, and detect most
hardware without help from the user.
- The Programs You’ll Be Running – The distro makers website will
usually list all the available packages for its product. Ideally, at least one
distro would include every program you want to run, so that you wouldn’t need
to install anything from other sources. This eliminates any problems tracking
down the appropriate versions of apps and dealing with any dependency problems
encountered during installation. Having everything you need available on the
installation cd-roms isn’t as unlikely as it sounds; recent versions of some
distros include an incredible range of apps, with just about everything you’ll
need, plus lots you don’t. Of course, you’ll sometimes need extra stuff that’s
not included on the install cd, and you’ll want to install other apps
eventually anyway, but you get the idea. If you do need programs that aren’t
included with the distro, try to find out what requirements (shared libraries
and so on) the program has, and compare them with what is provided with the
distro. Basically, we are just trying to make life a little easier when it
comes time to instal more software (OK, settle down all you apt-get fans…).
- The Availability of Software Packages – Depending on your needs,
this may or may not be an issue. If you plan on playing with lots of new
programs, keep in mind that packages built for the more common distros such as
RedHat and its derivatives are probably going to be easier to find than for
the more obscure ones. Of course, if you are prepared to compile from source,
this won’t be a problem.
- Your Hardware – Most of the more common stuff is now well supported
by Linux, and you can sometimes find info about supported (or required)
hardware on the distro builders website. If you have some weird equipment, or
you are setting up a notebook, you should probably check this out. Users of
older computers might like to check out some of the smaller distros like
Vector etc, though even the common distros can usually be trimmed down to a
reasonable size. Even something ancient like a 486 or an early Pentium with
32megs of RAM will run Linux (including X) reasonably well, providing you use
the appropriate software (ie. don’t expect to run
stuff like Evolution and KDE3, or 3D games).
- Kernel And X-Server Issues – Do you have anything that requires the
later kernels (eg. Firewire support)? If so, you might want to run a distro
with the 2.4 kernel. Personally, I’m still happy to use the old 2.2, but your
mileage may vary.. Also check the version of XFree86 supplied. If you plan on
playing 3D games, and have suitable hardware, you’ll probably want to use the
4.x version. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry, the
default packages will probably be fine.
OK, you’ve chosen your distro and it’s time to install. you might want to
think about these few points:
- Dual-Boot – Linux is quite happy to share a disk with another
operating system, and you can choose which OS to run at bootup. This is quite
easy to do with most distros. If you only have one computer, and if disk space
allows, it can be quite useful to have more than one OS installed. Getting
Linux configured just the way you want it can take time, and it’s handy to
have a working OS on a different partition so you can download stuff, access
info on the web, or just continue to do the everyday things on your computer
while you are setting up Linux. For example, if you are now using Windows ,
you can leave this in place while you are getting Linux fully set up. If you
later find that you no longer need the original OS, you can delete it and use
that partion to experiment with other distros – and the two Linux
installations can share a single swap partition. At any rate, always having a
working OS available is invaluable, and will be appreciated by others sharing
the computer. Having a working Linux installation available can also be
helpful when playing with other distros on another partition – if necessary
you can use known good settings (such as XF86Config ) to help configure the
- New Versus Older Version – It’s sometimes said that the very recent
versions of the well known distros have become fat, slow and bloated, and I
think there is some truth in this. However, recent versions will usually also
include the latest software and library versions, and you are less likely to
have dependency problems when installing recent software with them. While
older distro versions are often leaner and faster out of the box, an hour or
two spent trimming the fat from the recent stuff will usually yield similar
performance, with the advantage of retaining the current library versions. Of
course you can go the other way, and update the libraries on an older distro,
but be prepared for dependency dramas. Another thing to watch out for when
using older distros is RPM version incompatability. Many recently built RPM
packages have been made with with RPM version 4, and these packages won’t
install on distros using most of the earlier versions. While you can get
around this by updating RPM itself, it might well be easier to just use a
- The Point Zero Releases – Maybe I’m just too fussy, but I tend to
avoid x.0 software releases. In my admittedly limited experience, these are
often more buggy than later versions in a series. While it’s tempting to take
advantage of all those cool new features in say Distro v8.0, it might
be prudent to wait for 8.1 or 8.2, unless of course you don’t mind the
- The Desktop Environment – Not sure whether to run KDE or Gnome?
Install them both and make up your own mind. Most distros will also offer
lighter weight alternatives (IceWm, xfce, WindowMaker, etc.) that can perform
extremely well on older hardware.
- Be Prepared to Sample a Few different distros before you find your
favourite – you will anyway.
- Where to Get Them – You can get many distros on cdrom quite cheaply
from companies like LinuxCentral or CheapBytes. You might be tempted to
download them if you have a fast enough connection, though I’m not sure it’s
worth the trouble. You can sometimes find distros on the cover CDs of computer
magazines, or included with Linux books.
- Support Those Who Support Us – When you finally settle on a distro,
I strongly recommend that you buy a full retail version from the distro maker.
This way we can help them to continue the work that benefits us, the users.
Some distros (like Debian) that don’t sell disks directly, have a donation
system in place.
Some Distributions Briefly Described
Here are a few distros with links and brief descriptions. I haven’t tried
them all, so some of this info has simply been lifted from their websites.
Remember this list only includes a fraction of what’s available, be sure to
check the DistroWatch site for more info.
The Better Known Distros
The ones in this group are probably the most popular for home users. They
all have easy to use graphical installations and partitioning tools, as well
as graphical configuration tools. Some hard core geeks look down on these
point’n’click tools, but most of us have better things to do with our time
than read documentation and wrestle with configuration files ….. All these
use the RPM packaging system.
- RedHat – The most popular of them all.
Not my favourite desktop distro, but obviously zillions would disagree….
RedHat have a huge range of Linux products and services to suit a range of
platforms and applications.
- SuSE – Very popular in
Europe, full version includes literally thousands of apps. As well as Intel
PCs, SuSE is also available for PowerPCs and other platforms.
- Mandrake – One of my
favourites. While it’s promoted as being the ideal beginners distro, it’s also
very popular amongst more experienced users. Has one of the easiest
installation and partitioning routines, plus some very polished configuration
tools. Mandrake have recently released a gaming edition (packaged with a copy
of The Sims) that’s capable of playing some popular Windows games.
The Experienced Users Favourites
These distros inspire incredible loyalty. The installation routines are
probably a little, um, challenging for the Linux virgin. All have a
reputation for stability and efficiency.
- Debian – Unusual for being a
non-profit organization, and totally volunteer driven. Exceptionally stable,
and having a brilliant package management system that automatically resolves
dependencies. While the ease of use factor probably makes it less than ideal
for a first timer, there have been a few Debian based distros that have
addressed this issue (though for some reason, they don’t seem to stay around
- Slackware – This one has been
around for almost as long as Linux. A simple, “traditional” distro
that stays out of the way, Slackware is the most “Unix-like” distro.
Software installation is menu-based using tarballs (compressed archives)
- Gentoo -Another similar distro that
is becoming very popular. Like Debian and Slackware, Gentoo is probably more
suited to experienced users than beginners. Gentoo is designed for
extraordinary speed and flexibility, and uses an exceptionally sophisticated
package management system that automatically resolves dependancies (like
Debians’ apt-get), and builds binaries optimized for your machine. If you are
thinking of stepping up to a “hackers” distro, you should definitely
check this one out.
The Compact Distros
While Linux can be small enough to fit on a floppy, or use in an embedded
application, the compact distros listed here are complete enough for normal
- VectorLinux – A small distro
(< 250mb installed), designed to be fast and simple. Features a lightweight
desktop GUI and a range of software to handle most needs.
- Peanut Linux – Another smallish
(99mb download, 299mb installed) distro, unusual in that it can be installed
into an existing FAT partition, as well as the more usual ext2 or reiser etc.
- Crux – Crux is a
lightweight, i686 optimized distro aimed at the more experienced user. It’s
primary focus is simplicity, and features a relatively small set of packages.
It uses a tar.gz based package system.
Other Interesting Distros
- Elxlinux – Elx is a distro that
emphasises ease of use for the Windows user. It’s desktop layout is very
windows-ish, right down to MyComputer and NetworkNeighbourhood. Could be worth
a look if you want the benefits of Linux without the learning curve.
- Lycoris – (formerly known as Redmond
Linux) Another distro that aims for ease of use. Has a very well laid out GUI
and an easy networking administration tool. Installation should be
exceptionally quick and simple, with only one possible configuration. Includes
a logical menu layout and a sensible selection of apps.
- Zeebralinux– This is an
interesting distro that boots and runs directly from the cd-rom, without
having to install onto the hard drive. Useful for anyone wanting to try Linux
without actually installing it. Comes with a suprisingly complete set of
software, including compilers and servers as well as the usual desktop stuff.
I don’t know what the performance is like, but with a modern cd drive, it
would probably be OK.
- YellowDog – A RedHat based
distro for the PowerPC.
Obviously this list only barely scratches the surface, but hopefully it
will give you some idea of the types of distro available.
Some Useful Links
- DistroWatch – I know I’ve
mentioned this already, but you really should spend some time at this site.
Distribution HOW-TO – An very interesting and useful document.
- The Linux Newbie Administrator Guide
– A valuable guide for the newbie containing a section on choosing a distro.
- The Hardware HOW-TO
– Hardware known to work with Linux
- The Linux Hardware Database – another
- Linux Central – Cheap CDs
- Cheap Bytes – More cheap CDs
- Building the Lo-Fat Linux Desktop – A selection
of apps. suitable for less powerful hardware.
Comments, corrections and suggestions are welcome. Send them to email@example.com
John Murray, 20th Jan, 2002
Updated 5th Aug, 2002