February 5, 2004

Spawn of Debian faceoff: final chapter

Author: Joe Barr

This is the concluding piece in our recent "Spawn of Debian faceoff" series of reviews. We've looked at the latest offerings from LibraNet, LindowsOS, Mepis, and Xandros. Now we'll sit back and ponder what we've learned. We'll also ask for your help in rating criteria for future Linux reviews.

Background

All of the reviews were done on the same hardware: an inexpensive Linux box purchased at Frys Electronics. It came with an 800MHz VIA processor, 128MB DRAM, 30GB hard drive, 52X ATAPI CD-ROM drive, and a mainboard with built-in AC97 Codec sound, 3D Graphics Accelerator video, SiS630E chipset, and a 10BaseT/100BaseTX NIC. To that we added a Sampo Alphascan 711S 17-inch monitor. There were no hardware failures or issues during the reviews, and all the distributions performed adequately.

We compared the distributions in five categories: installation, connectivity, security, software maintenance, and (free or included) support. Where prices are shown, we used the retail price of the version of the distribution we tested. The average of these five scores was used as the final grade.

Installation

The ideal installation would be fast, a no-brainer even for noobies, but with sufficient granularity to let experienced and advanced users set things up to their own particular tastes. At the end of the installation, the ideal distribution would leave the user with a secure, fully connected, fully usable Linux desktop.

LindowsOS and Mepis tied for the top score in this category. LindowsOS ranked high because it was exceptionally easy to install, easier than any other tested. Mepis tied in this category because because it both easy to install and to offer more choices for experienced users.

Connectivity

Excluding things like keyboard, mouse, and monitor, the test environment required Internet access through a DHCP server elsewhere on the LAN and print capability on a CUPS printer connected to my regular desktop box. Top marks in connectivity again went to LindowsOS and Mepis. Both distributions connected to the Internet and to the shared printer without any user input. They just worked.

Security

The ideal in this category starts with the installation. Services should be off by default. A firewall should be enabled by default. Good security practices should be used and encouraged, especially in the division between super user and normal user. The final step of the installation process should be a real-time check for security fixes. Any security fixes found should automatically be applied. Following installation, it should be a very easy task for the user to manually check for and apply such fixes, and they should be encouraged to do just that.

Mepis and Xandros tied for the top score in Security. MEPIS installs itself behind a firewall and enforces good security practices. By default, almost all exposed services are turned off. Xandros also encourages good security. When you are running the GUI as root, for example, the desktop background is a bright red of warning. While Xandros did not install a firewall, it was nearly perfect otherwise. Users are strongly encouraged to check for and install security updates during installation finalization. Applying them is as easy as a single click.

Software Maintenance

When it comes to Software Maintenance, LindowsOS and Xandros are the class of the field. Click N Run is about as good as it gets in ease of use. Xandros Networks is right up there with it.

Support

Support is the final piece of the puzzle. Mepis and Xandros were rated tops in this regard. Mepis users get online support in the forums at the Mepis website. In fact, Warren X, the distribution's creator, is very active there helping Mepis users with various problems. There are also more than a dozen Mepis-specific HowTo's available at the site. There is also a #mepis channel on IRC at irc.freenode.net.

Xandros includes 30/60 days of email tech support depending on whether you've purchased the standard of the deluxe edition. The website provides a FAQ, searchable knowledge base, and a user forum. Like Mepis, Xandros has an IRC channel at irc.freenode.net.

Conclusions

One thing is certain, Debian provides the DNA for some excellent Linux distributions. Mepis emerged as the final victor with a rating of 92. LindowsOS came in second, with an 88, barely nosing out Xandros who scored 87. LibraNet rounded out the field with an 80.

Another thing for certain: just looking at the score doesn't begin to do justice to the distributions. They are all very good. In that spirit, I am going to make some special awards that go above and beyond the criteria used for comparison.

LindowsOS

LindowsOS is the one I would recommend to friends who want to migrate from Windows to Linux, so I proclaim it as Best Distro for Noobies. As I noted in the review, I didn't really expect to find such a good Linux offering. Hopefully in the future, LindowsOS will gain more credibility on the Linux street as being a good distribution. They need more than anything the community involvement and support that almost every other Linux distribution enjoys.

Mepis

The little distro from West Virginia that rocks. Mepis came out on top by scoring well in every category. I don't believe it has any weak points, and I sense a community building around it that could really give it a boost in number of faithful. I bestow upon Mepis the Most Likely to Succeed award.

Xandros

Except for some bad luck in my testbed printing environment which exposed a bug in a critical part of the installation, Xandros could have been top dog. It's great looking and has appeal to both noobies and longtime Linux users. I give it the Best Looking Distro award.

LibraNet

Don't think by the score that I don't have good things to say about LibraNet, because I do. And I'm not the only one. This distro is not the best choice for noobies. But it has the single most impressive configuration tool of any distribution I've seen - not just the ones included in this series. The LibraNet AdminMenu is a clean, elegant, powerful tool for tuning just about every aspect of your system. I give LibraNet the coveted This is the one Debian users would pick award.

Your turn

OK, I've had my say. Now I'd like to hear from you. Did the faceoff format work for you? Would you like to see reviews done in a similar manner in the future? What about the criteria? How would change or add or delete categories? Should security be given more weight than installation? Are the number of apps installed more important than which apps are installed? Please, let us hear your feedback in comments.

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