March 2, 2005

"Which Distro Do You Recommend?"

Author: Preston St. Pierre

I get asked, by more junior Linux users, and people just looking to try it
out, which distribution of Linux I use or recommend. It occurred to me that I
never actually published an answer to this question, even though it is, by far,
the question I am asked most often. I think my stock answer is maybe slightly
unusual only because, unlike most of the rest of the Linux-using world, I hate
every distro I've ever tried.

That's right: every distribution of Linux sucks in its own special way. Some
just suck less. However, eventually, no matter what distribution you use,
something about it will drive you insane, and you'll try another distro to see
if it's any better. What you'll then realize is that, while it may handle what
drove you crazy before much better, it handles something else in a way that
drives you even more crazy.

Package management is really the best example I can think of. I'm not even
going to talk about the package format, because any self-respecting distro will
make it so that the end user doesn't really have to care about that. What I'm
talking about are the frontends. The interfaces that enable users to install
software. All of these pretty much Suck (note capital "S"). YaST, URPMI,
apt-get, apt4rpm, Synaptic, up2date, yum, autorpm, portage (yes, even portage),
pkgtool -- they all have features that'll drive you up a wall sooner or later
(some sooner than others I guess).

My favorite? Not that it'll be relevant in about a year, but today, for a
desktop system, I think YaST is pretty good as of about SUSE 9.1. However, it
can be quite slow, it can be a little weird to navigate at first (because YaST
doesn't just do package installs), and some of the default configurations are
quirky. I still think SUSE is a very slick desktop, and yet I don't really
recommend it much because if a user needs help, and lives in the states, my
experience has been that the best help threads are on German mailing lists, and
Babelfish does a terrible job with German geekspeak. You can't get help from
SUSE unless you've paid, and even then the help you get is extremely limited,
and until recently you couldn't even get a free downloadable ISO for
installation (they've recently allowed downloads of the DVD ISO).

But it's not just package management: what about window environments? If
you've used a couple of distributions and have come to like KDE, I'd recommend
you steer clear of Redhat/Fedora. KDE has always been broken in Redhat, and
Fedora appears to be carrying that torch into the community-based distro on
Redhat's behalf. Weird things abound in KDE on Fedora. The most recent one I've
found is that if you've configured a default browser in KDE control center, and
then decide you want to try Konqueror, and you open it up and type in a URL and
hit "enter", your default browser will open! Konq won't load the page! These
things become funny after 5 or 6 years.

Maybe you like GNOME? Well, then you have to stay away from Slackware,
because Patrick (the maintainer of Slackware) doesn't seem to have a clear
direction on GNOME. From what I can tell now, GNOME, going forward, will not be
a part of the core slackware distribution, but rather will be handled by an
outside third party. I'm not sure how this will pan out, but it doesn't give me
a case of the warm-fuzzies. If someone can shed more light on this, leave a
comment. ;-)

Maybe you don't like KDE *or* GNOME! Maybe you like Waiamea or blackbox or
fluxbox or windowmaker or enlightenment or twm or fvwm. For older, more stable
desktops like Windowmaker and twm, you can find these as installable options in
many major distros. For things like blackbox and fluxbox, you don't want the
distro-supplied version even if they offer it half of the time, because by the
time they release the distro, there are already updates that add major feature
enhancements. These younger desktops, while cool, are often moving targets. One
I forgot and is very nice for sysadmins is xfce. Give it a shot if you haven't.
You can get it in most distros these days.

What about X and the kernel? These two items are in a state of flux in most
distros right now. If you're on the bleeding edge, hardware-wise, you'll
likely want the Xorg version of X and the 2.6 kernel. If you're on a laptop,
you almost definitely want the 2.6 kernel. However, if you build your own
machines, you have to be extremely careful -- I upgraded a mobo to one that
supports SATA drives. I'm not using them. My mobo doesn't seem to understand
that and reports the drives in the wrong order to the OS, and the newest linux
distros choke on it and fail to boot. 2.4-based distros work fine. Earlier,
NVidia wasn't so quick in distributing drivers for the 2.6 kernel. All seems ok
there now, but fact remains that, while I think these are things users should
never have to think about, you do.

What a choice of distro comes down to, in the long run, is answering the
question "which distribution best fits my brain". Asking someone else which
distro is best for you is like asking them how you should write a Perl script:
there's infinitely more ways than one to do it, and the solution you come up
with will undoubtedly look unlike anyone else's.

In the shorter term, rather than tell newbies to use distro x or y, I tell
them what I think was my most important lesson starting out: pick a distro, and
stick with it come hell or high water. When you start learning to fix problems
instead of reinstalling, only then should you consider trying something else.
Different distros treat things differently enough that jumping from distro to
distro until you find one that "just works" will only cause you to pull your
hair out. Pick *one*, and stick with it. Find the support forums for it, or
find a guru who doesn't care what distro you're using. Get it to do what you
want, and see if you can get it to do what you want the way you want it done.
If nothing else, you'll learn about yourself. You'll learn how you like things
to be. Then you can ask in the forums "hey, is there a tool that does what x
does, but instead of doing it like y, does it like z?".

Someone way smarter than me once said: Know thyself, for it is all there is
of you.

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