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Amazing Free Distributions Abound

Nicholas Petreley

Issue #159, July 2007

Tales of a month's worth of a free distro shopping spree.

I went on a distro shopping spree this month to see what's out there. Okay, it wasn't a shopping spree, per se, because the only money I spent was for blank disks and download/install time. But, I tried a whole bunch of distributions to get a picture of where Free (as in beer) Linux is today.

Despite its many quirks and how annoying it can be to get multimedia working on some systems, Kubuntu is still my favorite. I now run both Kubuntu 7.04 x86 and 7.04 AMD64 as my standard desktops. Why both? I run x86 because there are some things you can't do on the AMD64 version. I run the AMD64 version just for the heck of it.

Kubuntu is, of course, the KDE spin-off of Ubuntu, which is GNOME-based. I ran Ubuntu on my server for almost two years. I switched to Kubuntu recently only because the Kubuntu install disk was easier to find when I replaced the main disk on my server. If I had been more diligent that day, I would have downloaded the server version of Ubuntu and used that.

Ubuntu now has more spin-offs than Happy Days. For those of you who remember that Happy Days was itself a spin-off of Love American Style, you may see why I chose this particular comparison. Although spin-offs of Ubuntu abound, Ubuntu is one of many spin-offs of Debian. I still have Debian installed on its own partition, and I boot it now and then. As Ubuntu matures and offers more frequent stable updates, some former Debian spin-offs are switching to Ubuntu as their base. But I find it reassuring to know that Debian keeps getting better, slowly but surely, and I always can go back to it with great satisfaction. I run the unstable branch of Debian, which is a misnomer if ever there was one. The unstable branch is remarkably stable, but the name does silence critics if something goes wrong.

I look forward to the Ubuntu-based Freespire/Linspire, and I love the new Ubuntu-based MEPIS. But my favorite Ubuntu spin-off is Mint (linuxmint.com). Mint comes with multimedia packages that are non-free, some of which are illegal but shouldn't be, and some that one could argue should be illegal if you don't own a copy of Windows (I do). Mint saves you the trouble of finding these packages and making them work. Mint is still stuck on Ubuntu Edgy (the latest Ubuntu is Feisty), and I don't like that. But, Mint makes GNOME almost enjoyable, and I like that. There's a KDE version of Mint, but it lacks the customized Mint tools, so it seems pointless right now. You can just install KDE on the regular Mint.

Xandros is still Debian-based, and it's a great distro. The only thing I don't like about it is that it uses LILO instead of GRUB, which makes it difficult for me to install it as one of many distros. I work around that fine, though. Knoppix, another distro based on Debian, is still amazing when it comes to hardware detection. I'm losing interest in Knoppix, though, as Ubuntu spin-offs are taking over the world.

Fedora is a fine distro too, but I can't make myself use it. Maybe I'm doing something wrong and you can clue me in, but I can use apt to download, install and upgrade hundreds of packages in the time it takes to use Yum to install/update a dozen packages. And, forget about the graphical Yum updater. More often than not I just assume it's hung and kill it. And, although I never seem to encounter dependency issues on Debian and Ubuntu-based distros, I still run into problems with Fedora.

PCLinuxOS, a souped-up version of Mandriva, is great, but it's currently behind the times. Maybe I'll rave about the next stable release.

OpenSUSE is a great distro too, but I refuse to use it as long it's tainted by association with Novell and its deal with Microsoft. It's not like it offers anything compelling over dozens of alternatives.

I ended my love affair with Gentoo quite a while ago, when it lost its direction and became a source of out-of-date or broken packages. However, the Gentoo-based Sabayon Linux will knock your socks off and make them dance around the room. Sabayon is comprehensive in scope and is the only distro that automatically set up the fancy 3-D environment without my having to tweak anything. The only thing I don't like about Sabayon is that I get errors when I try to update software with the Gentoo portage system. I get the impression you're just supposed to update via new Sabayon distributions as they're released. Eh, okay, but I am still going to see if I can get portage working.

I run Damn Small Linux on my old Compaq notebook with 256MB of RAM simply because it won't run anything more bloated than that.

Believe it or not, I tried even more distributions last month than these, but I've run out of room. I hope you'll try at least a few of the above. I don't think you can go wrong with any of them.

Nicholas Petreley is Editor in Chief of Linux Journal and a former programmer, teacher, analyst and consultant who has been working with and writing about Linux for more than ten years.


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