Monday, July 03, 2006

Choice Distros revisited

It's been some time since my first choice distro review. Considering that several distros have had new releases since that review, I thought it appropriate to revise my list. As in the prior review, my main concern was with the overall ease of use. It is my hope to try to garner more Linux adoption with the average home user. My review is of Linux versions I feel that the average Windows user could implement in the home with little or no affect on productivity.

Cream on the top


Ubuntu continues to show why they top the Distrowatch hit list with their latest release code-named "Dapper Drake". Ubuntu formally named the release LTS (Long Term Support) due their intent to support software packages on desktop version for 3 years and the server version for 5 years. The developers have gone even farther in steps to make their product even more usable to the end user. The current version integrates a simple add/remove programs plugin to the Synaptic package manager that rivals Linspire's commercial Click 'n Run (CNR) product. Adding packages is over simplified to the point that almost anyone could add applications and or plugins with ease. Coupled with their highly touted support forums, the Ubuntu package couldn't be much more complete. If you’re thinking of switching, Ubuntu will make it happen with no regret. The latest version is a LiveCD with a hard drive installer built into it making it easy to test then install if you like.


This particular version of Linux did not make my list last time despite many sites raving about this distro simply because I had not tested it. I can tell you that I have since tested the product and I can agree with the glowing reviews it receives on Linux enthusiast sites. Despite still being in beta, this distro out-performs many commercial products available. This distro comes packaged in a LiveCD with a hard drive installer option making it easy to test and install locally if you should desire. PCLinuxOS uses the "K" Desktop Environment (KDE) and a very easy to use package manager for updating or adding packages. The interesting note is that they have one standard version as well as a minimalistic version. Surprisingly, I was more attached to the minimalistic version than the full version because I had more control over what packages I could include in my operating system. That being said, the full version is a superb product even in the beta stages as well. Their moniker revolves around ease of use and it is evident in the overall product. As the product matures, I could easily see it toppling some of the current distro giants.


Since my last review, PC-BSD has gone gold building on their short but solid reputation in the Open Source community. While PC-BSD is not Linux, BSD still captures much of the same ideology as their Linux counter-parts. PC-BSD uses KDE as the window manager along with a revolutionary package management approach that rivals the current process in BSD. There is still the traditional ports-style method but PC-BSD developers have created their on package installation method easing the process of updating or adding applications making it much more friendly to non-Linux gurus. It is a simple download and install similar to that of a Window’s executable file. The stability of BSD along with the KDE window manager and the first-rate package installer makes PC-BSD a nice edition to any computing experience.


Slax is a “live” version of Linux that can be burned to a CD or installed on a USB drive that is non-destructive to your computer hard drive. Slax continues to shine from one release to the next while still remaining small for easy downloads. What attracted me to Slax in the first place was the modularity. Packages can easily be added or removed along with the option to save settings making it an appealing mobile operating system. Since the last review, a handful of releases have taken place with countless updates and fixes making the distro more appealing than before. Slax has a few different versions available that are more geared towards window manager choices but can come in handy depending on the hardware restrictions on your computer. I continue to find Slax to be very useful in my everyday and I'm sure there are those that would agree given the opportunity. Slax is just a short download away.

Somewhere in the middle


It pains me to write my disappointment with the latest SUSE version 10.1. The fantastic strides made with the first community development release version 10.0 have had to take a back seat to the package management issues in the current release. I personally consider package management to be a very important consideration when choosing a distro and this is a key focal point to me with crossover adoption of Linux. It is fantastic that SUSE has scores of excellent packages but without the means to access them it is a moot point. I still hold SUSE to be “somewhere in the middle” because of the ease of overall use and the new version of network manager is quite impressive. SUSE still remains a highly revered distro but many of the current version hiccups make it quite difficult to showcase glories.


I admit that my last Gentoo rub was not very good but the current 2006.0 version has begun to change my opinion. In my opinion, Gentoo is still more for the Linux ninja but it has made huge leaps with the latest LiveCD. The LiveCD includes a GNOME desktop environment along with a beta version geographical installer! For the Gentoo truest, there is still the text based installer but the GUI installer opens to worlds of new possible contributors. Despite the beta GUI installer stigma, I did enjoy two successful installs since use of the disc. Still holding true to the Gentoo roots, their Emerge package installer/updater is still command line based but the advantage is the database is vast. While Gentoo still isn’t the friendliest distro, it is the challenge that calls some of us back time after time.

Not my cup of tea


Still topping my least favorite list is Mepis. Hate is a strong word and I want you all to know that I do appreciate the work that the Mepis developer does but the distro is just not my cup of tea. Now that the distro is piggy-backing on Ubuntu, there’s even less of a reason for me to like it. I even heard some rumblings at one point about charging for certain repository access and a possible commercial version. This could possibly push product support further or into the river. I admit that Mepis does a much better job handling proprietary drivers like Nvidia and has better wireless driver support than some others I’ve listed, the balance of the overall project leaves less to be desired to me. With the choices out there, I just don’t think they stack in favor of Mepis.

Damn Small Linux

I included this distro due to the fact that it continues to remain high on the Distrowatch hit list. Damn Small Linux is a distro that only consumes about 50MB making it extremely portable. Unfortunately, portable doesn’t always transfer to usable. While this distro does a great job of packaging some great applications into a tight wrapper, the biggest downfall to me is that it uses the Fluxbox window manager. I understand the reason behind it, but it doesn’t make it a great choice for new users to the Linux world. My issue is that the name is great and coupled with the ranking on the hit list will grab the attention of a new user. This would easily be the beginning of the end of the Linux experience for many new users. It’s not that I don’t believe that it is a good Linux offering, it’s just that this distro is not very new user friendly.


At the end of the day, there are so many good choices of alternative operating systems to Microsoft Windows, you hope it’s just information holding consumers back. During the short time I’ve been involved with Linux, the desktop has made leaps and bounds in usability for an average user. This community growth as yet to be stunted by various tactics used commercial products and will continue to grow. Even down to my least favorite distro, there is a world of usability for all personal computing consumers. Open is good. Closed is bad.


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