Distribution choice

Lately I am testing a lot of different Linux distributions for the desktop.
There were some discussions about Unity (the new default desktop used in Ubuntu) and Gnome3 (the new Gnome default desktop) and that made me think and test other distributions.

Maybe I should point out the major differences seen in different flavors of Linux. These are the core points where they are different:
  • Base distribution from which it is derived from.
    Many distributions are based on others, only a few are doing everything from scratch in their own way. Some are based on Debian or Redhat for example. Somehow relevant is then also the company that stands behind the distribution as main contributor (if there is one particular company behind).
  • Package Management System - some use apt (debian) some yum (redhat) for example)
  • Default Desktop environment and window managers used (can be Gnome, KDE, XFCE, LXDE, Fluxbox etc etc).
  • Default packaged applications (the set of applications installed by default when installing the distribution).
  • Core objective (be it use as a Server, on the desktop, on routers or net storage systems, etc).
  • Hardware support. Although all Linux distributions share the same core parts (Kernel), different distributions are based on different versions of the kernel, apply different patches and some do add several drivers where no source code is available (while others do strictly include only open-source drivers). Because of these differences not all distributions support all sets of hardware. So it is very probable that this last point is the most important one.
  • Oh, and there are plenty of navigation bars that can be used - for example AWN, Cairo Dock, Docky and many, many more. Those are GUI elements for application launchers, taskbar management and things like that. Here you have to choose - if you are not satisfied with what your favorite distribution brings - mixing them is not a good idea...
Here is an overview of relevant components mentioned above:
For those who are now overwhelmed with options and cannot decide, remember that you can install either all desktop environments together on one machine and decide what you want to use at each login! You can either use Gnome for example but install and run applications written for KDE either while logged in using Gnome Desktop. You can run a mix of Gnome or KDE etc applications, whatever desktop environment you are currently using. So there is no exclusive OR in desktop environment or particular applications. The only thing that is not interchangeable (at least not so easy) is just the package management system - which is usually of secondary importance for the normal user.

Regarding hardware choice there are two options:
  • Inform yourself, what hardware is supported by your favorite Linux distribution and buy those - or
  • Go to any shop of your choice and just tell them that you want a machine that is compatible with "<Put Linux distribution of your choice>" and if not you will throw them their piece back on the counter.
I use a mix of these strategies. :]

For choosing a distribution, my advice is:
  1. Look at the screen shots of different distributions. Those you find horrible to look at in general, are probably the ones you would like less. That said, often it is sufficient to switch the theme to get a much more friendlier desktop.
  2. Watch demo videos of different desktop environments on youtube (or other channels).
  3. Try them. Most Linux distributions offer Live-CDs for download. That means: You download a CD image, burn it on CD and then boot the computer with that CD that offers to start Linux without changing your current installation - everything is run from the CD. That is of course slower as if it would run from the hard disk, but doesn't change anything on your current machine.
  4. Search the repositories (software center or however it is called in the distribution) for applications you might want to try. Don't search for applications by typing "Microsoft Word" - no - try "word processor" or instead of "Excel" or "Photoshop" try "Spreadsheet" and "photo editor". The idea is to use search keywords that describe what you want to do. The reason for this is: For your favorite photo editor you used on Windows might not exist a Linux-version. But there might be plenty of other applications doing the same stuff on Linux.

Here are the distributions I tested since 2005 (skipping all those I only took a very short look at):
  • Fedora (with which I started in about 2005)
  • Ubuntu (my current primary OS in the office and at home in version 10.04 with latest updates). I also tested other flavors like Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE), Xubuntu (Ubuntu with XFCE), Lubuntu (Ubuntu with LXDE).
  • Mint (including different flavors)
  • Puppy Linux
  • Debian (Stable and Testing)
  • Zorin OS
Maybe you are missing OpenSUSE here - as it is also a widely used distribution. I skipped it because from all major distributions I know, SUSE is the one that works closer with Microsoft. Because of the business conduct of Microsoft I want to be as far from them as possible and that's why I didn't either test OpenSUSE. Apart from that I heard many complaints about it.

Although I am pretty convinced of the stability of a Debian server, on the desktop even the testing version contains outdated program versions. (On my last tests the second website I visited complained about outdated browser ;-) ).

These are currently my favorite distributions:
  1. Ubuntu (of course, as it is my primary OS, based on Debian)
  2. Mint (based on Ubuntu)
  3. Zorin OS (also based on Ubuntu)
    it quite nicely implements a very Windows 7 like desktop environment. Those who like the Windows 7 taskbar, will like the Zorin OS. Of course it brings a cleaner menu and a package manager - things you don't get on Windows 7 ;-) .
All those offer the install of different desktop environments, so you can hop desktop environment for each single logon. You can find them searching for kubuntu-desktop, xubuntu-desktop or lubuntu-desktop in synaptic package manager.

Remember that depending on your type of job and the needs it brings - and depending on personal flavors you might find a different distribution or desktop environment to fit best!

Related posts: Popular Ubuntu myths, Why I switched to Ubuntu, Going Linux, The individual desktop.

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