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Which Linux distro to choose? Help for first timers November 21, 2006

Posted by NAyK in Discussions-Conclusions-Hopes, Dreamlinux, Fedora, First Impressions, Linux, Linux Mint, Mandriva, OpenSUSE, Other Distros, Recommendation, Reviews, Ubuntu, Ubuntu Christian, Working on Linux.
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In this section
Introduction | Definitions | Linux Survey&Recommendations – Live CDs – Single CDs – Multiple CDs. | Concluding Remarks

INTRODUCTION

By now you know there are many Linux’s out there. And there is a lot of information on the web about choosing a good Linux distribution. The only advantage I think I have in writing this article for new users is that I am a new user who wants to use Computers for what they “do” rather than for a deeper/philosophical motive of getting to the source (aka Matrix 2-3). Basically, I like computers, I’m willing to invest time to tweek them, shape them, reload them. Of course I hope all this will help me to better do what I want to do.

What led me to Linux was the promise of an “effective” virus free environment to work on the internet. I also had a small political motive… to embrace the philosophy of Free Software, read Anti Piracy without supporting the evil globalised Micro$oft regime! :) (The latter reason was not so important, but it still remains a significant incentive). At the time of starting, I didn’t know that I would be starting a long relationship with the Linux world. My desires and expectations of the Linux systems have grown. And more often than not, Linux has met my basic goals but is yet to meet my high goals. I still remain a basic user, ie. I don’t know any code… I can’t compile (whatever that means) Linux for myself.

I am using Linux on two computers; my home computer… which is a Desktop that runs on an AMD processor, Via Intergrated Graphics Chipset. Usually, Linux’s don’t work on my desktop because it’s not a popular computer choice in the first place, unlike Intel based nVidia/ATI computers. At my office I use a Lenovo Z60m Thinkpad, Pentium M 1.8Ghz, ATI integrated graphics. On both machines I have 512MB RAM. I’ve found that Linux works differently on different machines; ie. sometimes my Lenovo responds better to some distributions and my Desktop for others. So… any Linux help/recommendation must be taken with a pinch of salt and folded sleeves.

Before I make my recommendations, some defintions are in order

DEFINITIONS

Distro = Distributions = a short word for Linux Operating System (aka Windows XP Operating System can be called a Windows Distro)

Live CD = A Linux test CD that runs using the computer’s RAM and CD drive. It is basically a demo CD that shows how a particular Linux operation system (distro) works. Almost all functions are possible using a Live CD, even working on files etc (Though I don’t know where it saves). The cool thing about a Live CD is that you can run it without hurting/affecting your current Windows (or other) operating system. One problem with Live CDs is that they are quite slow. But many Live CDs allow the user to load the CD onto the harddisk and boot from there. Already, Ubuntu and many other distros (Mepis) use this method to install their main systems. Of course Windows has nothing like a Live CD… so it may be an entirely new concept for you. It was for me!

Partitioning = This is an important tool to understand before trying out Linux. It’s the process of dividing your computer’s harddisk in sections. Once this is done, it is possible to load Linux while still working with Windows XP etc. Usually for Windows user, Norton Partition Magic is the tool. However, most Linux distros have their own Partition tools, which are quite good (and FREE). The best one I’ve used is QParted.

Dual Boot = The process by which both Windows and Linux can be loaded onto the same machine. In effect, a dual boot system will allow a user to choose whether they want to enter Linux or Windows (you can even set Windows or Linux as default and your computer will boot automatically to your default choice). (In fact, if anyone feels that Linux installs are difficult, that’s probably because they are trying to dual boot with Windows or another operating system. Try installing Windows as a second operating system and see the difference… Windows doesn’t understand that language of dual boot with another operating system unless the other system is windows as well.)

Windows Manager = Briefly, the Windows Manager is a front-end of Linux. It’s what we see. And there are many Windows Managers to choose from in Linux. The most popular are KDE and GNOME. For sometime XFCE is for machines that have limited system resources and there is also a personal favourite ‘Enlightenment’ (just to name a few). I won’t overwhelm the reader more with this information here. But sometimes, while choosing a Linux distro, you must also eventually think what Windows Manager you like and choose a distro accordingly. If you look simplicity, GNOME. If you like a Windoweseque feel (though with much more control), then KDE. If you have old/slow Hardware… XFCE. And if you want to experiment… try Enlightenment (though the major distributions don’t fully support Enlightenment yet, but I think soon they will).

THE LINUX OS FIELD: BRIEF SURVEY and RECOMMENDATIONS

My review places distros in three categories. There is a fourth category of Commercial Distributions that I will not be covering in depth here (because I haven’t used any).

1. Live CDs

The two hands down winners in the Live CD (free) market are the diverse yet equally impressive Knoppix and DamnSmallLinux (DSL). And after trying it out only a few days ago, even MCNLive is an excellent Live CD to show cool linux capabilities… but I think I freaked out when something went wrong. Usually LiveCDs should not harm any system, however it’s just human nature to blame the new. It’s probably a much better Live Distro than I projected it to be.

Knoppix is the distribution that seemed to have started the Linux Live CD craze and is reputed for excellent hardware recognition.

The unique point of DSL however is that it is only 50MB in size. Which means that it fits onto a USB stick, and is still quite powerful to do many of the things that Linux is good for. I was particularly impressed by DSL’s ability to recognise my Windows partitions and allow me to backup data.

Usage: One great value for Live CDs are Windows error manangement. Ie. If your windows gets corrupted, you can probably load a LiveCD, access your harddisk and backup your data. Of course Live CDs make good introductions to Linux, especially if you want to just check it out. Only understand that Linux is a little faster than the Live CD version.

A true life story: I was introduced to Linux using a Live CD. I first used DSL and Linspire 5.0 Live CD. I must admit that Linspire made quite an excellent first impressions, even as an introduction to Linux as a whole. It was too slow though, and that time I wanted to load a Linux Distro onto my system, so I rejected Linspire. But my memories are good. Only later did I get to use Knoppix, and it was through Knoppix that I partitioned my Lenovo. More details here

I would recommend every Linux User to have at least one copy of Knoppix at home, just in case. Something like an aspirin, that’s good to have around.

2. SINGLE CD DISTRIBUTIONS

A single CD distribution is a Linux Distro that loads entirely within 700MB (enough to fit within a normal writeable CD).

If you haven’t heard it already, the unofficial verdict is that Ubuntu is King! I have Ubuntu installed on my Laptop and Desktop and I feel comforted by its stability so far.

The options of Ubuntu derivatives are also immense. There’s Kubuntu using another “windows manager” KDE, there Xubuntu that uses a “windows manager” that I like XFCE. These I have tried and found reasonably ok. I somehow feel, though I may be wrong, that Ubuntu still remains the stronger distro of the three, though somehow they share the same base.

Then there are further extended Ubuntu’s… like XFLD 0.3 which I was very impressed by until a minor error emerged in boot and shut-down which I still can’t fix (I have to press CTRL D everytime I enter or exit XFLD).

There is also Linux Mint, for now that distro which is gaining in popularlity basically upgrades Ubuntu to be more multimedia friendly. Ie. it has things that Windows users take for granted… mp3, DVD support. I’ve tried Linux Mint 2.1 and it has worked ok. The current version being worked on is 3.0.

Ubuntu with Automatix offers the same kind of functionality (as Linux Mint), and perhaps better look-n-feel. I haven’t seen anything unique in Mint, in itself, other than branding. But for those who are scared of installing something new, or those who cannot download software (due to limited bandwidth), Linux Mint may actually be the Distro for you.

Another distro to try (and don’t get me wrong here), is Ubuntu Christian Edition (CE). The advantages of Ubuntu Christian Edition are that it already has Automatix (with the graphical interface) and so you just need to select the programmes that you want and it will automatically download them for you. Plus, (and therefore more particularly Christian)… is a very sturdy Internet Parent-Control (dansguardian I think) and a strong firewall. This is really one of the few Linux distro’s which such strong protection against contraband surfing. And thus, for ‘home’ evironments or even educational institutions, this distro could be helpful. I would add that the “Christian” branding in Ubuntu CE is not oppressive and can be configured off quite easily. (Except the parent-control, which is tougher to remove).

But life is more than Ubuntu. There’s Mandriva One, which I recently tried (it’s the spin-off from Mandriva 2007). It was an interesting Live CD… with really funky 3D effects… but somehow it lacked the power of Linux… and of course it because it is ultimately a paid edition, it didn’t allow me to add too much more.

But it gets even more interesting. The all time BEST one CD distro in terms of interoperability between Windows and Linux was Xandros 3.0 OCE. All I had to do was install the disto and it recognised all networks instantly. I only had to select a printer, I think, but basically, it was amazing. It did a better job than Windows even. So why am I not working with Xandros today? Well, it is a paid distro (OCE is just a limited edition, and hence very restricting). Also, once you load Xandros, it won’t recognise any other Linux you may have (or will have) stored. But perhaps more importantly, it looked pretty ugly. Compared to other Linux distros, Xandros felt like a tin-box. I know taste is personal, so that’s only MY personal opinion.

I must also mention Freespire 1.0, a distro that is an offshoot of Linspire. It’s supposed to be easy to install and use, and it actually is. But when I installed it onto my computer (and it recorded one of the fastest installs ever… 12 minutes! amazing!)… it just wouldn’t connect to the internet. I tried and tried… but just couldn’t get it to do it. It would connect only for a few milli-seconds and shut off again for a while. And because it feels like a limited distro, there was very little I could do to fix it… or even change it (for instance, I couldn’t find out how to make Windows default in boot loading sequences.) If you’re looking for an easy to use Distro, try this out. And I hope it works for you.

ps. there’s this distro called PCLinuxOS just around the corner. The hype about it is quite high. That too, it seems, is worth a try. (latest update: Yes, I did try PCLinuxOS 2007 and I must say it is an excellent distribution. It really is. It looks beautiful, it is simple to install, and everything works out of the box. A brief installation review here.

In conclusion… Earlier I had recommended the latest Ubuntu as the best 1-CD distro, but now I must say that depending on what you feel about ‘out-of-the-box’ functionality, PCLinuxOS is a very very good option (esp. if you want multimedia support). However, if you like control over what you want to install, with the promise of good support, then Ubuntu (or a related derivative) is a better option. 3/4ths of the beginners Linux world has been choosing Ubuntu, and it really is a good distro. But now, the wind is changing and it’s harder to identify the ‘best’ distro and personal choice is going to tilt the balance in your own favour.

3. MULTIPLE CD DISTRIBUTIONS (the big guns)

When I first wrote this section (before updating it), it sounded strange because I really liked openSUSE (or SUSE) but it had behaved badly on my computers. I didn’t really like Mandriva, but it was best for my Desktop computer. And I had never used Fedora even once, but I was recommending that too. You see what I mean? But all that has changed. Since I last wrote this I’ve changed my views considerable and below is the result.

About openSUSE (SUSE)-currently version 10.2… I’ve said a lot on openSUSE on this site. But I’ve realised, it’s a really impressive distribution. In fact, according to me, it is one of the best, if not the best Linux distributions around. It’s got plenty of power (read programs and possibilities), and it’s really stable and exciting to work on. My problem has been that I hadn’t figured out how to get it to work best on my desktop, since it hadn’t recognised my VIA graphics driver. However, I was really having a great time with openSUSE 10.2 on my Lenovo Thinkpad. And I’ve been using it almost exclusively (even more than Windows XP). However, the latest update is that I downloaded the SUSE VIA drivers and got openSUSE 10.2 to work on my Desktop. This has been totally amazing, and whether I have Ubuntu or any other distro… it’s hard for me to see me removing openSUSE. I’ve really enjoyed working on it, and it helps that it now works on my desktop too. I wonder what they’ll do in openSUSE 10.3 which is coming soon.

It was SUSE 9.3 that had made me fall in love with Linux. And I’ve been looking for a stable distro that makes my heart beat faster. I think, after configuring openSUSE 10.2 to my taste (it’s powerful to configure, but you need to know what you’re doing… ie. do research on the web)… it is becoming pretty much the distro that I want. See screenshots here. For the next few seasons I will keep checking out openSUSE. My openSUSE 10.2 installation story is found here. Early reports are good. However, I feel like a novice using it… because when you’re using it, many of the settings are a bit above my league. I don’t know how to configure or setup, which I’m sure is possible for more advanced users. (unlike Ubuntu which is a bit simpler in my experience). Still, I’ve enjoyed having this distro, and it’s worth a try, at least once. (However, I’ve benefited from my Ubuntu experience to become more comfortable with openSUSE).

About Mandriva… I’ve already said something briefly about Mandriva One… and though I haven’t really used Mandriva 2007, my experiences with Mandriva 2006 were quite good. Most importantly it was the only distro that recognised the drivers on my VIA-AMD desktop computer. However, it also had limitations. Because it is front-end of the paid version, it is locked so that you cannot load all the software you want. that’s really irritating, especially since in Linux one of the fun things is to load/uninstall software. Mandriva 2007 is worse. It doesn’t have any multimedia capability, and my guess is, it still locks you out (ie. you can’t install anything else). Mandriva 2007 Free is therefore just a demo of their paid version. Which is a shame, because Mandriva showed me enough to raise my expectations of what I need to expect a Linux distro to do… at least for my computer.

About Fedora… One of the more popular distributions around, if you are a Fedora fan, then you probably don’t need to be reading my guide here in the first place… because you’re probably as or even more enlightened than me! :) However the question for this section would be, should a beginner (first time user) use Fedora as their distro. And the answer? Only if you’re extremely adventerous and like the command line approach. This distro is for the adventurous and courageous. It’s primary goal is not stability but a desire to be cutting edge, it’s meant for experimentation and pushing the Linux bar higher. In that sense it’s touted as the an exciting distro around, but I’ve as I’ve begun to use it, I’ve not seen anything significantly different from other distro’s around (of course I have an untrained eye, but still, that is my perspective). (I have been desperately been trying to instlal Fedora on my computer by everytime I get an iso image it is corrupted. See sample reports here.) And in effect, Fedora became the first distro I actually paid money to buy (from a CD downloading place). But I think Fedora Core 6 DVD is not a mass-beginning user oriented distro… so try it only if you’re ok with jumping into the fire of Linux. I guess, if you do, then all the best to you… more power to you.

Other popular distros making the rounds called Dreamlinux Multimedia Edition 2.2. My report of it is here. It is easy to use, and allows for quick on-the-fly multimedia capabilities. Something like Linux Mint for the DVD segment. But I’m not using it anymore because while it is good (and I even gave it to a friend), it’s still not great.

In conclusion… my recommendation, however, is more conservative. I will blindly recommend openSUSE 10.2 to any beginner who wants to commit to Linux as his/her eventual operating system. If you don’t invest time to make it work, you’ll probably give up. But if you do invest time, and are patient with openSUSE, this distro will make you wonder why you didn’t try Linux sooner.

4. COMMERCIAL OPTIONS

I haven’t tried any commercial options for Linux, but the landscape as I see it is this.

1. Novell (the company that sponsers openSUSE) has SLED (SUSE Enterprise Linux Desktop) 10, which people say is one of the best Linux distributions currently available.

2. Then there’s Mandriva 2007′s PowerDesktop and other spinoffs..

3. Of course there’s Xandros 4, and as I said earlier, it’s one of the easiest Linux’s out there.

There may be others, but I would think the above would be the best in that order.

And what about Red Hat? In my understanding, Red Hat is a commercial distribution that focuses primarily on servers. And if you are into servers, then you probably won’t be reading my humble “first-time” recommendations. Of course I’ve never seen, nor used Red Hat.

5. IN CONCLUSION

The choices are immense. You may have also heard of other distributions like Slackware (the oldest? surviving Linux around) which is renowned for its simplicity, flexibility, stability… etc. Actually, almost all linux’ are known for their stability/flexibility… especially in comparison with Windows. But Slackware is a good look-in, though I think you need to be a little more adventurous. There is also Debian, which is the mother of the modern Linux hero Ubuntu. Ubuntu has been based on Debian Linux and has started moving away from it. Some linux gurus will swear only by Debian, but again, it’s an excellent distro for the brave and courageous. The most scary and perhaps the most powerful/flexibile of all Linux’ is Gentoo (so I’m told). But it’s all about code. People say it takes days to install. I know I will never be proficient enough to try it, perhaps some day you may. For those looking for an easier root into Gentoo, it seems Sabayon offers a better look in. It’s a live DVD that can be installed onto the hardisk. There are also other popular choices that I’ve missed, like SimplyMepis 6.0, PCLinuxOS, Zenwalk, CentOS… as you can see the list goes on and on. For more details do check out the linux-distro bible: DistroWatch.com

There’s another name, BSD… but it’s actually not Linux, but some UNIX based something. More details can obviously be found on Google. But sources say it’s equally excellent to anything in Linux and also compatible with Linux.

So… what is my final recommendation. As I said earlier, make sure you have a Knoppix liveCD handy, just in case. Then, if you are looking of a short term try-out to see if you are ready for a relationship with Linux, try out PCLinuxOS 2007 or Ubuntu 7.04. If you’re looking to go completely alternative, ie. you’re looking for a Linux for life, go for openSUSE 10.2.

For more information (details) about the distros, check on this article on Distrowatch.com: http://distrowatch.com/dwres.php?resource=major

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Comments»

1. 5 Resources That Will Help You Choose Your Linux Distribution « foogazi.com - technical aspects for the masses - December 2, 2006

[...] Which Linux Distro To Choose? Help For First Timers [...]

2. Siroos - January 8, 2008

I have a laptop (Toshiba Tecra A8-185) and I use widows and “fedora core 4″ on it. now my widows have problem and i want to change the widows from recovery DVD agin. how can I do that untill my linux stay safe?

3. NAyK - January 8, 2008

Sorry Siroos, but have you tried calling Windows support? Or Toshiba support? They would probably have the ‘right’ way to do it.

4. Frank Arnold - May 4, 2010

I have a Dell Dimension 2400 512mb upgradeable to 2gb 40gb HD do you know what distro would I use to get it running. Knoppix 5.0 is the only one working right now. But it does not give an option to put it on the HD, in fact it says not to.


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