The Linux Newbie

A Linux Newbie Helping Others Come Into The Linux World.


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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

How to Pick a Linux Distro (Distribution)


Also see How to Pick a Linux Distro: LiveCD Edition for more Linux distribution help.

Entering the Linux World
As I have embarked on finding the right Linux distro I have observed a great deal about the Linux world. Where Linux is quite popular in other countries, there is an undercurrent of Linux users in the US. Now, I know there are probably hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people even in the US that use Linux, but compared to the Microsoft Windows users out there, that is a drop in the bucket. Generally, this minority of Linux users are intelligent people that enjoy using Linux for it's power and stability. This great strength of the community is also it's biggest problem. Since there are lots of smart people using Linux (that seem to already know how to use it), good and understandable instructions on using it are often hard to come by, or lack thoroughness at best. So as I searched for the "best" Linux distro, there wasn't much help that was immediately available. (Unlike what you would find for Windows)

Which Linux Distro is the "BEST"?
I was in search for the best distro, and all I could really find is, "There is no 'best.' It comes down to a matter of personal preference." Which is no help to a newb like me... I want some good pros and cons about a particular distro and more importantly, concise and easily "digestible." Give me bullet points dammit! So as I Googled around I stumbled across a really neat site geared for the most ignorant computer user or an experienced Linux user wanting to try something new. When I go into a store and I am seriously comparing some products, I am looking for a sales rep to sell me on a particular brand. Now, that doesn't mean I'm going to buy it, but I want some convincing reasons to buy one product over the other. Of course I will take this info and scour the Internet and read forums and user opinions. But I want someone to tell me what they think I should buy! This site does that for me.

The Linux Distro Test
Zegenie Studios has an easy little test with relevant questions for the most novice Linux user. Answer each question honestly and it will point you to what suites your Linux "skills" the most. I have taken the test numerous times and have massaged the answers a little differently each time. (Which I would recommend) The top three recommendations I received over and over were 1. Ubuntu 2. Mandriva One and 3. PCLinuxOS. There were a few extra distros that almost made the cut including: Kubuntu, Mepis and Xandros. One of my main criteria was FREE. I don't want to pay for what, in my mind, is unproven. Another neat feature that I would suggest is a "Live CD". This is basically a bootable CD that allows you to check out the distro, without having to fully commit a piece of your hard drive to this new (and shall I say foreign) operating system. There are lots of instructions on how to boot your computer with a CD, especially on the individual distribution sites themselves. There are also great differences in how some these distributions work, so take a look and read the FAQ and Wikis at each site. And once you have chosen a distribution read, read, read, read, read.

Examining the Top 6
Here is how I see the pros and cons of each of the 6 distros I found.

Ubuntu 6.06 Dapper
Pros:

  • Live CD
  • Graphical Installer (I like anything graphical!)
  • Good hardware detection (Note: When I tried the Live CD on my laptop, it detect the correct resolution and sound card, which made for a pleasant first time experience.)
  • Uses the Gnome GUI (Graphical User Interface) (Very intuitive and pleasant to the eye)
  • Installation is easy and very fast (7 minutes on my 2.8Ghz processor)
  • It's FREE

Cons:

  • Installation is a bit buggy yet (Froze on installation on my Laptop, though it installed easily on my Desktop)
  • The Gnome GUI is not as intuitive for someone coming from Windows. (It looks more Mac-like)
  • Lots of installation of programs after the main Ubuntu installation is finished.**

**Ubuntu is free, like free beer. But because they want to avoid copyrights, licenses and such
from proprietary software (and wisely so), they do not include many things that we Windows users take for granted such as the ability to play MP3s. Though, this functionality can certainly be installed relatively easily later on.

Mandriva One
Pros:

  • Live CD
  • Easy graphical installation
  • Uses KDE (A more Windows-like GUI)
  • Good hardware detection
  • Is up and ready to go with things like playing MP3s
  • Free (well mostly)

Cons:

  • Though Mandriva One is free, if you want the support and other programs you would hope to have you must buy a membership to the Mandriva Club. Mandriva One is backed by company out to make money. Now there is nothing wrong with that (I like to make money), but if you're like me and don't want to spend any money on this endeavor, you will probably want to look elsewhere.

PCLinuxOS 0.93
Pros:

  • Live CD (They also have a version called MiniMe if you want the Live CD without the bloat of all the other programs)
  • Graphical Installer
  • KDE GUI
  • Good hardware detection
  • Aimed at Windows users like me!
  • F..F..F..Free!

Cons:

  • I will have to admit that I only messed around briefly with this OS, so I do not feel I can give a definite critique of this distro. Though I will say, that at first appearance it seems that the Ubuntu community is more developed.

Kubuntu 6.06 Dapper
Pros:

  • Live CD
  • Graphical Installer
  • Good hardware detection (Same as Ubuntu)
  • Uses the KDE GUI (Very Windows like, and lots of eye-candy)
  • Installation is easy and very fast (7 minutes on my 2.8Ghz processor)
  • It's FREE
  • Unlike it's brother Ubuntu, Kubuntu installed easily on my laptop (Well, mostly)
  • Because Kubuntu is basically (but not quite) Ubuntu with the KDE desktop, it is well supported.

Cons:

  • About that installation... Everything installed great until it tried to update itself. It froze EVERY time. So, I just unplugged my ethernet cable and viola, it installed without a hitch (Well, mostly... ;) (In another post... hopefully soon, I will explain in more detail about the installation procedure.)
  • There is still more development needed for the Kubuntu line... for me to have it as a complete Windows replacement. (I also still use Windows on my desktop)

Mepis 6.0 (also called SimplyMEPIS)
Pros:

  • Live CD
  • Graphical Installer
  • Okay hardware detection
  • Uses the KDE GUI (Very Windows like, and lots of eye-candy)
  • Installation is easy and very fast (10 minutes on my 2.8Ghz processor)
  • It's FREE
  • It comes MP3 ready, and has lots of apps to make life fun and easy(er)

Cons:

  • Did not detect my native screen resolution like the K/Ubuntu's did.
  • Not as pretty... As someone has commented, the Mepis team needs to employ a good graphics design artist. (Yeah, I know... so it's not the greatest "Con")
  • Not as well supported as the K/Ubuntu line.

Note: Mepis is based off of the Ubuntu line, so it's a pretty solid distro.

Xandros
Pros:

  • Um... I'm sure it's good, I mean it looked good and all, but because of the con, I didn't try it out.

Cons:

  • It costs money...

Note: On the plus side, you do get what you pay for. If you chose to drop some cash (And it's really not that much) you are going to get better support and maybe even an easier product to use. But I don't know, since I didn't pay for it. Honestly though, with a little adventurous spirit, you can get the same results in a free distro that you can with the paid-for versions. I really recommend getting a free version, though things aren't handed to you on a golden platter, it really is worth the time if you want to try a new operating system.

Conclusions and Closing Thoughts
In the end I decided on Kubuntu, and let me tell you why! First, I completely respect and agree with the K/Ubuntu philosophy of free software. They desire that computers be available to even the most underprivileged person in the world. So they make a product that is free and uses free stuff, now that's just cool! (By the way, on that MP3 thing... You can actually rip and play OggVorbis on your computer, but when you have a 4 gigs of MP3s on your hard drive, the thought of switching doesn't seem too appetizing).

I like the community. The K/Ubuntu community have extensive forums, FAQ's, and Wikis to help out newbs like me. I can guarantee if I did my Google queries without the "site:ubuntu.com" command in it, I wouldn't be writing from my Kubuntu desktop. (I wouldn't be writing this at all!)

Debian!! (Unless you really want to know about Debian and .deb packages you can skip this whole section.)
Now if you are a newb like me, then, unless you read about it somewhere, you have no idea what this means. Basically this is what I mean... Debian is an older (far more stable) distro that has devised a neat way of program installation. Unlike windows where you go and download one .exe or .zip and follow the nice instructions on the screen, Linux application installation is FAAAAAAAAARRRRRR more complex and intricate. Let's say you want to run OpenOffice.org... Well in Windows, you go and download the danged thing, install it, and use it! With Linux, OpenOffice.org depends on other pieces of software that may or may not be installed on your computer. So you must download the OOo dependencies... the other little apps that OOo depends on. Then you must compile each thing, then install it.
For example, I went to install a program called ndiswrapper... I acted like a normal windows user would, I went to Google and searched for "ndiswrapper download" and found it. It was in a .tar.gz form... I have heard of those before! Thankfully my Kubuntu had a program called Ark that could decompress it for me, so far so good... But then how to install it, there is no .exe to click on. So I went looking for instructions on how to install it... the instruction on a site went something like this. "Just compile it and install"........... Okay, what the hell does that mean? (BTW, I did find some nice help later on.) So I looked around for compiling instructions, finding those hard to come by. So finally, I found some instructions: Go to a command prompt (YIKES!!) go to that directory (HOW??) and type ./configure, make, make install. Long story short, I got lots of errors and I think it cussed at me some. The geniuses at Debian proclaimed, "This is all to hard and complicated, we shall make .deb files and a little application called apt-get that allows easy installation of OpenOffice.org (or whatever) and all it's dependencies with an easy command!! And better yet, we will put them all in one location so the apt-get program will know right were to get them from." Bye-bye Google!! (Wait it gets better) And for those who have NO clue how to use the command line, K/Ubuntu has this nice graphical interface (called Adept and Synaptic respectively) that will make adding and removing programs as easy as a click of the mouse!! BRILLIANT!! Nono... I'm not done!! And if you really want just one program, like Firefox, just go to Add/Remove Programs and there is a nice list (with icons and descriptions included) of programs you can install. And just like that, I can search for and install/uninstall programs at will. Very, very nice.

Finally, I like Kubuntu because of the KDE desktop. It's fun, friendly and pretty. It acts like Windows and I like that! However, it far more customizable than Windows (FAR MORE). Just go to www.kde-look.org for all kinds of sweet eye-candy. Also, check out www.kde-apps.org for lots of cool applications you can add. It's tweaker's dream come true. There is one suggestion I would make however. Because there are so many Linux distros out there, and soooo many little programs you can install, there is a higher degree of probability that you can install something that just doesn't work, or worse, make your system not work. IF you find something on www.kde-apps.org that you like, I would suggest searching for it first on Adept or Synaptic (see long Debian rant above) to find that program. If it has been tested and approved it will be available to download through K/Ubuntu approved sources (repositories).

Kubuntu is the way I have gone, and I have learned a great deal. So I hope to continue to share what I've learned, if not for someone reading this, then for me... Just to get my thoughts together. ;)

Here are some more excellent resources on different Linux Distributions:
Wikipedia Linux Distro Comparison
DistroWatch
Linux.org
LinuxForums.org
LinuxQuestions.org
UbuntuForums.org
KubuntuForums.net

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