Oct 282011
 
Distributions

Chapter 7.After all decisions made in the previous articles, we can now focus on the actual testing of the distributions. There is a lot of testing to be done, with 8 distributions in the running. However if I were to detail all setup steps for each distribution in the article, this would be one long article indeed.

So detailed setup instructions will be the subject of another series of (future) articles, for now I will focus on the general options and the differences between the distributions. All distributions will be judged on how well they meet the criteria set in the previous article: Switching to Linux: Expectations and Criteria.  In preparation of this article if have prepared 8 identical virtual machines and will install one distribution on each of them. As an install image I will use whatever the manufacturer wants me to download.

As mentioned in the previous article, I will focus on things the manufacturer says their product delivers and how well they deliver it. I will also take into account the intrinsic aspects of each distribution, since variety is one of the beautiful things about Linux. So let’s get testing…

Arch Linux

ArchI started with the only Linux distribution in this test without a graphics installer. This is a real Do-It-Yourself distribution. Therefor it offers full control, but I would definitely not recommend this distro for Linux beginners. Since I have worked with DIY distros before (Gentoo) I knew what to expect.

PlusPros

  • You are in control, do what you want. Installation is basically a prompt.
  • Excellent documentation on the website
  • The installation you end up with is clean and light and exactly what you chose
  • Setting up different window managers is very easy

MinusCons

  • You can do what you want, but make sure you do it right and don’t forget anything
  • There are too many configuration files you can edit during setup. Most users don’t need half of the files mentioned.
  • Detailed documentation sometimes overlaps or contradicts itself (e.g. the ~/.xinitrc file)
  • Getting the window manager to start at boot is a little tricky

The Verdict: PASSED

Despite the non-graphical installation, the process is pretty straightforward if you are familiar with Linux. Installing a graphical environment was surprisingly easy and the Virtualbox tools are in the repositories. Automatic start of the graphical login was a bit tricky though and I wonder how this distro will do on real hardware

Debian

DebianDebian is known for its stability and mainly used for servers. But it can also be used on desktops. The package choice is very conservative and makes the distribution feel old right from the start.

PlusPros

  • Due to the online installation (netinstall) there where no updates post installation
  • The root password can be saved for the duration of your session
  • Switching to Testing and Experimental releases was as easy as changing one file

MinusCons

  • Custom partitioning was not really intuitive. Took me a while to realize I had to double click instead of pressing continue
  • The packages are old, very old, even in testing. And experimental is not exactly the label I am looking for.
  • Due to the fact the Virtualbox tools where so old, they where essentially useless. Installing updated tools was not straightforward either
  • 1087 packages had to be retrieved for Stable, then the update to Testing had to download some more.

The Verdict: FAILED

I respect the trade-off of stability versus new packages, but the packages in the standard Debian are simply too old for my taste. The other distributions provide stable packages with up to date software, so I don’t want to resort to experimental (and be warned against it). The netinstall is a definite plus, but while Debian is great for servers, I would not choose it as a desktop OS.

Fedora

FedoraThis is the bleeding edge of Red Hat (and CentOS) development and focused on desktops. The installation feels slick, but right from the start it becomes apparant that this is not the fastest distribution around

PlusPros

  • Clean, straight forward installation
  • Not much else, I’m afraid

MinusCons

  • Stop asking me if I’m sure, really sure. More than one confirmation needed on different occasions.
  • Partitioning in 2 separate stages of the setup. Maybe combine them?
  • 1209 packages to install. Installation takes a very long time.
  • Everything feels slow, right from the start
  • Gnome 3 needs 3D, I knew that. But why is it so hard to install the Virtualbox Tools. This needed manual kernel dev and gcc installation.

The verdict: FAILED

This was by far the longest installation. This distribution took ages to install, felt slow from the beginning. The setup kept bugging me, even if I had confirmed I wanted to change something. Once in Gnome 3 I had a very hard time to get the 3D interface running.  This is the only distribution (including Arch) where I had to use a terminal to install dependencies so I could install Virtualbox tools.

Mint Linux

MintThis distribution tries to do things a little bit different. It’s the only distro that installs from a live standpoint. It employs it’s own distinct theme. The installation options are very limited but that makes the installation very fast.

PlusPros

  • Setup from a Live environment
  • Installation is quick and streamlined
  • Installation of the Virtualbox tools was fairly easy
  • Desktop environment has a nice custom style

MinusCons

  • Not much choice during installation, some parts are in German (Dutch is not Deutch!, and BTW I chose English)
  • No automatic reboot after installation, had to reboot manually. same thing happened after the updates
  • 422 updates after installation. Problems with one package prevented the updates from completing time after time.
  • Partitioning used GParted, which made it feel a bit out of place during the setup.

The Verdict: PASSED

Even though there are a few shortcomings during install, those are little and mainly cosmetic. The overall installation is quite smooth and the desktop experience is a pleasant one. This one has earned a go on real hardware, but starts with a handicap.

OpenSUSE

OpenSUSEIf Mint tries to do things its way, then OpenSUSE tries to top that to put it mildly. The installation has a simple or advanced option in almost every step of the installation and offers some options I did not see in any other distribution. This makes some steps a little confusing.

PlusPros

  • Lots of option during each setup of the setup: simple or advanced, it’s your choice
  • Really distinct setup, great effort has gone into this part
  • Detected Virtualbox and installed the tools itself

MinusCons

  • Too many detailed options makes it confusing at times. This is the only distribution I installed twice to see what would happen if I made another choice
  • Do I really need ISDN and PPP options in this broadband era?

The Verdict: FAILED

In my opinion this distribution tries to hard to be different. Everything is just a little bit off and leaves me with an uneasy feeling. While I recognize the great potential in all different options and choices, this is not the way I want to work.

Ubuntu

UbuntuJust like OpenSUSE, this distribution has a clear mind on how things should be done. The installation is more streamlined, but has fewer options. In the end you get a system that set itself apart from the competitors. The Unity interface is a unique feature.

PlusPros

  • Nice and smooth installation
  • Advanced partitioning through a nice interface
  • The automatic timezone selection is a nice touch
  • Virtualbox drivers are detected automatically and activated with 1 click

MinusCons

  • No real package selection
  • Very few options during setup
  • 65 updates remaining after installation, despite the online update during installation

The Verdict: PASSED

Everything around Ubuntu is built around simplicity. Whether you like that or not, the installation is simple, the setup works and the post-install tasks are very limited and easy to accomplish. The user is also alerted to them, so there is no search for updates or drivers. The Unity interface is something that requires serious getting used to.

Xubuntu

XubuntuThis is basically Ubuntu minus Unity and with Xfce 4. Installation is simple and fast. The Mac-like icon bar is a nice touch.

PlusPros

  • Nice, clean and very quick installation
  • Package installation starts in the background during optional choices
  • Automatic detection of Virtualbox + drivers 1-click activation
  • This distribution also has the nice Mac-like bottom bar

MinusCons

  • Keyboard choice should come sooner in the installation process. During partitioning I had to type in Qwerty
  • 67 updates left after installation
  • The fact that the theme has a menu button, a user button and a bottom bar with similar options is a bit confusing

The Verdict: PASSED

Like its parent Ubuntu, Xubuntu installation is simple and easy. The Xfce environment is light and quick. With some customization, this operating system could go a long way.

FreeBSD PC-BSD

PC-BSDAfter realizing FreeBSD was too different a beast after all and 2 failed installations, I wanted to give BSD a fair chance and changed to PC-BSD. This is essentially FreeBSD with graphics, so it’s more in line with the Linux destributions. Installation was smooth, but Virtualbox is clearly not supported, this was the only test candidate that lacked mouse integration with Virtualbox (no automatic capture or release).

PlusPros

  • There is clearly enough choice during installation
  • PC-BSD setup is smooth and has enough choices
  • The KDE environment is nice and customized
  • Package dependencies are auto-detected

MinusCons

  • FreeBSD installation is not really linear and allows you to miss things
  • Some options are not really clear or not even implemented (the group option for example)
  • FreeBSD installation failed with no apparant reason
  • PC-BSD, while easier, still manages to miss a lot. Virtualbox integration being one of those things

The Verdict: FAILED

This was a gamble from the beginning and it did not pay of. FreeBSD was not working, probably because I approached it like it was Linux. I switched to PC-BSD, which was a lot simpler. But in the end BSD is simply too different for my current taste and knowledge.

Overall conclusion

4 distributions passed, 4 failed. This means I will be testing 4 installations on real hardware. I will start with the one I liked best and work my way down if needed. So it is well possible I will only install one distribution on real hardware.

Here is the order:

  1. Arch Linux: I want freedom and this distro has it in abundance.
  2. Mint Linux: Allthough I am not entirely convinced about the graphical interface, I feel there is potential. Maybe the Xfce version instead of Gnome?
  3. Xubuntu: Xfce and smooth, what more do you want. Lacks a bit in freedom though
  4. Ubuntu: smooth, but with Unity. Does it provide enough freedom and can I get used to it.
Unfortunately the other four distributions did not qualify. To end this article I will state once again that this is a very personal choice and that the distributions where chosen partly by feeling. I will be keeping my eye on all of them, so maybe in the (near) future they will have another chance.

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