I've been a Linux user for several years now, after finally getting fed up with Microsoft/Windows. I've run RedHat (pre-Fedora) and SuSE, and continue to run my own servers here at home.
I recently decided to try out some of the other flavors of Linux to see if there was another distro that I liked, and that I could distribute to those that expressed an interest in trying Linux (I have a Tux graphic on my laptop that draws a certain amount of curiosity).
What follows is my personal (and, of course, highly subjective) evaluation of the different distributions that I installed and ran. Each was installed on the same machine (a 3.5G P4 with 3-1/2G of memory, Intel 915 graphic chip, a pair of SATA drives, and a widescreen LCD monitor), and used exclusively for a couple of days to give it a reasonably fair and thorough (though admittedly not intensive) trial. I also tried to keep in mind what a n00b to Linux might think along the way. Other than specifying (where possible) to re-format the drive, all installations were done in a pick-the-default mode, for example.
The process for each distribution went like this:
- Add packages
Mandriva (free version) proved to be a simple and easy installation: it found my assorted hardware, networking, and all the rest without any noticeable difficulty. The user interface during install was simple and clean; it didn't take long before I was able to log in and 'go to work' -- starting with installing the different packages that I've gotten accustomed to using. Sadly, Mandriva seems to gain its legendary stability by sacrificing variety: there were a number of packages that I like use that simply weren't available. In other cases, the latest version of an application wasn't in the Mandriva repository system. Fine -- they weren't strictly necessary, though they would be missed. At least, that's what I thought. As the next couple of days went by, however, I found myself missing those absent packages more and more. While Mandriva was fairly slick, stable as the Rock of Gibraltar, and generally user-friendly, the lack of additional packages began to be felt. Those missing apps might have been in one of the supported distros, but I wasn't inclined to pay to find out...
Debian was next. As has been pointed out before, Debian defaults to Gnome for a desktop. What was less than obvious was just HOW dedicated Debian is to Gnome: there is NO option during the install process to opt for KDE (my preference): you have to read the install documents to learn that invoking a boot option is necessary to install KDE. Debian offered a good selection of packages, but fell a little short on how detailed the package selection process worked: I experiment with an Arduino, and had to do a certain amount of futzing around before the IDE would work. Once I was past that point, however, Debian proved to be a decent distro: solid, fast, and easy to use. Some of the 'standard' apps were a little behind, but only by a couple of minor revision levels.
openSuSE was next. I opted for the KDE4 'set' (openSuSE 11 helpfully offers Gnome, KDE3, KDE4, and 'other'), and went at it. Again, installation was reasonably fast, easy, and thorough. The package selection process threatened to be overwhelming with its detail and thoroughness (with a few execptions), and YASTs 'autocheck' option ensured that RPMs didn't lose any dependencies. The final KDE4 desktop was a graphic wonderland -- for those relatively few apps that supported it. Personally, I've held off on trying KDE4 for the simple reason that KDE3 'just worked' for me; I didn't see any point to the much-touted eye candy. KDE4 on openSuSE left me thinking that I was right. I didn't see anything about KDE4 that made me want to start using it as my desktop; if anything, I'm convinced that I'll stick with KDE3: while all the golly-wog graphics are nice, that there are KDE4 and KDE3 versions of the same applications troubles me -- it smacks too much of the Windows 95/98/2000/XP/Vista 'evolution'. Further, some of the KDE4 utilities never turned up in the menu system (KDE4pim, for example) after being installed, and there seem to be a few KDE3 applications that fatally conflict with KDE4 -- as in installing them causes important parts of KDE4 to be UNinstalled. Not good at all.
(k)ubuntu similarly proved to be fast and easy to install. It didn't throw up on any of my hardware, though I did get that bothersome Debian 'bad certificate' notice (covered on Slashdot some time ago) -- something they should have fixed sooner, particularly on installation disks/ISOs. Updates were quick and easy, and package selection was fairly diverse and thorough. Kubuntu proved to be a nice (though less than ideal) blend of the best of Debian and SuSE.
Mepis was next, and was easy enough to install and configure. Package selection was somewhat limited, but the thing that threw me was what they elected to do with the desktop: rather than a single taskbar all the way across the bottom of the screen, they appear to dynamically size it in the middle. The arrangement of the various icons and such has been 'tweaked', as well. Nothing that I couldn't adjust to; it's just that it was a bit jarring and disconcerting at first.
Fedora was the last candidate I tried. Redhat doesn't seem to have changed all that much since I first tried it, which was disappointing. The installation process allows the user to choose some base packages to install, but the selection process was a bit awkward: to see the details of a grouping, it was necessary to select the group, then (un)check any particulars; better to expand to a list, I'd think -- but hey, it's their distro. :-) That being said, Redhat offered a tolerably good selection of apps, installed fairly quickly and easily, and otherwise demonstrated why it's one of the leading distributions of Linux.
- NONE of the distributions offered out-of-the-box options to include any but its own repositories.
- ALL of the distros felt obliged to 'tweak' the screen layout. Yes, it's a minor thing, but something that isn't strictly necessary.
- There seems to be a fair amount of variation in the file/directory structure between the distros, as far as what files go where.
- A n00b Linux user likely isn't going to know the difference between Gnome/KDE/other -- and there is no simple, easy way to switch. Ditto KDE3/4.
- There are differences (read: 'bugs') in the way apps written in/for Gnome/KDE operate in the other environment; presentation should be distinct from performance.
- Myself, I don't think KDE4 is ready for primetime. That, or it got off-track in development: a major revision like that should offer optional features, not break existing software.
All of the different distributions I tried were 'mainstream' -- that is, not optimized for scientific, medical, embedded, or other niche use. While all were functional, there was a considerable variation in n00b-friendliness, flexibility, currency, and expandability: none of them offered any kind of gradual expansion of administrative detail as the users skills develop: Redhat and SuSE both present power-user options that are likely to confuse a new user (who may well crater their system fiddling with settings), while a distro like Kubuntu doesn't offer any kind of control over various server (BIND and Apache, for example) settings. Package support varied wildly, as far as granularity of selection (i.e. ability to select just a couple of games, versus a 'group' of a dozen or more that those games are included in) and breadth of options (openSuSE doesn't include Gambas, which I find useful for quick-and-dirty RAD; Kubuntu does), or repository options (a function of package managers -- OY!).
Conclusion -- at its core, Linux is a good idea and could be viable alternative to Microsoft. However, its very open-ness is what's keeping it from gaining acceptance: a fundamental lack of standards. Because anybody can take the Linux kernel and start adding to it pretty much any damn way they want, 'anybody' IS, and Linux is gradually being fragmented because of that fact. Regardless of what any of us Linux users thinks of Microsoft (*spit!*), they do have one thing going for them: regardless of who 'brands' Windows (Dell, HP, Gateway, etc), at its center, it's still Windows: admins know where to find things, apps are installed in a consistent way, and users know what to expect from it. I'm not suggesting that Linux should follow the Microsoft-knows-all model; rather, I'm simply saying that a good policy and a set of consistent standards aren't necessarily anathema to F/OSS. I'm suggesting that the different distro 'owners' put their egos away in favor of establishing some consistency across the Linux world -- and no, don't go at it half-assed like the Linux Standard Base. I mean actually get together and hammer out the various niggling little details like where web server pages go (/srv/html like SuSE prefers? or /var/www? For me, either would be fine as long as it was consistent across distros), package management (please, God, no more deb vs. RPM vs. ??? wars! Let them make peace and play NICE with each other for a change!), distro-centeredness (hint: none of you has a hammerlock on the One True Way), and not forgetting about the newbie while allowing for the possibility that (s)he may grow into a power user.
And yes, I know that some/many of the issues I've brought up (most notably package management) are things easily dealt with by additional packages and varying degrees of tweaking. My point is that adding another package to be able to download MORE packages is less than obvious to a new Linux user -- and just one example of how they can be 'put off' by Linux in favor of staying with Microsoft.