The Best Linux Distribution of them all

December 15, 2005
A few weeks back, my friend Tom asked me a question regarding Linux - that is - Which is the best Linux distribution of them all. And following is the lively conversation we had about this topic which I am sharing with you.

Tom: Ravi, There is a lot of talk going on about Linux which I have read in websites, newspapers and articles in magazines. I am aware of quite a few names floating around like debian, ubuntu, fedora and so on. Which Linux distribution according to you would be the best one around ?

Me: Tom, you have asked a really simple question which has no single/simple answer. But I will try and explain it as best as I can. You should know that Linux is just a kernel. When all the necessary tools like the word processors, image editors, compilers and likes are added so that they seamlessly work on top of the Linux kernel, it becomes a distribution. I need not tell you that different people have different likes and dislikes. With respect to computers and OSes too this holds true. The versatility of Linux is that there is a Linux distribution which commits to cater to individual likes.

Tom: I didn't get you. Could you explain it a little bit more clearly ?

Me: Sure. You see, people can be categorised according to their tastes in computing. For example, one person may be newbie who is just getting introduced to computers who expects some hand holding. Another may be a Linux Guru who likes to do all his work using command line utilities. The beauty of Linux (or should I say the GNU movement) is that there is a distribution tailor made for each of these people.

Tom: So you are saying that the correct answer to my question is that it depends on the individual. Right?

Me: You are bang on target when you say that. :)

Lets look at a few scenarios. Suppose you are a student of computer science. Your main motive in installing Linux on your machine would be to study the inner working of the OS. About what happens under the hood of the OS so to speak. A person with such an inclination will find it ideal to build your own Linux distribution compiling from source. In fact, there is a project called Linux From Scratch which precisely lets one build a Linux distribution grounds up. Another distribution which caters to this segment of people could be Gentoo.

Tom: Well not all people are computer science students. How about a newbie like me ?

Me: For new users like you (and there are quite a lot of them too), there are Linux distributions which come bundled with nice GUI front-ends which makes your Linux experience really enjoyable.
But before we go into it, I would like to say something. Linux distributions can be broadly classified according to the package management they support. Package manager is a program similar to a setup installer in windows. There are two main players in this arena. One is deb package, the other being rpm (short for Redhat Package Manager).
Most Linux distributions follow one or the other of the above said package format to install applications. For example, Linux distributions like Debian and Ubuntu follow the 'deb' package format where as Redhat, Mandriva, SuSe and the likes follow the 'rpm' format.
Coming back to your question, a newbie will feel right at home in installing and using any of the distributions like Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian and so on. But there is an important factor. Because of licensing restrictions, these distributions exclude support for popular file formats like Mp3, Quicktime, wmv (windows media player), viewing encrypted DVDs and so on.

Tom: What? You mean, I would not be able to play my favourite mp3 music on these distributions ?

Me: Not at all. All I implied was that you have to download the codecs and install it by yourselves if you want the support for these file formats. For example, I use a versatile media player called mplayer to view all my mp3 audio and video. And it works flawlessly.

Tom: Is there a distribution that has these codecs installed by default ?

Me: Of course there are. For example, distributions like Linspire and Xandros comes with support for these formats. But you will have to shell out some money and buy first in order to use them.

Tom: What if I wanted to use Linux as a server ?

Me: If you are exclusively using Linux on the server side, then the GUI will lose its significance. You will be better off trying Debian. This Linux distribution gives stress on security and is considered to enjoy a large share of the Linux server market. Of course, you can also try RedHat or SuSe for the same. But the situation at your work place also play an important role in selecting a distribution for the server.
Did you know, Debian is the only Linux distribution that supports architectures other than x86/IA32, Intel 64 bit, AMD 64 bit and PowerPC ? More over, Debian is not controlled by any corporation or single entity and it is maintained exclusively through donations and volunteer support.

Tom: Ravi, you know Manish, my friend from school days ? He tried installing SuSe on a Pentium II machine with 32 MB RAM. And he said that he ran into problems in running GUI applications.

Me: That is because he doesn't have enough memory to run GUI applications. Anyway, SuSe is targeted at more recent machines having at least 128 MB RAM. But tell him he need not despair. There are Linux distributions which cater to this segment too. Like you have the Damn Small Linux which runs easily even on machines with just 32 MB memory. Did you know that Damn small Linux takes up only 50 MB space on your harddisk in its uncompressed state? Another linux distribution in this category is Puppy Linux.

Tom: Really? I wonder how they accomplish this extraordinary feat.

Me: If you are impressed by that, then there are Linux distributions that fit inside a floppy.

Tom: No Kidding ?

Me: Seriously Tom. I am not pulling your leg. Tombsrtbt is a Linux distribution that fits inside a single floppy. It can be used for troubleshooting purposes.

Tom: And it has my name too ;) . But seriously how is all this possible ? It is a bit overwhelming to have this discussion itself.

Me: All these forks are possible because of the GNU movement. If Linux was released as a closed source project, these forks would not have seen the light of day.

Tom: I am just curious. Which distribution will a geek favour ?

Me: Heh heh, So you are aspiring to be a geek is it ? I have heard that Slackware and Gentoo are favoured by geeks. Slackware needs some mention here. It is one of the oldest distribution around. Earlier I talked about Deb and RPM formats. But Slackware uses an entirely different format called TGZ - which is gzipped tape archive, to install applications. There are many die hard slackware users who swear by this distribution for its ease of configuration and use. But it is not suitable for new users because most of the configuration is done by editing text files.

Tom: But I always hear of Fedora, Ubuntu and the likes but seldom do I hear about Slackware, Xandros, CentOs or any others. Why is that ?

Me: Tom, you have to understand that somebody who makes the loudest noise need not always be right. Firms like RedHat and Novell (SuSe) are multinational corporations which have millions of $ at their disposal. They gain all the publicity by running advertisements, conducting certifications and so on. Then there are some distributions like Debian and Ubuntu which grab the public's fancy because of their social ideals and commitment towards GNU movement and essentially because they are free as in freedom as well as beer. That doesn't mean they are the only good distributions around. Ultimately the choice filters down to the ideals, tastes and necessities of the user.

Tom: Going by our discussion, I have arrived at the conclusion that I want a Linux distribution which is easy to install, easy for newbies and support all proprietary file formats out of the box (I definitely want to hear mp3 music). It has to have good customer support. And I am willing to pay money for it (though within limits). I guess I will go for Xandros, Mepis or Linspire. What do you think ?

Me: Go for it Tom. I have always known that you have a penchant for spreading your money around ;) . But on a serious note, I think you have taken a good decision because when you pay money for the distribution, they include addons like support for propritery file formats and the user is saved from the job of installing them himself. Some of these distributions like Linspire also ship with non-free softwares like Win4Lin which helps you to run popular windows programs like photoshop and games like Age of Empire. So it is money well spent. It may be worthwhile if you visit Distrowatch.com and read some reviews about what people have to say regarding a particular distribution before you make the choice.

Tom: Ravi, thanks for clearing my doubts regarding the Linux distributions. This discussion has helped me a lot. I do not know what I would have done without friends like you.

Me: No problem Tom. And God speed ahead.

A note to Readers
Tom and Manish are fictitious characters and this whole train of thought took place inside my mind. I hope this conversation has helped clear the air about which Linux distribution is ideal for you.

43 comments:

  • Slackware is the right distribution for newbies who want to learn a linux OS. No patches, easy to learn, excellent community, no stupid GNU restrictions, false philosophies, etc.

  • Yeah, Slackware's pretty good and clean. But I wanted something which was a bit "lighter" (I know you can uninstall stuff from it), and I finally found the perfect solution: PocketLinux.

    http://distrowatch.com/table.php?distribution=pocket

  • Looking for newbiw friendly distro that comes with all the MP3, WMP and DVD stuff installed, without having to pay a cent? Try PCLinuxOS at http://www.pclinuxonline.com/pclos/ . It was originally based off Mandrake, but is now heavily customised to be ultra-newbie friendly, and it's a Live CD too, so it's easy to try out before installing.

    John.

  • Ben

    Nice read.

    To Jolly Roger: Slackware is superb, but not for newbies. I would not recommend it as an entry level distro even if you are keen to learn Linux.

  • Yes, as above PCLinuxOS is the way to go, slick and easy to use. Comes preloaded with all the things you want, and a minimum of the stuff you dont.

  • Ubuntu rocks!

    buahh..

  • @ endeffecter,
    PClinuxOS is still in beta version. And it is a live CD. How can you say that it is the best distribution ? It might be good for some of the people but for all of us? I am not sure.

    Btw, the author has given a good reason about this too. That is
    "the correct answer to this question is that it depends on the individual."

  • AdamW

    There's an inaccuracy in this post. Mandriva supports MP3 playback out of the box. Please correct this. Thanks :)

  • Really good!
    Nice work. I immensely enjoyed this article.

    @adamw
    Does mandriva really support MP3 out of the box? If it is true then it is superb. But I don't think many people know about it.

  • Jeremiah

    Had me going there with the Tom thing, thought that was a real person. haha.

    Keep up the good work man, I Love reading your posts and they inspire me to be a better writer.

    Jeremiah
    -----
    http://www.flackos.com

  • AdamW

    @anonymous - yes. Any media player will play MP3s in a standard Mandriva install (including the Free version). xmms, beep-media-player, amaroK, whatever.

  • Debian is not the only distribution that supports other than x86 architectures - Gentoo, for example, supports ALPHA, ARM, HPPA, IA64, MIPS, PPC, PPC64, S390 (IBM mainframe) and Sparc in addition to the x86 and x86-64 architectures. Debian probably has official support for the most architectures out there, but it is not the only one.

  • The correct spelling is Red Hat

  • Nice work! It was a good read and I liked your imaginary friends - they seem like nice people. ;)

  • well...reading all these comments, I can't help but think Ravi's right. There're diff linux distros that suits diff individuals. There's no "Best Linux Distribution of them all"

    For me it's CentOS!

  • For me it's Arch linux :-)

  • Ryan Draga

    currently, I'm running SuSE 10,0 on an AMD 900Mhz with 320MB RAM and an 80GB hard drive, it runs wonderfully. I've also dabbled and tinkered with other distros like Ubuntu and Mandriva...personally I've found Ubuntu to be an amazing distro, It's easy enough to set up, and quite easy to maintain.

  • I started using Fedora as my first linux distribution. But wait, it was redhat 6.2 at that time :)

    Linux has come a long way from that time.

  • Both Red Hat and SuSE also have support for non-Intel platforms, like IBM's zSeries mainframes. Debian certainly isn't the only one.

  • Give Ubuntu a try. I started with Red Hat back in the day, then migrated to SuSE, then I found Ubuntu. It's very easy for a beginner, because of it's simplicity and easy software management. Plus, if you ever need help, ubuntuforums will be quick with an answer. If you look on distrowatch, you will notice ubuntu's popularity on the list on the right. There's no coincidence there, but see for yourself. Ubuntu.

  • Charles Jillian

    Gotta chime in too.

    My new baby is Underground linux (http://www.ludos.org). It is still in the "experimental" phase, and has some limitations in the install process.

    But it is beautiful! And I got support for all of the proprietary formats, java, flash, DVD playing capabilities, AND wireless up and running on my $400 Wal Mart laptop in 5 minutes.

    Just check out their website.

    http://www.ludos.org

  • There is 1 linux also very nice to try, it's called knoppix Linux, downloadable from http://www.knopper.net/knoppix/index-en.html
    It is a bootable live system on a DVD, U can try it without installing it. After using it, restart PC, it's back to normal.

  • jambarama

    Mepis also supports a number of proprietary formats out of the box. WMV, MOV, MP3. I'm not sure about DVD, I always grab Kaffeine, but with Synaptic it is easy.

    You might also mention KDE v Gnome v IceWM v UDE v Whatever else there is out there.

  • Mainly directed at Anonymous at 5:30 AM.

    I basically agree with you in respects that it could be seen as a problem that GNU/Linux is not a single platform, which proprietary software vendors can target. I do not, however, agree with you that the (K/X)Ubuntu is a classical example. There IS binary compatibility between the various Ubuntu's, so it is in many respects the same platform.

    The main reason for not packing everything in to a single package is downloadability, as well as ease of installation. The guys at Canonical has chosen packages, that they seem to think is needed on a basic desktop and only packaged those on the CD (GNOME+OOo2 and more). A lot of people asked for KDE support, and hence a new single-cd with KDE was made - almost as simple to set up as the original ubuntu. Xubuntu is more of an experiment, but likely to attract atleast a modest user base.

    Now, it could be cool if a UUbuntu (UnifiedUbuntu) DVD image was created, with an option to install either one of the desktop packages for those of us with high bandwith connections. But a single CD distributions are a very good idea.

    Just my 0.02$

  • AntonioPratas

    I really enjoyed your article, i think it sums up really good all the types of linux that there are, and the different publics that those types target. A really good resource for someone that is looking for "his" distribution. I'm actually using Ubuntu and winXP, im the ´GUI type =)

  • @endeffecter
    The author has already mentioned that an individual is the best person to select a distro 4 himself. I'll recommend Suse 10.0 as the best for a newbie just becoz I was comfortable with it. Would u agree????????
    Hence, u comment stating that PClinuxOS is the ONLY recommendation for newbies /avg users is in bad light. There is no universal distro that would make everyone happy and that's what d author has rightly pointed out.

    GOOD ARTICLE anywayz. Best way to approach the debate on which distro should one choose.

  • Try Arch Linux it's the best, speedy, flexible, light, ... ^^

  • Good Read.

    I agree with the author that there is no one distro that is perfect for everyone. There are just too many variables.

    Monoculture may be efficient, but anathema to evolution. We are still in an early stage of OS evolution.

  • Riskable

    Just an FYI: Gentoo works with mp3s, wmv, quicktime, etc. Since everything is custom-built for you from scratch, you can select whatever codecs/features you want in any given program. There's nothing stopping you from making a minimalistic machine with the essentials or a machine that has everything under the sun.

    Gentoo also has the most packages of all the other distros (even Debian).

    Major downside to Gentoo I haven't seen mentioned yet: It can take a *long* time to install software. Since you have to compile everything from scratch, it can take hours to install something like KDE or Gnome. My laptop is a Pentium-M 7.3GHz and it took 42 minutes to compile Firefox 1.5.

    -Riskable
    http://www.riskable.com
    "I have a license to kill -9"

  • Slackware remains my choice for favorite OS after using Red Hat/Fedora, SUSE, Gentoo, Ubuntu, and Debian.

  • Fabi├ín

    a very goog distribution to try is elive; when you see it want like it. (it is live CD so you don't need install it in your PC to try)

    http://elivecd.org/

  • I found your article pleasant to read and original :-) . However, I wonder why you didn't mention Mandriva (ex-Mandrake) for the new GNU/Linux users. I think it's a "must" distro for newbies (apart from Suse, Ubuntu, Fedora and stuff...).

    Regards!.

  • Great article. Too bad you didn't have the time to write a book so you could mention ALL the different distros. What, about 1,000,000 + now? ;)

    IMO, for n00b, get Mepis. It does everything right out of the box including WMV, MP3, Java, Flash, DvD, AVI etc. Best bet for a n00b.

    If your experianced then jump on Ubuntu because all the above has to be installed in it and thats too much for a true n00b. You know, prop software exclusion is a concept thing and they do believe in concepts.

    Either way life in the Linux world is good these days.

  • Sacrifusion

    Real good for helping to decide a distro but really bad as far as conversation goes. It is really hard to imagine that actually playing out in real life.

  • node357

    I enjoyed that! Be careful though, I'm not sure RMS would be amused by the term "GNU movement" :P

  • Slackware was the first distro that installed successfully on my 100 Mhz computer back in '98, and since that time I have always a soft spot in my heart for this marvelous distro and for its derivatives.
    In particular I can turn your attention to Vector Linux, both Classical and SOHO editions. Fully Slackware-compatible, lightning fast, with slapt-get package manager, works as charm.
    This is not a live CD, and the installer is text-based, but I can recommend it for any level of newby, even the one who is yesterday from pick and showel (provided that this guy can read common English and click keys on the keyboard). The only hurdle can be disk partitioning, but again nothing there that is beyond common sense.

    Good article, a conversation of fictitious characters leaves a warm feeling of Middle Ages, reminds of conversation between Galileo, Simplicio and Gueronto about the Solar System...

  • hardware's improvement often confuses people what a really good OS should be. The simplest judgement is to use less resource for more results. I like OS easy customised and reliable

  • Xandros is available for free via bittorrent. Check their download page.

  • After trying out binary distros and disliking them, I finally settled down on Gentoo. The most important thing after installing Linux is how to keep it up to date, how to manage packages and how to maintain the system in good health. That's why I just fell in love with portage. It was love at first sight. I highly recommend it to everyone wanting to really make sure what they get is what they want. And with projects like Kororaa and RR4 you no longer have to face an "install from scratch" situation. You just install it as if it was a binary distro.

  • surface

    I tried Suse, Gentoo, Debian, Ubuntu, Slax live, knoppix Live, mandrake, red hat.

    I think every distro can support mp3 and most of the format of movie files, maybe not by default but it will works, just spend sometimes google it.

    For so many distro, i like debian based linux, now i am using ubuntu. With easy install linux like ubuntu doesn't stop u from learning Linux.

  • v3xt0r

    Viva La Slackware!!

    You can use whatever you wish. I choose Slackware.

    Debian, Redhat, SuSE, Gentoo, and Ubuntu are nice & all, but for my day-to-day needs, Slackware is more comfortable for me.

    The fact that it is developed and maintained by an actual developer, rather than a corporation, makes it appeal that much more to a developer like myself. =)

  • There is a nice tool wich helps a newbie to find the best distribution: The Linux Distribution Chooser http://www.zegeniestudios.net/ldc/