Step 1: Research the various distributions

April 28, 2007

I will admit I am basically ignorant about Linux.

I attended a unix-centric school. We focused on BSD, Solaris and even a few NeXT boxes in the “ACM lab” (i.e. where the compsci majors hung out). I was an admin on several servers and helped keep the place running. I’m familiar with vi and xemacs, gnu development tools (make, gcc, gdb, etc) and the like. But I don’t think that this is like riding a bike. I’ve forgotten most of it.

For all intents and purposes I’m starting over.

But I know enough to know that there are lots of flavors of Linux some of which are appropriate for my needs and many of which are not.

So here’s what I need:

  • It has to look pretty. My wife and kids are going to use this and they aren’t going to accept something that looks worse than XP.
  • It needs to be from a large and stable development group that has a development timeline with concrete future milestones. I don’t want Vlad’s K-Rad Linux Distro. If I walk into B&N and don’t find at least 5 unique titles focusing on that specific flavor then it probably doesn’t not meet this bar. When I make the decision I will buy the books I need. Usenet and forums are a last resort.
  • It has to support my hardware. I’m not buying new hardware for this (ok – I might be convinced to buy a secondary hard drive).
  • It has to play friendly when dual-booted with XP. I can’t abandon Windows entirely. Smartcard authentication to the work VPN will require Windows.
  • Their official website has to give me a good vibe.

Those demands don’t seem unreasonable – in fact they seem pretty lightweight. I suspect I will have too many choices.This is my process using the filters I defined above.

Filter: Book Store Shelves.

I loaded the kids into the car and we went to a local B&N. They went into the kids section and I went into the computers section. There was roughly 40 linear feet of Linux titles so this feels like a good sampling (by comparison there was only about 20 linear feet of Windows-specific non-development titles).

There were distro-specific titles on Red Hat, Fedora, Ubuntu, SUSE, Knoppix, and Debian. The number of titles was in the order shown.

Filter: Big and Stable team

They all meet this bar. The commercially supported distros probably have a slight edge here but not enough to make a meaningful difference to me.

Filter: Dual boots well with XP

They all meet this bar.

Filter: Looks Pretty

This one is all about gut feel. I’m basing it mostly on screen-shots from the primary website and on the website itself.

RedHat.com – A link at the top of the page links to Fedora. Apparently Fedora is the RH sponsored free Linux distro. Since Fedora is already on the list I’m removing Red Hat from contention.

FedoraProject.org – Clean and simple – and a wiki (bonus points). They have a release timeline linked from their front page and the screen looks very XP-ish. Still in the running.

Debian.org – clearly geared towards developers. It’s a no-nonsense textual brain-dump of all-things-Debian. It has a complete lack of flair and is missing screenshots. I searched for “screenshot” using their Google-based search and found only some poor looking Chinese translation shots. Perhaps Debian is so good it stands on it’s own without screenshots but I need them. Sorry Debian, but you’re off the list.

OpenSuSe.org – Looking better than Debian and I see it’s a Novell project. Not sure what I think of that. What turned me off though was this – the Tasks page references Google Summer of Code 2006 and indicates that after 2006 selection is done they will update with more info. Well. It’s done. If they can’t keep their top-level pages current that is a red flag to me. It’s not off the list but it just fell to the bottom of the stack.

Knoppix.com – perhaps the most annoying all the pages. Moving the mouse brings up intrusive JavaScript tooltips and the header menu bar shows an alarming lack of English. Sorry – but if your website can’t speak in my language then you’re falling off the list.

Ubuntu.com – Front page looks fine. Look – a link to “Desktop Edition” right on the front page! And one that is a screen shot. These folks get it. They talk about their release schedule. Have close-up shots to show UI behaviors and the page is in English. This one just floated way up in the stack. In fact – openSuSe just got dropped because of it.

So now it’s down to Fedora or Ubuntu.

The pluses for Fedora include corporate sponsorship, I have a good friend who I first met while he was wearing a fedora so that makes me feel warm and fuzzy, I know how to pronounce it and it is a name I was familiar with prior to today.

The pluses for Ubuntu are a slick looking website that showed me what I wanted to know, great looking screen shots and UI closeups, a unique name I don’t understand (and am not sure I am pronouncing right) and I remember thinking that the Ubuntu books looked interesting – even pulling a few off the shelf to browse. I did not touch a single Fedora book.

So after about 6 hours of total process (including drive time, lunch, typing this blog post and trying to figure out where my cell phone was when it started beeping) – the winner is Ubuntu.

If for no other reason then it seems cooler than Fedora. More hip. But still well supported.

Step 1: complete.

4 Responses to “Step 1: Research the various distributions”

  1. Denmaru Says:

    Wait – you ditched Knoppix only because the header of the site isn’t in english? But you did notice that the rest of the site is in english, and knoppix is a german LiveCD Distribution, right?

    “Sorry – but if your website can’t speak in my language then you’re falling off the list.” – Dare I say it – You know Greenday’s Song “American Idiot”?

    Good reasons for ditching Knoppix in your case would be the following:

    *) Knoppix is intented as a Live CD – it *can* be installed, but then you’d have to deal with a more or less typical Debian System, since Knoppix is based on Debian, which is not exactly as user-friendly as Ubuntu.

  2. Dave Says:

    I find it somewhat ironic that you cite annoying Javascript on the Knoppix site, when you have those idiotic snapshot things on your own blog.

  3. grimmet Says:

    after the first and this article, i just subscribed to your rss-feed . very interesting, and fun to read. you have an sympathic flavour. greetings from berlin

  4. Jordan Says:

    I just dugg into this article set and reading through them as I am trying myself to decide which linux I should best adopt. I will be reading through the rest of these and because of this one linux noob comparison I think I am also going to install Ubuntu. I have experience with it from trying to fix my cousin’s machine that it was installed on. Right now I have openSuse installed and i’ve got to say it doesn’t like to dual boot happily at all. Installing the grub loader killed my boot process and any way I install grub I always get error 22 on it. I got to say though I’ve learned alot about the configuration of linux just by trying to figure out the root of this problem. I’ve confirmed that all the configuration is correct but it continues to persist, so I will be leaving openSuse for Ubuntu. One thing I notice you say is that fedora has corporate sponsorship as a plus against Ubuntu. Ubuntu afaik is put on by a corporation called Canonical. Not sure what else they do, but they seem to be dropping a class act desktop distro.

    Also, this is in response to Denmaru. The immediate sight of non english on the top of the homepage was a bad first impression and thats what he was going off of completely. Not to mention there is no sign of there being a prominence of english on the page within the first fold of it. It was a quick filter, maybe not the most accurate, but for his purposes it worked. You then go onto list more reasons that he would’ve not loved on knoppix at all. Its a german live cd? Well gee… wouldn’t that fit in with the reason he dropped it? He’s not completely reviewing distro’s here. He’s making a choice for his family. In all fairness I think that the first words on the site being non english is an obvious sign that the distro is non english and probably would not fit with his family one bit. Also, cutting opensuse was a little obscure too, but from my experience I would say that he was in the green on that decision. His filtering concepts seem to me to be extremely effective when analysing speed vs results.


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