Linux Distribution Reviews

October 2002


Introduction


In case you're new to Linux you should know that it is available in a variety of flavours. Each of the so-called distributions of Linux (or distros) is designed to cater to certain sub-markets within the "broader" Linux community. Over the past decade many Linux vendors and distributors have come and gone. In the five years that I have been watching Linux grow many thing have changed, but many have also stayed the same. The details change with each release, but general trends emerge.

Broadly, Linux distributions can be broken up into several categories: Linux aimed at business and enterprise computing (such as Red Hat or SuSE), versions aimed at desktop home users, such as Mandrake, the now-defunct Corel Linux, and the emerging Lycoris or Xandros distributions. Next there are distributions aimed at long-time Linux users. The crown here has traditionally been held be Debian, with Slackware coming up second. Now Gentoo looks to be moving in on some of their "turf." Finally, there are many task-specific distributions of Linux, such as Coyote, which is designed to be little more than a diskless router, or Knoppix, a release made specifically to demonstrate Linux to potential users.

While the concept of distributions of essentially the same software may be foreign to Windows and MacOS users, it is a definite strength of Linux. This page looks to provide a nice overview of many of the more popular and emerging Linux distributions. Users may also be interested in my comparisons of Unix desktop options and web browsers.

Linux is all about choice. Sit back and relax, I hope you enjoy the read.


SuSE 8.0


Th overall impression that I got from SuSE Linux 8.0 is that this is a very professional, polished product from a group of very dedicated people.

I have to say, I was extremely impressed with SuSE Linux 8.0. Unlike every other Linux distribution that I have used, SuSE manages to create a comprehensive, consistent user interface from start to finish. SuSE 8.0 is a very slick, very business-oriented distribution.

As is always the case with SuSE, they offer a very complete selection of packages. 8.0 ships across 7 CDs or 1 DVD. They include kernel 2.4.18, Xfree86 4.2, KDE 3.0, StarOffice 5.2, OpenOffice.org 641d, Sun's JDK 1.3.1, and literally thousands of other applications. While 7CDs of software may sound daunting, SuSE has actually done an excellent job of shipping with a very limited, quality default selection of software packages. In fact, the default install seems a little light if anything.

For file systems, SuSE defaults to reiserfs, but offers installs on ext2, ext3, JFS or XFS. I was impressed at the file system options, but have found that you can't actually install on XFS, as it gives an error when formatting/remounting. Still, the list is the most comprehensive that I've seen.

SuSE's install program was very straight-forward. It offers sane defaults, and can be as easy as clicking "next, next, next" or as customized as is needed. The resulting installation treats you to professional touches right from the bootup screen. SuSE has decided to take the middle road when it comes to what it shows to users during the bootup sequence. Many of my friends have seen my laptop boot up, and have been surprised at the old-fashioned appearance of the bootup screen, they find the text output confusing and ugly. SuSE has wrapped this in a very nice looking 1024x768 background, and have added animations in the top corner that offer a pictoral representation of what's going on. The result is a good compromise between an attractive boot-up and the usefulness of the details of a typical boot.

Once the system boots, users are presented with a KDM login screen and a nicely customized KDE 3.0 environment. SuSE has put a great deal of effort into the look of the setup. The menu items are clear, and the system seems very responsive. KDE 3.0 on SuSE seemed to me to be far more responsive and complete than the packages that I have used for Debian. SuSE have even put together a searchable help program that offers a single source for all system documentation.

Changing hardware as well as system management tools are handled by SuSE's excellent Yast2 tool. I hadn't used Yast since SuSE 6.1, it's improved a lot since then. The tool now provides easy methods for setting up all aspects of the system. Their X configuration tool is the best I've seen since Corel Linux, the network setup was equally straight-forward. Yast is also where you add and remove software. The vast amount of available software is accessible through logical groupings. I found finding applications to be quite easy, and I believe that new users would also find it simple to use.

Finally, SuSE's YOU (Yast Online Update) tool offered an easy way to keep your system up to date with the latest security patches. Unlike similar tools offered by Red Hat and Mandrake, YOU actually works very well, was easy to use, and didn't require setting up accounts, or providing SuSE with any personal information. YOU seemed as complete as Debian's apt-get, though I couldn't find a way to easily add software using YOU. It's really meant more as an update tool, like Windows Update.

Of course, no product is perfect. The biggest thing missing in SuSE Linux 8.0 was a program for easily adding fonts. This actually surprised me a fair amount, as they don't include too many fonts. Maybe this will be a feature added to 8.1. Also, I found SuSE's choice of installing StarOffice 5.2 rather than KOffice or OpenOffice.org a little odd. It has been my experience that OpenOffice.org is a far better product than StarOffice 5.2. At least the option to add these other suites is quite easy.

So there you have it. As you can see, I quite like SuSE Linux 8.0. It is the easiest and most complete distribution that I have ever used. While it won't be replacing Debian on my laptop in the immediate future, if I was to recommend a general-purpose Linux distribution to a new user, it would almost certainly be SuSE Linux.

UPDATE: In fact, I felt like a change, and SuSE did in fact replace Debian on my laptop. It lasted half a month, which is actually quite good, as it is far longer than WinXP, Red Hat or any of the others managed to stay on. I still quite like SuSE, and I still maintain that it is the slickest commercial distro available, but in the end I missed Debian's speed and flexibility. SuSE was considerably slower on my machine that Debian was, and trying to install Eclipse 2.0 was an exercise in frustration, as I tried to deal with getting GTK 2.x to work. I also never got the DVD working correctly, but that was more due to my hardware than SuSE's software. So, where was I off to next? Gentoo 1.4. See below for a review.

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Red Hat 8.0


Red Hat may be the most famous Linux distribution, but I often feel sorry for them. Despite their ample contribution to both Linux and the broadere Free Software community, Red Hat has an undeservably bad reputation. There are several reasons for this. First off, they are a commercial comany. To make matters worse, they're a successful commercial company. As a rule, it seems that Linux users (especially the vocal ones) really like an underdog. While it's true that Red Hat is very much an underdog when compared to the likes of Microsoft or even Sun Microsystems, compared to the other Linux companies out there, Red Hat is a big bad corporation.

However, I feel that this take on things is much to harsh. Red Hat has always played the Open Source game well. They've contributed everything back to the community, and have stuck to their principles throughout the life of the company. While flawed, they have provided Linux with RPM, the ubiquitous package format that has been officially adopted by the LSB. For most people, Red Hat is Linux. Until version 8.0, I thought that they had been given far too much credit. To me, Red Hat was a benchmark distribution, but one that I rarely acutally used. Well, Red Hat 8.0 is a marked departure for the company, and I think they may have a very big hit on their hands here.

What's new with Red Hat 8.0? Quite a bit. For starters, they are using GCC 3.2 and glibc 2.3. This should result in a faster system, and a better qaulity C++ compiler. They've also made the bold step of shipping Apache 2.0 instead of 1.2. In addition, they ship with XFree86 4.2, Mozilla 1.0.1, and OpenOffice.org 1.0.1. However, the biggest change with version 8.0 is the user environment. It is absolutely fantastic, and absolutely Red Hat.

Gone are Linux's ugly fonts and disparate toolkits - or so it seems. Red Hat has spent considerable effort on raising the polish of the system to a level that I have not seen before in a Linux distribution. Nothing was left untouched, they have tweaked everywhere to provide a seamless environment that spans the old Gnome vs. KDE flamewars. Whether using Konqueror or Nautilus, KDE or Gnome, the system looks and acts the same. People have been calling for this for years. Now that Red Hat has delivered, the Open Source community is unsurprisingly at their throats.

See, Red Hat went and made some unpopular changes to pull this feat off. For starters, they removed the annoying "About KDE" option that exists under the help menu of _every_single_KDE_application. Historically, Red Hat has been luke warm with KDE. There were valid reasons for this in the beginning. Now that Red Hat has shown off what the Gnome 2.x platform is capable of, I'm wondering if they weren't right all along. Red Hat 8.0 is slick.

Besides miscellaneous help items, they have also patched KDE and OpenOffice.org to use Xft. This makes the fonts like great, and consistent, between applications. They also patched KDE to use the same .desktop file format as Gnome, and played other tricks to get Nautilus' VFS tricks to work under KDE. Personally, I think all of their changes were warranted, and in every case improve the user experience.

Speaking of user experience, Red Hat has decided to pull MP3 support from Red Hat 8.0. As was mentioned above, Red Hat sticks to its principles. This is a prime example of that. While I appreciate their position on this, it is annoying. Like it or not, MP3s are the standard, there are many excellent OSS players that are available and have shipped with Red Hat for years. It seems odd for them to take this stand now, but so be it. It took me all of about 10 seconds to install a version of XMMS that plays MP3s, whatever.

Red Hat has also significantly improved their end-user configuration tools. Each tool has been rewritten to use GTK 2.0, and adds a level of consistency lacking in previous Red Hat releases. This modular approach works much better than Linuxconf, which always seemed to do more harm than good.

Red Hat 8.0 isn't perfect, but it's darn close. While I was very impressed with SuSE 8.0, Red Hat 8.0 is even more impressive. I've upgraded my partner's machine to it, and find myself using it more than Gentoo for the last few days. I'm sure I'll get used to it, but it's great to see Linux looking and working this well. Their changes may be controversial, but they are mostly skin deep, or are integrating in areas where integration was needed. Hopefully the KDE developers will eventually come around to this, and integrate some of the changes back into the base KDE. The changes are good from a user point of view. Red Hat gets full points from me for the level of integration and polish that they've added to their newest release. It's certainly worth a look from any Linux user.

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Mandrake 8.2


Mandrake 8.2 continues MandrakeSoft's efforts toward a user-friendly Linux experience. As usual, Mandrake offers the latest versions of a variety of software. 8.2 shipped with XFree86 4.2, KDE 2.2.2, and kernel 2.4.16. You can easily update the KDE install to 3.0.

Once again, Mandrake has completely redone their administration tools. The seem intent on doing this with each release, though the tools never seem to actually improve noticeably. As usual, I had trouble using their update tool. It always seems to have trouble pointing to working software mirrors, and I don't think that I've ever had it actually work the first time for me.

I used to think that Mandrake was the best end-user Linux distribution available. However, after having used SuSE Linux 8.0, Mandrake just seems slower than Red Hat, and less polished than SuSE. Long-time Mandrake users will undoubtably find plenty to like in 8.2, but I wouldn't really recommend it to people. I appreciate all that Mandrake has done for the Linux community, and it's great that all of their software is under then GPL (unlike SuSE's Yast tool) but at the end of the day, Mandrake 8.2 seems a bit unfinished, and as is usual for Mandrake, it seems far slower than other distributions.

Mandrakesoft has just released Mandrake 9.0. I may give it a chance at some point, as I've heard good things, but after using SuSE 8.0 and seeing its polish, I really can't see a reason to try MDK 9.0. We shall see...

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Gentoo 1.4


As I mentioned above, I just switched from Debian, which I had been using for over a year, to SuSE for half a month, and then to Gentoo 1.4rc1. What an interesting ride that was. Doing this really underlines the many options available to a Linux user. SuSE and Gentoo are pretty much diametrically opposed, and Gentoo makes Debian look positively user-friendly. ;)

So, what does Gentoo bring to the table? A slick installer? Absolutely not. Fantastic hardware detection? Nope. Great commercial support? Nada. A dedicated group of polished professional programmers? Hardly. Hand-holding and unparalleled ease-of-use? You're kidding, right? Okay, this is getting depressing. How about Refined package management? Not exactly, though you're getting warmer. Better performace? Certainly, in theory. Current up-to-the-minute hardware and software support? You bet your bottom-dollar. Current up-to-the-minute hardware and software support? Flexibility? Absolutely. We're talking flexibility like you've never seen.

See, while the big-guns are constantly trying to push Linux into the mainstream, and Debian's off busy doing it's own (very worth-while) thing, Gentoo has come up out of nowhere and has wowed a small but growing group of Linux enthusiasts pining for doing things "the old fashioned way." While I personally think that Linux going mainstream is an important and viable thing, it's absolutely fantastic to see a gem like Gentoo pop up.

Okay, so why am I so excited about Gentoo? Here's the scoop: Unlike all of the others, Gentoo is a source-based distribution. This has many repercussions. For starters, it means that installation takes a very, very long time. I'm talking several days of compiling software just to get it into a working state. Why on earth would one subject oneself to this? A few reasons, really. First, you get to see exactly what goes on behind the scenes, as you're basically creating a custom-built Linux distribution for your specific PC. Next, it ensures that your system has only exactly what you want on it, nothing more, nothing less. It also means that you can compile all software with CPU optimizations for your PC. This should result in a much speedier system. While Gentoo does seem to be the fasted Linux distribution that I've used to date, it isn't a whole lot better than Debian, so I think the whole CPU optimization thing is a bit over-rated for general-purpose computing, though I'm sure it makes a real difference in specific scientific or CPU-intensive applications.

Still not convinced that compiling it all yourself is worthwhile? Okay, here's another good reason for all of the effort: You can very easily get up-to-the-minute software. Because Gentoo doesn't build binaries, or have to test packages, updating versions happens almost as new software releases are made. Want an example? KDE 3.1beta2 came out on October 2. ebuilds (Gentoo's build script/packaging info) were available before the end of the day. (but don't forget to add another half-day to compile it all. ;)

Hmm, still not good enough? Okay, their software management tool, portage, is also very cool. It works a lot like BSD's ports system, but offers a few advantages over it. Thus far, I have found it even easier to work with than Debian's venerable apt tool. Portage works very well, I quite like it. It makes having installations of multiple versions of software easy to manage, adding and removing ebuild "packages" is a snap, and works as advertised. If I was a serious Linux software developer, I could see this being one of the real advantages of Gentoo. For instance, I am typing this under KDE 3.0. KDE 3.1 is compiling. It's being installed into a new directory, completely self-contained. I will be able to play with (or develop for) KDE 3.1 while still being able to fall back on the stable version if I need to. What a great concept.

Is Gentoo perfect? Certainly not. There's absolutely no way I'd ever suggest a new Linux user ever attempt to install it. It's tricky, I'll admit it. Personally, I liked the challenge of installation, and I have been greeted with a fast system that I control completely. I'm really enjoying the flexibility of Gentoo, I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's even more fun than Debian. I say this with no pretension. I'm not trying to be "elite" or any of that snob-ish Linux-user garbage. Gentoo brings something new and valuable to th table, and I salute them. Like Red Hat, SuSE and Debian, I believe that Gentoo has a strong future in the linux landscape. I thank Ryan Laginski and Nate Hollingworth for talking me into trying it. I have not been disappointed.

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Summary


As you can see, there is a plethora of options available to you. As for myself, I've currently deployed Debian Woody (3.0) on the server. I just want it to work, and need the security updates and stability that Debian provides. I'm running Gentoo on my laptop and enjoying every minute of it. (I'm still compiling....)

If I was running a business wanting to deploy servers that I had to have 24x7 support for I'd use Red Hat 7.3. If I was wanting to deploy an easily managed Linux desktop solution, I'd probably stick with SuSE 8.0 today, and investigate Red Hat 8.0 for future use. I'd also be running Red Hat 8.0 on development boxes to make sure that my software compiles on gcc 3.2 and works with Apache 2.0 and newer versions of PHP.

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