Beginner's guide to Linux distros

Submitted on June 16th, 2005 by admin
Filed under Software and Linux

In a bit of a follow up to the recent media apps for GNU/Linux post, I wanted to give a quick rundown of some major distros. Even though a lot of people have a hardcore favorite, and swear everyone should use it, I tend to think the situation is more that there are different distros for different people. Hit the link below for more...

Introduction and Disclaimer

First off are the major distros, then some derivatives. I will preface this with a disclaimer, because I've certainly seen flames before on this subject. These are general observations, meant to give users a better idea of the scope of various choices, not an endorcement or slam of any one. This will cover only a handful of distros, and not even the best. I hope to add more later. (edit: This has hit Slashdot, and I've had a lot of feedback, some helpful, some flames. Much less flaming that I expected. I only managed to get in a limited number of distros, I hope to add more later. I personally love MEPIS btw. In terms of the core of Slack being BSD based I'm referring to the init scripts. By saying core I hoped to make it more understandable for those that don't know what init scripts are. And I'm absolutly wrong on how to say SuSE. I will make the change. Also fixed at least a lot of the its/it's stuff, and the Debian trees -JWH)

There are two major trunks for most Linux distros. There are plenty of ground up distros, but most are derived either from RedHat using RPMs (RPM stands for RedHat Package Manager) or Debian using dpkg files. This file formats are used to install software on your computer. Currently, the biggest distros not derived from RedHat or Debian are Slackware and Gentoo which also have their own package management systems with various advantages/disadvantages.

And on to the distros

RedHat/Fedora Often cited as the industry leader, it certainly has a strong foothold in the corporate world due to being a major company with resources to support and market their OS. For this reason, the biggest plus to RedHat or Fedora is that there is a multitude of packages and support for it. It installs a desktop with most any tool that an average user would need, and if it doesn't have it, both YUM and Apt-get (or just downloading RPM's) allow an easy way to add software. These days, RedHat is no longer free-as-in-beer by itself, but as the community driven Fedora. Fedora has regular and quick updates, and is the testing ground for RedHat. In recent weeks, it has been revealed that RedHat has plans to even further spin off Fedora as its own organization like the Mozilla Organization. One downside to RedHat/Fedora is the size. It isn't a small download to get a fully featured desktop installed, and the OS will require a stronger system than some other distros. It can be installed off 1 CD as a slimmer non-graphical system, and one strong point for the distro is they do still include many CLI tools that newer desktop centric distros exclude for X-based utilities. Because of its popularity and emphasis on ease-of-use, one can expect a harsh reaction from the more hardcore crowd.

SUSE The 'U' is hard and the 'E' is soft. Almost like the word sue with an S on the end. SUSE is the other big commercial distro. (I wasn't quite right on this, it's "soo-suh") It was when it was still its own company in Germany, and now even bigger since being purchaced by Novell. Up until the latest versions, SUSE was like the RedHat side of RedHat/Fedora, being the more tested commercial product. At this point, it is the leading edge consumer edition, with Novell Linux Desktop as the corporate product. At one point SUSE, like Mandrake, was a repackage of RedHat. (I'm wrong on this too. SuSE has its roots in Slackware) It is still RPM based, and at this point is a very different beast. SUSE's biggest strength is the graphical tools available. Almost all distros are now VERY easy to install and setup basic things. But with most if you want to do more power-user configuration, you have to go back to editing text files. With YAST SUSE has the most thorough graphical tools to take care of almost every aspect of the system. SUSE is arguably the most polished of the current distros. If I have a very savvy Windows user express intrest in GNU/Linux, I point them to SUSE. Unfortunatly, SUSE isn't as free-as-in-beer as most other distros. A few months after a new release they will open up an FTP install that is still a bit difficult and time consuming. The best way to use SUSE is to buy the fairly expensive Professional boxed edition, which runs close to $100. I also find it very hard to work with from the command line. YAST is the excellent graphical tool that allows so much poweruser configuration, and even has a non-X curses based interface, but to make everything work so well, the graphical files aren't as transparent or documented. Also, third party well-packaged software is not as available as for RedHat/Fedora. In addition, SUSE is much more likely than RedHat to ship with non-free commercial software. Some people want to have a "pure" system that is totally open-source from top to bottom. This of course is a personal choice, and certainly something to consider when choosing a distro.

Mandriva The distro formally known as Mandrake. Mandrake recently purchaced the Connectiva distro and became Mandriva. This is admittedly the distro that I have used the least recently. When I first started using Linux (Redhat 5.x days) Mandrake was the first that seemed to easily install for me with everything working. I got a copy of Mandrake 6.0 as the cover off the first issue of Maximum Linux (RIP) and loved it. It started out as a more user friendly repackage of RedHat. Today, like SUSE, it is still RPM based, but is totally different from RedHat. Mandriva has an excellent installer, and was one of the first totally X-based point and click deals. Now with Lycoris (just purchased by Mandriva), Xandros, Linspire, and a number of others, Mandriva no longer is known as the most dumbed down distro, but still is very good for people new to GNU/Linux. The company almost went under a few years ago, but has since rebounded, and with the recent aquisitions of Connectiva and Lycoris, seems to be up to interesting things. The plus to Mandrake is that it is very polished and easy. It lacks the power-user tools of SUSE, but provides a better experience for those that have less general computer knowledge. Of the really big name distros, it would probably be my reccomendation for someone that has never done a Windows install before, and wants to try Linux. The downsides are similar to SUSE. Low level stuff is a bit less transparent and easy to hack. There is less easy to find and install software available, although I have found it better than SUSE.

Debian Debian was created by Ian Murdock, and the name is derived from his and his wife's names (DEBorah and IAN). Debian is different from the above distros in that there is no company behind it. It is totally done by the community that surrounds it. The aim of Debian is not to be the most user-friendly distro, but has a great focus on usability. Debian operates with 3 major trees, stable, testing, and unstable, and the bleeding edge experimental tree. Stable is meant for mission critical applications, and contains only software that has gone through rigourous testing. testing is aimed more for the desktop user, with more up-to-date packages, but most would agree that it is hardly unstable. Unstable takes it a step further with more bleeding edge packages, and experimental isn't really meant as much for use as it is a testing ground. The really monumental thing about Debian is the package mangement system. Dpkg is very similar to RPM in allowing pre-built packages to be installed, but has an online system called Apt-get. Apt-get allows the user to simply type "apt-get install package_name" and it handles pulling not only the package requested, but any necessary dependencies, and helping configure the install. Debian has a HUGE archive of packages, which means a Debian user very rarely would need to acutally track down a package and its dependencies manually. What Debian lacks is the ease of use in many other distros. The latest stable release has a new installer which makes things much easier, but the distro does not include proprietary graphical utilities for system setup the way some commercial distros do. Currently, GNOME and KDE provide utilities that take care of much of this, but most of them are recent developments.

Ubuntu A brand new player in the Linux game, even a few months ago this would have been listed with the not-so-major derivatives, but at this point so many people are using Ubuntu, it really fits in with the major players. In simple terms Ubuntu is a more user friendly Debian, without being too dumbed down. Most serious GNU/Linux fans shun other user-friendly Debian derivatives such as Lycoris, Xandros, and Linspire, but in recent months many of them have switched to Ubuntu. Ubuntu aims to fix alot of current problems with Linux distros. Mark Shuttleworth is a very smart/lucky entrepeneur that managed to make a lot of money, and has since done some very interesting science-related things. He is famous for buying a ride on a Russian space flight, and became the first African person to go into space. More recently he made a huge investment in creating a company called Canonical Software, which created the Ubuntu distro. Ubuntu has releases based off the Gnome schedule (every 6 months) and ships as a very usable single CD. It still is not as user friendly as some of the bigger distros in that it does not have an X-based mouse driven installer, and lacks proprietary tools; however, it is still fairly easy to install. It does do an excellent job of using the GNOME-built in tools mentioned above. The upside is a single CD to download (or have shipped to you for free) to get a very well featured, very user friendly desktop with awesome community support. It didn't even exist (publicly) until October of 2004, and is already one of the very most popular distros. Almost everyone I know that runs Linux now uses it, and it currently tops the distrowatch list of most popular distros. It still is not a great recommendation to someone who has less computer experience. Many people are certainly turned away by the non-graphical installer. The installer also doesn't allow for a custom install, the software that is present is what you get. And by being based off of a single disc, it doesn't have anywhere near as much software as you will find with many other distros. The good news for that is it has a fairly extensive apt-get repository managed by Canonical, and access to the entire Debian library. For those that prefer KDE, you can install it via apt-get with Ubuntu, or you can also check out Kubuntu, which is Ubuntu with KDE out of the box.

Xandros, Lycoris, and Linspire I am grouping these together because they have a lot in common. All three are commercial, made to be as user friendly as possible, based off Debian, KDE-centric and not free-as-in-beer. Lycoris will probably soon become very different, or even non-existant in its current form, since it was just aquired by Mandriva. Each will provide a great user experience for newcomers to GNU/Linux, but feel confining to those experienced with FOSS. They certainly are not designed for the user to hack around in /etc.

Major distros not based off Debian or RedHat

Slackware The oldest existing distro. Slackware is largely a one-man project, done by Pat Volkerding. The beauty of Slack is in its simplicity. The core of the OS is based off of BSD, whereas Debian and RedHat are based off of AT&T UNIX. It is a bit more simple but less powerful to hack around the init scripts and change the real guts of the OS. Also, even with GNOME and KDE, Slackware is still only 2 CDs. It runs very fast, even on older machines, and because it is more simple, it is harder to break. On the other side Slackware is not very user friendly at all. You don't build the system from the ground up like Gentoo, but you really have to know not only about computers, but a bit about Linux to really get the system running. Linux as a whole is actually getting much more user friendly (HAL and the already mentioned GNOME and KDE tools) but Slackware doesn't add much extra. A point I very rarely see mentioned is that Slack actually does have some curses-based utilities to help setup parts of the system, so when people claim that Slack doesn't have any proprietary setup tools, they are quite wrong. The other issue with Slack is that it is a one man show, and lately Pat has encountered some health problems that have limited his ability to work on the distro. In addition, although I haven't seen anyone else admit it, Ubuntu has definatly picked up many former Slack users. If you do decide to use Slack and like GNOME, check out Dropline. It is a great release of GNOME for Slackware that adds a lot of usabiltiy and polish to the platform. There are many live CD distros based off Slackware including Slax and gNOX.

Gentoo Like Ubuntu, Gentoo came out of nowhere and took the Linux world by storm. Gentoo is drastically different from the other mentioned distros in that it is source based. This means that with a system very similar to apt-get it allows a user to enter a command, pull the packages and dependencies needed, and install software, but instead of pulling prebuilt binaries, Gentoo pulls the source code and compiles everything. This means Gentoo has a major learning curve compared to other distros, but it makes up for this with superb documentation. The real bonus is that the user becomes VERY familiar with the operating system and how it is put together. Many GNU/Linux enthusiats may not use Gentoo anymore, but strongly recommend it as a learning experience for new users. On the other hand, it certainly provides a very fast, stable, and usable system. The package archives aren't nearly as thorough as that of Debian, but certainly better than any other. The other downside is the time involved to use the system. To get a fully compiled system from scratch installed can take days, and when you need to do any major upgrading, expect your system to be chugging on code for hours.

Now for some minor distros..

Knoppix The first major live CD, which means it runs entirely off a CD. It is a great way for a new user to try GNU/Linux without installing anything to the hard drive. It is based off Debian and can still be installed and used as a Debian system. Many other distros have arisen based on Knoppix targetting different markets and audiences.

Blag An often overlooked distro, Blag provides a single CD Fedora based distro with a concentration on the media codecs often left out of major distros.

Arch Some consider this a non-source based Gentoo. It also shares a lot with Slackware. Arch is a very transparent and simple distro like Slack, but is based around an excellent package manager called Pacman. The distro requires a bit more knowlegde of the system than any of the others besides Gentoo to install, and actually sets up less in terms of sound or X for the user than Slack or Gentoo. Also a great way to learn the guts of GNU/Linux, and is probably the fastest OS I have used. Not good for really old systems though because the packages are created for i686 and above (Pentium 2 and Athlon and above)

Some good resources for Linux users:

  1. Distrowatch is probably the best source to find other distros. It has a huge collection of distros that it publishes updates on, and has a page for each one with a short description and links to further information.
  2. Another resource to check out is It has links to mirrors for many distros, and short descriptions of many.
  3. If you need documentation on how to do something, the best place to check out is The Linux Documentation Project. You can learn to do almost anything there.

Final words

Finally, a note about my personal experience. As mentioned above, I started using Linux around in the RedHat 5.x days. RedHat was my very favorite distro through 7.3. When 8 came out it was much bigger, and was the first to lack MP3 support out of the box. This was also when almost all distros began to become much easier to install and use. Martin and I have both spent a great deal of time trying different distros. For a period of about 2 years I was a self described distro-whore, and I would guess that for at least a year of that period, I averaged more than one distro install a week. It was no suprise when my poor laptop CD-ROM drive died. Nevertheless, during that period I kept falling back mainly on Slackware. For me Slackware with Dropline was the ultimate comprimise in simplicity and usability. I also would go back to RedHat/Fedora a lot. Arch was great but too much work since I kept replacing it after I had it working right. Currently I keep my server running with TaoLinux a free-as-in-beer RedHat Enterprise Linux repackage, and for the most part use Ubuntu on the desktop. I'm not reccomending Tao or Ubuntu, but they seem to work best for my uses. I hope this guide can help you pick which one best fits you.

Note from Martin: I started using Linux with RedHat 9, which saved my computer when Windows would no longer boot. The three years that I spent using Linux distros exclusively were a great learning experience, and something I'd recommend everyone to try out.