An Idiot’s Tale of Choosing a Linux Distro
I am a long-time Windows user. I started using Windows back with Windows 3.1. I went through 95, 98, served a brief prison sentence with Windows ME, moved to 2000, then XP, and now Vista. So, I’ve pretty much used them all. The newest incarnation (Vista) is a mixed bag, to say the least. On my notebook computer, Vista runs pretty well. On my desktop, it can be an annoying experience. I am actually contemplating bringing the desktop BACK to Windows XP Media Center (which is what it originally came with). Windows XP is SO much more dependable.
This mixed Vista experience (and of course the fact that I own and write for a tech website) has led me to pay more attention to Linux. Now, I have also thought about getting a Mac. I may do so at a later date, but I am pretty much resigned to the fact that I will have to pay through the nose in order to “share in the Apple experience”. Linux, on the other hand, is completely free. The problem is that I am not much of a Linux guy. Rich is more the Linux guy around here. I know just enough to be dangerous. So, I was confused by all the myriad of distros out there. There are just TONS of them. How the hell am I supposed to choose a Linux distro? And what did I ultimately settle on (for now)?
The first distro I installed and tried was Ubuntu. Ubuntu has a lot of buzz surrounding it today. It is marketed as a replacement for Windows. The problem is that it is anything BUT a replacement for Windows. As far as Linux goes, it’s a fairly easy operating system to use. But, in my view, it isn’t too much better than other distros available today. In fact, in some ways, it’s not as good. I do like the Add/Remove feature in Ubuntu which allows easy installation and un-installation of applications. That is a life saver today, because installing programs in Linux is REALLY confusing when one is used to the simplicity of Windows.
Driver support was good, but not good enough. Ubuntu could not properly detect my video card, so I was using a big wide screen monitor with 1024×768 resolution. I thought that I could just install the driver and be done with it. Well, how Microsoft of me, I guess! I found an Nvidia driver, installed it, and NOTHING CHANGED. I ended up having to mess with the xorg.conf file in gedit to manually configure the monitor. And each time I restarted the desktop, the mouse cursor would disappear. I had to reboot the whole machine to get my cursor back. When all is said and done, I still did not get the display working correctly with Ubuntu.
Ubuntu has some nice plus points, but it is not a Windows replacement. If you stay inside the Ubuntu box, you’re fine. As soon as that box is not quite big enough, Ubuntu shows it’s true Linux, command-line loving roots.
I tried Kubuntu as well. Kubuntu and Ubuntu are exactly the same except that Ubuntu use the Gnome desktop and Kbuntu uses KDE. So, essentially its the same operating system with a different face. But, I actually prefer KDE, so I thought I would give Kubuntu a try. Well, being that it is the same Ubuntu core, I had the same driver problems.
I do want to mention that Ubuntu and Kubuntu both have very user-friendly installations. The distro I ultimately installed to my computer had a more confusing installation, but the Ubuntu products have it down in that department.
Linspire and Freespire
Somehow these distros ended up on my radar. It seems these things have been really overshadowed by Ubuntu, but they caught my eye because the company has really tried to make the Linspire products a true Windows replacement. For example, they are not opposed to putting proprietary software into their distro. Thank you! Generally, I really admire how the open source community tries to do everything for free. But, sometimes proprietary is the best way to get the job done. In my opinion, the Linux community sometimes shoots itself in the foot by being so anti-commercialism.
Linspire is built on top of the Ubuntu 7.04 core. What they did, though, was add CNR, the KDE desktop, some specially coded applications, codecs and proprietary drivers. CNR is the software library provided by Linspire. It provides one-click installation of Linux software into the Linspire operating system. Most of the stuff in the library is free, but they do include some commercial software (usually at a discount).
My hope with Freespire was to provide enough of a commercial mix to Linux to make it easier to use. Problem is, not everything worked. For example, when I tried to search CNR for something, I simply got the same screen to reload. That was completely useless. And aside from that, I was having the same driver problems at the start. So, there I was with some annoyances but no easy way to fix it. So, it just didn’t seem polished enough for me.
PC Linux OS
Rich gave me this distro on a CD. I tried it out and I was impressed. Right away, it properly detected my video card and monitor and displayed at the native resolution of my monitor. By this point, this was a welcome relief because most other distros couldn’t get it right. Now, it didn’t QUITE get it right. While showing at the right resolution, the driver was not supporting any of the 3D capabilities of the card. This meant that I could not enable Beryl (which is built in). So, I used the Synaptic package manager to download and install Nvidia proprietary drivers. I restarted the desktop and I was able to enable Beryl with no problems at all. I was floored. So far, PC Linux OS seemed to be awesome. It didn’t have a nice add/remove feature like Ubuntu, but it did have the package manager. I’ll trade the fancy software library for working hardware any time.
The installation of PC Linux OS was not as user-friendly as that of Ubuntu. I was scared that it would format and overwrite Windows and I saw nothing which walked me through it in the install. But, by this point, I was happy with PCLinuxOS so I wanted to install it. I installed a spare SATA drive into my computer and gave the installation permission to format the whole drive. It worked fine and I am now dual booting PC Linux OS alongside Windows XP on my spare Gateway.
Long Story Short
If I am going to use Linux, I need to be able to get my work done on it without being confused. I am a very computer literate guy, but I am also a Windows guy. Linux is a different world, and quite frankly, I didn’t WANT it to be that different. If I have to open up Terminal and type anything into a command line, I’m angry. This is 2007, guys, and I see no reason why I should have to do anything by command line in a modern operating system. Ubuntu is the latest craze in Linux, but it is that distro that caused me to have to learn some of the command line functions. It was ridiculous.
In the end of this latest trek into the Linux world, I come out of it with PC Linux OS installed to my computer. It works well, it detected my hardware properly, and (like magic) I haven’t had to touch the command line even once.