Chapter 1: Linux Distributions

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Because Linux is open source, anyone can get the code for the basic kernel and compile their own version of the operating system. Of course, not everyone is proficient enough to do that kind of thing, so several developers have put up their own compilations of the kernel, as well as a batch of programs and applications to make it easier for people to jump right in without finding all the stuff to make it work first. This is called a distribution.

By now, there are many different Linux distributions (or "distros") available. (Over 400, and that's just the more well-known ones) Choosing the one that's right for you can be a challenge, so I'll give a little information on the most popular ones out there at the moment. I've only used couple of them extensively, but I'll try to provide as many details about the others as I can.

Also do note that when it comes to choosing a distro, a good idea is to go for the one that best supports your hardware. Not all distributions have the same driver implementations and setups, so a good rule of thumb is that if a Linux distro has issues with more than 2 pieces of your hardware, it's not worth trying to get them to work. Just try another distro. If there are just a couple of minor problems though, then you're fine. Usually there are ways to fix those problems listed on the forums/help sections of the distro's website.



Ubuntu Linux


Ubuntu is currently the most popular Linux distribution out there. The aim of Ubuntu is to become a distro that's easy for new Linux users, but adaptable enough so that advanced users can do all their advanced-user-ish stuff. It's entirely based around free software in order to be a truly "open" OS.

Ubuntu Logo

The default installation is about 2-3 Gb, but that's because it comes with a good number of applications, including office software, web browsers, IM clients, email software, image editors, and so forth. And if there's anything missing, or if you want to add other programs, there are 4,000 programs immediately available for download (through the package manager, which will be explained later) and 14,000-17,000 programs if you allow it to download non-default software. The installation is done from one disc, which can be downloaded from the Ubuntu site.

Ubuntu is updated regularly every 6 months, mainly with fixed bugs, Linux kernel upgrades, window manager upgrades, as well as improvements to its base setup. These updates can be downloaded and installed in their entirity WITHOUT the need for reformatting. Each version has a codename that it's referred to by. At the time of this writing, the current version is "Edgy Eft" and the upcoming version will be called "Feisty Fawn." (Yes, these names do raise eyebrows, but at least they're interesting.) The core of Ubuntu is based on the Debian distribution (see below) so it's quite stable and very fast.

Ubuntu uses the Gnome desktop environment (more on Gnome and KDE in the next chapter) as default, although there is a version of Ubuntu called Kubuntu for those who prefer to use KDE. They are identical except for their desktop environments.

My thoughts:
Ubuntu is my current distro of choice (or rather, Kubuntu is), mainly because it's compatible with most of my hardware, has a great software selection, is light and fast, and has a funky name. Setting it up for dual-boot with Windows is quite easy, and it has a very clean interface. It comes in a LiveCD format, meaning you can boot from the cd and try it out without having to reformat, install, or change your computer in any way. Then, when you decide it's time to install, you just click the "Install" icon on the desktop, and away it goes.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Ubuntu.
Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Kubuntu.
Ubuntu's Webpage
Kubuntu's Webpage



SUSE Linux


Suse follows Ubuntu as the second most popular distribution. It's managed by Novell and comes in two flavors: Suse Linux Enterprise Server (used mainly for system administrators, but also available for desktop users), and OpenSuse (which doesn't have the commercial software available in Enterprise, but is composed of free software, much like Ubuntu.)

Suse Logo

I'll talk mainly about OpenSuse, as it's the free one. It has a comparable number of programs to Ubuntu, and does most of the hardware/software administration through a powerful tool called Yast2. It comes on 4 discs, as opposed to Ubuntu's 1, but more of the software comes installed, and there's a bigger program selection without needing to go online, making it a lot easier on dialup users.

Suse is most famous for having a large variety of drivers, which was quite important back when most other distros lacked a large driver database. Nowadays, it's the best distro to get if you find that another distro may not support your drivers at the moment. Suse isn't updated as often as Ubuntu, maybe only once a year or so, but each version is more solid than the last, and as of version 10, it's quite stable and full of features.

The desktop environment for Suse is either Gnome or KDE, chosen during installation. It also comes with some simple windows managers, for those who want a really lightweight install. (But that's unimportant for now.) There's also extensive documentation available, so most questions are easily answered by reading the documentation, or checking the OpenSuse website.

My thoughts:
I've used Suse for quite some time, and I've been very happy with it. Once I learned all the important things, it was quite easy to use. The only reason I moved away was that it was not quite as streamlined as Ubuntu at the time, and it sometimes felt bloated. (From what I hear, this has been cleaned up as of Suse 10.) However, I'll admit that on occasion it was slightly easier to use than Ubuntu, as there were some minor settings it had already implemented for me. I highly recommend it after Ubuntu. Also, there's a LiveDVD available that works the same as Ubuntu's LiveCD. There's even the option to install the entire thing through FTP, although that requires a good internet connection, as well as knowledge of what you're installing. (However, it does result in a VERY streamlined installation, with only the programs you need installed.)

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Suse.
OpenSuse.org. Not the official website, but it has everything you need.



Fedora


I'm sure we all remember Red Hat Linux, or have heard of it, or perhaps have seen its very distinctive logo. Fedora is based on Red Hat, although while Red Hat is focusing on Enterprise solutions, Fedora is a free, community version, much like Ubuntu and OpenSuse.

Fedora Logo

Fedora has the years of Red Hat's experience behind it, so it's well supported. It's also being developed through a forum of users. (Communism!) This means that many problems are fixed relatively quickly, and there's a lot of user-innovation. Because of this community development, Fedora tends to follow a more "cutting-edge" philosophy, implementing the latest updates and the newest ideas into its structure earlier than many other distributions. On the downside, this means that sometimes it can lack stability, at least until the community patches up these issues.

New versions are released frequently, around twice a year or so. It comes with both Gnome and KDE, Gnome being the default.

My thoughts:
I used Red Hat once, and while it was a very short trial (didn't work with my hardware well, but this was over 6 years ago), I can say that it was pretty nice. Also bear in mind that it's a recognized name, and is the default distribution of choice in places such as schools and businesses, primarily because of the well-known name.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Fedora.
The Fedora Website



Debian


Debian was the first major Linux distribution to be entirely composed of free software. It also has a strict adherence to this policy in all its aspects. (For example, due to the licensing of the name and icons for Mozilla's Firefox browser, Debian is releasing its own version called IceWeasel, a version lacking those copyright issues and thus adhering to the Debian principle.) Some people consider this unnecessarily controlling, but there are good arguments on both sides of the issue.

Fedora Logo

In any case, Debian has a large repository of software much like Ubuntu, and features some powerful setup software. Because of this software, Debian is well known for being "Hard to set up, but very easy to maintain."

Debian is also VERY stable. In fact, it's one of the most stable distros out there. This is due to a VERY long development cycle, and that means that new versions of Debian often come out several years apart. Software is still updated regularly, but the core system goes through rigorous testing before an update, hence the long delay.

Fun Fact: Each version of Debian is named after a character from Toy Story. The current version is Sarge, the previous version is Woody, and the first version was Buzz.

My thoughts:
Debian is a beast. There's a reason why Ubuntu is based off of it, and that's due to it's stability and adherence to open-software standards. Debian is so stable that in an earthquake, your computer would be the only thing NOT moving. Can Windows do that? I think not! (Windows would be CAUSING the earthquake!)

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Debian.
The Debian Website



Gentoo


Gentoo is a well-known distro that focuses on allowing the user COMPLETE customizability. How complete? Here's how complete: You compile EVERYTHING yourself. Want to install software? Compile it. It can take quite some time, but rest assured, it will be configured to your exact needs, and it will likely run FASTER on your system because it was compiled specifically for it. And on top of that, since you're installing from source, you'll be able to upgrade any software to the latest version whenever it comes out without having to wait for someone else to compile the packages and put them up on the download sites.

Gentoo Logo

Of course, the downside is that it isn't quite as stable, and it can take DAYS to install on older, slower machines. (It takes quite some time for Open Office to compile, let me tell you.) However, more recent versions have included pre-compiled binaries of popular software like Open Office, Gimp, KDE, etc, ensuring you don't need to compile those yourself.

One other cool thing is that the handbook is VERY detailed, so it will help you through just about everything. And if it doesn't, the community is VERY helpful.

My thoughts:
Gentoo is for ricers. Well, okay, not really, but it is definitely not for new users. It takes some work to get right, but with enough tweaking, you'll really have a personalized installation, able to do things for your specific needs. (Bit much for me though. I'll stick with Ubuntu, thenk yew verra much.)

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Gentoo.
The Gentoo Website



Slackware


And finally, we have the oldest release of Linux still in use. (It was first released in 1993.) It's stable, it's been around for a while, and many people like it. And many other distros (such as Suse) are based on it. The nice thing about Slackware is that it's built on older versions of the Linux kernel, allowing it to run on slower, older machines. Thus, if you want to install Linux on a REALLY old Pentium 1 machine, this is the distribution to choose.

Slackware Logo

My Thoughts:
It's great on old hardware, but an added bonus is that since it's more nuts-n-bolts than many other distros, you'll definitely learn a good amount of how Linux runs and how it's set up. This is due to the fact that you'll be doing quite a bit under the hood when setting up Slackware.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about Slackware.
The Slackware Website



And there you have it. Those are some of the major Linux distributions. A bit long, I know, but it should give you some insight on what to choose.

For a more complete list of distros, check out Wikipedia.
Distrowatch has the latest news and updates, as well as a "popularity meter" on most distros.

Next up:
Desktop Environments: What are Gnome and KDE?