Friday, November 1, 2013

Choosing a Linux distribution

The problem I get when messing with Linux is trying to figure out which distribution to run. They're all free. And changing distributions costs nothing (except time and maybe sleep).

So I was thinking about the factors that I should consider when choosing. Trying out a bunch of different ones is fun. Been there done that. As I gain more experience with the various distributions, I have been able to build a much better idea of which one I want to run and why.

I might be tempted to rule out distributions that don't support all of my hardware out-of-the-box. However, the only hardware I have that is potentially a problem is my wired ethernet and the scanner portion of my Canon wifi all-in-one printer/scanner. My wireless internet is supported on all of them. And I can use my scanner from within my Windows 7 VM. So these are pretty much non-issues.

Some distributions are heavy on eye-candy. Others not so much. While I like things to look nice, functionality and reliability are way more important than looks. A slick interface isn't that great if it's got bugs.

Then there is the matter of philosophy. Some distributions make it difficult to get so-called "non-free" software. To them the encumbrance of any closed code is something to be avoided (even at the expense of things not working). This is not important to me. I just want things to work.

One other factor is what I will call "conservative vs bleeding edge". Debian is generally on the conservative side. They only release things after they've had a lot of testing. Fedora and Arch Linux are bleeding edge. If you want to be the first to get new versions of things, those are the ones to run. I think I would prefer something more conservative. It's possible that a Ubuntu LTS (long-term support) version would be just up my alley. And that would include the officially supported derivatives.

However, the problem with "conservative" distributions goes back to lack of support for newer hardware and older versions of almost all software. While the Ubuntu folks recommend that you run the LTS versions of their stuff for stability reasons. The current LTS version lacks support for my wired ethernet and scanner. Whereas the latest Ubuntu non-LTS version supports both of those out-of-the-box.

Then we have the difference "mainstream vs obscure". I've run across a number of distributions that have broken repositories and or download links that don't even work due to some outage or something. I think with obscure distributions you may have some level of slickness and novelty, but you don't have nearly the support structure that a mainstream distribution would have. Either in terms of available software or online help. And you probably have way more bugs due to a smaller test pool and fewer development resources.

So if I would limit myself to mainstream distributions, they would have to be Ubuntu, Mint, Fedora, Debian and Suse.

While Mint might generally be considered mainstream, I think it's more of a Ubuntu knock-off. One may as well run the real thing and stick with Ubuntu. The whole Unity mess is easy enough to avoid by going with an official derivative. For me Mint keeps seeming like Ubuntu with extra crap on top.

I tried Suse last week and it crashed like three or four times just while I was trying to get it set up. A new release is in the works very soon. So I may give it another try then. When the OS crashes before you even have it set up that doesn't give me a good feeling. Bodhi was another one that hung several times during the installation process.

So based on all this... my own choices seem to be narrowed down to the Xfce versions of Fedora, Debian or Ubuntu.

I like Xfce because it lacks most of the bloat of Gnome, Unity and KDE. Although I have yet to give KDE a try. That's on my list of things to do.

For all this rambling... no conclusions yet. This is a work in progress.