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Some GNU/Linux distros to try

This post (still in the process of being written) is part of a series on getting to grips with GNU/Linux for the first time.

In this post, I will be giving a brief overview on a few other GNU/Linux distros that you might be interested in trying out. Note that whilst none of the distros listed here are aimed at command-line-loving power users, all require a degree of curiosity (they are GNU/Linux systems after all) and some may require cracking knuckles on a terminal shell, at least on first setup.

They are organised into four categories:

  • Lightweight – no extra trimmings, no bloat, just the bare minimum, to run fast and travel light.
  • General purpose – provide most of the apps an average user may need, aiming at general users.
  • Kitchen-sink – includes everything a specific type of user might need. I also include some hardware suggestions.
  • Live CD – fairly light and fully featured, most commonly used as troubleshooting discs, for using unknown computers, or whilst on the move around the world.

 

Lightweight distros

As the name implies, in the lightweight class you’ll find distros that are geared towards distribution lightness: they ship with none but the most basic software (core trio of browser, text editor, terminal), and you get to install the rest. Great starting point if you don’t want too much “bloatware” and are trying to revive an old computer.

Lubuntu 14.04

  • Family: Debian (via Ubuntu)
  • App bundling: includes package manager and software center
  • Main Desktop environment: LXDE
  • Target audience: for those who want to give a new lease of life to an old machine, and choose the software themselves

To start things off, I include this here as a sort of benchmark. Since we’ve already had a more in-depth look at the system I won’t elaborate, but compare against say Bodhi which is the other lightweight contender. It ships with minimal applications: a terminal (LXTerm), browser (Midori) and text editor (Leafpad) and a few basic games; you’ll need to install the rest.

Ideal when trying to revive an old Windows XP / Windows ME -era PC

Try also installing Gnome Shell using Synaptic and pitting it against the heavier Fedora.

Bodhi Linux 2.3.0

  • Family: Debian (via Ubuntu)
  • App bundling: hardly anything except core trio
  • Main Desktop Environment: Enlightenment 0.17
  • Target audience: low resources and alternative GUI seekers, not shy of tinkering

Bodhi Linux is another lightweight GNU/Linux distro whose most notable difference is that it provides a number of desktop layout configurations including ones for desktops, laptops, tablets, and tiling screen – and an empty one to start from scratch, all courtesy of the integration of the Englightenment Desktop Environment.

It ships with no apps, aside from a minimal trio of Midori (browser) LEafpad (text editor) and Terminology (terminal), the rest of the available options being configurations for Enlightment.

Bodhi is a strange beast due to its use of the Enlightenment Desktop Environment which has a fairly steep learning curve for anyone who hasn’t thought of “customizability” in a DE (mainly for the fact that the settings options are in fairly non-conventional parts of the main menu). You also don’t have a Software Centre, just Synaptic, which you can use to download precisely what packages you do or do not want. The key underlying premise here is this: Bodhi provides a basic ultra-light desktop system that you can then customize for pretty much any use. Note that sound is disabled by default and need to be turned on.

To get the start menu, you left click on the desktop itself. To change the layout to one of the pre-configured ones, go to [ Start :: Settings :: All :: Settings : Profiles ]. This is useful in the beginning to alternate between other layouts, in case you’re having problems customizing your Bare profile and need something to compare against.

The Enlightenment project’s own documentation is pretty sparse and difficult to find, but the Bodhi website provides Enlightenment help pages that do a very good job of guiding you through this new environment. Ultimately, it will probably be an environment you’ll come to either love or hate but for the curious it is most definitely worth the detour. If in the end you do like it but for the Enlightenment DE, you can always slap on LXDE: open a terminal and run the following (or look for the package in Synaptic)

$> apt-get install lxde-core

Once that’s done, logout, and you’ll see at the bottom of the login screen a drop down list. Choose LXDE, then login. Hey presto, you’re back to a familiar type of desktop!

General purpose

This class covers distros that are medium sized (700-1200 MB). They tend to ship the basic apps for things that most users want to do: shipped as standard, there’s some form of office software, some media players (codecs optional), and sometimes other internet tools like chat and FTP clients, and heavier browsers like Firefox. The key idea is that you shouldn’t need to install much more, if anything at all, for a fully functional environment. Perfect if you’re trying to avoid Windows 8 or trying to give your Windows 7 machine a new lease of life.

Ubuntu 14.04

  • Family: Debian
  • App bundling: general, for everyday use
  • Main Desktop Environment: Unity
  • Target audience: Windows refugees who want things to just work, Linux newcomers

Ubuntu is the most visible face of Linux when it comes to novice Linux users, as well as the only company that is actively trying to push a consumer brand both on the desktop and in cloud services space, in a bid to rival Microsoft and Windows, and to ensure that hardware manufacturers provide the necessary software to enable Linux distros in general to run on their equipment.

It comes with the Unity 7 interface installed, which makes use of 3D graphics acceleration and provides extra interaction support for touch screen devices. Unity itself has had some negative feedback around its default behaviour of sending search queries (most often used for finding one’s own files) to Amazon, enabling advertising straight in the operating system and potentially encroaching on privacy. This can be turned off, but you have to be aware of it in the first place to do so.

The company behind Ubuntu, Canonical Ltd, is UK-based, and stands to become “the next Apple” in the home users computing space. If Ubuntu and Unity are not for you however, there’s Linux Mint…

Linux Mint 17 MATE

  • Family: Debian (via Ubuntu)
  • App bundling: general, for everyday use
  • Main Desktop Environment: MATE (also has Cinnamon for more modern hardware)
  • Target audience: Ubuntu refugees, Windows refugees

Linux Mint is the main contender for “general use Linux” for home users. The MATE (MAH-tĂȘ) edition is fast and straightforward, its main menu is easy to find one’s way around and it includes plenty of useful tools out of the box, including LibreOffice (a fully-fledged office suite), Thunderbird, Firefox, media players, and GParted (which is useful when trying to do repairs).

Keep a LiveDVD of Mint MATE 17 32-bit to boot pretty much any computer from the last 10 years and have a fully working home computing system off the bat.

The Cinnamon edition uses an interface (called Cinnamon) which requires 3D graphics acceleration so generally is more suitable for more recent systems (last couple of years).

elementary OS Luna

  • Family: Debian (via Ubuntu)
  • App bundling: basic, mostly home-grown; install your own office software
  • Main Desktop Environment: Pantheon (homegrown)
  • Target audience: Mac OS X refugees, want things to just work

elementary OS puts itself forward as the system for people who want a simple OS that just lets them do what they want to do. It comes with its own suite of applications, most notably its custom desktop environment: rather than use LXDE, GNOME, KDE or the likes, the elementary team decided to create their own DE called Pantheon, which has a particularity of having no task bar: rather than allowing you to minimize a window, the standard apps continue to run even if you close them, which is the behaviour in Mac OS X from which the concept is borrowed, to avoid multiple launches of the same application unnecessarily. It is of course possible to re-activate minimialisation using the elementary Tweaks app from elementaryupdate.com.

Software is available via the Software Centre, though Synaptic does not come pre-installed. Use the Software Centre to obtain it if you wish.

elementary’s standard suite of applications includes the Geary email client, Music (music player), Calendar, Movie Player, and Midori (web browser). It’s possible to get going with just this, but it lacks an office suite and a Flash plugin.

On first install, I tend to hit the command line to remove Geary and Music (package name “noise”) as well as the Scratch text editor, and replace these with Thunderbird, Banshee and gedit (which are more mature and stable applications), whilst also installing LibreOffice and Chromium, as well as Gnash, the free Flash player:

$> apt-get update && apt-get install build-essential
$> apt-get remove geary noise scratch-text-editor
$> apt-get install thunderbird banshee gedit libreoffice chromium
$> apt-get install gnash browser-plugin-gnash

Once that’s done, I’m fairly confident that this OS will zippily run any system from the past three or four years (note that I had problems with it on my Acer V5-121 [2GB, 1.0 GHz dual core], reasons for which I’m still trying to determine). You’ll hardly need anything else.

If you’re looking for something a bit meatier but still for Apple refugees, you can also give Pear OS a try – I have not tested it myself, but it seems to try to mimic the look and feel of the Mac system, down to the effects and styling. It’s a fuller distro with a heavier desktop interface, more suitable for more powerful hardware (last one or two years).

Manjaro 0.8.8

  • Family: Arch Linux
  • App bundling: general use (office, multimedia, internet)
  • Main Desktop Environment: Xfce, also comes with OpenBo and KDE editions, or minmal (text-based)
  • Target audience: general desktop for technical users

Manjaro Linux is to Arch what Ubuntu is to Debian, namely a distro that aims to make it easy for less technical persons to use. You get a LiveCD preloaded with Firefox, Libre Office and gedit, the option to boot with or without proprietary rivers, and the choice of a graphical installer or an ncurses-based (terminal) installer.

The package manager is named pacman, which synchronises software from the official Manjaro repository, which holds the latest versions of their packages, with a bit of delay for stability testing.

Due to being based on Arch, Manjaro is a rolling distro – this means it never has to be reinstalled: there is no such thing as a “version” of Manjaro (unlike Fedora 18/19/20, or Ubuntu 12.04, 13.10, etc), just the version of the LiveCD release. Beyond that, every update to a Manjaro system brings it up to the latest milestone release.

The other particularity of Manjaro and Arch is access to the Arch User Repository, where the community can upload software packages as source, which can then be downloaded and built locally. To facilitate this task, the Arch family has access to a tool called “yaourt” (pronounced YA-oort, and is French for “yoghurt”), a command-line utility to search and automatically build/install sources from the AUR.

Its aim is to make use of the Arch family very easy for migrants (through the use of GUI-based tools), but still has areas where proper Linux knowledge is required. The rolling nature of the distro allegedly makes it more prone to breakage than fixed-version distros. As far as I have noted form forums, this is still somewhat debated.

(Note – 0.8.8 was the active version when I wrote this article. I haven’t had a look at it in a while, but get the latest version of course – it should be quite similar to what I describe above)

Fedora 22

  • Family: RedHat/Fedora
  • App bundling: general (office, multimedia, internet)
  • Main Desktop Environment: GNOME Shell / 3.15 (requires GPU acceleration)
  • Target audience: anyone who wants the latest features in the Linux world, and is not shy of troubleshooting.

Fedora is one of the few non-Debian system in this list, as the GNU/Linux-for-newbies arena has been pretty much taken up entirely by the Ubuntu sub-family. Fedora is worth mentioning since it is considered the “cutting edge” distro for desktop users: all the software in its main repositories are the latest releases, which has for implications that there may be unaddressed bugs, and you might encounter some stability issues (however rare).

Out of the box you get LibreOffice, Evolution mail, a video player, Rythmbox audio player (which can sync with iPods and other commercial MP3 players) and Firefox, and some extra productivity applications, as well as a native Boxes virtual machines/display utility. GNOME Extensions extends the functionality of the GNOME Shell which gives every new user a first basic tutorial on this interface which dropped the very idea of the “Desktop”.

It’s worth noting that the Fedora Project insists that through them only Free and Open Source software can be distributed, except for certain proprietary firmware necessary to enable it to take advantage of the latest hardware. To obtain extra non-free (libere) software for free (gratis), consider adding the RPMFusion repository necessary for MP3 and other proprietary/patented formats; obtain Adobe Flash straight from Adobe.

One major disadvantage to this distro is that it has a short release cycle: any one version will only be supported for 18 months from the release date, after which you need to reinstall a new Fedora if you want to continue receiving patches and updates.

Fedora 19 is the latest distro as of October 2013 (released in mid-2013), and uses the GNOME 3 desktop. It has been marked to form the basis of the next RedHat Enterprise Linux distro; the community version of RHEL (CentOS) generally follows suit a few days later. CentOS typically follows RHEL in terms of support of distro – 7 years support, much better if you prefer to keep your OS for a while…!

If you want a more fully featured Fedora-based distro which includes more apps as well as proprietary/patented software and repositories out of the box, try Korora: they release around 4-5 months after Fedora (though follow Fedora themselves and as such are subject to the same 6-month release cycle) and are Australian-based, so have no legal issues bundling software-patented technologies such as MP3 – just make sure you’re legally allowed to install this yourself!

Kitchen-sink class

The mastodons. These distros are very large (several gigabytes) and pack everything, including the kitchen sink and a second spare tyre. They’re generally geared towards a very specific purpose or type of user, and try to include as many apps as that kind of person will ever need.

UberStudent 3

  • Family: Debian (via Ubuntu)
  • App bundling: heavy, geared towards note taking and personal organisation
  • Main Desktop Environment: Xfce (light/medium resource use)
  • Target audience: Academics and students, people who tend to do a lot of note taking and paper-based research, “knowledge workers.”

UberStudent is aimed at students in higher education – that being college and university level and upwards – though could possibly be of use and interest to any person whose activity incorporates plenty of note taking and researching such as journalists, teachers, and hobbyists who have a lot of field work.

UberStudent desktop

The distribution uses the Xfce desktop environment with a main menu bar at the top and your tasks at the bottom. You have access to a wealth of productivity applications that come preinstalled including the Zotero notes and references keeper, Libreoffice and alternatives, Mint Finance manager to keep your personal finances in order (you skint student you!), Firefox and Chromium browsers, email clients, time scheduling utilities, photo editors, audio and video editing, oh and did I mention extra note-taking utilities galore? It even ships with Dropbox preinstalled.

An additional set of features under the System Tools menu is everything that you could need as a regular user to help you through GNU/Linux, including a CD-ROM path detector (in case you need to know where you CD mounted), a cleanup script, a root terminal (though I’m not too in favour of providing this so plainly…), a schematic of the GNU/Linux filesystem for reference, HTML-rendered MAN pages (manual pages), and most important of all, a PDF manual on using the command line! If that doesn’t help you learn to use GNU/Linux, I don’t know what will!

It really is geared towards getting students up and running from the start with all the gratis software possible, though it will certainly not suit any Free Software advocate due to the large amount of proprietary apps included, proprietary drivers, as well as direct links to proprietary online web-apps. One proprietary thing is does not ship with however is Flash, so you’ll need to install that. If the direct Adobe download doesn’t work, you can always try installing the Free-and-Open-Source Gnash (GNU Flash player) and its browser plugin: either install the packages via Synaptic, or via the command line

$> sudo apt-get install gnash browser-plugin-gnash

Without a doubt, this is probably the best distro for students on a budget, needing a fully-featured operating system.

My hardware recommendation

If you don’t already have one, the only cost will be a laptop if you plan to run it natively, for which you probably want at least a dual or quad core at 2 GHz with 4 GB RAM. This should match entry-level laptops nowadays (end 2013), so when buying a laptop, focus on build quality and manufacturer reliability (get the extended warranty, from a well-recommended brand that most computer shops are likely to be able to service) and you’ll have a system that will last you for a long time to come.

You might want to investigate Lenovo, whose machines seem to be good build and whose components fairly well supported out of the box, or System76, which ship by default with Ubuntu. Dell’s XPS model ships with Ubuntu out of the box too. Most PC manufacturers nowadays ship with Linux-friendly hardware (meaning, for which open source drivers exist), but stay away from Mac machines if you want to run Linux hassle-free.

Ubuntu Studio

  • Family: Debian (via Ubuntu)
  • App bundling: heavy, geared towards audio editing, video editing, image manipulation
  • Main Desktop Environment: Xfce (light/medium resource usage)
  • Target audience: graphic designers and multimedia production enthusiasts.

If your line of study or work however involves multimedia production, you just might want to take a look at Ubuntu Studio. *Deep breath*

  • JACK integration allows you to take immediate advantage of audio tools and MIDI inputs, and Ardour is shipped as the main audio manipulation package, supported by Audacity sound editor, and sequencers like Yoshimi and Hydrogen.
  • OpenShot allows video editors to put together videos, and further lineup of FFMPEG transcoder and DVDStyler DVD creator are at hand as well.
  • Graphics editing comes of course with GIMP, the main PhotoShop rival on the editing front, InkScape for vector graphics, Blender for 3D creation and MyPaint for tablet painting – no sign of Krita for now, but I’d recommend that application (purely from a feature overview standpoint, I am not myself a graphical artist).
  • A combo of Shotwell photo organiser and Darktable RAW editor is available for photographers, which combined with the Graphics editors previously mentioned forms a complete pacakeg on this front.
  • Calibre and Scribus are available on the Desktop Publishing front, for the creation of any print- and print-like media, as well as of course LibreOffice for general office and paperwork workflows…

… all in all, a fairly complete multimedia package!

My hardware recommendation

This distro can run on laptops of course, but given the nature of its audience, a custom desktop machine should be target. You should look to getting both an SSD solid-state drive and HDD hard disk to install your GNU/Linux over both of them. Install the system to the SSD (faster, more expensive, less space), and load /home on the HDD (slower, cheaper, more space): this will ensure a speedy system, and plenty of storage space.

Opt for a CPU with at least quad-core at 2.4 GHz, and add a GPU if you’re going to be doing graphics, along with 8GB of RAM.

A laptop to these specs would cost several thousands, but a desktop machine shouldn’t put you back more than just around the thousand mark at worst – especially if you build from scratch.

Live CD class

Due to their Live CD orientation, these distros are a strange combination of all three of the above classes – lightweight from a storage point of view, and sometimes from a runtime perspective too; aimed at general users like the out-of-the-box counterparts; but come with a large bundle of apps for anything a general user may need…!

The reason for this combination is that a Live CD distribution aims to enable the user to boot and run their system from CD with reasonable speed, and let the user save to some other medium, like the local hard drive or a USB stick. There is thus also a requirement of not having the user install applications every time (since you can’t install to a CD) and as such, bundle a lot with them.

Nowadays, most mainstream distros double as Live CD systems, so the need for these is diminished, but nonetheless stick around just for the ability to pack a ton of software into a small space.

Burn a copy or two of one of these distros before setting out on a round-the-world adventure, pack a USB stick and external CD reader, and you should be able to use any computer you find along the way in a (digitally) safe environment…

Puppy Linux

  • Family: multiple (Ubuntu branch and Slackware branch)
  • App bundling: full – but the CD image is still under 150 MB!
  • Main Desktop Environment: JWM/OpenBox (basic window managers)
  • Target audience: people who don’t have their own PC but are OK booting machines from a CD. Great if you’re traveling the world and a laptop is too much weight!

Puppy Linux’s oft touted strength is its minimal size, not even filling a CD half way and yet providing tons of bundled applications, and also being able to run on really old machines.

These days, Puppy comes either in Slackware or Ubuntu derivative form, and there are ways of getting it onto a USB for more flexibility and speed compared to a CD. There’s office software (Abiword, Gnumeric) browsers, chat messaging, graphics editors, organisational tools and plenty other applications.

Knoppix

  • Family: Debian
  • App bundling: full
  • Main Desktop Environment: GNOME 2 (I think?)
  • Target audience: sys admins, power users

Knoppix was the pioneer of the LiveCD format, and continues to bundle all software onto a single CD.

It is, alas, somewhat tricky to setup, and I found myself wondering if it indeed shipped with anything other than German keyboard layout support… I’ll need to rervisit this one, but it’s not the most intuitive to use – that or I’m just too dense.

Others

I haven’t had time to personally go through a large number of distros, but I think the above presents already a good picture.

I had a go with Slitaz (30 MB distro) and Tinycore (15 MB distro) – both are independent GNU/Linux, and neither are for the impatient or beginner.

I was initially going to have a closer look at Mageia 3, but the install kept coming up with errors in the VM (VirtualBox for Windows, 4.2.18, 64-bit), and when I rebooted into the installed machine, it errored before even getting to the GRUB screen… so much for that.

For a really long list of distros, check out techradar’s round up of 50 Linux Distributions to explore.

For a complete view of the Distro ecosystem (including non-Linux and non Mac/Windows such as the BSD family, Haiku, and more), head over to Distrowatch.com.

And, for the curious, here’s a list of operating systems that are neither Windows, Mac OS, nor even Linux, but all completely independent!

Posted in Linux

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