The Reg guide to Linux, part 1: Picking a distro
Who's top of the table and who's going home
One of the common complaints about Linux is that there are too many different editions (or “distributions”) to choose from, and only a hardcore nerd can tell them apart.
Well, it's true, but you can safely ignore 99 per cent of them. Welcome to The Register's guaranteed impartiality-free guide. Tomorrow, we'll tell you how to get them, burn them and set them up to dual-boot with Windows and on Wednesday there will be a guide to tweaking your new setup and getting it ready for use.
So, in order of popularity according to the DistroWatch chart:
Ubuntu – free
If you can call it a market when it's given away for free, Ubuntu is the market leader. Unlike most of the others, Ubuntu isn't a freebie version of a commercial product or a taster: it's genuinely free, bankrolled by South African dot-com millionaire and sometime space tourist Mark Shuttleworth.
It's good, too. It's simple, quick and clean, and comes on a single CD with everything you need to get up and going, with no choices or awkward questions. Recommended.
One complication with Ubuntu is the profusion of remixes and spin-off sub-distros. Most differ only in offering a different desktop from the default GNOME, such as Kubuntu with the KDE desktop, Xubuntu with Xfce, new player Lubuntu with the lightweight Lxde and so on. If you want the best support, either online from other users or in terms of drivers, third-party software and so on, just ignore them and stick to the real thing.
Fedora – free
This is the freebie version of corporate favourite Red Hat. Since 2003, Red Hat has taken its flagship, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, commercial-only – it starts at about £150 for a workstation, £550 for a server, and is a cautious, stable product, updated only every couple of years. Fedora is the opposite: new releases come out twice a year, it always incorporates the latest and newest technology, and it costs nothing. It has no support apart from through the community, meaning web forums, mailing lists, IRC and so on. It's shiny and pretty, and might be handy if you work with Red Hat in the day job, but it's not the greatest if you want to actually get stuff done with your PC.
If you're going to be using Red Hat at work and want to get some experience, try CentOS, a completely free respin created from the published source code to RHEL. Looks the same, works the same and costs nothing – which means it's stable but always a bit behind the times.
Mint – free
The only Ubuntu remix edition really worth bothering with. It's basically the latest Ubuntu after a minor nip and tuck with bundled multimedia and Web plugins and codecs. Mint's desktop has a slightly less controversial theme and a slightly more Windows-like layout, and it can handle common formats like MP3, Flash and Java out of the box. Well worth a look, but beware third-parties that only support the “real thing”.
OpenSUSE – free download, or £19.95 for a boxed copy with manuals and support
The free version of Novell's corporate-focused product. In the late 1990s, SuSE was the leading European distro with some of the best admin tools, but time has not been kind. It's looking a bit lardy these days, with the full release filling a DVD and including a bewildering variety of components to choose from. Its admin program, YaST, is still the best around, so it's a good choice if you have problems getting hardware working properly.
Mandriva – free or €29 with support and bundled commercial applications
Mandriva started out well but it's a fading star now. At heart it's a more polished, friendlier Red Hat desktop with better admin tools, but it's no longer all that compatible with its ancestor. Try PCLinuxOS instead, a free lighter-weight spinoff – a popular choice, but not as well-supported as Ubuntu.
Debian – free
Debian is the daddy, the basis for Ubuntu, Mepis and others. It's intentionally restricted to only open-source components, so it's a bit more work to get proprietary code such as graphics or wireless network drivers working, or the official versions of Java, Flash and so on. Good for servers if you know what you're doing, but not a great desktop choice unless you're already a guru.
The best of the rest
There are dozens of smaller players out there vying for your attention, but most aren't really worth the time unless you're already an expert or have a specific function in mind.
For instance, if you just need something to get a really old, low-spec PC running for the spare room or ready to give away, Damn Small Linux and Puppy Linux are both good candidates. Both work well on a Pentium II or Pentium III-level machine and might even run on a high-end 486 at a push.
Knoppix is a live CD – in other words, a complete Linux OS designed to boot and run from CD without being installed. Ubuntu and several other distros ship as live CDs these days, but the environments are limited and only really intended to check that everything works on your PC and then to get it installed. Knoppix is intended to be used this way and is a great tool for recovering data off crashed or virus-infested PCs, diagnosing problems, checking internet connections and so on.
MEPIS is a custom respin of Debian with good multimedia support. It's got some devoted fans but there isn't much to set it apart from the far more mainstream Ubuntu or Mint.
Gentoo is the software equivalent of a liquid-cooled overclocker's PC: to install it, every component is recompiled for your PC with your preferred optimisations. In other words, it takes ages, you need to know exactly what you're doing and at the end it's only a few per cent faster but looks unlike anything else. It's not really worth the bother. Sabayon is a more polished liveCD version if you really want a look.
Similarly, Arch Linux is a tweaker's dream, aimed at expert Linux users, as is Slackware, the oldest surviving distro, with very conservative – ie old-fashioned – installation, packaging and admin tools.
The highest-rated non-Linux open source OS is FreeBSD, parts of which form the underpinnings of Mac OS X. Don't expect Apple-like sophistication, though – FreeBSD is adamantly old-school, aimed at skilled Unix users. If you want to play with an easy-to-install version, try PC-BSD, which has nearly Linux-like levels of polish.
To be honest, unless you have some other reason, such as wanting to get into working with enterprise distributions such as RHEL or Novell's SUSE, for a first-timer or if you're giving Linux the first go in years there's no good reason to look beyond Ubuntu. Don't bother with any of the special “editions” or remixes – Ubuntu itself is the most professional offering around and it's possible to go from a blank machine to a working system with all applications and everything in well under an hour - considerably faster than it would be with Windows.
Tomorrow, we'll look at preparing your machine to dual-boot between Windows and Linux. ®