Why So Many Linux Distributions?

There are literally hundreds of different flavors of Linux, for servers, for desktops, for mobile devices. A frequent line of questions among desktop computer users being introduced to Linux is,

Why are there so many to choose from? What are the differences? Wouldn’t it be better to have just two or three to choose from to make it easier?

This posting is an attempt at answering those questions as briefly as possible and in “plain English” for those of us who aren’t technically inclined.

What are the differences between Linux distributions?

  • Many Linux distros are built for “niche” markets. They may not use the same kernel or include the same drivers. Some distros are a good fit for older, modest hardware (Lubuntu, Xubuntu, Crunchbang, AntiX, etc) and some at new, high-end machines. Some distros are aimed at little kids, some at high school kids and college kids, some for “casual users,” some for geeks and some for technophobes. Some for gamers, some for musicians, etc. Some for business and some for home computers and laptops or netbooks. Different distros fit different users. Choose a distro according to your particular needs.
  • There are differences in package management, even among the popular “one size fits all” distros like Ubuntu, Mint, PCLinuxOS, OpenSUSE, Fedora, etc). These differences matter because they try to resolve software dependencies with varying degrees of success and completeness. Choose a distro and you’re also choosing it’s package management.
  • There are differences in software repositories from one distro to another, depending on their “niche” and/or a parent distro. For home desktop users this is a really big deal. Choose a distro and you’re also choosing its repositories.
  • There are differences in support options, like paid support services for server and desktop (Canonical, Red Hat, and SUSE offer these) and free community support for users (a distro’s Wiki, forums, community). Choose a distro and you’re also choosing one of these options, and some are just better than others.
  • There are different software tools that developers choose for their distro, from it’s boot manager (Lilo, Grub legacy, Grub 2) to it’s desktop. Many are unique to a single distro, like Ubuntu’s Software Center and Linux Mint’s Mint Updater. Choose a distro and you’re also choosing it’s tool set.

Why so many to choose from?

Partially answered in “niche markets” above, a lot of the reason comes from combinations of all the factors above.

Another reason has to do with the GNU license that Linux is released under. Anyone is free to copy, modify, and distribute Linux as they see fit. There are dozens of “distrolets,” as I call them, created only so that some narcissistic nerd can call himself a “Linux developer.” Take any existing distro and change the wallpaper and branding a little bit and bingo – a new “distro” is born. It’s not illegal, even though it’s tasteless and tacky. While the GNU license is wonderful because it facilitates a worldwide community of contributors to make Linux awesome, it also has the unintended consequence of enabling some people to “plagiarize” the work of others and release it under their own brand. There’s no such thing as plagiarism in Linux, other than names, logos, artwork, and that sort of thing, because of the GNU license that – when used for nobler purposes – benefits the entire Linux community and all Linux end-users.

The GNU license is also the reason Linux users don’t need a “certificate of authenticity” or have to agree to the terms of an “End User License Agreement.” It makes some novice Linux users uneasy, and quite a few have heard that Linux is “pirated” software and therefore illegal or unsafe. My goodness, nothing could be farther from true. The GNU license means that you actually own the software on your computer and are free to copy it, change it, reverse-engineer it, twist, pull, fold, spindle, and mutilate it to your heart’s content. But if you really think you need a license, here. Take mine, print it out, and stick it on your computer case so you’ll feel better:

xubuntu certificate
xubuntu certificate

Feel better?

Why not just a few to make choosing easier?

Under the GNU license it just isn’t possible. But that’s actually a very good thing, not at all negative in any sense even though it may be frustrating to newcomers to Linux. But you can narrow down your choices by knowing ahead of time what you want to use your computer for, what your computer can handle, whether the high-end fancy eye-candy and deluxe applications or if you need a “lightweight” operating system with lightweight applications that conserve RAM and processing power. And your own talents and limitations when it comes to “tech stuff.” Got mad tech skilz talents and want to let your inner geek out to play and do some real damage? Try Arch Linux, or Gentoo, or Linux From Scratch. Got no such talents and the mere thought of tinkering with your computer’s operating system terrifies you? Try PCLinuxOS, Simply Mepis, Ubuntu, or any of dozens of Ubuntu derivatives like Linux Mint, Zorin, or Easy Peasy. Got an old computer like mine? Xubuntu is my favorite for older hardware owned by casual and slightly technophobic users like me.

Hopefully this little posting has made choosing a Linux flavor a little easier, at least by informing you of what the differences are and what to consider in making your choice.

 

Minimal, Simple, Fast

So I’ve had some time to play with desktops and Linux distros over the past few weeks because I’m always up early in the morning and can’t make a lot of noise in the house that would wake anyone else. People who know me are like, “Make up your mind already for goodnessakes, dude!”

Really, my mind has been made up all along. I just like to explore sometimes. But until and unless I find anything to rival the speed, simplicity, and sheer awesomeness of Xubuntu Linux – and for as long as it works on this ancient-by-today’s-standards Dell desktop – I’m sticking with what works flawlessly and elegantly for me. I’m really not the Linux distro-whore I appear to be. It’s just that there’s a lot of new innovations and stuff I hear about and want to try out. For instance, Conky has a GUI (graphical user interface) now! Frankly I never bothered with Conky but when I get around to it maybe I’ll try it now that they’ve made it simpler (supposedly).

So this morning’s post is just a quick summary to defend my argument that I’m not a distro-whore!

My flirtation with the Enlightenment desktop (on PCLinuxOS and on Bodhi Linux) is over. To put it in bluntly, it’s experimental and beta-quality stuff, despite having been around a long time now. Wonderful, low-resource eye candy, but it didn’t stay where I put it on my desktop. It moved and morphed and migrated. Themes for it are pretty limited depending on what distro you’re using it on, and it’s not nearly as simple as the good ol’ Xfce desktop. Remember I’m only a sidekick, I need simplicity! But keep an eye on Enlightenment because I think it shows a lot of promise. Progress on it seems to be really slow, but worth the wait.

It was little different trying out a couple of docks (Cairo dock and Docky) on top of Xfce. Nice little desktop widgets and applets and gadgets and eye candy! But again, at least on this older hardware without the supercool video capabilities of anything newer than 5 years old or so, too many of these wonderful little goodies either wouldn’t stay where I put them, and/or they wouldn’t load and display after a reboot, and/or they insisted on being too big or too small. I like the quirky, bouncy way the icons behaved in Cairo Dock (it relies on Compiz, so buyer be aware), and I like the 3D shadows and reflective little “shelf” the launchers rested on. But the launchers seemed to be pre-programmed to launch only certain applications. I couldn’t create one for Abiword because Cairo-Dock thinks I should be using Libre-Office Writer instead. In Xfce I choose whatever icon I want and tell it to launch whatever application I want. It didn’t seem to be an option in Cairo and I don’t know why. That’s just weird. For now, I’ve decided that there isn’t much difference between a dock and panel anyway, and it isn’t worth the trouble to keep trying to figure out a bloated, misbehaving dock that needs a separate compositing window manager.

Bodhi Linux
is Enlightenment-only, so it’s gone.
PCLinuxOS scares me away with it’s all-or-nothing approach to updating. Maybe not an issue for folks with better hardware than mine, but that’s not the impression one gets from reading their forums. Cringing in fear during an update is just anathema to me. Still they have a warm, welcoming, helpful community of knowledgeable people, and their PCLinuxOS Magazine is absolutely first-rate no matter what Linux distro you use.

So today’s back-to-basics, minimal, simple, lightweight, trouble-free, quick-as-lightning desktop is Xubuntu 12.04 with the supercool Faenza icon set and two panels: One for my frequently-used launchers on the bottom (but put it wherever you like in Xfce!) and one for notifications and taskbar on top. Out of my way but instantly available even if I’m in the middle of two or three things at once.

Minimal, Simple, fast, flawless, fearless, rock-stable on this old Dell, and supported until April of 2017. See? I told you my mind was made up!

Oh, and that wallpaper, by the way, is a drawing, not a photograph!

A Xubuntu User’s Review of SalixOS 14.0

This is me tinkering with Linux again. Be sure not to overlook the UPDATE at the end of this post.

Yesterday and today I’m testing SalixOS 14.0 on an identical computer to my own desktop computer, a Dell Dimension with an old Celeron processor and 512 of RAM.

SalixOSlogo

SalixOS 14.0 is not available as a LiveCD yet. You can get the previous version, 13.7 as a LiveCD to “test drive” without making changes to your hard drive, but it has an older version of Xfce on it. The new version (4.10) has a bunch of changes and it’s not like the Ubuntu-style metapackages I’m used to. It’s designed so you can install components in a non-Xfce environment, which is kinda cool. I suppose if you want LXDE but with an Xfce panel and the Xfce goodies you can do that now. At the time of this posting the only way to “test” SalixOS 14.0 is to install it to a hard drive or use it in a virtual environment (which I’ve never done). But the installer is effortless, fast, and easy to follow. It even offers recommendations and information to help you decide how to proceed at each step.

If I were to reduce my review down to a single sentence, I would say that what Ubuntu has done for Debian, SalixOS is trying to do for Slackware. Except that Salix is still fully compatible with it’s parent distro, and Ubuntu is definitely not.

SalixOS is easy, simple, and fast. But it “feels” older even though all the software seems to be up-to-date. That’s prob’ly just the default configuration, easily changed in Xfce as always.  I’ll offer some screenshots in later posts, probably.

Salix doesn’t “do it all for you” the way Xubuntu always did. You need to manually set up the little conveniences like “print to pdf” and such, but newbie-friendly instructions are available on the Wiki. Some big differences between Salix and Xubuntu are: Lilo as the default boot manager (but you can choose Grub on installation if you prefer it), LibreOffice instead of Abiword and Gnumeric, the newest version of the ultralight Midori web browser instead of Firefox version Twelve Zillion.0, Claws-Mail instead of Thunderbird, good ol’ reliable ALSA instead of PulseAudio, etc. Another nice feature is Salix’s “keep it simple” approach. One application per task. That’s why it all still fits on a CD instead of a big ol’ DVD. Even Xubuntu has seen the last of it’s releases that will still fit on a CD.

Adding and removing software is as easy in Salix as it is in Xubuntu’s Synaptic Package Manager (I never cared for the Ubuntu Software Center anyway – I always delete that resource-hogging eye candy from a new install of Xubuntu), using the GSlapt package manager for Slackware stuff, and Sourcery, a Synaptic-like compiler with supposedly good dependency support. Dependency support is one of the strong points of Debian/Ubuntu’s apt-get package management, but it can also get “messy” and pull in other who-knows-what stuff along with it. I don’t know if any of that accounts for some slow-downs in Xubuntu or not, or if it’s just the fact that it updates so often and sometimes a software update in one bit of software hinders or cripples another bit of software.

Speaking of updates: Kernel upgrades are still fast and furious in Xubuntu 12.04 LTS (I even got two kernel updates in a single week!) and they tend to scare me. I reboot after one of those updates and pray that it still works!  Updates only rarely break Slackware.

The only surprise is the size of the software repositories.  Perhaps I was a little spoiled using Debian and Ubuntu repositories which are vast, huge storehouses of amazing software.  The Salix/Slackware repos are much smaller.  I guess the saying is true:  “Choose a distro and you choose a repository too.”  But about that:  I’d much rather have a smaller repository of absolutely rock-stable software that will not conflict with other software or be broken by frequent updates than to have a huge, vast, confusing library to wade through.  Besides, the Sourcery compiler (unique to Salix) should allow me to safely add a few other favorite applications, and having a favorite one added is is easy as asking for it.  Win/win.

I’m a busy sidekick and haven’t got a lot of time for playing around and tinkering with Linux distros the way I used to. I’ll just use my Salix computer as I normally use my Xubuntu one and if it continues to impress me as it has so far, I’ll likely not bother to look any further.

I give SalixOS 14.0 seven Penguins out of ten for simplicity, reliability, stability, beauty, configurability, and versatility.

____________

UPDATE: 

The Sourcery app looks pretty cool and attempts to address dependency issues, but it has proved to be unreliable.  It has failed me at least half the time.  Applications began freezing or locking up after a few weeks.  Thunderbird, Firefox, Midori, Opera, and then Seamonkey all worked for the first few days of use, then either froze up or lost all my settings and passwords and bookmarks and such and refused to let me restore them.  I ran Bleachbit to clean up and start over, but the same results repeated themselves.  Updates were buggy, sometimes coming within a few minutes of each other and sometimes conflicting with prior updates.  That completely floored me because of Slackware’s wonderful reputation for not having update issues.  Saturday unintentionally became my last day as a Salix user when it refused to boot at all and balked at every attempt to fix it.

I could re-install, but geez, what the heck for?  I had a pretty good thing going there with Xubuntu LTS, so it’s time to go “running back home” to my faithful, comfortable, reliable default.