Compare, Ponder, Choose

So for a few weeks I have had a great chance to compare two awesome Linux distributions (hereafter “distro” or plural form “distros”), each with unique tools and features. So much of choosing a distro has to do with completely subjective stuff like the user’s ability, tastes, and values. There are desktops and Window managers to choose from, levels of risk to choose from, rolling-release vs. point releases (both have their advantages and disadvantages), system tools and system toys that may be unique to a particular distro. One is not better than other as far as most of the objective measures are concerned, it’s about “which is better for me.”

I had a big fancy 64-bit hand-me-down HP all-in-one desktop that ran PCLinuxOS Xfce “mini” in spite of it’s abundance of RAM and processing power. Until the hard drive finally failed completely. I also have a Dell Latitude laptop, also 64-bit, with 3 gb of RAM and a decent processor, running Linux Lite. Both ran well, except as noted in the following few paragraphs, and either one may suit any particular user – except new users, perhaps, in which Linux Lite has a decisive edge if, in my opinion, an additional safety feature is added. Without that added safety net, Linux Lite is no safer than any rolling-release distro as far as things being broken by updates – a very common complaint in most Ubuntu-based distros. Recently, “upstream” Ubuntu included Beta software in an update that broke a whole bunch of systems “downstream” until a later update fixed it. There’s no excuse for that! Especially in a Linux distro that is targeted at novice users.

PCLinuxOS

The “main” version is KDE, which has been doing through big huge changes recently to the new KDE5. Breakage is probably to expected with all the big changes, and KDE4 is no longer supported in PCLinuxOS. It is definitely a “KDE-centric” distro, and even the standard Xfce community edition has abuncha KDE/Qt stuff in it. That’s fine on a hearty machine, but many people choose Xfce because they want a lean, fast desktop, and KDE is a long-time resource hog. I used the Xfce “mini” after getting a little frustrated with the “regular” Xfce edition, and it was decisively more nimble and responsive. Unencumbered by systemd or “KDE stuff,” I enjoyed the speed, but experienced very frequent crashes in both of my two favorite web browsers, Seamonkey and Midori. I was more than a little spooked by the all-or-nothing approach to updating, even though PCLinuxOS has a large number of people who test newer versions of software before it gets added to the repository for the rest of us. Perhaps it’s just because of the big changes to KDE right now, but “broken after updating” threads have dominated the support forums. I experienced no breakage in my KDE-free system. Still, it’s a rolling-release distro with all the advantages like install once and update forever without ever having to install it again – and the disadvantages like “oops look what got by the testers” and “we didn’t anticipate it’s impact on other (non-KDE) desktop applications.” Is rolling release better? Well, for some, yes, and for others, no. I don’t think it’s for me, though, and that’s just a personal choice.

PCLinuxOS has an awesome tool kit for tuning and tweaking the system and doing other tasks. Several are unique to the distro, and I love the innovation. The community is absolutely second to none; cordial, knowledgeable, welcoming, generous, patient, and full of good humor and enthusiasm for the team and the distro. The monthly PCLOS magazine is wonderful, and users of any distro can benefit from reading it’s tutorials, recipes, puzzles, interviews, and reviews.

The reason I ran to PCLinuxOS to begin with was that it is systemd-free. Not that I ever had any issues with systemd myself, but the potential for big problems and back doors is very big and very scary. But that’s potential, not realized/actual, at least not yet. It bears watching. Yet on the other hand, it’s so widely adopted in the Linux world that there are now thousands of developers and coders to keep watch of it and to prevent it from becoming a major threat to privacy and security. Most of the objections I have found to systemd make a lot of sense, but they are years old already, and many of the vulnerabilities discovered have long-since been patched. The bottom line is reliability, simplicity, and speed. Especially for us “casual” desktop users and technophobes. I have decided that for now at least, I can’t make such a big deal of systemd based on vulnerabilities discovered and patched long before it finally appeared in most Ubuntu-LTS-based distros. Technophobia is one thing. Paranoia is a whole ‘nother critter.

With the loss of my fancy hand-me-down 64-bit all-in-one HP ‘puter’s hard drive, I dug an ancient Dell Dimension out of mothballs and decided to test out the 32-bit version of another favorite of mine, Linux Lite (32-bit).

Linux Lite

Xfce desktop, of course, because it’s lightweight, infinitely configurable, gorgeous, super-simple, and totally awesome. It also has a cool tool kit unique to Linux Lite, like “Lite Tweaks that lets the user safely do all kindsa system stuff in a few mouse clicks. This is great for new users!

Also unique to Linux Lite is that applications are named for what they do, not by their “real” names that tell the user nothing about them. How will a new user from Windows or Mac know that Thunar is a file manager? They wouldn’t, so in Linux Lite it’s simply called “File Manager.” What a concept, huh? Yes, this won’t matter to most long-time Linux users, but for introducing newcomers to Linux awesomeness, this is thoughtful and wise.

My browsers behave better in Linux Lite than they did in PCLinuxOS, though I have no idea why. I just know that they do. Fewer crashes, fewer freezes, fewer surprises.

Now about updating: What I am about to suggest is only my opinion, and plenty of people who are a lot smarter than I am will strongly disagree. The following suggestion is not officially supported by Linux Lite and in fact, opposed very strongly by it’s lead developer. But I find myself in very good and numerous company when I say that updates can do as much damage as good, and nothing frustrates new Linux users than unexpected breakage caused by updates. As I have already mentioned, “upstream” Ubuntu is known to include beta software in it’s updates, and there is absolutely no excuse for making unwitting beta-testers out of novice users (and simple people like me, and technophobes like me) without their knowledge and consent! This is unforgivable. Users of Linux Mint enjoy true freedom from these ridiculous, highly risky upstream updates, because their Updater allows the user to selectively update their system according to risk. A wonderful, awesome former member of the Linux Lite development team has adapted Linux Mint’s awesome Updater for Linux Lite and made it available to Linux Lite users (here). He also has taken another of Linux Mint’s cool tools, called MintStick, and included it in his repository of awesomeness. In PCLinuxOS you can use GParted and MyLiveCD to do the same things that MintStick does, but the process is cumbersome and time-consuming compared to the “click-click-done” simplicity of MintStick. The Updater from unlockforus.com I consider a vitally important safety measure for Linux Lite, and whenever I introduce new users to Linux I will include it by default, it’s that important. Otherwise, new users should start with Linux Mint if their hardware can handle a heavier load than Linux Lite ordinarily uses.

I now have Linux Lite running on all my machines, and have no plans to change.

It Sounds Kinda Like Slackware – But With Gnome Stuff!

…That is, if you like and want Gnome stuff, like Geary, one of my e-mail favorite clients.  Gnome stuff is unavailable in Slackware (and therefore unavailable in Salix).  I might have switched permanently to Salix from Xubuntu if not for that, because of the systemd thing.  I know, I know, before you jump all over me for having such great reservations about systemd, it’s simply this:  Systemd removes a lot of choice and control from the end-user, leaving it up to developers and maintainers.  So much stuff is dependent on systemd in Linux distros that have switched to it – including all the Big Ones like Debian, Ubuntu (and all it’s derivative distros like Xubu, Lubu, Kubu etc., Linux Mint), and Red Hat (Fedora and family).  Slackware and it’s derivatives remain systemd-free, as does PCLinuxOS and a shrinking number of others.

So what’s this new systemd-unencumbered distro?  It’s a virtual unknown called Void Linux.  Not a fork, not built or derived from any other Linux distro, Void is described as “the most BSD-like Linux distribution out there.”  Users describe it as superduperultramega lightning fast on even ancient hardware. It needs only 96 megabytes of RAM!  Available in “flavors” from KDE and Gnome to LXDE, Xfce, LXQt, and even Enlightenment, Void Linux is a rolling-release distro that uses runit instead of systemd.  It just sounds awesomely perfect for hopefully bringing my old “dead” relic back to life, if I can fix the hardware issue.

VoidLinux

So, naturally, I’ll have to try this thing out.  It’s not for beginners, probably not for technophobes either, but curiosity has got the better of me and I’ll at least experiment with the Live Xfce version, and if my hardware issue can be fixed on the old Dell, I’ll throw Void Linux on there and write about it here.  Stay tuned!

 

Linux Snobs

I didn’t actually get rapped on the knuckles for this post, but I expected it and was surprised that it never came. It restored my hopes that Linux snobbery was on the wane – except perhaps in some corners of the Debian / Arch / Gentoo communities, perhaps. I am really bothered by Linux snobbery, probably more than normal. Perhaps because:

  • I was an adult, a husband, career firefighter, and father of two before I overcame my own technophobia enough to even try Linux, just to avoid buying a new computer to replace an aging heap that I couldn’t afford to throw away.
  • When I finally got up the courage and installed my first Linux distro, I was feeling not only accomplished and exhilarated, but also proud that I had given new life to my computer. Even my family was impressed, and that ain’t easy!
  • So when I mentioned it on a Linux forum I had joined just because it seemed like a sensible precaution to take being a novice, imagine my surprise to find arrogant hostility! Not from Windows users who thought I had lost my mind, but from arrogant, snobby, jerkweed Linux users who chided me for using “a kiddie distro,” Ubuntu. Apparently a few other Ubuntu users had been chased away by the same elitist attitude.

But Linux elitism is ultimately self-defeating if you think about it. Microsoft knows it. Apple knows it. That’s why they market their products to kids. They know kids love gadgets. They don’t care if kids learn the inner workings of those gadgets, they just exploit kids for their interest in having the coolest and most fun gadgets. But GNU/Linux and open-source software and hardware depends on future coders, engineers, and geeks that are not driven just to be cool, but to be geeky and creative. Don’t put down their mom and dad for using a “kiddie distro.” Instead help their parents pique their kids’ interest in contributing to something with more noble and global impact potential. And let the kids play.

So here’s a grownup’s really fun-looking eye candy on a “kiddie distro” that I think can encourages the next generation of wonderful geeks and coders that can keep open-source alive and competing with it’s proprietary rivals.

That’s a custom Conky display going on in the upper right part of the screen. And while “wobbly windows” is nothing new, it’s no less cool. That silly stuff could keep me in front of the computer longer than the tedium of just doing work. Even grownups gotta play sometimes. And if kids know their mom or dad made such cool stuff all by themselves, they’ll want to learn it too.

So, Linux snobs, consider what you do when you see “kid stuff” on “kiddie distros.” And shut up.