Thursday, November 11, 2010

Evaluating desktop Linux systems mini review

Evaluating desktop Linux systems mini review, Part One
In this mini review, I am doing a survey of a variety of distributions in various categories, sharing my observations, and making a few recommendations of the distributions that fit a few categories best in my opinion, based on criteria that I have established. I will explain my criteria in this mini review.

Every day systems that are easy to use

In this category, I look for a combination of easy to install, easy to maintain systems that can be used every day with a minimal amount of maintenance. Ease of use and stability are prime considerations in this category.

The following systems are my favorites. I will state my reasons in the paragraphs that follow:

SimplyMEPIS: This distribution was first released to the public in 2003. At that time, there were few distributions that were capable of either running "Live" from CD or installed to disk. KNOPPIX, of course, has always been the classic "Swiss Army Knife" of Live distributions, but it has never had a really good hard disk installation program. MEPIS, in 2003, changed all of that. In 2004, the name SimplyMEPIS was chosen when MEPIS began to include the KDE desktop and a full collection of simple administration tools. SimplyMEPIS has always been easy to install, extremely stable, and remains a model for others to follow when it comes to a general purpose system you can insert into a CD or DVD drive and run it - even while you are installing it. Many other distributions, of course, now have this capability as well, but it was MEPIS that popularized it, and in 2004 it was a leader on the DistroWatch charts - until two other distributions, PCLinuxOS and Ubuntu, came on the scene. They dwarfed SimplyMEPIS in terms of visibility and popularity, but SimplyMEPIS, to me, remains the standard for stability, a heritage it gains and extends from its parent, the excellent Debian distribution.

PCLinuxOS: If you want a distribution that is just as easy as SimplyMEPIS to install, but can be more frequently updated to have the most current stable software, then PCLinuxOS should be seriously considered. I am writing this mini review using the easy Notepad editor, Leafpad, which I have added to my PCLinuxOS system. PCLinuxOS comes in many flavors and variations. The standard version uses a very current implementation of KDE. If you keep your PCLinuxOS desktop regularly up to date, you can have KDE SC 4.5.3 installed, a clean, stable, full featured desktop. PCLinuxOS implements their version of KDE with a blend of the "old" and the "new", making it easy to migrate into for classic KDE 3 users, and it has a solid PCLinuxOS brand and look. Upgrading software in PCLinuxOS is easy, using the aging, but still very useful, Synaptic package manager. Some distributions offer a "Software Center", a "Software Manager", or an "Upgrade Manager", but Synaptic is functional, stable, and gets the job done with little fuss. There is usually a Synaptic task bar icon you can use to start Synaptic. If not, Synaptic is also easily found in the Software Center menu of the "PC" start menu provided in the KDE implementation of PCLinuxOS. The distribution also includes a number of additional desktop and window manager alternatives for those who prefer something else. They include GNOME, Xfce, LXDE, and Enlightenment E17. I include Xfce and LXDE in addition to KDE on my PCLinuxOS setup, and each of them works very well. For an easy to use system that is also very up to date in desktop applications, PCLinuxOS should be included in any evaluation.

EasyPeasy: I include this distribution as a non-traditional approach. This distribution was originally created for use with netbook systems. According to Wikipedia, "Ubuntu Eee was started by Jon Ramvi in December 2007. In June 2008 the project was disbanded as a script and Ubuntu Eee 8.04 was released as a stand-alone distribution, based on Ubuntu 8.04 with EeePC support installed out of the box. It was renamed EasyPeasy in January 2009, and has been downloaded well over half a million times from the main mirror." What is nice about the current version of Easy Peasy is that it uses the Ubuntu installation configuration. You can run it live and install it to disk as you continue to use it. When they use the name "Easy Peasy", they mean it. This distribution is as easy as any distribution to install, and the desktop icons make it easy to find and run any application on the system. The available software on the current release comes from the Long Term Support (LTS) Ubuntu repositories. This distribution loads quickly, runs with low overhead, so it works well on systems with moderate speed and capabilities. It's easy, too, so it deserves a look. It also can be effectively used when you are on the go. It has plenty of applications that can be used on mobile networks.

Peppermint OS One: This distribution, which has been available since this past Spring, initially found a lot of attention, and for good reason. Like Lubuntu (which is on my "Honorable mentions" list) it is easy to install, but I feel that Peppermint OS One provides a more complete selection of software and a theme of its own, an experimental hybrid that combines easy installation, some traditional applications, and a smattering of potential "Cloud based" applications. It has an attractive appearance, runs very well, is trivial to maintain, and it now even has two "flavors" of Peppermint: the OS One implementation originally provided, and a cool, "Ice" flavored implementation, which changes the appearance and uses Google Chromium as the means of creating "Web based applications". Both OS One and Ice do an excellent job of providing a stable, light, fast system that is perfect for heavy Internet use.

Honorable mentions: Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, and Xubuntu are also very easy to install and use, and they each make excellent alternatives to the easy to use favorites that I have listed.

Lightweight distributions that can run from memory

This category includes systems that can load from CD, DVD, or USB stick and run directly from memory. In the early part of this decade, KNOPPIX really changed the course of distribution development. It was the first distribution to popularize running software straight from CD or DVD. To this day, KNOPPIX remains a leader in that area. A number of other distributions, however, took the technology and went different directions with it. While KNOPPIX grew and became really large for a while, several others took the opposite extreme and attempted to be very small and light, so that they could load quickly from media completely into memory. Some of the earliest distributions to go this way were DSL: Damn Small Linux, and Feather Linux. Unfortunately, neither of these distributions have been actively developed in recent years. Fortunately, many others have taken their place.

Puppy: This is probably the most popular of the lightweight distributions that can run from memory, and for good reason. Puppy is easily customizable, and numerous "Pups" have evolved over the years. Some of them continue along the original path and remain small and light. Other "Pups" are larger - for desktop use, for religious study, and for many other purposes. Barry Kauler, the originator of Puppy, has recently gone another direction, creating a "Woof" technology, which allows Puppy "Pet" packages to be created from various other Linux packaging methods. The result is the current Puppy series: Version 5 "Lupu Puppy", which uses Ubuntu Lucid Lynx packages. Puppy 5.1.1, the current release, can still be loaded completely into memory from the distribution media, so it is capable of running very fast.

antiX: This is my favorite. It is about four times larger in size than Puppy, but on systems with a decent amount of memory, it can still be loaded live from media directly into memory. It can be easily installed on a USB stick and carried around in your pocket, great when you are traveling. The antiX distribution, however, is generaally installed, and in that configuration, it displays a more complete distribution than the stock Puppy. The antiX distribution currently uses a MEPIS kernel, but it has provisions for replacing the stock kernel with a Debian, aptosid, or Liquorix kernel, so it is a great system for building and remastering your own custom configuration. A recent "Proof of Concept" (POC) was developed, antiX core, which installs only the core system software, along with utilities to allow you to build your own custom system. The core version does not include a graphical environment, but in one or two commands, you can set up a working desktop. I installed core in five to ten minutes, and within twenty minutes, I created a really fast, flexible, good looking desktop system that had precisely the software I wanted. The antiX project includes antiX M8.5, a light, but full featured system that comes by default with the IceWM and Fluxbox window managers and a small, but complete set of lightweight desktop applications. There is also an alternative, antiX base, that comes with the Fluxbox window manager and just a few applications, that you can use as a slightly more complete base system on which you can build a customized system. All three of these approaches are light, nimble, very usable, and fast.

SliTAZ: A year or two ago, this was the smallest, lightest Live system that you could get. At around 30 MB, it was lighter than either the old DSL or Feather Linux systems. It loads into memory extremely quickly, then runs as fast as anything out there. It remains the smallest distribution actually capable of doing real work without adding anything to it.

Evaluating desktop Linux systems mini review, Part Two

Tiny Core: SliTAZ "was" the smallest, but Tiny Core took that title away. At 10 MB, it is a third the size of SliTAZ. However, it comes with no applications. You have to download them each time you load Tiny Core. At 10 MB, it took me literally a matter of seconds to download the Tiny Core image. It took just a few minutes to burn the image to CD, then it took maybe a minute to start it up. About ten minutes after downloading it, I had burned the image, rebooted my system, and started running Tiny Core. Two minutes later, I had a Web browser running. Like the other small distributions, it all runs from memory, so it is very fast.

Hobbyist and Cutting Edge Systems

You can't have this category without including two of the earliest distributions: Slackware and Debian. Both of them are extremely stable in their standard forms, and both of them are leading starting points for hundreds of other distributions. On the Slackware derivative honor role are Absolute Linux, Salix, SLAX, Vector Linux, and Zenwalk Linux. There are many others Slackware based systems as well. On the Debian list, I've mentioned many distributions already. SimplyMEPIS, antiX, EasyPeasy, Peppermint OS One, Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, and Xubuntu are all derived from Debian based software. KNOPPIX is also based on Debian software.

My favorite every day distribution, aptosid, very much a hobbyist distribution, not anywhere near as simple as SimplyMEPIS or PCLinuxOS to manage for beginners, but praised by veterans, aptosid, once called sidux, and evolved from another KNOPPIX inspired distribution, Kanotix, has been described as Debian Sid on mood stabilizers and steroids. A system management tool created by a former Kanotix and sidux developer, Harold Hope (h2), called smxi, is not a part of either the sidux or aptosid distribution, but has been widely used by sidux and aptosid users. It makes extending and maintaining aptosid fast and easy for busy veteran users. What makes aptosid great is that the downloadable image is highly compressed, and that makes it fast to load, in spite of its fairly large size. You can start aptosid initially from CD or DVD in just a few minutes. If you load aptosid onto a USB stick and install it from there, you can install the entire system in five minutes. A few years ago when it was somewhat smaller, I installed the previous system, then called sidux, in an incredible two minutes and seventeen seconds! Considering the fact that I installed about 700 MB of compressed software onto around a 2 GB system, that was an incredible feat! The most recent release of aptosid, which was on a 1.4 GB DVD, installed in just over five minutes. The aptosid software not only installs fast, it runs fast too. The KDE implementation is one of the lightest and fastest implementations available, and the same is true of the Xfce implementation. You can get a CD with KDE, a really moderate sized CD with Xfce, or a larger 2.2 GB DVD with both KDE, Xfce, and a choice of Intel or AMD based configurations. I find aptosid ideal for me as an experienced user who still appreciates speed and convenience, but no coddling; you have to know what you are doing when you use aptosid.

Mandriva Cooker offers one of the most cutting edge system available. The more familiar Mandriva, and the software it comes from, Mandrake, were known as among the first easy to use systems. Still fairly popular, but constantly challenged by financial problems in the parent company, Mandriva has lost much of its luster. The Mandriva Cooker, however, remains a fertile testing ground for some of the most cutting edge traditional desktop software you can find. I always use the Mandriva Cooker to examine and test the latest desktop software, especially Alpha and Beta tests of the upcoming KDE desktop software.

Three other distributions that have to be mentioned when you are talking about cutting edge systems are Gentoo, Arch, and Linux From Scratch. Gentoo is primarily a source code based system, but binary packages and complete Live CD systems are also available. The Sabayon distribution has evolved from Gentoo, and for some people, it offers an easier starting point. If you want to build a system from source code, Gentoo is one good place to start. If, on the other hand, you want to build your own system, but you want to start with primarily binary packages to get a faster start, then Arch Linux is a great way to go. Once you have the base system in place, you can update it with either binary packages or you can build additional software from source code, your choice. If you want to learn how to build a complete system from scratch, there is truly no more complete way to do that than by using Linux From Scratch. There is a completely documented archive and book about how to build every aspect of the system: the kernel, the core utilities, and even the bootstrapping of the system. I've never actually built Linux From Scratch. It can literally take a week to build unless you have extremely powerful hardware and you already know exactly what you want and how to do it. Hard core enthusiasts who want to understand every aspect of creating Linux software will want this approach. 99.99% of the rest of us will choose one of the other options. There are literally hundreds of distributions to choose from. DistroWatch recognizes over six hundred of them, and there are many more than that! The distributions that I have mentioned are an extremely small sample of the varieties you can choose. The vast majority of them represent very good software. I have simply provided you with a survey of the ones that interest me and a few highlights of why I like them. Hopefully this survey is entertaining and even useful to you. It was fun to write on a very easy to use system, PCLinuxOS!

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