The size of community supporting a distro affects your use of the
distro. Say you need help solving a problem. With the dominant distros
you have a wide variety of sources for help. There are formal online
and printed documentation, and even books you can download or buy. With
the less popular distros, formal doc is the exception rather than the
rule. You'll rely on forums for answers.
When you go to the forums, the popular products offer several from
which to choose. Even the generic Linux forums, like LinuxForums or LinuxQuestions,
include specific sections for the big name systems. With the less
popular distros, your only dedicated forum may be at the
Some users like having multiple forums supporting their distro because they think it more likely they'll get their questions answered. My experience has been that the less popular product forums do just as well in this regard due to the dedication of their communities. (Your mileage may vary by product and the questions you ask.)
I find a stronger sense of community on the forums of the less
popular products. With fewer participants and more leisurely posting,
you get to know the people with whom you interact. That can
happen on the websites of the dominant distros but it isn't as common.
Post on the Ubuntu forum, for example, and your question rolls off the
first page within hours. You'll probably get a quick answer, but that's
the end of it. Post at the Vector or Puppy or PC-BSD forums, and your
question remains visible for days or even weeks. Responses linger
longer, so discussions persist. This results in closer-knit
Here's something to consider: not all minor distros survive. For
example, Vector has a decade-long track
record, and one could argue that Puppy has broken into the big
leagues. But Damn Small Linux was only reactivated recently after a
hiatus, and two products I once had fun with, Wolvix and BeatrIX, have
gone the way of the Dodo. Check the viability of an online community
before you give your heart to it.
Packaging quality is another differentiator between the dominant and
less popular distros. Perhaps it's unfair to generalize -- but it's
probably true that you run a greater chance of uncovering a
previously-unknown problem in a distro with fewer users than one that
has millions. (Many other factors play here, too, such as how well a
project tests new versions prior to release and the testing methods
they use.) In my experience, I've uncovered more "new" bugs in the
lesser-used products than in the big name systems.
Dependency checking is a good example. The repositories of the less
widely-used products contain fewer apps. Package testing for new
releases and compatibility testing across apps may be spotty compared
to the big distros with their many users. If an inexperienced user
installs lots of apps or makes big changes to his base install, he is
more likely to encounter problems with a less popular distro than if he
sticks with a name brand. (Obviously this gross generalization varies
Many less popular distros rely on point releases rather than automatic updates to fix bugs. Their fixes thus often come slower than those from the big name products.
Who Should Use the Less Popular Distros?For naive end users, the less widely used distros work well -- if the user is satisfied with the product as distributed. VectorLinux, Puppy, PC-BSD, Damn Small, and distros of similar popularity are good tools for end users who will "set it and forget it."
If a user of lesser expertise or limited patience installs one of these distros and then expects to make lots of changes without "wasting" time, they may be disappointed. Incompatibilities and breakage are more likely, as are undocumented problems. A smaller user base increases the chances that others have not yet run into any particular problem. And there is less doc to guide beginners.
For hobbyists and sophisticated users, the less popular distros are good options even when making lots of changes. These folks have both the willingness and the ability to do some testing and poking around. They're comfortable asking questions and digging answers out of forums.
For those who have the time and the interest, the less popular distros offer a unique opportunity to participate in a Linux community. Want to learn more about Linux? Support open source? Become a key project contributor? The less popular distros could be a great match for you. They have been for me.
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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant. Four Lightweight Distros Compared summarizes his OS News reviews of VectorLinux, Puppy Linux, Lubuntu, and Damn Small Linux. You may also be interested in Which Linux Distro is Best?