posted by Andrew Davis on Mon 22nd Nov 2004 20:12 UTC
IconI admit that I'm a geek. I use Linux. I use Solaris. I use FreeBSD. At times, I use Windows. And without a doubt, I download and try almost every Linux distribution when they come out. Over the last few years, I've tried all of the RedHat/Fedora releases, 2 different Lindows/Linspire releases, Mandrake, Gentoo, Xandros, Suse, Ubuntu, and the list goes on.

I've learned that each is designed in different ways and each shines in different ways. Xandros is by far the best when it comes to integrating into a Windows network. Linspire is the best if you're the average home user that simply wants a cheap replacement for Windows or otherwise can't afford Windows. The recent release of Suse 9.2 Professional shines on mobility with the Profile Manager for quickly changing between networks, and with their stellar out-of-the-box power management and wireless support, especially for laptops. And RedHat/Fedora is one of the most stable, though as a result, one of the most bland distibutions. Gentoo is fairly complex, but gives you the power to do whatever you want: cpu optimizations, kernel tweaks, etc. Fedora aims to be completely free. Suse & RedHat seem to believe in charging big bucks (though always just a little less than Windows) for corporate support and "Professional" versions. Linspire seems to think you should get your OS for free, but pay for your applications.

But while each distribution shines in one area or another, they each suffer too. Fedora/Redhat, for all its stability, is bland. Their Bluecurve theme looks like Windows 3.11 colors on a stripped down Mac interface. And their focus on Gnome comes at the expense of their KDE release. Suse is almost a polar opposite. Suse's KDE is bright and stunning, but their Gnome release looks pitiful. Fedora, for all its *completely freeness* lacks support for a lot of things such as some wireless chipsets and MP3 support. Xandros, for all its awesome Windows network integration, stinks on laptops and gets worse power management than Windows 95. And Linspire, while being great for the average home user or person without an admin around, is too simple for the seasoned user and feels too much like someone is holding your hand.

But one must also consider the markets of each distribution. Fedora, Debian, and Gentoo are aimed at the experienced user that can afford to do a little to a lot of tweaking under the hood. RedHat, Suse, Xandros, and Sun's JDS are all aiming at corporate America where its assumed there's an IT department to lock things down and fix things when a user thinks they knew more than they did and rendered their system unusable. And then there's Linspire who seems to be equally torn between pushing Linux to the average, cost-sensitive home user while trying their best to upset Microsoft.

However, for all the pros and cons of each distribution, after installation is done and things are considered to be stable and usable, its the applications that make the difference. One of the compelling reasons for choosing Linux over Windows is the vast amount of free and included softwares. Install Windows XP and you have an operating system, a web browser (IE), an email client (Outlook Express), and a few games. Now you have to buy an office suite. And you must buy your DVD player software, and your CD burner software, and your anti-virus software, and your anti-spam software, and the list goes on. But install the average Linux distribution and you already have an office suite (OpenOffice), a CD burner, a DVD player (though not normally with encrypted DVD support). Anti-virus software isn't really needed for Linux, but its available. Spam is os agnostic, but anti-spam software is included with most Linux releases.

Now to the problem. With the rare exception, any software you buy for Windows will work on Windows. This is a value-add offered by Microsoft and encouraged by their anti-competitive, monopolistic practices. The same cannot always be said for Linux. For each application, developers must often release a source package, a .deb, and a .rpm. And for each .rpm, many times you need a separate one for Fedora, Suse, Mandrake, etc. And most often, the same Fedora .rpm that is released for FC1, won't install cleanly on FC2. This is what the experienced Linux user calls "dependency hell" because the application releases are dependent on certain libraries, etc.

It's with this in mind that other websites have popped up to offer a large quantity of additional applications, all compiled to work with certain Linux releases. There's freshrpms which has packages for all RedHat and Fedora releases, as well as Yellow Dog (think Fedora for the PPC). There's the guys at kde-redhat who's whole goal in life is to make KDE look like it should on Fedora/RedHat. There's the "packman" site which offers packages for Suse. Xandros has their own Xandros Network which is a repository of applications for Xandros systems. And Linspire has their Click-N-Run Warehouse which is one of the largest repositories of Linux software anywhere, though sadly, only for Linspire systems.

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