The pleasures and perils of less popular distributions

Like many OSNews readers, I use Ubuntu. I also use several less popular distros. What is it like to use these lesser-known distros compared to the dominant systems? How does running, say, VectorLinux or Puppy or PC-BSD, differ from using Ubuntu or Fedora? This article offers a few ideas. Obviously, it broadly generalizes about distros for the purpose of discussion.


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
product’s website.

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

forums narrow your scope for participation. On the Ubuntu forum, for
example, you
must either answer an easy question almost as soon as it’s posted, or
be the expert who answers the really tough questions to which no one
replies. Otherwise your post quickly gets buried under so many others.
I prefer the relaxed pace of the smaller forums. With the most popular
distros I participate in the secondary forums.

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
by product.)

Do the more popular distros roll out new technology faster? It makes
sense that they could, given their much larger project teams. But much
depends on the projects’ priorities. The big name distros with their
greater resources often more quickly roll out technologies like new
user interfaces or 64-bit versions. But one can certainly find
exceptions where smaller projects beat them to the punch. In fact, the
very raison d’etre of some smaller projects
is to test or introduce a new technology.
Small projects can address important technology niches or specific
the more popular general-purpose distros don’t.

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

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.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant. Four
Lightweight Distros Compared
summarizes his OS News reviews of VectorLinux,
, Lubuntu,
and Damn
Small Linux
. You may also be interested in Which
Linux Distro is Best?


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