Choosing Between the Big Linux Distros

I’m a web designer and a recent Linux convert who has tried several of the large distros. This article is the
summary of my experience over the last few months. I decided to start using Linux a few months ago around the time Mandrake went to version 9 and Red Hat to version 8. With all the hype I figured I’d give it a try.Mandrake 9 was my first distro–it gave me problems with user management from the first day. It didn’t seem intuitive and I lasted about a week with it. At the recommendation of many linux users, I installed RedHat 8. I found it to be an easy transition from Windows (with the exception of networking and mounting drives). Not only that, it ran faster than XP and was more customizable.

Not one to be content with status quo, I decided to try other distros, looking for something even better.

Lycoris gave me easy networking (a HUGE plus) and found my
windows HD and mounted it by itself, but that was about all I liked about it. It tried a little too hard to look like Windows. The default software selection was pitiful and there was no way to change what was installed. Overall, it was not only not geared towards a power user, but dumbed down just enough leave me wanting enough to not use it for long. I’d still recommend it to someone who just wanted a web browsing/office distro however.

SuSE was very pretty but I found it slower than RH and it didn’t come with a lot of the software I’d grown accustomed to using with other distros, notably Gaim. Installing it via FTP was also a huge pain (I ended up having to do it twice because of some errors I made in the configuration). YAST and YAST2 seemed awkward and slow. SuSE wasn’t bad, and I can’t really put my finger on the problem, it just seemed that doing things in SuSE
always took a little longer than they should have. It lasted a few weeks, and I’ll admit, I missed its beautiful interface when it was gone.

Yoper was a HUGE disappointment. First, couldn’t even install it because it kept bringing me to a bash$ prompt… eventually, searching Google (not on I found a weblog where someone said you type “yoper” at the prompt… maybe this should have been obvious, but why you have to do that, I may never know. It ran very slowly–much slower than Red Hat or Mandrake (optimized for speed?) and was by far the ugliest distro I’ve tried. The KDE theme was nice, but the colors they chose for the control panel and other aspects of the desktop were hideous, especially the horrible desktop backgrounds.

After I felt I had some experience with Linux, and and at the urging of friends, I tried Mandrake again only to find I was still unsatisfied with it. It seemed to try to look like widows too much with the tiny taskbar and it wasn’t up to par with the good looks of SuSE or the simplicity of Red Hat’s Blue Curve. The very worst part was that by now the 9.0 release was few months old and I had to download 280mb of updates for it. The size of the updates is not my complaint (you’re talking to someone who has downloaded about 15 Linux isos in the last couple months). RPMDrake was a nightmare. It was slow, and once it finally started updating RPMS, half of them failed. When one failed, it
would stop downloading the rest until you said it was ok to do so, so leaving it going all night was pointless. I had to sit there and babysit it through each of 64 downloads. Once the downloading finished I figured, well, half is better than none, but no–half (as far as RPMDrake was concerned) was none… Nothing installed. Time to breakout the RedHat cd’s again.

As a side note, During all this, I also discovered Knoppix. While this is not a Linux that is normally ‘installed,’ maybe it should be. I have very few complaints with it and have found that though it runs off a CD without even needing a hard drive, it is more functional than other full distros. Knoppix is very
easy to use and it has (in my mind) the most important software. I tried a couple other live-eval type distros. DemoLinux for one would not boot on either of my computers, maybe I am just unlucky. I tried an audio/video oriented distro, Dynebolic which wasn’t bad at all for what it tried to do. I missed having Gnome or KDE, but it seemed overall to be very functional. Suse’s live eval gives you a good idea of what SuSE is like, but is not practical for situations where you’d like to have Linux up and running in under 5 minutes. Gentoo’s Unreal Tournament CD worked like a charm, and did what it was supposed to do and not much more. No complaints there.

After going back and forth from one thing to another, I’m now on my fourth install of RH 8 and I don’t plan to change again. As far as I can tell, and from my experience so far, it is the best Linux distro out there. I have a full OS with all the software I need in under 1.5gb… try doing that with Windows XP. It’s easy
to use and updating it is a breeze. Updates always go quickly
and smootly, even Kernel updates. After searching Google,
mounting drives is almost no problem (permissions are still
somewhat confusing) Having to manually edit the fstab file, while
not overly difficult by any means, seems like a stretch… is
that considered to be usability? After messing around with
linuxconf long enough (which isn’t recommended for RedHat 8),
reading enough manuals and asking enough questions, I can
sometimes get samba up and running half right. I think it would be great if other distros would take lessons from Lycoris in this aspect.

I’m running it on a PII 450 w/ ~350mb or ram and a 3gb hd.
RedHat is responsive with the notable excepton of, and even that isn’t bad once it’s finally started. I don’t really notice a huge difference when I jump over to my 1.13ghz XP laptop. Blue Curve is great. It’s the only theme for Linux I’ve found that is not distracting, overdone or just not good looking.

Unified GNOME and KDE is fine with me… I like being able to choose between the different desktops without feeling like I’m switching OS’s entirely. KDE, in my experience is infinitely better than XP’s interface. The level to which you can customize it is amazing. I love GNOME for it’s simplicity and uniformity, I really like the default right click>new terminal option.

Maybe this should have been an intro, but better late than
never–my background is as a web designer and developer. I’m probably not quite a “power user” but I do like to get as much from as OS as possible, and don’t mind taking some time to learn how do do that. On the other hand, when I need to actually work, I want something that (to borrow a cliche) “just works.”

Just a final observation, here’s the mandatory reference to the wonderful woman in my life who is not 100% computer savvy or techie. My wife, who just wants it to work, has complained about every distro but Red Hat. what does that mean? Maybe nothing, maybe that Red Hat is easier to use… In any case, it’s the distro I’ll stick with.

About the Author:
Marcus Vorwaller. Long time web designer and recent linux convert.


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