Linux Desktop Distro Shootout: Just Something I Can Live With

It seems to me that a lot of attention lately in the commercial Linux development area has concentrated on either large enterprise customers, or wooing the home user who can barely turn a computer on. Even distros claiming to offer the perfect solution for both ends of the spectrum don’t quite seem to fit what I am looking for.

The story so far

I am a technical writer operating out of my home office. I call myself a Micro-Enterprise. Not a clueless newbie anymore, yet far from a guru. For more than three years I have been jumping from one Linux distribution to another, trying to find my holy grail of the perfect small office/home office distro that just worked. Never found it of course, because the perfect SOHO distro does not exist. Finally I decided to pick out a single distro that I could live with and be done with it. But which one?

After much thinking and tinkering, I decided that a debian option was the best way to go for me. Not pure debian, I am not quite ready for that yet. I am not a programmer. I like having those handy little user tools that save me time and effort. When they work. I like having a *Commercial* distributor do the grunt work so I don’t have to. I am willing to pay for that.

I am not saying that there is anything wrong with any of the other types of distros. Don’t send me any hostile email please. If you like them, use them. I am only saying what I chose for my purposes.

I know that I should theoretically be able to find what I am looking for in any of the more popular debian based distros. But unfortunately, not all are created equal. So I am installing each distro for a period of two weeks and using it exclusively for my daily activities. At the end of the two week period, I will replace it with the next candidate.

The criteria for these reviews will be a bit unusual. I am looking intently at some things that other reviewers don’t seem to care about, while many aspects that ordinarily get covered in a review will be brushed over, if I mention them at all. For instance, ease of installing the OS is a non-issue for me. It took me a while to get here, but I believe I can install any modern OS, given enough time and motivation. I don’t care if it has a GUI, or command line, or is carved in mud with a sharp spoon. All I ask is that it work. I will only describe the installation if it causes problems.

Ditto for applications. I really don’t care what comes bundled with the OS. Unless of course, it comes bundled with more than I need and removing some of the excess tears up the system. Flexibility is supremely important.

Speed. Stability. Durability. Does it not only detect my hardware properly, but does it also know what to do with it once it finds it? Does the company stand by their product and treat their customer with respect? Does it provide practical benefits? Pretty alone doesn’t get it. I need solid. Will this distro let me get my work done without driving me crazy or breaking my budget?

*Commercial* Linux advocates are swearing up and down that their cherished brain child is ready for the mainstream. Not as a hobby anymore, not a niche toy for the insiders. The *Commercial* Linux vendors are vowing that their product is ready for the big time. Ok guys, prove it to me. My skills and experience are mid-range. My hardware is mainstream, and every single piece of it is documented as working with Linux. Show me what ya got. This is where the hammer meets the steel.

First Victim………Lindows:

If I had to pick a single word to describe Lindows it would be “polished”. It is so polished that it almost blinds you. Mr. Robertson’s crew has put a lot of elbow grease into the wax coating on this piece of furniture. That’s great, but will the shiny new chair hold a person’s butt up off of the floor?

I purchased Lindows version 3.0 (based on debian woody), with the understanding that it included a free upgrade to the latest (4.0, based on debian sarge) version. Problems arose immediately with installation. I said I wouldn’t mention the installation unless it caused problems didn’t I?

Lindows 3.0 did fine on my backup system, which is a P3-450 with 128 meg of RAM, a 4 meg Rage video, ESS sound card, and a Lucent Winmodem. It even recognized the winmodem and configured it automatically. Give them a +1 for that part.

However, it refused to install on my main system. My primary workstation is a P3-1 gig with 384 meg of RAM, a US Robotics modem, ESS soundcard, i810 onboard video (disabled in BIOS) and a 32 meg Radeon 7200 card. Lindows started to install and then went to a black screen. I knew what to look for, having seen this problem before with other distros on other systems.

What had happened was that Lindows was detecting my onboard i810, even though it had been disabled in BIOS, and was trying to load the wrong video drivers. When this problem cropped up in older distros I had simply overidden the installer and manually selected a vesa driver. But Lindows won’t let you do that. You don’t even have the option of selecting an “expert mode” during installation. All control over the process belongs to the software. I haven’t really had this problem in any case since the 4.2 version of XFree86 came out. Give them a -1 for having this problem.

The running score so far is +1-1 = 0. At this point Lindows breaks even.

So I sighed and rebooted. After re-setting the BIOS to use the onboard video and switching my monitor connections, Lindows dove right in and installed without a hitch. This left me with a pretty desktop using an i810 video card and a disgruntled attitude. Give them another -1 for ticking off the customer over an unnecessary hardware recognition problem. I could eventually fix this using apt-get and some configuration tweaking. I am not happy about it, but it isn’t (quite) a deal breaker either.

Oddly enough, Lindows couldn’t detect or setup my USR modem automatically. Many distros can’t, but I was surprised at Lindows since it had detected and setup my Lucent winmodem on the backup system easily. However, a simple ln -s /dev/ttyS4 /dev/modem fixed that issue and I was ready for the net. I won’t take any points off for that one, since I have only seen one Linux distro to date that was capable of finding the USR modem.

I am on a 56K dialup connection and I foresaw that patience would be required for my system upgrade. I went to the Lindows web site and registered, and then surfed over to the download page and started downloading the 4.0 ISO. Then I found out that neither the Lindows ftp nor http servers support download resuming. At least, not in Lindows 3.0. I was chagrined. I was so very much perturbed that I went on the Lindows user forums and threw a conniption fit. Several other users sympathized, and one even went so far as to offer to burn me a CD and mail it on his own nickel. I was deeply impressed with the quality of the Lindows community. Give Lindows a -1 for the aggravation of making it hard to upgrade if you don’t have a broadband connection. Then give them a +1 for the quality of their excellent community. With loyal users like these, they must be doing something right.

Where are we now? Let’s see, -1 -1 +1 = -1. At this point Lindows is one down, but the day is young.

I eventually got some belated responses from Lindows customer support, several days after my initial complaint. Give them a -1 for taking forever to respond to the customer. In fairness, I later found out that this is due mainly to the fact the Lindows customer service department is drastically overloaded. But still, that is not the customer’s fault so the point stays off. That gives us a running total of -1-1 = -2. At this point, Lindows is sinking fast.

After receiving several useless and unworkable suggestions from Lindows support, and after some other users sympathized so much that they started ranting on the public “guest” boards where the prospective Lindows customers could see it, the company finally did ship me an upgrade CD set. So give them a +1 for that. Even though I am quite sure in my own mind that they did it to shut me up, I must admit that Lindows ultimately made the problem go away. This brings the running score so far up to -2 +1 = -1. Starting to regain some lost ground here.

As soon as the version 4.0 CDs arrived I upgraded. Again, my secondary system installed without issues. And again, my primary system went to the black screen of confusion and forced me to use the onboard video. Give them a -1 for not fixing that problem in their latest upgrade. I know perfectly well that both debian sarge and XFree86 4.2 support the old Radeon video cards like mine. In fact, I was so disgusted that I am going to give them another -1 for general aggravation of the customer over a stupid issue. So that leaves us at -1-1-1 = -3. Not so good. Take off one more point for still using the outdated 4.2 version of XFree86. I know sarge uses 4.2, but Lindows is advertising itself as something more than plain debian. And many other Linux distros have been using XFree86 4.3 for quite some time. Thus we are now at -3 -1 = -4.

Now to get some work done. The latest version of Lindows includes a few standard packages on the CD, enough to get started with. That’s nice. Lindows 4.0 is smooth and stable, as I expected from debian sarge. No complaints, no surprises. No score. Still at -4 at this point.

What about the vaunted Click ‘n Run (CnR) warehouse? It actually lives up to the hype. I was surprised by that. They really do have copies of just about any “desktop” type program known to penguins and pretty much any development tool anyone might need as well. Give Lindows a +1 for living up to their advertising. This sadly unusual in my experience. Most companies wouldn’t deserve special praise for simply doing what they said they would do, but the software industry operates by different standards. This leaves the score at -4 +1 = -3. Crawling back up.

The CnR warehouse *appears* to be basically a GUI pasted on top of apt-get. I don’t know enough programming to say for sure, but from appearances I am guessing that they took a modified version of the Konquerer web browser, stuck it on apt-get, and set their version of sources.list to point to the Lindows servers. Just my guess. It works. It gets the job done.

Unfortunately using apt-get breaks CnR. Lindows is not fully compatible with standard debian sarge. But Lindows does actually warn people about that possiblity up front, so no score. You can still use apt-get if you wish. It works fine. The only thing using apt-get means is that eventually you are going to end up breaking the CnR software with dependency conflicts. Users choice. Which is fine. No score.

Where are we now? Score stands at -3. After using Lindows a few more days I began to sympathize with the technical support moderator on the user forums. He really was busting his backside trying to respond to people, he was just overloaded. And through it all, he was unfailingly polite. No matter how much it must have hurt. Give Lindows a +1 for having sense enough to hire a real professional. Score now is -3 +1 = -2.

Esthetics are not a huge concern to me, but I am not totally indifferent either. Give them a +1 for having a pretty desktop. Score now -2 +1 = -1.

Every package I tried in Lindows worked just as it should. The CD-RW software is K3b, and it did its usual flawless job. In the music CD player especially, Lindows deserves special mention for something delightful. I noticed that when I inserted a music CD the program not only detected and started it, but it also read the playlist on the CD and presented me with a list of songs on each track. The noteworthy part of this is the fact that no other distro has ever been able to read the database on that particular (relatively old) CD. No other distro could read it, but Lindows did it. Give them a +1 for doing it right. Score is now back up to -1 +1 = 0. Breaking even again.

My daughter’s cheap little IBM webcam was not recognized and did not work. Those things are as common as dirt. Give them a -1. It is possible that I might have been able to download something from CnR that would make it work, but on a dialup I did not bother to try. Score now stands 0 -1 = -1.

The main advantage of Lindows is the Click ‘n Run warehouse. The main disadvantage of Lindows is the Click ‘n Run warehouse. I am on dialup, not broadband. Over the years I have collected a fairly substantial pile of Linux software, both debian and rpm. I could use it on Lindows and it would work fine. But if I use it, CnR will die a horrible death. CnR costs a little money, but claims to save you a lot of time and problems by offering software that is assured to work. How much is your time worth? That’s the value judgement.

I can’t come up with anything else to praise or complain about. The truth is, Lindows came out looking bland as vanilla. Pretty but not exciting. Bottom line? Lindows offers no compelling reason to choose it, and no compelling reason not to choose it. I could live with this distro. I could get some work done with this distro, and I feel confident that I could depend on it. But it would be boring. Which, given that they are targeting the home user, might be just what they are shooting for.

Next victim…….Libranet. Stay tuned.


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