The Linux Landscape as of Mid-2011

As anyone reading my blog regularly must know, I closely follow the Linux operating system and its developments.  For those who are unfamiliar with Linux, it is actually an operating system’s kernel rather than a fully featured operating system.  It’s the heart and brain if you will of an OS constructed by distributors who add software to fill in the other features you want and need.  Linux is also free, free to use, free to change, free to distribute, more free than most things in the world.  The main problem with Linux operating systems is that there are about a thousand of them and it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on.  At the same time, this makes for an interesting playing field and lots of competition.  In order to keep up a Linux distribution has to offer something valuable to a wide audience, or appeal strongly to a niche.  So in the next 30 minutes I’m going to lay out my completely biased view of the most important distributions.

There are a lot of distributions, but most of them aren’t presently relevant.  Once you realize that it’s a lot easier to focus on what you might be looking for.  I’m really only talking from the point of a regular user, not a sysadmin or server admin, or really any kind of administrator at all.

TLDR version:
If you’re new to Linux, you probably want to try Linux Mint.  If Linux Mint doesn’t run on your hardware, try Crunchbang.

1. Debian
I list Debian first because it is probably the most copied and most re-done distribution out there, and it maintains its relevance because of its gigantic package repositories.  Packages are basically just software programs you can download from a more or less guaranteed safe source, hosted by the distribution.   In that way you needn’t worry about viruses or malware.  Beyond the repository size, Debian is not particularly relevant in and of itself.

2. Ubuntu
Most people who’ve heard of Linux, but haven’t tried it know about Ubuntu to some extent.  Ubuntu is actually based on Debian and takes advantage of Debian’s huge repositories for itself.  Ubuntu is relevant because of its impressive publicity and marketing campaign, and they have been successful in bringing people into the world of Linux.  Unfortunately, they also push a lot of buttons and have a tendency to disregard the opinions of much of their community.  I believe they are idealists with a slightly bent out of shape ideal.

Ubuntu is now pushing a new user interface they’re calling Unity.  Some may like it, but many (like me) can’t use it because of its reliance on 3D acceleration.

3. Linux Mint
Mint is a derivative of Debian, both by way of Ubuntu and directly, depending on which version you use.  Mint is a much more conservative project than Ubuntu that focuses on producing a familiar user interface with simple installation and all the features a computer user would expect.

4. Fedora
Fedora is the community project of the somewhat famous enterprise company Red Hat.  Many Fedora developers are in fact Red Hat employees working on the project both in their work time and free time.  It’s a noble cause that Fedora works for, but in my experience the project exudes arrogance and claims to be inclusive to degrees that they simply can not achieve.  They have good arguments against this position, but I bet you can’t get as involved as easily as they claim you can.  Fedora is known for historically pushing the edge of new technologies and software, and are doing so again this year by being the first distribution to introduce the new Gnome 3 desktop interface as well as a very technical part called systemd.

Gnome 3 is much like Unity in terms of the fact that many people will like it, but others can’t use it, again like me, because it is reliant on 3D acceleration.  They offer a “compatibility mode” but to be honest, it’s bullshit, there’s no reason to use a half-assed user interface when there are other, fully featured desktops out there that offer native support for non 3D accelerated systems.  I would direct those users to XFCE, KDE, LXDE, or Openbox in that order.

5. Arch Linux
Arch is no doubt an advanced user’s distribution.  It expects you to spend a considerable amount of time setting up your system with text-based interfaces.  This offers a lot of advantages and Arch also pushes the bleeding edge of the new technologies and software frontier.  It’s commonly known as a tinkerer’s distribution and has a huge following among folks like that.  One of the advantages of Arch Linux is that it can be built to suit your system regardless of what your system looks like, IF you know what you’re looking for.  Arch has extensive documentation available and their forums are a hot spot for configuration advice across the Linux distro spectrum.

6. Crunchbang
Crunchbang is a lightweight distribution based on Openbox.  It doesn’t look like your typical Windows or Mac user interface but it is well configured from the get-go and is perfectly suitable for adventurous newcomers.  Unlike Arch Linux, Crunchbang pretty much just works from the point of install (or boot if you’re using the Live CD).  There have been a lot of other distributions that catered towards older and slower computers, and Crunchbang isn’t one of them, it just happens to work really well on those too.  The Crunchbang forums are pretty much the place to go for tips on the Openbox desktop, the Conky system monitor, or desktop customization in general.  This is the distro you want if your computer is too old for anything else.  I’d put it on par with Windows 98-2000 for system requirements.

7. Slackware
I’m including this pretty much for the sake of its value as an artifact.  Slackware doesn’t really lead in any one position, but is well known as the distro to choose if you want to learn about how Linux works.  Unfortunately, that’s because Slackware makes you do a lot of work.  Slackware is also the oldest continuously developed Linux distribution out there, so it pretty much can’t go unmentioned.

8. The ones that I want to mention but not detail:
PCLinuxOS: Think Linux Mint but going out of style
Mandriva/Magiea:  Needs more time to see what happens as a result of the fork.
OpenSUSE: Recently changed hands, thus needs more time to really know its fate.
Gentoo: Has benefits but they aren’t really justifiable for desktop use.

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