The State of Linux Distributions (Spring 2010)

Whether you are new to Linux and asking "Which Distribution should I use?", or if you have been using Linux for years and want to see what the other distributions offer, this article highlights the differences between the major Linux Distributions. For those new to Linux, we will also try to fill you in as to what makes a good Linux distribution and what sets each distribution apart.

For starters, the Linux Operating System is different than proprietary Operating Systems, such as Microsoft Windows. Linux has a community based development model where many people, organizations and businesses jointly develop the software. With this style of development, there is no one entity that controls everything, but because of this, it is quite difficult to build a coherent system that will run on personal computers. This is where distributions come in.

Distributions are complete Linux Systems that are built by companies or organizations to aid in the support and installation of the Linux Operating System. Distributions take care of all of the rudimentary tasks of building the system, such as building and testing the software, providing technical support and to provide security updates and bug fixes, etc.

There are all types of distributions available, from ones that are very user friendly to advanced ones that allow you to build your system from the source code. This article covers the four most popular Linux distributions available today; Mandriva Linux, Ubuntu Linux, Fedora Linux and openSUSE Linux.

There is usually no distribution that will perfectly fit everyones needs. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses which will vary from person to person. This article covers all the major advantages (and disadvantages) each of these distributions have to offer and will hopefully give you enough information to help guide you in choosing which Linux Distribution is right for your computer.


NOTE: Linux is actually only the kernel of a complete system. Many contributors like to call a complete Linux system a GNU/Linux system. The GNU stands for GNU's Not Unix (a recursive acronym) and is the system first started by Richard Stallman, then later developed with the coordination of the Free Software Foundation. The idea of GNU/Linux is to get the point of freedom across when you discuss the operating system. We have decided that our site will use the generic name Linux to signify the whole system, but please, keep software freedom in mind when reading our Linux articles.


Mandriva Linux

Mandriva Logo

Mandriva Linux was first started in 1998 under the name Mandrake Linux. It was built as a custom built Redhat Linux distribution (optimized for Pentium Computers) and focused on ease of use for Linux novices. In 2002, Walmart decided to stock both the Mandrake Linux software box, as well as sell computer systems with Mandrake Linux pre-installed on them, although this was short lived.

In 2004, just after getting out from bankruptcy, they lost a court case that required them to change their name. In 2005, after losing the court appeals, and after acquiring Conectiva, they decided to change their name to Mandriva.

We will be looking at their latest release, Mandriva Linux 2010.0, which was released back in November 2009. Their next release is slated to be released on June 3, 2010.

Fedora Linux

Fedora Linux Logo

Fedora Linux was started by Redhat Linux in September 2003 as a community based open development Operating System based on the Redhat Linux distribution. The first release of the Fedora distribution was in October 1994 and has since progressed to be one of the most popular Linux Distributions available today, just behind Ubuntu Linux.

Fedora Linux has about a 6 month release cycle and updates are maintained for about a year or so after the initial release. In this article, we will be looking at the Fedora 12 release, which was released in November 2009. The next Fedora Linux release is slated for May 11, 2009.

Ubuntu Linux

Ubuntu Linux Logo

Ubuntu's first release was in October 2004 and it quickly became the most popular Linux Distribution since it's main focus is on usablility and ease of installation. Ubuntu Linux is based off of the Debian Distribution, which means that it is the only distribution here based on "DEB" packages instead of "RPM" Packages.

Ubuntu, like Fedora, is a community based Distribtuion. Ubuntu's main sponsor is Canonical, which is owned by billionaire Mark Shuttleworth. Ubuntu's name is derived from the South African ethical ideology Ubuntu, which stands for "humanity towards others".

In this article, we will be looking at the Ubuntu 9.10 "Karmic Koala" release, which was released in late October 2009. The next Ubuntu release is scheduled for April 29, 2010.

openSUSE Linux

openSUSE Logo

openSUSE is the community version of the Suse Linux Enterprise Distribution. Suse Linux was started in 1992, and was the first "real" commercial Linux vendor to appear. In January of 2004, Novell acquired Suse, and another Linux company, Ximian. Since the acquisition, Novell started off strong and successfully transitioned Suse Linux to a major Enterprise Distribution. However, the late 2006 deal with Microsoft, where the two companies agreed on "patent cooperation" muddied the waters with the Open Source / Free Software community.

We will be looking at openSUSE's 11.2 release, which was released in November 2009. openSUSE's release cycle is approximately 8 months, and the next version is scheduled to be released on July 15, 2010.

Installation Routines

Since most computers do not come with a Linux Distribution pre-installed, the developers behind these Linux Distributions must ensure that their distribution is easy to install for normal computer users. With this in mind, all of the installation routines for the distributions listed here provide features far and above the features available in Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X installation routines.

For instance, all of the distributions here will automatically shrink an existing Operating System that is installed on the hard drive and will automatically configure the computer to "dual-boot" between multiple Operating Systems. All of these distributions also provide nearly all of the drivers that you need for the hardware within your computer via the latest Linux Kernel, with the exception of proprietary video drivers and possibly drivers/firmware for some wireless devices, although with the advent of netbooks, many wireless cards already have drivers within the Linux Kernel.

To test the installation of these Distributions, we installed these distributions on somewhat high-end white-box computers and a Dell Latitude D830 with a Broadcom BCM 4312 wireless card, which has been one the trickier wireless cards to get running on Linux in recent times since the Linux kernel b43 and ssb modules don't support it yet (kernel 2.6.32 and later does, but it not 100% stable yet).

Mandriva Linux

Mandriva Linux comes in two main versions, a "Free Version" as well as a "Powerpack Version". The Powerpack version comes with all the software available within the free version, along with Proprietary applications and drivers that are not available on the free version. The Powerpack Version also includes additional support through Mandriva and additional "Repositories" you can utilize through their "Powerpack Subscription". The Powerpack version also automatically installs Proprietary drivers for nVidia and ATI cards during the installation. We will mainly focus on the "Free Version" within this article.

Upon booting from the Installation media, the Mandriva installation routine starts and presents you with various configuration screens such as Automatic or Advanced Partitioning, Desktop Selection, and if needed, advanced software selection.

Mandriva Linux Install's Software Selection ToolMandriva Linux Configuring various System during Installation
Fine tuning Mandriva's installation with software selection and system configuration

Prior to the completion of the installation, you are presented with a Summary screen where you can fine tune the installation. For instance, you can adjust the services that are automatically started, adjust the timezone, etc. Also you are able to download any updates that are available (it is nice to be able to do this during the installation routine). Once the installation is complete, the system restarts and you are presented with a "First Time" screen which asks you to send various information (such as hardware info) to Mandriva for future development.

Video Drivers: Mandriva's Free Version does not include any Proprietary Video drivers, but once the installation is finished, to install the correct Proprietary Drivers for your ATI or nVidia video card, simply launch the Mandrake Control Center and run the Video Card Utility. This will automatically ask if you wish to download and install the proprietary driver.

Wireless Card: In order to get the BCM 4312 wireless card working on Mandriva, I had to download the latest driver from http://www.broadcom.com/support/802.11/linux_sta.php. Since the Video Card Driver installation automatically installed the necessary Kernel development packages, the driver compiled correctly and once it was installed, the wireless card worked fine.

Fedora Linux

Fedora Linux 12 comes in 2 different versions, a "LiveCD" where you can boot off of the CD and test the system before you install it, or a standard Installation DVD. We utilized the Standard Installation DVD for all of our tests. (Note: in order for the graphical installation routine to run, you must have at least 512MB of Memory in your system).

Upon booting from the Fedora Linux installation DVD, you are presented with a few configuration screens, such as Keyboard Layout, Hostname, Time Zone and Root Password. You are then presented with the partitioning screen where it allows you to shrink the existing system, replace existing system or utilize the Advanced Storage Configuration utility. Of note here is the fact that by default, the Fedora Installation Routine will utilize LVM volumes (Logical Volume Management), instead of standard Linux Partitions. This will allow you to re-configure your disk storage and do additional advanced management, such as utilize snapshots, after the system is installed.

Once the disk configuration is finished, you can select various tasks that you wish to accomplish with your installation, add any additional repositories, and if you wish, you can fully customize the software selection before the software gets installed, after which you are prompted to reboot the computer.

Fedora's Installation Disk Management ToolFedora's Installation Software Selection Tool
Adjusting the Disk Partitions and Selecting Software during Fedora's Installation

After the system boots back up, you are presented with a few more dialogs, the license info, creating a user, adjusting the date/time and a screen which allows you to send your hardware profile to the developers to aid in future versions of Fedora Linux. After these dialogs are finished, you are prompted to login to the system.

Note: by default, Fedora does not "activate" any network interfaces, you must initiate the connection using the NetworkManager Applet (by the clock).

Video and Wireless Drivers: The proprietary video drivers and wireless driver for the Broadcom 4312 card are available on a third party repository (this is discussed in a later section). The Video card drivers were easy to install following the instructions provided. The wireless drivers were a little more difficult since the driver package installed a module for a Linux Kernel I wasn't running. After I manually selected and installed the correct kernel module, the device worked fine.

Ubuntu Linux

Ubuntu Linux comes in quite a few versions, there is the standard Ubuntu version, Kubuntu, which installs the KDE Desktop by default, Xubuntu, which installs the XFCE Desktop by default and quite a few other offshoots that fill a need for various niches. We utilized the standard Ubuntu installation media for all of our testing, except we had to use the Alternative Installation Media to test installing Ubuntu using Software RAID arrays (the other Distributions handled this using their standard installation media).

Ubuntu Linux's Disk Partition ToolAdding a User during Ubuntu's Installation
Ubuntu Linux's Disk Partition Utility and adding a user during installation

Upon booting from the installation media, you are prompted to either try the system by running it off of the CD, or to simply start the installation, which is how we tested Ubuntu. The installation routine first prompts you with a few screens, such as timezone and keyboard layout. You are then presented the partitioning tool, which automatically recommends a way to install Ubuntu, or you can manually configure the partitions. After the partitions are configured, it prompts you to setup a User Account and starts installing the system. Since you cannot fine tune the packages before installation, Ubuntu has by far the quickest installation of these Distributions.

Video and Wireless Drivers: Upon the first login, Ubuntu detects the hardware you have and if you have any hardware with additional drivers it will prompt you to install these drivers. The Video drivers installed flawlessly on all of our test hardware. Ubuntu also provided us with 2 options for the Broadcom 4312 wireless card, the fwcutter utility which extracts the needed firmware for broadcom cards and Broadcom's proprietary wireless driver. Our card does not work yet with the kernel drivers, but it worked fine with the Proprietary Driver.

openSUSE Linux

openSUSE 11.2 provides a few different installation CDs, you can download a Live GNOME CD, a Live KDE CD, a Network installation CD or the full Installation DVD. We utilized the full Installation DVD for our tests.

Upon first booting from the installation media, you are first prompted with a few dialog boxes, License info, Language and Keyboard layout. You are then prompted for an installation mode, which allows you to select "Automatic Configuration", which bypasses most of the other dialog boxes. Then you are presented with the Time Zone configuration, then you can select which Desktop you want to use. If you did not select Automatic Config, you are presented with either using a Partition Based or LVM Based partitioning scheme, then it asks you to create a User Account. After these screens are done, you are presented with the Installation Settings Overview, where you can adjust any settings prior to the software installation.

openSUSE's Software Selection during InstallopenSUSE's Hardware Configuration during Install
Adjusting the Software Selection and various hardware settings during openSUSE's Installation

After the software is installed, the system reboots and you are asked to put in a hostname, configure the network, install any available updates (again this is nice during the install), then make any adjustments to the hardware configuration that you may need. Once the installation is finished, the system boots into the graphical environment.

Video Drivers: In order to get ATI and nVida proprietary drivers installed, you have to add the nVidia or ATI "repositories" using the Yast Control Center, then run an "Online Update", the drivers will be installed automatically.

Wireless Driver: To get our Broadcom 4312 wireless card to work, we had to download Broadcom's Proprietary Driver, install the "Kernel Development Tools", then "make" and "make install" the driver to get it installed. Furthermore, we had to "blacklist" the ssb and b43 kernel modules in order for the proprietary "wl" driver to work properly (we simply followed the steps in the Readme.txt file).

Managing the Distributions

Linux System Administration has always been a deterrent for many people, preventing them even from simply trying out the Linux Operating System. Fortunately, today many of the problem areas of using a Linux system on a daily basis have been resolved and are no longer necessary to get things working. Workarounds such as SCSI emulation for CD Burners and tedious tasks such as manually mounting external media, manually connecting to a wireless network through the command line, etc are things of the past. Now, these things "just work" (and in most cases work much better than the Windows counterpart).

For areas that still need manual intervention, or to get various advanced services to work on Linux, many distributions have implemented "System Control Panels" and other utilities that aid in managing their distribution. There are even third-party developers that have tools (for instance Webmin) to tackle some of the most frightening system configuration chores, and if there are no "software tools" to help, you can usually always find an answer on various web forums across the Internet. This section will cover what each Distribution provides in aiding you in managing your system.

Mandriva Linux

Mandriva Linux provides the "Mandriva Control Center" to aid in configuring their system. The Mandriva Control Center allows you to easily adjust various system functions, such as installing software, configure various hardware (printers, scanners, etc), adjust network settings, adjust various system settings, connect to network NFS and Samba Shares, manage disk partitions, adjust security setttings, configure how the system boots, etc. Just about everything you need to adjust in a Linux Desktop Computer can be done through the Mandriva Control Center and it's "DrakXtools".

Mandriva Linux's Control CenterMandriva CC - Software Installation
Mandriva's Control Center, Installing software using the Control Center

Although these tools are a huge benefit to the Mandriva Users, some of these tools still have a few rough edges to them. For instance the NFS and Windows Share Configuration tools do not open the firewall ports needed for them to work properly. Furthermore, when scanning for network shares, the application seems to "freeze" for a long while while it scans the network. A nice graphic letting the user know that the application is still working, or providing information such as what the app is doing would be beneficial.

Mandriva's NFS Client Utility
Mandriva's Control Center NFS Client Utility and configuring the Firewall

Unlike the other distributions, which use Network Manager, Mandriva uses it's own utility similar in function to Network Manager, but also provides additional features, such as it's nice integration with it's firewall. For instance, it gives you instant notifications if someone is trying to hack your computer. Again, some attention to detail is needed for this tool, as some of the applet's right-click options don't work properly under GNOME and when connecting to a WEP encrypted network you need the exact ASCII Key instead of just the WEP Passphrase.

Other than the minor "Attention to Details" annoyances in the configuration tools, Mandriva Linux is one of the better Distributions in the ability to easily re-configure the system for various system settings. One other thing of note is the fact that Mandriva automatically creates a "Guest" user account that has it's data flushed on logout, this is great for when you have other people that want to use your computer and don't want your files to be accessed, or your Internet accounts to be accidentally adjusted.

Fedora Linux

Fedora Linux doesn't provide a single "Control Center" to manage the system, it utilizes various different "system-config-X" applications to help in maintaining/configuring the system. These utilities are accessed through the System Administration Menu under GNOME and Applications Administration under KDE.

Fedora's Software Installation UtilityFedora's User Management Utility
Fedora Linux's Software Management Utility and the User Management Utility

These utilities aid you in configuring the firewall, services launched at startup, user and group management, Authentication to allow network logins, Logical Volume Management, Adjust Disk Partitions, Package Management, etc. If you are also interested in managing server components, other system-config tools are available to manage the vsftpd server, the samba server, the nfs server, the apache web server and the bind DNS Server. Additional advanced system-config tools are available to manage advanced services such as cluster management, audit configuration, netboot and to create kickstart files to rapidly and automatically deploy Fedora.

Fedora's Service ManagementFedora's Firewall Configuration Utility
Managing the System Services and the Firewall Using Fedora's Utilities

Although Fedora does provide ample configuration utilities, these applications are geared more toward server management instead of desktop management. Absent are the tools such as Samba and NFS Client configuration and other hardware configuration tools that are present in other distributions such as Mandriva and openSUSE. Because of this, running Fedora in certain environments will require manually configuring these client services until the Fedora / Red Hat developers create system-config tools geared for the desktop user.

Also of note is the fact that Fedora utilizes SELinux by default out of the box. This ensures that your system will remain very secure, although it can be a small hindrance when making significant changes to your system. Just keep this in mind if you are having difficulty adjusting any system settings.

Ubuntu Linux

Ubuntu Linux does not yet provide too many Management Utilities to help you fully configure your system for different environments, although the ones that are availabl e are extremely complete. We already talked about their "Hardware Drivers" utility which pretty much automatically install additional Proprietary and other drivers for some hardware you may have.

Most of the other configuration utilities that are available are the standard GNOME utilities and some other Red Hat utilities that have been picked up by many Linux Distributions, such as RedHat's Partition Manager and their Print Manager.

Ubuntu's Software CenterUbuntu's Symantic Package Manager
Utilizing the Ubuntu Software Center (left) and the Synaptic Package Manager to manage software

For package management, Ubuntu Provides the Synaptic Package Manager, as well as an easy to use "Ubuntu Software Center", these utilities are some of the best software management applications available today.

There are a few system configuration differences that sets Ubuntu apart from the other distributions, first is the fact that by default the "root" user account is inactive, forcing you to use the "sudo" command for any changes you make to the system. This can be a little frustrating to seasoned Linux Users, although you can activate the root account by issuing "sudo passwd" and changing the root password. Another issue is the fact that Ubuntu does not have an active firewall by default. The firewall that Ubuntu installs, ufw, is still under active development, but is already very useful. If you want to have an active firewall on your Ubuntu System, issue the following command: "sudo ufw enable".

openSUSE Linux

openSUSE provides the Yast Control Center for system management. Yast seems to be the most seasoned tool for system management available among these distributions. Yast provides nearly all of the utilities that you need to manage your Desktop System from Firewall management and user management, to advanced server configurations.

openSUSE's Yast Control Center - GTK VersionopenSUSE's Yast Control Center - QT version
openSUSE's Yast Control Center, the GTK Interface (left), the QT Interface (right)

Over the past few years, the openSUSE developers have been re-writing the Yast tool to provide both a GTK interface as well as the already excellent QT interface (yast also provides a nice terminal interface). Until recently, this was not a huge problem since you could always force the Yast interface to utilize the more mature QT interface over the relatively new GTK interface. However, with the openSUSE 11.2 release, work has been done to the QT interface which has changed it dramatically from it's previous versions. I am not sure if the changes had to do with the new QT version, or if it was done on purpose, but it seems that the developers are trying to make the two interfaces look the same. This in itself shouldn't be an issue, but the QT interface is looking more like the GTK interface instead of the other way around. I did a quick survey around the office and everyone that I showed both the older QT interface and the new QT interface, everyone thought the older version was more intuitive.

openSUSE's Yast Software Management UtilityopenSUSE's Yast Firewall Interface
openSUSE's Yast Software Management Utility and Managing the Firewall

One other item of note is the fact that the openSUSE developers castrated the SaX2 utility, which managed the Xorg Video configuration. You can no longer configure the X Server through this utility, or utilize any of the advanced configuration tools that this utility provided, such as easily configure the VNC Server. This utility will be missed by many admins if it remains in it's current state.

Although the recent developments in the Yast tool are a little frustrating, the Yast Control Center is still the most advanced system configuration utility available today.

Software on Linux Systems

A Linux System is built using many different software applications, tools and libraries. Most of the software available for the Linux Distribution will utilize other tools and libraries that are available on the system. Because of this fact, a Linux system is extremely customized where all of the packages available from the distributor work together as a whole. Thus, to get a Linux application to work on each specific distribution the application must be "compiled" for that distribution version in order to work properly.

An exception to this is to utilize a "static" binary, which includes all of the libraries that the program uses within itself. Applications such as VMWare Workstation are built in this way. The downsides of this include a small performance hit as well as the fact that the binaries are many times larger than the normal "shared" binaries that are available for Linux Distributions.

Available Software

A huge factor in which Linux Distribution you choose to run is the software available for that Distribution and which version of that particular software is included. Thankfully, most Linux Distributions have the most popular applications already included in the Distribution. The following chart shows the various versions of popular applications are included in these Distributions. Note that this chart was created on March 14, 2010 and includes the versions included in the Distribution's update channel.

Available Software Versions as of March 14, 2010
MandrivaFedoraUbuntuopenSUSE
GNOME2.28.02.28.22.28.12.28.2
GTK+2.18.32.18.72.18.42.18.1
KDE4.3.24.4.04.3.24.3.5
QT4.5.34.6.24.5.34.5.3
XFCE4.6.14.6.14.6.14.6.1
Linux Kernel2.6.312.6.322.6.312.6.31
GCC4.4.14.4.34.4.14.4
Samba3.4.23.4.73.4.03.4.2
OpenOffice.org3.1.13.1.13.1.13.1.1
KOffice2.0.21.6.31.6.3/2.0.22.0.2
Evolution2.28.12.28.32.28.12.28.2
Firefox3.5.83.5.83.5.83.5.8
F-spot0.6.1.30.6.1.50.6.1.50.6.1.5
Gimp2.6.72.6.82.6.72.6.7
Inkscape0.470.470.47pre40.46
Scribus1.3.5.11.3.5.11.3.3.13/1.3.51.3.3.13
Blender2.49b2.49b2.49a2.49a
gLabels2.2.52.2.62.2.52.2.5
GNUCash2.2.92.2.92.2.92.2.9
HomeBank4.0.4/4.2.14.24.0.34.2.1
Planner0.14.40.14.40.14.40.14.4
Banshee1.5.11.5.31.5.11.5.1
Rhythmbox0.12.50.12.60.12.50.12.5
Amarok2.2.02.2.22.2.02.1.1
Kino1.3.41.3.4*1.3.3N/A
Pidgin2.6.62.6.62.6.22.6.6
Empathy2.28.12.28.22.28.1.12.28.2

* denotes version from third party repository

As you can see, Fedora has the most up-to-date software versions. Historically, this has been the case in the past few years since the Fedora developers include major version updates within their update channel, although this apparently will soon change with this latest release:

https://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Stable_release_updates_vision

Multimedia Support

Unlike Microsoft Windows, which has plenty of third party vendors creating multimedia players and applications to handle their media codecs, Linux Distributions have to overcome two huge obstacles: The fact that these same third party vendors refuse to create Linux versions of their multimedia players and the fact that legally (with all the software patents) it is extremely hard for the distributions to add full multimedia support into their releases.

Note: Not only are vendors reluctant to create Linux versions of their applications, but when they do decide to allow their "patents" to be used on Linux Devices, they usually come with a stipulation that similar software cannot be included. A case in point is the Nokia n810 - they could include the ability to playback MP3 files, but in order to do so they could not include the ability to playback OGG Vorbis files, even though the OGG Vorbis format is not encumbered with any patents.

So that is the problem. The solution for now is to not include the functionality "out of the box", but include that functionality as a separate download, usually from a third-party "repository". For legal reasons these repositories have no official ties to the original distributor. Is this a gray area legally? Who knows, although I don't think anyone will try to sue any distributor or repository operator on a software patent related to this as they may lose the case and lose the power of their "software patents" altogether, plus all of the bad publicity it would cause that company.


Note: There are "legal" solutions to some of these Codec problems. A company called Fluendo, http://www.fluendo.com/ offers the MPEG and Windows Media codecs in a package for just under $40. Another company, Codeweavers, http://www.codeweavers.com/, offers a product that allows you to run some Microsoft Windows based programs on Linux Desktops, including some multimedia applications.


The next question, of course, is how to enable multimedia support into the Distribution ?

Mandriva Linux

The main community repository for Mandriva Linux is the Penguin Liberation Front - http://plf.zarb.org/, which provides easy instructions at: http://easyurpmi.zarb.org/.

Once the repository is configured, you can use the Mandriva Control Center to install the required codecs for full multimedia support.

Fedora Linux

The main comunity repository for Fedora Linux is RPM Fusion - http://rpmfusion.org/, which provides insructions on how to enable their repository at http://rpmfusion.org/Configuration.

Once the repository is configured, you can run the following to get the majority of the Multimedia codecs by running:

yum install gstreamer-plugins-ugly gstreamer-plugins-bad gstreamer-ffmpeg
							

The RPM Fusion site also includes a how-to to get an nVidia Video card running utilizing their Repository.

Ubuntu Linux

Ubuntu by default adds the repository that contains the restricted software, if for some reason it is not enabled, open the Software Sources Utility and enable the Multiverse repository. Ubuntu also includes a "package" that will automatically install all of the codecs needed for multimedia playback, this package is called "ubuntu-restricted-extras".

openSUSE Linux

openSUSE includes the repository, packman, that provides full multimedia support, but it is not enabled by default. In order to enable it, open Yast and adjust the Community Repositories so that the Packman repository is enabled. Once it is enabled you can utilize Yast to install the required packages for Full Multimedia Support.

Desktop Environments

A desktop environment (or window manager) is the graphic enviornment that you use to interface with your computer. One of the most common "desktop environments" is the explorer interface on Microsoft Windows, where you have a start menu, desktop icons, etc. With Linux, each desktop environment has its own interface, as well as system menu, login managers and developer tools. One advantage you have with Linux is that you have a choice on what desktop environment you use.

Mandriva's GNOME DesktopMandriva's KDE Desktop
Mandriva's GNOME Desktop (left) and Mandriva's KDE Desktop (right)

Today, there are two major desktop environments, GNOME and KDE. Of course there are other Window managers available, but unless you run Linux on older hardware, GNOME and KDE are by far the most popular desktop environments available.

KDE

The KDE desktop was started in 1996 and was built upon the QT widget library, which at the time was a non-GPL library. The project was started to create a Unix desktop with a consistent view and feel to it, since at the time most Unix applications had different looks to them and worked a little differently.

Fedora's GNOME DesktopFedora's KDE Desktop
Fedora's GNOME Desktop (left) and Fedora's KDE Desktop (right)

Recently, in the past few years the KDE Desktop released it's 4.X version, which was a dramatic change from the 3.X version. For a while, the 4.X version hasn't been as "usable" as their previous version, but the later releases have improved the 4.X desktop dramatically and those users that had previously switched to GNOME after the 4.X release are know coming back to KDE.

Differences: All of these distributions pretty much stick with the standard KDE Desktop, the main differences are the various themes each distribution uses. The only real difference I found is that by default, Mandriva uses the "Classic Menu System" instead of the new "Kicker Menu Style", which this can be easily changed on any of these distributions by right clicking on the "start button".

Ubuntu's GNOME DesktopKubuntu's KDE Desktop
Ubuntu's GNOME Desktop (left) and Kubuntu's KDE Desktop (right)

GNOME

The GNU Network Object Model Environment, was created as a response of the decision of KDE to utilize the QT Library (which again at the time was non-GPL). The GNOME Developers utilized a different library, the GTK library (which is licensed under the LGPL), to base the Desktop on.

GNOME 2 was first released in June of 2002, and the current release of GNOME is 2.28, which is the 15th major release of the GNOME 2 Desktop. The GNOME developers are currently planning for a GNOME 3 release and has a tentative release date of September 2010.

openSUSE's GNOME DesktopopenSUSE's KDE Desktop
openSUSE's GNOME Desktop (left) and openSUSE's KDE Desktop (right)

Differences: Like KDE, most of the Distributions pretty much stick to the standard GNOME release, although openSUSE by default utilizes their "SLAB" start menu system, which uses only 1 toolbar instead of the standard top and bottom toolbars usually available with GNOME. All distributions have a nice clean GNOME interface and all of them have created their own Desktop Theme so their implementation stands out from the rest.

One thing of note is the fact that both Mandriva and openSUSE utilize their own menu system instead of the default GNOME menu. This allows you to install both the KDE and GNOME Desktops without over-filling the GNOME application menus, since these distribtuions sort the apps by category (note that with Mandriva you do have the option to use the standard GNOME menu instead of their menu system).

Final Thoughts

Each distribution here is very usable and each one has it's own strengths and weaknesses. Again, no Linux Distribution will satisfy every user's needs, hopefully the information provided in this article helps you in trying to figure out which distribution would best fit your needs.

Upon working with each distribution for a while, here are some final thoughts for each distribution.

Mandriva Linux

Working with Mandriva has been very enjoyable, truthfully it has been a few years since any of us used the Mandriva distribution and it has been surprising at how the distribution has evolved. The only real issues we found with Mandriva are minor "attention to detail" errors that hopefully will be solved soon. For instance, it is the only distribution that requires you to logout and log back in in order to enable / disable the 3D effects. Also when the 3D effects are enabled with GNOME, some keyboard shortcuts, such as Alt-F2 don't work. Other issues we ran into involve the ability to install certain software. For instance, when we tried to install the Audacious Media Player from the Penguin Liberation Front repository, the package manager said it needed a specific version of libneon, and that it wasn't available. With a quick search through the package manager, we found the specific version and the application installed correctly, not sure why the package manager didn't automatically select the required software.

Working with Mandriva, we also enjoyed the amount of packages available through the contrib software channel, we had fun re-living the Quake2 add-ons and other older commercial games that now have a free software port. Also, in our opinion, Mandriva also has one of the nicest overall looks to their distribution.

    Pros
  • Mandriva Control Center
  • Nice overall appearance
  • Large Software Repositories
    Cons
  • Minor annoyance bugs
  • Ran into a few System Hangs

Fedora Linux

Fedora Linux has one of the cleanest interfaces of these distributions, it most closely adheres to the standard GNOME and KDE releases. It also seemed to be one of the most responsive distributions. It doesn't have the most packages available, but right now it has the most up-to-date packages. We did run into some issues with the Package Manager. For instance, on some of our earlier tests, the software update utility crashed out until we ran a yum update from the command line. The graphical Software installer isn't as intuitive as the other distributions in this list, there really isn't an Advanced/Detailed view and some features, such as "only showing the newest packages" didn't seem to work. Also, when installing certain software such as Audacious, we had to manually select all of the audacious plugins, which was very time consuming, I guess some like that amount of control.

Another issue was that with both KDE and GNOME installed, the GNOME menus were overcrowded and there were many shortcuts listed twice, but launched different applications. For instance, with both desktops installed, there are 2 identical System Monitor icons, one for the GNOME System Monitor and one for KDE's. If you do install both environments you will probably want to edit the GNOME Menus.

Fedora overall is a very stable distribution. Even though it is not as "beginner friendly" as the other distributions here, once it is configured to the user's liking it is a very robust operating system.

    Pros
  • Very clean interface
  • Provides the latest software versions
  • Very secure with SELinux enabled by default
  • Popular Distribution with Linux Developers
    Cons
  • Software Management Utility needs work
  • Not as many Desktop Configuration Tools

Ubuntu Linux

Even though Ubuntu has only been around for just over 5 years, it quickly became the most popular of the Linux Distributions and this release highlights why. Not only is it the easiest of these distributions to install and get hardware working properly, but with the help of Debian, it has the most complete available software library. It also helps that the "Multiverse Repository" (which provides multimedia support) is enabled by default and they provide an easy way to enable multimedia support through the "ubuntu-restricted-extras" package.

The only real problem we found with this release is the fact that the NFS Client software doesn't seem very stable. We utilize a few NFS Servers in the office and while testing Ubuntu, the NFS mounts continuously dropped the mounts with a "Stale NFS handle" error, which was very frustrating. We ended up utilizing the fuse SSHFS utility to work off of the servers. All of the other distributions here worked great with our NFS Servers.

Even though Ubuntu is the easiest to install and get going with various hardware, it is not the easiest to maintain/configure since it doesn't yet offer too many Desktop configuration utilities. Fortunately, since Ubuntu has the biggest user base, it is relatively easy to find answers to nearly any question you may have on the Internet.

    Pros
  • Large Community, most popular Distribution
  • Very nice Package Management Utility
  • Huge amount of software packages available
  • Easy to install, Easiest Proprietary Driver installation
    Cons
  • Not as Many Desktop Configuration Tools
  • NFS Client unstable

openSUSE Linux

openSUSE provides the best configuration tools with their Yast Control Center, which makes it very easy to integrate into any type of network or environment. We also found the distribution to be very stable and pretty responsive, although Fedora seemed to have a slight edge here.

While working with openSUSE, one of the issues we had was some multimedia applications stopped working properly after a few updates within the Packman repository. Most of these issues were resolved after a few days (with more updates from Packman).

Even though there aren't as many packages available from the official repositories as say Ubuntu or Mandriva, we quickly found that the openSUSE Build Service had just about any package that we wanted to install onto our systems. A very nice service.

Other than the over-zealous updates from the third-party vendor, we didn't find too much else wrong with this release from openSUSE. This is probably one of the most well-rounded distributions here, although we didn't care for the new desktop themes that were enabled by default (too dark and too green), but that was easily fixed.

    Pros
  • Yast Control Center
  • openSUSE Build Service Repositories
  • Well rounded Distribution
    Cons
  • Overall appearance is acquired taste
  • 3rd Party Repository too aggressive

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