From the archives: the best distros of 2000

Distros

Back in May 2000 the first issue of Linux Format magazine hit the newsstands. One of its features was a group test of Linux distributions, reflecting the state of play in Linux flavours at the time. If you fancy a trip down memory lane or just a quick look at how beautiful Linux wasn't all those years ago, we've dug out the original article complete with screenshots - read on!

Historical note

Remember that nine years is a long time in the computing world -- and even more so for Linux. In 2000 the OS was still regarded as a niche player, a fantastic showcase of technology for geeks but not yet ready for prime time. Today we see Linux on netbooks, Linux on Dell boxes, Linux everywhere; it's serious business.

Corel Linux is long dead, despite a high-profile entrance into the distro scene, while Caldera Linux occupied a healthy position (before the SCO shenanigans busted it up). SUSE, Mandrake, Red Hat and Mandriva are still alive in various flavours, while the British Definite distro bought the farm and WinLinux only made it to a 2003 release.

What makes a good distro?

Back in the early days of Linux, getting the operating system onto your machine was a long and complicated task. Individual compressed packages had to be downloaded off the Net and put together on your hard disk, and lots of tweaking of configuration files was required before you had a fully-working system. Enter distributions - a concept designed to make installation and configuration of Linux much easier.

Instead of working out which software you needed and then trying to download it, everything needed was supplied in a simple, straightforward package, along with manuals and extra software CDs. Also, much of the configuration could now be done during the preparation phase.

Today, there are a wide variety of Linux distributions available, with more appearing all the time. Because Linux and its source code is freely available, anyone can grab the bits and pieces of a working system and put them together to make their own distribution. Clearly Red Hat is the most prominent distribution vendor, but other companies like SuSE and Mandrakesoft are following closely.

This freedom for anyone to make a distribution has led to an assortment of packages with different aims - some try to provide a fast and easy installation, some head for being reliable servers on networks, and some just want to be solid all-rounders. This range of focus looks set to expand as Linux becomes more popular in other markets. You can buy full boxed-sets with manuals, extra discs containing applications and the source code, and invaluable installation support. If you're familiar with Linux or just want to upgrade, you can also get hold of a cheap single CD version of the distribution or download it off the Web.

Detailed online help files are essential when you're getting started.

Detailed online help files are essential when you're getting started.

So, how do you choose the best distribution? It really depends on what you are looking for. If you're new to Linux and want a simple introduction, it's best to find one with a friendly graphical installer and plenty of software. This way you'll be able to get up-and-running with minimal fuss, and won't have to trawl the Web trying to find decent programs. On the other hand, experienced users will value reliability and flexibility over flashy installers and configuration tools. If you need a distribution to run on a small file or print server, the latest dazzling desktop environments aren't going to be of any interest.

Linuxconf is the standard setup tool with distributions based on Red Hat.

Linuxconf is the standard setup tool with distributions based on Red Hat.

One of the most significant obstacles for newcomers installing Linux is the partitioning process. If your whole hard disk is devoted to Windows, making enough space for Linux is a complicated and daunting task. Distribution engineers have devised various methods for dealing with this, ranging from automatic partitioning software to placing the whole installation inside a directory on the Windows drive.

Many distributions are based on others, which is important to note when you're trying to find compatible software. Because the majority of software in a typical distribution is free and open source, another company can take the distribution's framework, add their own tweaks and improvements, and market it themselves. One example of this is Linux-Mandrake, which began as Red Hat with KDE ready-to-go (Red Hat had been avoiding the desktop suite because of license issues). After having a solid base to work on, though, Mandrake has become a worthy distribution in its own right.

The choice of default desktop is also a crucial one, particularly for beginners. While experienced users will have no trouble in setting up their favourite window manager or desktop environment, newcomers will want things ready for action straight away, without the need for fiddling with configuration files. KDE and GNOME are the two biggest contenders for the desktop, providing tools, utilities and a drag-and-drop environment, but simpler window managers like Window Maker, Sawmill and IceWM are often better alternatives on systems with smaller memory. In this test, we've also taken note of how well the desktop is set up - has it just been thrown in, or have the developers configured it to work with the special features of the distribution?

Version numbers is also a key issue to watch out for. While it appears good to have the latest releases of popular packages, they are not always the most stable. New features need heavy testing, and often it's better to have an older, tried-and-tested version rather than the current development release. This is especially true for production machines and servers; on your home PC you can take the gamble with newer, untested packages to see the latest features. In general, most distributions stick with stable versions of important programs like the kernel and related tools, and occasionally have in-development versions of less-critical apps.

Here we take a look at eight of the major distributions, examining the areas discussed above and determining the type of user each distribution would be suited to. We're looking at the single CD versions here, which are available from retailers such as the Linux Emporium (http://www.linuxemporium.co.uk).

Corel Linux 1.0

Corel's desktop is based on KDE, with various extra enhancements.

Corel's desktop is based on KDE, with various extra enhancements.

When Corel announced that they would move into the Linux distribution market, the news was greeted with both hope and apprehension by the community. While it was clear that they could help to improve Linux's position on the desktop, many thought they were in danger of dumbing-down the OS. The software company, responsible for WordPerfect and CorelDRAW, have based their package on the respected Debian distribution, and aimed it at new users who have switched from Windows.

Corel's graphical installer is welcome news to new Linux users and those who have switched from Windows, featuring mouse and dialog driven configuration. As well as taking over the whole hard drive, you can install directly into a Windows directory. However, our system froze just after it had copied the files onto our drive, and reports from other users in the main Linux newsgroups confirm that this is a common problem. According to the detailed support pages on Corel's site, these difficulties are due to hardware probing. Fortunately, though, the files were already in place on our drive so we could still start Corel Linux up.

Network and video configuration can be done from the control panel

Network and video configuration can be done from the control panel

Corel's desktop is based on KDE with various tweaks and enhancements. The most significant addition is the Corel File Manager, which resembles Windows Explorer and provides a familiar interface for new users. FVWM 95 is included too as an alternative. The XFree86 version is 3.3.5, and also supplied is the GIMP 1.0.2, Netscape 4.7 and Adobe Acrobat Reader. This is a reasonable range of desktop applications, although adding extra software is trickier as Corel Linux uses .deb packages rather than RPMs (which most other distributions use).

Still, there are many Debian packages around and the supplied 'alien' tool can convert RPMs to the native .deb format. For more advanced users, the gcc compiler and Midnight Commander file manager are also available.

This is a promising distribution, and Corel appears to have worked hard in many key areas. While there's little variety in the available desktops, the ability to perform X and network configuration through the KDE control panel is a bonus. Advanced users may feel restricted, though, and the sheer amount of installation problems we've come across and heard about make it hard for us to recommend it. If they can sort out these troubles and produce a reliable installer in their next release, Corel Linux will be worth keeping an eye on.

Ease of use: 3/5

Documentation: 4/5

Features: 4/5

Software range: 3/5

Overall: 3/5 - Has potential, but needs work on the troublesome installer

Definite Linux 7.0

The GNOME desktop with the Enlightenment window manager

The GNOME desktop with the Enlightenment window manager.

Produced by Definite Software PLC, a UK-based company, Definite Linux is based on the Red Hat distribution. It aims to be up-to-date with extra enhancements over Red Hat, and includes full UK support. The text-mode installation program is, like Red Hat 6.0's, fast and straightforward. We chose our language and time zone, and used the simple Disk Druid tool to create our partitions. It installed our selected packages and detected our mouse and video card. After installing the boot loader and configuring a few extras, we were ready to go.

From starting the installation to booting our new Linux system, only 30 minutes had passed - very impressive, and essential when several machines need to be set up. While many distributions are moving towards graphical installers, the speed of Definite's setup program is hard to beat.

GNOME, the default desktop with Definite, has not been altered much. Ready-prepared icons for the CD-ROM and floppy drives would have been a nice touch, although typical users of this distro would be familiar with configuring such things. Definite have added links to their support pages on the desktop, with extra links to other sources of information in the documentation. KDE is also included for those who prefer it, and other window managers like Window Maker and FVWM 95 are available too. In terms of applications, GIMP 1.0.4 and Netscape 4.61 are joined by Apache 1.3.9 and the egcs compiler. The supplied kernel is version 2.2.12, and the XFree86 release is 3.3.5.

Window Maker is also supplied as an attractive alternative

Window Maker is also supplied as an attractive alternative.

But Definite really excels under the hood - with RAID support it makes a very capable server solution, and not just a solid desktop OS. Another neat feature is the ISDN support, which won't mean a lot to most users but demonstrates the flexibility that Definite provides. And because it's made outside of the USA, this distribution also offers improved security over its rivals - so, for example, Netscape supports full 128-bit encryption.

We found Definite Linux to be an excellent and solid all-rounder. The fast installation and decent range of software included makes it a powerful load-and-go solution, and the usual Red Hat configuration tools together with Linuxconf create an easily maintainable system. Documentation and support is superb, and helped considerably by Definite PLC being based in the UK. New users may find Mandrake easier to work with initially, but if you're looking for Red Hat with extra bang for your money, this is it.

Ease of use: 4/5

Documentation: 4/5

Features: 4.5/5

Software range: 4.5/5

Overall: 4.5/5 - Powerful and flexible with some impressive features, and a great choice all round

WinLinux 2000

KDE, the default desktop, has been tuned to provide extra screen space.

KDE, the default desktop, has been tuned to provide extra screen space.

WinLinux 2000's main selling point is that it can be installed onto a Windows drive without the need for tricky partitioning. It's based on Slackware and claims to be "the easiest to install Linux system in the Windows world". By working with the UMSDOS filesystem, WinLinux uses a Windows directory to hold the Linux files, although it's slower than a proper, dedicated partition. We booted Windows 95 and ran the SETUP.EXE program. A typical installation utility appeared, and after choosing the 'Typical' choice for packages, the installer started copying files onto our C: drive. So far, so good.

The Windows-based installer offers a selection of installation sizes.

The Windows-based installer offers a selection of installation sizes.

The installer finished and launched the configuration tool, and an error appeared. After dismissing it, we were faced with a blank configuration window. Pressing the Back and Next buttons resulted in more errors, leaving Cancel the only option. Sadly, this wasn't just a problem with our system - we found many people complaining of the same difficulties on message boards around the Web. At WinLinux's site, we searched the Updates and Support section with no luck. We sent an email to their support team, hoping to find a solution, but had no reply.

Eventually we found a link in one of the FAQ sections to an updated configuration tool. Why this was hidden away and not highlighted in the Updates and Support section is a mystery, but finally we installed the new configuration utility and it ran better, although it only detected our mouse and not the video or sound card. When starting Linux, we encountered error messages with some of the kernel modules.

WinLinux includes kernel 2.2.13, XFree86 3.3.5 and version 2.1 of the glibc library, so it's up to date. The default desktop is KDE 1.1.2, which has been set up reasonably well, and the developers have changed the panel's size to fit smaller screens. FVWM is also available as an alternative. Other software provided includes the GIMP 1.0.4 and Netscape Communicator 4.7, and the egcs compiler is available for development work. This is a satisfactory setup, and KDE provides plenty of extra utilities for multimedia and the Internet.

In use, WinLinux's Slackware base makes it a solid and powerful system. Slackware's configuration tool (invoked with 'setup') is also a comprehensive utility, although no mention of it is given in the very small and badly-written documentation. Clearly WinLinux is aimed at newcomers, but until they sort out the setup problems and provide some detailed and clear help files, it's best to avoid it.

Ease of use: 2/5

Documentation: 1/5

Features: 3/5

Software range: 3/5

Overall: 2/5 - Good concept, let down by a problematic installation routine and poor documentation

Red Hat 6.1

GNOME and Enlightenment, the default desktop for Red Hat.

GNOME and Enlightenment, the default desktop for Red Hat.

One of the older distributors in this roundup, Red Hat have a reputation for making solid packages for both the desktop and server. The company created the popular RPM package format and remains the dominant figure in an increasingly competitive market. Like many others, they have made the move to a graphical installation process with Anaconda, which can also install in text mode.

While not as visually impressive as some of the other offerings, Red Hat's installer is clean, fast and presents useful help text at the side of the screen. It detected our mouse and graphics card correctly, and the Disk Druid partitioner was simple enough to operate. You're offered a choice of installation classes - from a typical GNOME and KDE workstation to a server, with a 'custom' option for more advanced users. The installer also creates a normal user account, which is essential for a secure and reliable system.

Red Hat has put significant backing into the development of GNOME, which remains the standard desktop environment for its distribution. While debates over GNOME vs KDE are likely to go on for some time, it's still a good choice and the number of programs and small utilities provided make a very rich and usable desktop. Icons are ready prepared to point to the CD-ROM and floppy drives, while the GNOME help browser offers links to the Red Hat Getting Started guide. The CD is also equipped with alternative window managers like FVWM, Window Maker and AfterStep. A good assortment of typical programs is supplied, with development tools, server applications (including Apache and Samba), and Internet utilities like Netscape, Pine and Lynx.

For common system administration tasks, Red Hat uses the Linuxconf configuration program. While this is powerful, it relies on a certain amount of experience and comprehension of general Linux terms. Kudzu, started at boot-up, checks for new hardware and tries to configure it. Also, the new RP3 utility for creating a dialup Internet connection is accomplished and simplifies a complicated process. These, together will all the other small utilities like printtool and sndconfig, make a very manageable system that's quick to set up.

RP3 being used to create a new Internet connection.

RP3 being used to create a new Internet connection.

However, while we didn't experience any difficulties ourselves, reports from other users describe problems with the installer freezing or generating errors, and complications when upgrading. In general, though, Red Hat Linux is a powerful and flexible distribution with excellent documentation and a very useful collection of configuration programs.

Ease of use: 4/5

Documentation: 5/5

Features: 4.5/5

Software range: 4/5

Overall: 4/5 - Robust, with a solid range of software, but a few installation problems

Debian GNU/Linux 2.1

FVWM 95 is a fast and small window manager, emulating the look of Windows 9x.

FVWM 95 is a fast and small window manager, emulating the look of Windows 9x.

Unlike the other commercial distributions in this review, Debian is produced by a non-profit making organisation called Software in the Public Interest. Volunteers all over the world help to maintain the system, and the distribution has acquired considerable respect from experienced users in the community. The text-mode installer is available in mono or colour, so Debian can be installed on very old systems that don't have colour displays - a good idea, and a refreshing change from the new jazzy installers we're seeing everywhere else.

From the start, though, it's clear that new users would find this heavy-going. The cfdisk partitioner assumes plenty of knowledge and there's little of the hand-holding you get with others. On the other hand, you're constantly prompted and alerted to what the installer is doing, which is a world apart from the "do everything automatically" idea behind other distributions like Corel.

The installation takes some time, as after choosing one of the package categories (desktop, development workstation etc.) you have to sit through the post-install configuration and occasionally answer questions for each package. Debian uses the .deb format, which is similar to RPM. However, with the extensive dselect package management tool, adding and removing software is very straightforward. But the best feature of all is the apt (Advanced Packaging Tool) system, which allows the entire system to be updated with just a few commands.

dselect, Debian's package management system, listing the installed software.

dselect, Debian's package management system, listing the installed software.

After experiencing slight incompatibilities with RPMs from various distributions, we were glad to see such painless upgrading and package control. On the software side, Debian is showing its age. The supplied kernel is 2.0.38 - not even from the 2.2.x series - and XFree86 is back at 3.3.2. An old version of GNOME is supplied, along with several window managers such as Enlightenment, Window Maker and FVWM. Being a technically-orientated distribution, a plethora of console programs that don't need X are included, with mail programs, development tools and network utilities.

The Debian CD's packages are slightly behind the times for a few reasons. Firstly, as it's a volunteer project, the developers can't just throw out another release whenever possible. More importantly, they are concerned with stability and maintenance of a working system (as seen by the excellent upgrade process). This development process and general attitude is similar to that of the kernel itself - technical excellence takes preference over commercial interests. Debian is not a good choice for Linux beginners - if you're starting out for the first time, you'll have an easier introduction with Mandrake or Caldera. But for experienced Linux users who need a very reliable, easily maintainable and carefully crafted distribution, this is the best you can get.

Ease of use: 2/5

Documentation: 4.5/5

Features: 4.5/5

Software range: 3/5

Overall: 4.5/5 - Not suited for new users, but technically superb and easily maintainable

Linux-Mandrake 7.0

Mandrake's desktop, KDE, as it appears at first boot.

Mandrake's desktop, KDE, as it appears at first boot.

The concept behind Linux-Mandrake was originally born out of Red Hat's refusal to include KDE in its distribution. This was due to licensing concerns, so Mandrakesoft decided to create a variant of Red Hat with KDE included and ready to go, and therefore new users wouldn't have to find and download the desktop suite off the Web. Since then, Mandrake has evolved into a solid distribution in its own right. The new graphical installer is a fantastic, easy to use tool, and we had no problems getting underway with it.

Clearly a lot of thought has been put in here - a column of lights down the side acts as a progress meter, while a bar of help text at the bottom provides tips for choices in each dialog box. You can choose a preset security level, and even decide if num-lock is activated at boot time! Thankfully, a proper user account is created and PPP (dialup) configuration is done here too. Apart from the long package installation process and lack of ability to configure sound, Mandrake's installer is the best graphical one we've seen and is a joy for newcomers and experienced users alike.

The excellent installer, with its powerful partitioning tool.

The excellent installer, with its powerful partitioning tool.

In operation, the distribution still remains similar to Red Hat. However, one major enhancement lies in the hardware setup tool, Lothar. This automatically detected most of our hardware, although configuring it still proved to be difficult. Still, it's certainly an impressive start and with more development it could really attract non-technical users to Linux. The DrakConf configuration tool will be a great help for newcomers and assists in a range of administration chores, while the Supermount feature for automatic mounting of removable media is a nice touch.

On the desktop side, Mandrake has KDE 1.1.2 by default, and GNOME, Window Maker, IceWM and Enlightenment are included as well. Also on the CD are Netscape, the GIMP and WINE for running Windows apps, while Emacs, KDevelop and egcs are available for developers.

Mandrake's KDE setup is good, and the on-disc documentation is thorough and well-written. The range of apps on the CD is varied and up-to-date, and while it's doubtful how much of an effect the Pentium-class processor optimisations have, the system feels snappy and responsive. With all this in mind, and the brilliance of the DrakX installer, Mandrake is currently the best general-purpose distribution available. New users will love the easy setup process, ready-to-go KDE desktop and helpful documentation. Experienced Linuxers will be pleased with the variety of desktops, development tools and general flexibility of the system.

Ease of use: 5/5

Documentation: 4/5

Features: 4.5/5

Software range: 5/5

Overall: 5/5 - Easy to use, robust, fast, with lots of great software. Highly recommended

Caldera OpenLinux 2.3

The plain KDE desktop, as set up by the Kandalf configurator.

The plain KDE desktop, as set up by the Kandalf configurator.

Caldera's main focus with its OpenLinux distribution has been the commercial sector, providing a stable desktop and server operating system that fits well into a business environment. It can be installed through Windows or onto a clean hard drive, and sports a fully graphical setup process. Lizard, the installer, is very polished and features a column of relevant help text down the side of the screen - invaluable for newcomers and a useful reference as the installation progresses.

Our mouse and graphics card were detected correctly, and the partitioning tool was clear and straightforward to work with. We could create a default user and finish some other configuration while the packages were being installed - a nice touch, and saves wasting time too.

We came across a snag when starting for the first time, though - the swap partition hadn't been assigned properly. This problem is reportedly common with OpenLinux 2.3, and although we could change the fstab file and add a swap entry ourselves, new users would find the system very sluggish and have no idea how to deal with it. OpenLinux's default desktop is KDE, which when started for the first time launches Kandalf, a wizard that offers various customisation options for the desktop. These include choosing a theme and adding icons to the desktop for the floppy and CD-ROM drives. It all has a polished and professional feel to it, although there's no choice of alternative desktops if you're not keen on KDE.

COAS, or the Caldera Open Administration System, is a suite of programs designed to make configuration and management of the system easy. While not as comprehensive as Linuxconf, it's less daunting and simpler to work with. COAS includes utilities for managing users, setting up a network and installing packages, among others. The usual desktop applications like the GIMP and Netscape are installed by default, while Dosemu, WINE and Samba are provided for Microsoft OS connectivity. Developers are catered for too, with XEmacs and the egcs compiler.

COAS, Caldera's administration tool, in action.

COAS, Caldera's administration tool, in action.

Apart from the swap partition difficulty, we found OpenLinux to be a very competent distribution suited for newcomers and intermediate users alike. There are some problems with using RPMs: they're OpenLinux's default package format, but many typical Red Hat RPMs won't install without using extra options. Most veteran Linux users won't feel at home here, but overall it's a polished distribution and, with the simple installation and uncomplicated configuration tools, it makes a good desktop OS all round.

Ease of use: 4.5/5

Documentation: 4/5

Features: 4.5/5

Software range: 4/5

Overall: 4/5 - Polished and user-friendly, OpenLinux is an good choice for the desktop

SuSE Linux 6.3

KDE with the SuSE menu, automatically generated from the installed applications.

KDE with the SuSE menu, automatically generated from the installed applications.

Another experienced distributor, German company SuSE have been around for many years and have been very popular in the European markets. One of their highlights is the large amount of software on their CDs, reaching up to 1,500 applications in the boxed set. They have also recently converted their distribution to run on the Alpha processor, and have put money into various key areas of Linux development. SuSE's installer is based on YaST, a long-running setup utility which has finally been updated from text-mode to a full graphical installation.

Sadly, when we started our YaST2 installation, it told us that our 2GB partition was too small for the minimum installation. Wisely, though, SuSE have included the original tried-and-tested YaST, and this worked properly. Installation is reasonably quick, although it isn't very neat - first YaST starts, then exits to restart the system services, then starts again, then exits and waits for a minute before running some scripts. But overall it's a reasonably simple installation and the online help is thorough and useful.

YaST is also the main system configuration tool in SuSE, offering different administrative and setup options from adding new users to configuring modems. For the most part it's easy to use and powerful, but occasionally it didn't do exactly as commanded, and if you're editing configuration files by hand it can have trouble working with them. Like others, SuSE has opted for KDE by default. It's set up fairly well, with icons for the disk drives and easy access to YaST and the help system.

The YaST tool assists with administration and configuration of hardware.

The YaST tool assists with administration and configuration of hardware.

One particularly nice feature is the automatic updating of menus - install a new application through YaST and it will add an entry to the KDE menu. This can also work for the FVWM and IceWM menus (among others) as well. SuSE Linux uses the RPM package format, but we had compatibility troubles installing many off the Web. Thankfully SuSE provide an excellent service on their site for new KDE programs, which are tailor made to fit the distribution.

One cause for concern we noticed was the inclusion of GIMP 1.1.11, a development version. The program's docs say that it's an unstable version "intended for developers only", so it seems SuSE is chasing version numbers here. A shame, then, but a good, wide range of software for both the desktop and server is included which makes up for it. In all, SuSE is a generally good distribution with some attractive features. Some of its quirks hold it back, though.

Ease of use: 4/5

Documentation: 4/5

Features: 4/5

Software range: 4.5/5

Overall: 4/5 - A decent distribution, with some clever features and a wide choice of software

Conclusion

Of the 8 distributions on test here, some are clearly more suited to different types of users than others. Corel, for instance, definitely has newcomers to Linux in mind with its attempt at automatic hardware detection and a very simple installation routine. As most unfamiliar users will be coming from a Windows background, extra effort has been made to provide a familiar working environment with an Explorer-like file manager and integrated video and network configuration in the desktop control panel.

On the other hand, distributions like Debian and Definite are aimed at the more experienced users who will be putting reliability and flexibility above flashy desktops and installers. This is important when making your choice - you'll want an easy introduction if you're unfamiliar with Linux, but if you know your way around then the restrictions of beginner distributions may prove to be frustrating.

While most are starting to feature graphical installers (based on the VGA16 X server for compatibility), this isn't always the best choice. Linux is proving to be increasingly popular in use on older hardware, where it can function as a file or print server, or simply as a development OS for trying out new software. In this light, text-based installers are crucial - running a graphical installer would be far too slow or even impossible on very old hardware.

The best solution is to provide both, as Red Hat have done for example, so you can revert to the standard setup program if any problems occur. In general, the graphical installers in these distributions add little to the functionality, but provide an important level of comfort for newcomers.

Another issue to watch out for is with package formats. Most distributors have opted for the RPM format created by Red Hat, but this doesn't guarantee compatibility with others. RPMs made for some systems may not work on others, as we've seen with OpenLinux and SuSE. If you're careful, you can avoid checking for dependent packages when installing (using the '--nodeps' switch at the command line), but ultimately this can just lead to more problems.

In general, the distributions derived from Red Hat - such as Mandrake and Definite - have fewer troubles with using standard RPMs off the Web. SuSE and Caldera aren't left out, but finding packages that will work with these isn't as simple. Their sites can provide tailor-made RPMs that are ready to use, but they're not always totally up to date. Corel and Debian take a different approach by opting for .deb packages, although you can use the Alien program to convert RPMs to the default format. While RPM packages are more abundant around the Net, there's no shortage of .deb archives thanks to the popularity of the Debian distribution.

What's the best choice of desktop? Pop in to a Linux newsgroup or join a mailing list and you'll see the occasional heated debate over KDE and GNOME. While KDE was started earlier and was first with a solid, usable desktop environment, GNOME has caught up and now there's not a lot between them. Because they're both freely available, you can try them out yourself and see which one you prefer. And if you don't like either, or want to run something less resource-hungry, you can switch to a simple window manager like FVWM or Blackbox and use most of the KDE and GNOME applications from there.

Still, it has to be said that most distributions reviewed here feature KDE as standard - it's slightly easier to work with in places, and due to the native window manager (kwm), new users don't have to worry about two different configurations at the same time. But with a compliant window manager like Enlightenment or IceWM, GNOME provides an equally friendly drag-and-drop desktop with lots of useful utilities.

From our tests, we found Mandrake 7 to be the best of the bunch out of the eight reviewed here. Debian and Definite are perhaps better alternatives for power users and experienced Linux fans, and SuSE, Caldera and Red Hat are all worth considering too. But if you're looking for a friendly, powerful all-rounder with lots of great software, Mandrake should be your first choice.

Breakdown of features

  Kernel XFree86 Auto X setup Glibc Package format Graphical installer Default desktop WINE Compiler Boxed-set Support
Corel 2.2.12 3.3.5 Yes 2.0.7 Deb Yes Modified KDE No gcc 2.7.2 30 days
Definite 2.2.12 3.3.5 Yes (Xconfigurator) 2.1.1 RPM No GNOME 1.0.10pre2 No egcs 1.1.2 60 days
WinLinux 2.2.13 3.3.5 Yes (in Windows) 2.1.2 TGZ/RPM Yes (Windows) KDE 1.1.2 No egcs 2.91.66 Installation only
Red Hat 2.2.12 3.3.5 Yes (Xconfigurator) 2.1.2 RPM Yes GNOME 1.0.39 No egcs 1.1.2 90 days
Debian 2.0.38 3.3.2 No 2.0.7 Deb No FVWM Yes gcc 2.7.2 N/A
Mandrake 2.2.14 3.3.6 Yes 2.1.2 RPM Yes KDE 1.1.2 Yes egcs 1.1.2 100 days
Caldera OpenLinux 2.2.10 3.3.4 Yes 2.1.1 RPM Yes KDE 1.1.1 Yes egcs 2.91.66 90 days
SuSE Linux 2.2.13 3.3.5 Yes (SaX) 2.1.2 RPM Yes KDE 1.1.2 Yes gcc 2.7.2 60 days

First published in Linux Format magazine

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Your comments

Corel was my first

Corel was my first Linux. We had it at work for a test and I gave it a shot. It was pretty cool at the time.

Developer

Mandrake was my first venture into Linux - bought it when it first came out (late 90's?). Used Caldera, RedHat 5, Suse and Corel as well. Kind of wondered why Slackware wasn't mentioned as it is the oldest surviving distro. I think Corel got eaten by M$ but I'm, not sure.

The sight of that Enlightenment WM

brought it all flooding back. My 1st distro was RH6.0 & I bought the book with an install CD in a "bargain" computer bookshop, before I had my own PC( using DOS at work). Back then, using Linux felt like the difference between listening to commercial radio or having your own amateur radio TX.
Unfortunately, with more commercial credibility, Linux seems to have lost some of the romance (if thats the right word) & excitement that it once had. I suppose peoples expectations were a lot lower then...

Corel....

Didn't that disappear into the mire that is SCO?

my bad that was Caldera...

my bad that was Caldera... in mitigation they both begin with c ;-) lol

WHO CARES ABOUT pile of

WHO CARES ABOUT pile of software called SLACK...
article is about distribution which shows something :)

flame on
:))))

Memorabilia is Great

Hi Folks,

2000 is the first time I in touch with Linux, at that time I got Red Hat 4 only cd. I failed to install on may lappie toshiba tecra 8000. The successfull installation I did is mandrake (8.02) in 2001. I used mandrake for long time and shift to ubuntu and now I prefer gentoo :=))

Ubuntu is great, but day by day ubuntu getting microsoft windows like :=)) but I agree with canonical policy to bring linux into user friendly on ubuntu. Most my collegues using ubuntu and LinuxMint. I the only one using gentoo in my office.

Re Y2K?

>I was absolutely using Linux in 1999 and 2000 but a lot of
> those screenshots look straight out of 1980.
>
> I did try a bunch of distributions back then, but I don't
> remember them looking that crappy.

Check your memory chips... I was there, too and that is
how I remember them looking like.

Actually, the visual style most of the the distributions of the time copied is quite close to what Windows looked like at the time... My corporate desktop PC still runs Windows 2000 (can you believe it!), and looks equally "crappy". Or not: I rather like the lack of CPU-heavy embellishments.

Answers

Before Linux Format, there was Linux Answers!
(Effectively Linux format issue zero.)
That came with Red Hat 6.0, which I suspect was the first Distro easily available (on CD) in UK.
I like to think of Linux Format as a cross between Linux Answers and The Sunday Format (off the radio.)

P.s. I can't see the capthca on the page. I had to grab the source and view that!

settle down!

Man, so many of you slackers are getting mad that Slackware isn't included. Instead of sitting here complaining about it, why don't you build a time machine, travel back to 2000, and let the author know you're a whiney little b*tch when you might've been able to make a difference.

Ah, Linux Answers...

That had a strange picture of a guy on the front looking like some kind of communist poster encouraging everyone to work for the greater good. Great for the people who liken FOSS to communism, but possibly not the best first impression :-)
Luckily the content kept me going from then until today - and hopefully even tomorrow.

Love, Light and Peace, Crispibits

Corel / Xandros

I *think* Xandros is still around today? That's actually Corel under a new name. Or did they merge with Linspire?

(Xandros were spun off as part of the "MS rescues Corel" deal which finally did WordPerfect in :-(

Cheers,
Wol

I think Slackware should be

I think Slackware should be on that list.

Ahhh, I remember those

Ahhh, I remember those days.

And yes, whoever it was who said the GUIs were not that bad, they *were* if you were using KDE/GNOME or stock FVWM/TWM. Beautiful GUIs could be had at that time, but only with heavy customization, or Enlightenment or AfterStep (IMO, some may disagree... but please don't say WindowMaker).

It's nice to see that even then Debian got a good mention. If you strip out the version numbers and some of the specific problems Debian today is not much different. Sure, today it has an install routine which can partition for you, but by comparison to the present state of the art it might as well be cfdisk. Still, as someone else mentioned, it's hard to put on the kiddy-friendly Ubuntu when you're used to raw Debian horsepower... even if Ubuntu does make wireless simple.

(On a related note, wpa_supplicant is like sex and should take over as the primary means of configuring all networking. Doing it any other way, or reinventing it, makes no sense when you have something that works this well.)

So Slackware people... let me ask a burning question I've been wondering about: Does SLACKware owe its name to J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs?

looking simple isnt any close to crap.

I mean a good windget set, is messured by configurablity. GTK2 owns this way nowdays... but Motif is not bad. Good gui designers can make good GUI with bad widgets to. :D

IMHO

Slackware is shit

Slackware is shit!

Dear everyone

Hello, I would like you to come with me, behind the magic curtain of space and time, to a desk in a corner of a building occupied almost entirely by mountain bikes and their riders. There is a man sitting at this desk, and he has just been informed, on his first day as editor of Linux Format, that he has 5 weeks (that's 25 working days) to come up with a whole magazine, from scratch. No sketches yet exist on the back of envelopes. No staff or contributors have yet been hired, nobody is even that sure about the name. There is no art monkey to shout out, no disc editor to poke, no contributors to threaten. No PR-sponsored lunches to be eaten. There is just a very very blank piece of paper and a severely underpowered PC.

Somehow in that short period of time a whole lot of things happened. Drives were trashed, coffee was drunk, meetings were had, random neural incidents caused ideas to hatch, screens were captured (yeah? they look crap? Sorry, you'll have to take that up with the release managers - you think I had time to *fake* boring looking screens?), keys were tapped, pantone books were consulted, arguments were had, and at the end of it all, some ink was sprayed in squiggly shapes across some paper and a magazine was born. People went to the shops (there still were some in those days) and bought it (we had money then too).

I don't actually remember who wrote the distro roundup, it may even have been me, although it is more likely that it was a combined effort with some of the writers at the time (David Coulson? Rob Fenwick?). I definitely remember taking the screenshots. it is certain that I drew up the list of software to be covered. I seem to remember that the list was concocted from a) what i had available, b) what i could get to actually work on the only PC I had, c) what was popular at the time and d) what i thought would upset people in 9 years time when the whole thing was reprinted for free on the internet.

Issue One is far from perfect, I agree, but I don't think that omitting Slackware was a crime against humanity. I can't even remember why it got dropped (there were about 12 distros on the original list) - possibly because we ran out of time/brains/energy.

P.S. And by the way, of that 25 days, at least 4 of them were spent arguing about the design of the logo, can you believe.

I agree they should have looked better

I liked the KDE ones, but I remember using Red Hat in middle school and that was 1999. I also remember using Enlightenment and thinking it was the best looking wm I could think of.

I remember when,

I had just started work as a Unix Sys Admin (SunOS/Solaris/HP UX) and one of the guys mentioned this new OS called Linux. My first Unix Instructor refused to even talk about its merits as he passed out the SCO Unixware CDs to us. I still have mine, and as a result had a licence for Motif. Anyways I got started on Slackware 3.5, and then eventually switched to SuSE 5 or 5.1. My first install was on a 386 and took a week. Compiling a kernel took all night. I stuck with SuSE through OpenSUSE, but now I have Mint 6 running with KDE and Xfce on the Acer One. I really don't have time to over configure a system like I used to. I just want it to work.

But the article, other than some suspect math was great, a good overview.

Remember "Red Hat users know Red Hat and Slackware Users know Linux"

Slackware deserves mentioning

Slackware is the oldest SURVIVING linux distro. Older than Debian, RH, etc..

And yet no slackware on the list..

Well, we slackers should humble ourselves.
We will stay like that :)

Nice Article

Thanks for this article. It brought fine memories to me. Mandrake 7.0 was my big love in 2000. :-)

Regards, Zolix

Mandrake and distro churning. :)

I tried ALL of those distros excepting Definite (I was stationed at Kunsan AB 1999-2000 and had waay too much time to kill).
The article brings back memories of how much setting up Linux sucked. The suckage WAS educational, I'll give it that.

Mandrake was very noob-friendly and helped many people get usable systems while they were learning Linux. (I used a hard drive swap rack to preserve my Windows 98SE install so I could surf Linuxnewbie.org for info.)

Slackware

I would have dropped slackware because it just was not such distribution what normal user should have started with. Debian was such as well but it had so big userbase and custom stuff as well. Slackware just were too plain and upstream friendly. It even is in 2010.

RedHat, S.U.S.E (so it was registered on those days), Mandrake etc were distributions what pushed the easy install, desktop environments and application programs for normal users. Even the partioning was so easy with Mandrake that you could not do same thing with Windows without expensive partition software.

SUSE (registered that way) 9.x was so beatifull with it wallpapers and KDE 3. so that many could start using right away Linux on that year (2002?).

The 2000 is very important year, on those times Linux OS was 9 years old (started on 1991) and developing was started to be in good shape by device support (still lacked but better). GNU was getting something else done than "just" developing tools so the Linux/GNU development platform really started to be mainstream for those who wanted Linux OS, even the OS was just 2.0.x series on those days (and those who are confused, the Linux kernel is the operating system, GNU has nothing to do with it. They have own OS called HURD with server-client architecture. The HURD has own kernel called GNU Mach).

But as on those times, the same demands stands in today. The desktop and the application programs. Those are the two main things what the user needs. So the development of GNU's project GNOME what was started because KDE (on those days just KDE, not KDE SC as it is now) had license problems.

On those days the application programs were missing very badly. The most usable web browser was Netscape (from what the Mozilla Firefox is descent) and people had no good office suites or mediaplayers with codecs. Only basic functions were good for avarage user. Developers were happy.

The media was pretty much building hype about Linux to overthrow MS's OS's in desktops. But as we can see, the market share has stayd 5-10% for Linux (those who trust the 1% marketshare does not know what propaganda it is, the OLPC project has alone distributed amount of computers to demand that share and it is less much less than Fedora, Mandriva, Ubuntu or Debian has all alone).

We can check now back 10 years (9 on the day this article was brought back) and see that nothing has really changed from main distros. Mandriva and Fedora (RedHat) are still leading the desktop development. There have come few new distributions like Ubuntu, but those have not brought anything new for normal users, than nice theme and big marketing power for their own use, criplling the other distributions from their developed markets (do not take wrong, I am a Ubuntu user myself since the first release).

We do not need to start flame wars is the Slackware needed on list or not. It was not a distribution what developed anything, customized settings. It is still a great distribution if you want plain, 100% upstream friendly distribution without customizations by distributors. It just is not for normal users.

10 years later, Linux is

10 years later, Linux is almost usable.

Many a Changes.

Started with RH7.2 in 2001 I think it lasted about 2 months I wanted to play in the mud installing Slackware(building my first kernel) stuck with Slack for years Till I was in the Hospital for 6mo couldn' t remember my PSW's, Nuked My partition table and started from scratch trying to get Gentoo Returning To Slackware briefly to get my bearings, jumping to Novel then Open SUSE, Mandriva Ubuntu right now I am triple booting, Slackware, FreeBSD and Windows7 when you have an excess of HDD's why not waste them on Operating Systems?

My first experience in Linux

Slackware was definitedly my first experience in Linux. I remember how I got into Linux. In 2000 I bought this laptop (can't remember brand, but I remember it was one of those little-known brands that Apple licensed the x86 version of Mac OS X server 1.0 to) that had 2 Pentium 4 CPU's (they were the later models with 64bits and hiperthreading), 256MB RAM (maxed it out at 2GB), a 30GB HDD (I replaced it with a 80GB one), Radeon 9200 GPU, Intel Wifi abg and bluetooth, Intel e2000 NIC, 2 usb ports, DVDROM/CDRW combo, blue/silver color, Mac OSX Server 1.0. I used it as is until August 30 2001 when I bought the 80GB HDD. That day I bought a PCMag magazine that had an article about Linux advertised in the front cover and I saw that it included the official slackware 8.0 install CD. That was the moment I decided that I was going to install slackware next to Mac OS X server in dualboot. I made a 8 GB partition for the slackware root, a 2GB one for swap and left the rest to Mac OS X server. Went through the slackware installer and selected all the packages for installation, then installed lilo to the / partition and after that I went to install Mac OS X Server. I got a nice surprise when I found that Mac OS X server had a graphical boot manager that could chainload to the slackware lilo. I remember being able to have 1400x1050@24bits with the svga driver and internet through both wired or wireless interfaces. Eventually Mac OS X server got replaced with the x86 OSX 10.3 Panther that I got in an "Intel Development Kit" that a friend brought me and the slackware got updated to 10.0, and finally OSX 10.3 got replaced by OSX 10.4 x86 (part of a newer "Intel development kit" that was used to start the transition to the x86 platform) and slackware 10.0 by slackware 10.2. From there that laptop got replaced by a crappy toshiba (which ran a lot of distros, ubuntu, fedora, debian, opensuse, gentoo, etc) and my current HP Pavilion G4-1065la (color red) which runs Hackintosh 10.7.2 Lion (will be replaced by 10.8 as soon as all my apps and mods become compatible with it) and Slackware 13.37 (will be replaced by 14 as soon as it is released).

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