The best Linux distro of 2011!
Fedora, Mint, Arch, Ubuntu, Debian and OpenSUSE go head-to-head - we've dropped the six most popular Linux distributions of the day into a cage fight for your affections. Read on to discover which distro comes up top for installation ease, customisation, performance, security and more. Which flavour of Linux gets the gold medal? You might very well be surprised, so read on for all the juicy details...
In the beginning, Linus created the kernel. The kernel worked (sort of) and was good. Then, in an ever-spiralling Babelesque explosion of code, the world got umpty-ump different Linux distributions, some of which seem to differ from each other only in the colour of their desktop screens.
Choosing a distro can be confusing, time consuming and too much hard work, which is why many Linux users don't stray far from updating the one they know best.
Such laziness is commendable, but as the distros vie with each other on different fronts, you may be missing out on one that would suit your needs better. Are you more interested in getting the very latest free software, or do you care more about security? Would you rather run a Gnome desktop or KDE? Do you want your distro to choose all your software for you or do you relish the prospect of installing every package by hand?
The answers to these questions, and the few thousand that naturally follow, have taken shape in the form of the next seven pages of comparison. There are a lot of things to weigh up, and a lot of distros to plop on the scales, so if you wanted to compare them yourself, you would have to spend at least two weeks of little sleep and mind-poundingly painful headaches to draw up some kind of summary of how they measure up. But don't bother, because here's one we prepared earlier. With diagrams and charts.
The first hurdle for any distro is to enable users to actually, well, use it.
Fedora's default installation is from DVD
Unlike Windows and Mac OS, users actually have to install the OS from scratch, which certainly used to be a barrier to entry. In the earlier days of installs, users needed to know lots of detailed technical information about their systems, but thankfully even the most primitive distro is easy to install these days.
That said, the text-only install method for Arch Linux and Debian are sure to disquiet some users. The installers are still asking the same questions, pretty much, but both could probably do better when it comes to partitioning up a hard drive. Even an experienced user might balk at being dropped to a shell to prep a drive from the command line. Debian does have a graphical installer (text is still the default) which works well - it may ask a few more questions than the others, but it isn't difficult to navigate - don't try it without a network connection though.
Mint and Ubuntu are naturally very similar since they both use the Ubiquity installer, albeit in slightly different ways. This is designed to be run from a running version of the OS, so both rely on a custom live distro to install. This might not be obvious with Ubuntu, because on booting it comes up with a menu so you can choose between running a live version or going straight to the install.
Ubiquity has gone through a lot of changes in recent years, and is certainly more friendly and reliable than before. It can auto-partition your drive for you and asks the minimum of questions whilst simultaneously copying files across. Naturally, Mint is the same with a different colour scheme.
OpenSUSE's installer is a calming green colour, but you may need calming. At first glance it may seem over-complicated, as the installer gives various options for screenmodes and kernel parameters right from the start. In fact this makes it less likely you will run into a problem that you can't solve because of an uncommon graphics card or a strange storage setup.
The installer is just as friendly, but more detailed. Like Fedora, the default method is from DVD, with a host of software that can be installed straight away. The downside of this is that, unless you want to spend hours selecting each package, you will almost certainly install things from groups that you will never use, or possibly, even know are there.
In terms of install time, Debian and Arch are the quickest, but it isn't really a fair test as both, particularly Arch, install a bare-bones setup.
Fedora wins for ease-of-use, reliability and friendliness.
How does your distro get on with platforms and peripherals?
There are several ways of looking at hardware support. The two fundamental ones are platform support (your processor/motherboard/monitor etc) and peripheral support (printer/webcam/wi-fi). The whole issue of platform support has changed a lot. Whereas once distros used to provide a lot of the third-party drivers, these days the kernel team has caught up a lot - many of the things which used to be an issue are now just another module for the vanilla kernel.
In terms of platforms, it is hard to beat Debian, mainly because it is pretty much the only distro you can install on a Power PC (eg old Macs), an S390 mainframe and mostly everything in between.
One continuing area of difficulty for all distributions though is laptops, where components are often not replaceable, and there are significant variations to their desktop counterparts.
Ubuntu leads the field here, mainly due to popularity - many manufacturers who dabble with Linux (Dell, Acer, etc) have more or less standardised on Ubuntu, so it (and by proxy Mint) probably has a better chance of running on any given laptop. Credit has to go to Ubuntu and SUSE for at least trying to maintain some sort of compatibility list, a task which Fedora gave up on long ago.
Ubuntu wins mainly for its laptop compatibility.
One of the most important aspects of Linux is obviously the desktop.
For desktop users, how your chosen distro chooses to implement it is crucial. Choice is good - certainly there should be negative points for distros that don't make it easy to choose a different way of doing things. But also important is good integration - there isn't much point in being able to use LXDE for example, if you are left with a system where you can no longer select a printer. Major upheavals in popular desktop systems make this a particularly interesting area at the moment.
Arch Linux doesn't make any presumptions about what sort of system you want to run. In fact, if you take the path of least resistance through the installer, you will end up with no graphical desktop at all - the base packages simply don't include anything. So it lacks a default desktop, erm, by default. Although this might not be terribly newbie friendly, it does make Arch more customisable for different purposes - setting up a headless media player or a server, for example.
Of course, you can install a desktop if you want! You might want to set up a user first though. Oh, and you'd best install X.org too. And some graphics drivers. You will benefit from being able to install the system of your choice though - KDE, LXDE, Gnome, Xfce, Enlightenment. Then all you need to do is install some applications to run on it. You'll need to open a terminal to install anything though.
Although the Debian philosophy is to remain agnostic about a lot of things, it does make some choices. Although there are great and well-supported versions of Xfce, LXDE and KDE, the default desktop environment is currently Gnome 2. This ships with a default Debian theme, but to be honest the Debian touch is quite light compared to others, so it is pretty much the vanilla Gnome experience you are signing up for.
The default install also doesn't include some of the features you might expect of the modern desktop and Debian isn't big on providing its own configuration tools although, to be fair, the standard desktops now handle a lot of this themselves. You can obviously install a completely different desktop or window manager with a high expectation of it working without too much trouble.
The default desktop for Fedora is now Gnome 3 or the Gnome Shell. This is a major shift for the Gnome desktop, which was once considered to be boring but safe. There are certainly lots of exciting new features in the new version, which seems to have come up with a few new ideas about how users might want to interact with their computer. Unfortunately, new can often mean confusing, especially to people who were familiar with the old way of doing things. To be fair, activities (which launch software) and workspaces (for switching between running tasks) don't have to be used, but there is an underlying presumption that people will be focused on one task at a time, which may annoy power-users.
KDE4 SC is officially supported for Fedora, but it plays second fiddle to Gnome in terms of customisation. It probably isn't fair to press the failings of both desktops as, at the time of writing, Fedora 15 has only just been released.
This simple and straightforward desktop could well be a convenient safe haven to shelter from the tumultuous changes wrought by Unity, on Ubuntu, and Gnome 3 on Fedora and elsewhere. Mint is already a very popular derivative of Ubuntu and may well now see an influx of new recruits. Although Mint is based on Ubuntu, the next release (11, “Katya”) will not copy the shift to Unity, and there are no plans to any time in the future - the goal is currently to make the best Gnome 2 desktop possible.
This distro really took off because it was very close to Ubuntu, but installed all the proprietary stuff (Flash, Java, graphics drivers) that were usually a post-install chore for many other distros. But it does much more than that now and is, in many ways, simpler and more friendly than Ubuntu.
OpenSUSE is the only distro here that chooses KDE as the default desktop, although it will run Gnome 2 equally happily (and far better than, for example, Fedora can run KDE). Whilst it is easy to be a leader in a field of one, you have to give credit to the package maintainers for the fact that SUSE is such a great advert for the joys of KDE.
If you've tried KDE and didn't like it, it was probably on a distro which didn't give it as much love and attention as OpenSUSE does. It's hard to fault, even if you do have to put up with the complicated monstrousness of Yast to install more software. The default KDE apps are every bit as competent as their Gnome counterparts, though of course you can install Rythmbox instead of Amarok and such.
For a long time Gnome was the only game in town as far as Ubuntu was concerned, but all that has changed. The default desktop is now Unity - a swish but minimal experience which features a wide side-panel which is effectively a launcher for popular apps and a way to switch between workspaces. There has been some negative feedback and it goes beyond simple fear of change. There are issues with Unity that go beyond some users not liking it, and no doubt the developers will be hard at work squashing bugs. There are functional problems too. How do you adjust the size of the dock? Where is the system monitor widget? You can of course choose to run in “standard” Gnome, but there is no option to try Gnome 3. It seems that 'Unity' is exactly what there won't be on the Ubuntu desktop, at least not for the moment.
Freedom as a mechanism of choice is what Linux is all about
A rough measure of the extent of how simple it is to customise the setup you have been given is how many different desktops are easily available - ie, can be set up from install time. Here the less structured projects, Arch and Debian stand out - although there is more effort involved, it is perfectly easy to set up any existing desktop with no lack of functionality.
Some distros support other options but in Fedora, for example, all the administration tools are set up for Gnome, so you may find integrating a sane system quite difficult. Ubuntu doesn't even officially support a KDE-based desktop, while OpenSUSE has a good go at Gnome and a few others.
If Arch and Debian are more flexible (after all, it is simple to set them up for even a text-only install), another factor that comes into play is what you can actually customise systems with. The big distros have the largest selection of packages, with Ubuntu and Linux Mint leeching off the gargantuan Debian repository, which even in its official free list manages more than 28,000 packages before the net is cast wider to various non-free or non-free dependent sources.
Gathering metrics on Linux usage is trickier than you might think.
A Google trends analysis of news and searches would suggest Ubuntu is by far the most talked about distro.
Whatever way you try and measure it, there is always a sufficient uncertainty about the validity of data to render it practically useless. So, should we count downloads? Registered users on Linux Counter? Registered users on the main forum? Number of relevant posts to LinuxQuestions? All of these will give different results - some wildly different.
Whatever metric you decide to use, though, one thing is strikingly clear - most of the traffic points to Ubuntu as eclipsing everything else in terms of a user base.
It is hardly surprising, one might conclude, given that Ubuntu is practically the only version of Linux you can find pre-installed on anything.
It's also prominently featured in magazines - most of the mainstream computing press seem to think that Ubuntu and Linux are synonymous, so it shouldn't be a surprise if users do too.
But is a simple number of users reflective of a 'community'? One could argue, with some persuasion, that users of Debian, Fedora and OpenSUSE are more active in many ways, including contributing code, documentation and help. This is borne out by some real-world figures. In the distro-specific forums of LinuxQuestions.org, the most number of posts are in the Debian section, closely followed by Fedora, with Ubuntu languishing in fourth place behind SUSE.
This isn't really an indication of anything other than that people who go to that website are more likely to run, or at least talk about, Debian than Ubuntu, but it is quite remarkable given that Ubuntu is reckoned to be so far ahead in market share.
Running a Google trends analysis of web searches or news about our clutch of distros might lead you to conclude that Ubuntu is used more than all the other distros put together.
So what can we conclude? In terms of desktop users, everything points to Ubuntu having far more than anyone else. In terms of active community members, it seems that a greater proportion of those Ubuntu users are just users, and don't actively take part in a 'community'. That isn't much of a surprise, as Ubuntu is the path of least resistance, from media coverage to availability. If you define community as a ratio of active users to all users, the less used distros do a lot better.
There's more to a Linux community than just numbers.
We can do far more now than we ever imagined.
Our table shows OpenSUSE was the fastest at startup.
Somehow squeezing every spare clock cycle out of your CPU doesn't seem to be as important any more. The phenomenal clock speeds and multi-core nature of the modern processor mean that 90% of the time they aren't even working flat out (more than 90% of the time at LXF Towers).
However, no matter how fast computers get, you still seem to spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for them to do things, which seems a bit crazy. Any former Amiga users out there? It had a clock speed of 7MHz. Today the average CPU manages about 3GHz, and more often than not includes two cores, which means the modern computer is 800 times faster! But it still seems to take as long waiting for things to load.
In terms of application speed, there is precious little difference between distros. Some, like Fedora, may have heavily tweaked kernels, but the speed-ups involved only become apparent on a large scale. Some are thin and light, like Arch, which means with less stuff running, they appear to be faster.
The key difference really is in startup speeds, for which we have compiled a table. We also ran some simple benchmarks but really, the timings are all within a margin of error.
To be brutally honest, your choice of desktop, graphics driver, and amount of available RAM is going to make far more difference to perceived speed than your choice of distro, unless you are building a high-performance cluster.
It's a tough call but Debian just edges into the lead here.
Ah, was there ever an issue so thorny?
RPM may have a long venerable history, but Debian has more packages.
The first thing you should know about package management is that nobody really agrees on how best to do it. Once upon a time, the whole debate about Deb (Debian's package format) versus RPM (Red Hat's package management system) was as contentious as KDE vs Gnome, especially after the Linux Standards Base settled on RPM as the official format of choice.
Arch is the odd one out in this section because it uses its own packages and the command-line only pacman tool to deploy them. Very similar to Slackware packages, these are usually nothing more than a binary file and an install script, but this simplicity belies the power of a system where it is easy to add your own sources (where packages don't exist) without messing up the dependency system. You do have to pay attention though, as many packages require post-configuration to work properly.
Both Fedora and OpenSUSE use RPM. Package management in OpenSUSE is now done through Zypper, which does get the job done, and works from the command line just as well.
Fedora has a multi-pronged approach to packages. Although it relies on RPMs and you can use the RPM tools, that tends to mess things up. Yum is the official tool for installing packages, which tracks dependencies, handles options and uses delta packages to reduce download times for updates. In the past it has (fairly) been criticised for a lack of speed, an issue which has not been completely addressed, but it does work. Unfortunately, RPM is not such a standard that ones designed for SUSE will necessarily work on Fedora, and vice versa. All the other three distros on test use Debian. With a simple but powerful command-line tool and a choice of graphical front-ends, this seems to meet most needs, and the wealth of packages available is amazing. Thanks to the popularity of Ubuntu these days, it will probably stay that way.
Kudos has to go to Linux Mint which attempts to hide things from users if they don't really need them. You will have to jump through hoops to install something that hasn't been thoroughly tested.
Whether you see it as a development silo or not, the Launchpad service for Ubuntu offers an easy-to-use way of installing additional packages, although this might take some extra effort (and nerves!) to accomplish. In a similar vein, credit has to go to OpenSUSE for the build service, which makes it possible and easier for developers to roll out any type of package from their source code.
Ubuntu's Launchpad just pips Debian to the post.
When it comes to software, there are several approaches.
Fedora is really a test-bed for Red Hat's technology.
Attitudes to software are very different: some distros set out to have the very latest, some believe in not including anything until it has been thoroughly tested. And others try to make it possible to choose.
Linux Mint is certainly very cautious when it comes to new software and upgrades - it actively discourages you from installing software and non-critical updates, and you need to change a few preferences before you can even see all the packages available.
Debian follows a philosophy of choice, with a range of package repositories that reflect different levels of risk and reward - if you choose to update from 'Sid' (the permanent moniker of the 'unstable' release) you should know what to expect. Similarly, if you enable the 'rawhide' repositories in Fedora or Arch, you might be in for an interesting time.
There are different levels of failure of course. It may be that you just can't get the very latest version of something to run properly, or it may be that by pulling in all its dependencies, you break something fundamental. Needless to say it is not recommended to try on a machine that you need working.
Fedora has 'First' as one of its mottos, and indeed it is quick off the mark for most technology, particularly storage and virtualisation stuff. Arch can't be beaten in this respect - its rolling release schedule means that packages are delivered quickly and, for the most part, safely. It might not have every base covered, but it's probably faster than building everything yourself.
Its rolling release schedule means Arch can't be beaten.
Reassuringly, it's pretty much a level playing field.
There is good news and bad news on the security front. The good news is that, as far as really important packages go, all the distros are very prompt and have updates ready as soon as the offending code has been patched at source.
The bad news is that this makes it very difficult for us to determine which is the most secure (at least in terms of updated software).
As an example we looked at recent security alerts around Apache, Asterisk and, just to prove we got to the end of the alphabet, xpdf.
For the most part, all the vulnerabilities we looked at were patched, fixed and updated on the same day - mainly because quite often the packagers for various distros are closely connected with the developers of the original software. Due to its rolling release, Arch has often updated packages before holes were found in the old version - not that that makes it more secure necessarily, just because new vulnerabilities haven't yet been found.
The situation is slightly different for minor security issues in less mainstream software, and really it depends which packages you are interested in. SUSE and Fedora are both very quick to react and, of course, when Debian includes an update it also filters through to Ubuntu and Mint.
While it certainly is the case that the bigger distros and those with some sort of business incentive are generally quicker to release updates, it is reassuring to know that as long as you apply the updates, you are pretty secure no matter what system you run.
How they all fared
Debian proclaims itself to be the universal OS, and on the basis of our tests, it's a fantastic all-rounder.
Whilst no scientific stone has been left unsubjected to a transformation matrix, bear in mind that their isn't any science known to man or penguin that can accurately quantify a lot of the qualities we look for in a version of Linux.
A lot of it will be completely subjective, depending on the wants and needs of the individual user. For one thing, when we totted up the medal table to produce the result, we were assuming that all categories were equal. This is very unlikely to be the case, to be honest - if it was, everyone would be using the same distro.
Instead people choose the software that best reflects their needs. For some people, having the very latest software outweighs any consideration about how hard it is to install, so they settle for Arch or Fedora. Some people may simply want the easiest and best way to get a KDE desktop and consequently they install OpenSUSE.
Ubuntu probably has the most users, so you would think its mix was just about right. Interestingly though, many of the properties that make it great stem from it being based on Debian. There is also the Unity factor. While it is brave and bold to stick up for an idea you believe in, herding people towards a new desktop concept is bound to have repercussions, which Mint might be best placed to capitalise on.
Debian makes a good case for best all-round distro. In some ways it is still practically neolithic, and installing it could certainly be made a bit easier, which is a shame because it gives people who have difficulty with that step a bad impresssion of the system as a whole. Also, it pretty much expects a constant network connection, and may not be quite so suitable in its vanilla form for netbooks or off-line installs.
However, package management and flexibility are all top notch, and there is a wide and active community here that provides support, documentation, packages and plenty of opinions too. It certainly won't suit everyone, but if you have never tried it, it should be top of your TO DO list.
If you're after simplicity and ease-of-use, Linux Mint and Ubuntu are worthy inheritors of the Debian codebase, Fedora and Arch are great for cutting edge software and OpenSUSE provides a great all-round KDE desktop experience.
Surprised? You shouldn't be. A great community ethic and effort deliver all-round Linux greatness.
Can millions of users be wrong? Yes, but not when it comes to the frabjous joy of running Ubuntu.
Cutting edge with more than a bit of flair, Fedora is just about spot on in a lot of areas.
Runner Up: OpenSUSE
The only sensible choice if you want a bang up-to-date and expertly integrated KDE desktop.
And the rest...
There are of course, other distros to choose from. Don't feel aggrieved that yours wasn't here, they were merely selected on the basis of current popularity. One that does deserve a mention is the unrestrained brilliance of Slackware. It is anything but slack, and has a simplicity which belies the power of an almost pure Linux experience.
For those keen on doing even more themselves, both Gentoo and its derivative Sabayon are worth investigating. And whatever happened to Mandriva? The Linux world is an ever-changing and exciting one. And let's not forget the countless hordes of specific distros, designed to do one thing very well - Jolicloud/ JoliOS for netbooks, Knoppix for a great live distro, CentOS for businesses who don't want to pay Red Hat and many, many, more.