How to choose the best Linux distro for you
At the time of writing, there are three hundred and twenty three distributions being tracked on distrowatch.com. There's one called Ehad. And another is called Estrella Roja. Many include the letter 'X' in their name, and many feature hand-drawn mascots and disparate communities. Not all are Linux-based, and not all are actively developed, but the overwhelming majority are. This is the world of choice, and it's a world made possible by free and open source software.
Choice is the best thing about Linux. Without choice, we may as well use an operating system where the developers make those choices for us. As we've covered in the past, anyone can create a Linux distribution. If it is different enough, it will survive, but most disappear without a trace. There is a flip side to all this choice however, and that's finding the time to find the perfect distribution for you. You really need to try several before setting on the one you prefer, and downloading, installing and testing a Linux distribution takes a lot of time.
Looking for a netbook distro?
The choice is yours
We're going to look at the most common usage scenarios and make our own recommendations based on our experience. Each scenario gets it own section, starting with casual users such as those new to Linux and migrants from other operating systems. We move on to more advanced users before ending with Linux distributions tailored for one specific task.
We've tried each and every one of the distributions listed, and it's a testament to the breadth and the quality of distributions available that we've not had to repeat a single recommendation once. Each distribution we've listed is unique, with its own strengths and weaknesses, and represents the best our community has to offer.
What kind of user are you?
Before you embark on a distro adventure, it's worth giving some thought to the kind of Linux user you are. The answer isn't as obvious as you might think, and which distribution you do choose will have an effect on that distribution's future, and indirectly, that of Linux.
You might have a preference for open source-only distributions, for example, or you may prefer proprietary drivers and codecs to be pre-installed. If you're choosing a Linux distribution for another person, or for a group of people, that decision is going to be even more important. A typical group of office workers are unlikely to have used Linux before, and your choice is going to affect their perception of the operating system. Those first impressions count.
Software not distributions
But there's only so much mileage you can get from ploughing through distribution lists and trying live CDs. If you're choosing a distribution for family or friends, it's the choice of easily accessible software that's likely to be the governing factor, and not necessarily the distribution's design or philosophy.
This is made tricky because most people are aware of the names of commercial applications for proprietary operating systems, but not their open source equivalents, and it's your job to make sure those applications are available. Your target might be a student, for example, and it's going to be absolutely essential that the applications and resources they require are available from the distribution you choose for them.
There are distributions tailored specifically for students, but these are nothing more than a clever bundle of relevant applications, rather than an overall design that makes a student's life any easier. In these cases, a student would be better off sticking with mainstream distribution, and making sure there are enough applications available for the tasks they want to achieve.
There are distros tailored specifically for students (Scibuntu, for example), but sometimes just finding the best desktop is more important.
If your target is disabled, usability might be your biggest concern. Rather than choosing a distribution for accessibility, it makes more sense to choose the best desktop environment and find a distribution that's most effective at bundling that desktop environment.
If you're a KDE fan, for example, it's not going to matter how great the standard Ubuntu desktop is, you're going to want a KDE-based distribution, and that doesn't necessarily mean Kubuntu. You may find that Mandriva offers a better solution, and Xfce users may want to try Linux Mint for the same reason.
Over to you
When it comes to your personal experience, you need to make a note of those applications you rely on, and what you find most effective in your typical working environment. If any of those notes resonate with our own conclusions, you've found an improvement in your perfect Linux distribution, and you should give it a go.
Finding which distributions work and which don't is like mapping a sand dune. You don't see the movement, but this time next year your favourite distro might not be here. For that reason, it's always worth finding a couple of systems you like, and if the worst happens you can always jump ship.
Your choice: 64-bits or 32?
The number of bits your CPU has affects your system's performance and its capabilities. For many years we've been stuck with 32-bit CPUs and 32-bit distributions, but most recent processors from Intel and AMD have been capable of 64-bit operation for a while. AMD's 64-bit chip was released in April 2003, for example, and all of Intel's popular Core 2 Duo line of processors are capable of running in 64-bit mode.
The problem is that most of us have carried on running 32-bit distributions on those processors. To take advantage of 64-bit operation, you need a 64-bit specific version of your distribution. Most provide one, but until now there hasn't been a good enough reason to switch. Proprietary software, such as Adobe's Flash, can't simply be recompiled for 64 processors because they're closed source. Instead they run in some hideous compatibility mode, which isn't normally all that compatible.
Fortunately, things have moved on. Adobe released a native 64-bit version of Flash with version 10, and most other software is following suit. The result is that if your distro offers a 64-bit version, and you have the hardware to run it, we think it's time to switch.
Click here to read our benchmarks comparing 32-bit and 64-bit Ubuntu 9.04 - the difference can be quite large depending on what kind of work you do.
In the past, the biggest drawback to 64-bit Linux was the lack of a native Adobe Flash plugin.
Over the last few years, the common perception that Linux is an operating system for geeks and computing graduates has dimmed somewhat.Users trying Linux for the first time, or switching from more restrictive and costly operating system, are likely to provide a massive growth area for the Linux user base over the next few years, and many distributions that could be considered suitable.
New users need to have access to all the same applications they're used to, and that includes proprietary tools such as Adobe Flash and contentious codecs such as MP3. Without these simple concessions, users are likely to be less productive and less likely to stay. It also helps if some of the more esoteric features of the Linux desktop, such as virtual desktops, the command line and package management tools are kept under the radar to start with.
Features like these often cause confusion to new users who are mainly looking for an experience that's similar and compatible with the one they're used to.
» For newbies: Ubuntu
Despite some recent criticisms, there's no doubt that Ubuntu is an excellent Linux distribution. It also helps that Ubuntu has become widely recognised in the popular media, sometimes being used synonymously with the term Linux. There's a good reason why it has garnered all this attention. It sets out to pull Linux into a shape that ordinary computer users can recognise, and doesn't require any assumed knowledge.
Thanks to an array of official derivatives Ubuntu has become one of the most widely used distros available, but its real strength, and the place where Ubuntu has had the most impact, is in being the most user-friendly Linux desktop available. It takes an uncompromising approach to usability, even if that means risking the wrath of the open source community by including proprietary drivers.
And hardware compatibility in Ubuntu is exceptional. You can install Ubuntu on to most machines without any difficulty, and there's a good chance your monitor will be optimally configured and your wireless access point will be discovered. This is where many previous new users may have stumbled, and Ubuntu has raised the bar when it comes to hardware compatibility.
There's very little about Ubuntu's Gnome desktop for the new user to be confused by.
Ubuntu is also consistent. Each year, there's both a vernal and an autumnal release, bound to a single CD that boots into a workable desktop environment, and each release is supported for either eighteen months or three/five years, depending on whether it qualifies as a 'long term support (LTS)' version and whether it's the desktop or server version.
If you're running a server version of an LTS release, you can expect a total of five years of security updates. Keeping your system up to date with these updates is easy, and ensures your system is always protected from the latest security exploits and bugs.
In theory, your installation can also be updated from one release to the next, but we've had only limited success with this procedure. The update will work if you've kept to the official packages and reconfigured very little of your desktop. But if you opt to install packages from the internet, or from the unsupported Universe and Multiverse package repositories, it's usually easier to go for a new installation rather than an upgrade.
After you get the installation out of the way, it's the choice of the default applications that counts. The standards are included - OpenOffice.org and Firefox - and the file management aspects of the default Gnome desktop are very much toned down when compared with Ubuntu's forerunners. Ubuntu's configuration panels keep options to a minimum, and the developers spend a great deal of time getting features such as Gnome's Network Manager running on a standard installation.
The latest release, 9.04, keeps Ubuntu ahead of the curve, adding super-fast booting and usual selection of package upgrades, including OOo 3.0. As has been proven time and time again, the range, diversity and stability of Ubuntu's packages are outstanding. Put all of this together and Ubuntu becomes the perfect Linux distribution for converting people who would normally pass on the idea of Linux, which is why it's our newbie distro of choice.
Also consider: Mepis.
Ubuntu: Don't miss...
Easy install: Almost anyone can install Ubuntu on their machine and get a up and running with Linux.
Community: If you run into problems, there's a good chance that a fellow user has already solved them.
» For OS migrants: Linux Mint
There are many computer users that are moving to Linux because they are becoming dissatisfied with the cost and the lack of freedom in proprietary operating systems. Over the last few years, thanks to the graphical frippery introduced into both Apple's OS 10.5 and Windows Vista, computer desktops have gone through a visual makeover.
And it's for this reason that eye candy and a fine attention to detail have governed our choice of migrant Linux distribution, and the winner is Linux Mint. Mint is another distribution built on the strong foundations of Ubuntu. It takes the good points, such as the excellent hardware compatibility and easy installation, and performs a facelift on the weakest points, which is the muddy ambience of the Ubuntu desktop.
Usability has been enhanced by removing the top menu bar and replacing the themes and palette of the original distribution with a tub of choco-mint ice cream. But what makes Mint most effective for a recent convert to Linux is its excellent support for codecs. Most music and video will play without any further requirements, and Adobe Flash and Sun's Java are installed by default.
Mint has quite a light-hearted approach to Linux, which is welcome and fun.
Another neat addition is the Mint-only package installer, which sits alongside Ubuntu's Synaptic. The Mint installer is better, though, as it embeds screenshot, ratings and and user reviews directly into the package list, turning package installation into an adventure. If you have no other option than to run the original Windows application, the Windows emulation layer, Wine, can be installed with simple wave of the installer's wand.
All this creates a perfect 'out-of-the-box' experience. The launch menu has been configured so that the variety of tools and applications on offer, and the way they're organised into the menu, should feel very familiar. The default desktop doesn't include any virtual screens, which can confuse the newcomer, and it's this refined design and attention to detail that makes Mint the perfect candidate for all Linux converts.
Also consider: PCLinuxOS.
» Family friendly: Qimo
When you want to run Linux on the main family computer, there are two important points to consider. The first is that your chosen distribution needs to be easy to use. Most people want to browse the web, chat on instant messenger, listen to some music and type a few simple documents.
If Linux gets in the way of performing those simple tasks, your family are going to ask for XP back. The second point is that your family's access to the internet needs to be secure, and you need to have some control over what can and can't be accessed from the computer.
The first point can be addressed by using a distribution specifically designed for younger people, and the best that we've recently come across is called 'Qimo'. It's a distribution with a focus on young children, with a friendly oversized desktop and colourful engaging artwork. A small toolbar of educational games sits at the bottom of the screen, and children can use these to quickly launch a selection of open source games and educational resources.
The idea behind Qimo is that a friendly desktop with a good selection of software will help your children learn.
Addressing the second point is a little harder. That's because content filtering is a tricky and technical subject, and not at all in-line with an open, family friendly distribution. You could take any distribution, for example, and use a carefully configured OpenDNS or DansGuardian server to filter contents to the sites that you don't want your family to have access to.
But there is a distribution that includes this functionality while at the same time remaining open enough for anyone to use, and that's Ubuntu Christian Edition. Alongside the Bible study aids is a pre-configuration of DansGuardian that will block most offending sites out of the box. It features a graphical interface with parental controls that changes the local proxy and Firefox configurations as well as keeping a log of what's been read and when. This is exactly what you need for younger members of your family, and thanks to the Christian Edition being built on Ubuntu, you can easily install any other packages you may require.
Also consider: Ubuntu Christian Edition.
People get used to working in a certain way and Linux users are often happy to fight tooth-and-nail for the advantages they've found in their own working environments. This is why there's so much choice in desktop Linux distributions, and why even the smallest distributions enjoy significant community support.
Before you choose the perfect distribution, you need to make a list of what you require from that distribution. Stability might be top of your list, for example. Or you may want to forgo that stability for a distro that bundles cutting-edge features and fresh packages.
The breadth of available packages is also important, as is the update schedule for the distribution, and how often you're going to have to install the newest version. The 6 months release cycle of Ubuntu and Fedora might be too short, for instance, but the 18 months of Debian might be too long.
» Everyday Linux: Fedora
There are some great aspects to Debian - its packages are very stable, the desktop is fine-tuned and familiar, and the breadth of software available in its repositories is second to none. But there are certain aspect to Debian that we feel Fedora does better.
Firstly, Fedora just looks better, despite being built around the same Gnome desktop as Debian. The astronomical theme that accompanies you while you launch the operating system is carried on to the blue desktop, and there's a distinct feeling that a lot of love has gone into Fedora's default theme. Secondly, Fedora manages to include OpenOffice.org 3, while Debian is still a revision behind, and Fedora's version of Firefox keeps the original branding, rather than the confusing rebranding of all things Mozilla insisted on by the Debian developers.
Both desktops take a hard line against including non-free open source software, and we greatly admire this stance. Both desktops prove that a purely open source desktop is just as functional as a hybrid desktop, even if you do have to make certain compromises. We feel that Debian's compromise of using the vaguely Adobe Flash-compatible Gnash, though admirable, confuses things slightly.
It's difficult to tell when you go to YouTube, for instance, that the poor performance isn't a network problem rather than a Gnash problem. Fedora doesn't even try, but if you do want to install Adobe's Flash, you only need to download the RPM and click on this file once. A browser restart later, and you're ready for YouTube.
You'll find packages split by category, and installation is easy, with the industry-standard RPM format handles dependencies without difficulty. As you would imagine from a distribution that's so closely related to Red Hat, updates and patches are taken very seriously. A feature we particularly like is that the update system will inform you about the nature of each update, whether it's a bugfix, a security update or a feature enhancement. The makes you more inclined to allow the updates to proceed, as well as keeping you on top of what is changing in your system.
As with Red Hat Enterprise and Centos 5.2, Fedora includes some bulletproof security packages. It has a firewall enabled by default, and includes a sensible set of rules that you can enable or disable using a firewall configuration window. If you're particularly worried about security, SELinux can be enabled to lock down any wayward applications.
Package management and security updates for Fedora set a very high standard.
For every day desktop use, Fedora can't be beaten. The choice of software is excellent, and we can't think of anything that's missing. Fedora's stance on freedom is a little painful if you need proprietary drivers or MP3 support, but these issues can be worked around. Both the Gnome and KDE desktops look and feel brilliant, and the performance of our Fedora installation is as good as any other tuned Linux distribution.
It's also a distribution that will have users of other operating systems looking over your shoulder. Fedora might not be the easiest distribution to use, or the one with the largest package repository, but we feel it represents the very best that open source software has to offer.
Also consider: Debian.
Fedora: Don't miss
Updates: Patches and fixes are released quickly and are categorised so you know where you stand.
Security: Thanks to the firewall and SELinux, Fedora is one of the toughest distributions to crack.
» Business: OpenSUSE
If you're responsible for choosing a Linux distribution to use in an office environment, there are likely to be a few absolute requirements. The first is the inclusion of an office suite and a standard personal information manager, while the second is going to be good security, with interoperability and professional support also high on the wish list.
OpenSUSE offers all four of these. It's a distribution that's very close to the development of OpenOffice.org, and it scales extremely well. If you need professional support and training, you can get it from Novell as well as a number of third-party providers.
At the heart of OpenSUSE 11.1 is the word processor, and Novell does an excellent job of integrating OpenOffice.org into whichever desktop you choose (Gnome and KDE are available). Themes and icons look fantastic, and OOo loads quickly and is configured for compatibility with Microsoft Office documents.
A to-do tasks manager is bundled alongside the office suite, and this can be synchronised with Evolution, the standard email application. Pervasive desktop searching is enabled as standard, and Wine is a click away for running any remaining Windows applications you may need to run from the Linux desktop.
OpenSUSE even has support for various docking stations, and fingerprint recognition works with certain laptops.
As with most modern Linux desktops, anyone who's used a computer in the last 10 years should feel right at home. OpenSUSE does particularly well by placing the launch menu in the bottom-left of the screen, and not resorting to the top-bar panel of other Gnome desktops. The menu itself is similar to that of Windows Vista, showing recent documents and network places.
As with Fedora, it's thanks to a related enterprise version of the distribution (SLES) that there are plenty of vendors willing to supply professional applications to the SUSE desktop. This means you shouldn't have any problems purchasing commercial Exchange server connectivity, for instance, and an upgrade to SLES is available if you need it. Yast, OpenSUSE's configuration tool, is a sprawling web of windows, but it does enable the beleaguered system administrator to lock down the system for normal users as well as accomplish tasks like remote administration and security updates.
Also consider: gOS.
» Light and fast: Puppy Linux
After you've used the diminutive Puppy Linux OS, you quickly realise that all that graphical frippery that accompanies most Linux distributions doesn't make you any more productive. They make things slightly easier, and slightly prettier, but the cut-down approach taken by Puppy can be just as functional. It's a tiny distribution, fitting into a tiny 100MB ISO image. This means it can be installed on any cheap old USB disk and used on an old computer.
But unlike many other lightweight distributions, the Puppy desktop covers almost every task you'll ever need. Photo editing, document writing, listening to music and watching videos can all be accomplished using a low-fat application listed in the main menu, or from the icon on the desktop.
These applications may not be quite as user-friendly, or quite as capable, but they can accomplish 90% of the tasks most people need. And they'll do it quickly. There's even wireless networking support, so you can quickly shoe-horn a laptop into providing a quick Linux fix, or maybe squeeze Puppy alongside a standard install on a netbook computer to give yourself a breath of fresh air once in a while.
Puppy includes AbiWord, Gnumeric, SeaMonkey, Inklite, MTPaint and GXine, as well as heaps more.
There are dozens of apps available from the the desktop quick links and the launch menu, and there's even space for a few games. And because the installation is so small, and the desktop has such modest memory requirements, everything loads almost immediately and is a joy to use. It certainly makes you wonder what all those processor cycles are doing in KDE and Gnome.
While you might enjoy the refinement and eye candy in those desktops, there's very little you can't do with Puppy Linux. This is primarily thanks to its use of JWM - Joe's Window Manager, which is the same window manager used by other lightweight distributions such as Damn Small Linux. Even if you don't make Puppy your main distribution, it's the perfect distro for a USB stick install, or to keep handy on an emergency boot disc.
Also consider: Damn Small Linux.
You can spot a power user by the amount of system configurations they make. It's the difference between accepting a default, pre-built distribution, adding packages and re-installing with a new release, and building your own working environment that takes you through successive distribution upgrades. Power users know what they need, and they know how to get it.
System administrators, for example, will need a specific suite of tools to help them do their job, and they'll need those tools without any of the distractions that normally accompany a modern Linux distribution. Programmers and coders will need a fast and streamlined system that provides all the development libraries they need, and keeps them up to date. And if you're going to use Linux as a server, stability and security are the two main factors determining what you should use.
» Sysadmin: Arch Linux
In the 21st century, there can't be many Linux distributions left that drop the user into a command line prompt rather than a Gnome or KDE graphical login screen. But this is the approach taken by Arch Linux, a distribution that's unashamedly built for reconfigurability and gaining geek credentials. It's a distro for experienced Linux users who aren't afraid of getting their hands dirty.
Yep, there really is nothing to see. The whole point of Arch is that you only add what you need, and many sysadmins only need the command line.
That's because you're not going to get a workable configuration out of Arch without editing configuration files and adding the packages you need by hand. This is a good thing, especially for system administrators, as it means that Arch features none of the distractions you'd find on a standard distribution. But that doesn't mean you're stuck with the command line either. Thanks to an exceptional package repository, you can quickly build exactly the system you need - even if that means installing KDE 4.2.
Arch doesn't make any assumptions about what packages you might want to install. Logging into live CD-based system, you're invited to run the install script from a specific directory, and installing Arch is like stepping back into 1999. It feels a little like playing an interactive adventure game, and you need to be proficient at both Linux and the command line to make sense of most options.
The base install is a frugal 160MB file that becomes a 390MB installation after you've been through the download and configuration process. An optional FTP-based installer is tiny, and offers all the base packages through an FTP server. This is a great option if you need to install Arch on several machines at once, but either way, after installation you're still going to need to construct your own working environment.
That includes manually partitioning your drive and assigning those partitions to points on your filesystem, configuring the network interface and selecting which standard packages to install, as well as editing the Grub boot menu and making sure it's placed on your disk's MBR.
The default installation includes no X Window System package, so while the command-line is supremely capable, most users will want to install a graphical environment of some sort. This brings us to the best thing about Arch, and the reason why it's so suitable as an administrators - a tool called Pacman. Rather than being an insanely addictive gobbling game, Pacman is Arch's package manager, and was developed by the the creator of Arch Linux.
Pacman can resolve dependencies automatically, and install packages with a single command. You can install just about anything using just a few key strokes. X is a single line away, as are both Gnome and KDE, and any number of other window managers, and another command will keep all packages synchronised with those on the server, updating those that are necessary.
From the solid foundation of Arch's base installation, you can build an administrator's toolkit that will only include the applications and the tools for your working environment. This will save system resources on the machine, and your mental resources when you need to get a job done quickly. Arch includes all the packages you'll ever need, especially when it comes to useful command line tools you'll find more effective at system administration.
Also consider: Slackware.
Arch Linux: Don't miss
DIY distro: The frugal installer will create a very basic working installation - everything else is up to you.
Pacman: Arch's package manager makes light work of creating the system and environment you need.
» Coder: Mandriva
Finding a distro to fit your programming requirements is one of the toughest challenges for a Linux user. That's because there are so many ways to code. Developing websites using PHP and MySQL might be a task suited to a server-orientated distribution, for example.
If you prefer scripting languages like Perl or Python you're better off using your standard desktop, as these languages are now so common that any one distribution is as good as another, while professional developers using an IDE like JBuilder will find that Red Hat Enterprise Linux is often the only distribution supported by the vendor.
If you favour development for one desktop over another, it obviously makes sense to choose a distribution that caters specifically for that desktop. Pre-release versions of Ubuntu and Kubuntu are typically excellent at adding the latest untested releases into their working branches, and you can always upgrade from one version to the next.
This might be the best way to get hold of what could soon be considered the best integrated development environment on a Linux platform: the just-released Qt Creator application (you can read our Qt Creator review here), which is part of the new LGPL Qt 4.5. It can be downloaded and installed on a Linux desktop without too much difficulty, but there's no doubt that new distributions will start to include Qt Creator packages by default.
Mandriva is one of the few distributions that defaults to a KDE desktop, which means it's perfect for Qt development.
In the past, distributions like Gentoo have been a good choice for software developers. As part of the installation, the user builds everything from the source code, and as a result, the header files and development libraries required for programming are already installed on the system. But Gentoo has had a couple of turbulent years, and this means that now isn't the ideal time to embark on an adventure with Gentoo.
Instead, you need to find a distribution that makes getting hold of those development libraries as easy as possible. Which is why we've gone for Mandriva. Not only does it include a working development environment from the first boot, the development libraries themselves are easy to find and install through the package manager. Gnome, KDE and Xfce developers are well catered for, and the distribution includes Java.
Also consider: Gentoo.
» Server: CentOS
Linux is one of the best choices of operating system when it comes to running a server, and it's use in this field is a runaway success. But not all Linuxes are built equally. Applications and packages running on desktop-based distributions don't have the same level of scrutiny you find with a distribution built for a server room, which in many cases won't even include a desktop environment in an effort to reduce potential problems.
For this reason, large-scale, commercially driven distributions sold with comprehensive support packages - such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) - are the ideal solution for businesses that can afford the support packages and are large enough to benefit from them. But thanks to the nature of open source, those paid-for distributions need to release the source code to their binary packages.
Despite being ideally suited to running a server, CentOS bundles a GUI to handle most administrative tasks.
And that means anyone can pick up the source code and build themselves an enterprise-ready distribution. That's exactly what the CentOS project does. It takes the source code from each RHEL release, and builds this into a freely redistributable Linux distribution that aims to be 100% binary compatible with the RHEL release.
That means you can install and use commercial packages designed for RHEL, but it also means you get the same high level of security and integrity that Red Hat's direct customers enjoy. This makes CentOS the perfect choice of operating system for running a server on a restrictive budget.
Like RHEL, CentOS is based on a Gnome desktop, and includes access to many of the same applications, servers and utilities you can find with any standard distribution. If you've used a recent Fedora release, you'll feel right at home. Security features include an excellent firewall and SELinux, a policy enforcement mechanism that prevents wayward applications from ever causing security problems, even if they do happen to be compromised or broken. There are also plenty of updates, and there's a large community who are willing to help. If you ever do need professional-level support, the transition from CentOS to RHEL is seamless.
Also consider: Ubuntu Server Edition.
When a distribution needs to be very specific, it will only attract a specific group of users with a specific requirement. If that requirement is too narrow, it's likely that the distribution won't be of much use to other people without the same interest.
Music production is a good example. Audio processing on the Linux platform requires several kernel modifications that can compromise its usefulness as a general desktop. These modifications are required to keep the system responsive and audio latency low, but they can add to the CPU overhead of your system, and in some cases, make it unstable. They benefit from specifically tailored Linux distributions, as can gamers or anybody with specific needs. The way distributions can be remixed and re-spun like this means that whatever trends emerge, Linux will be able to adapt and quickly take advantage.
» Music Production: 64 Studio
Open source software development has created some of the best music production software available. The only real difference between this software and the commercial packages available for OS X and Windows is that open source music software can be harder to install and use. The main problem is something called audio latency. This is the delay between a sound entering your computer (or being generated in software), and the time it takes for the sound to appear in your headphones or speakers.
Getting this latency as low as possible is the key to a finely tuned recording system, and it's what most music-based Linux distributions spend most of the time getting right. And the distribution that gets this more right than the competition is 64 Studio.
64 Studio provides a complete audio production environment, as well as all the kernel and system tweaks to optimise your hardware. It has been designed to create a professional setup that's capable of recording, mixing and mastering many simultaneous tracks of audio.
Installation is straightforward, but you don't get any help after you first see the mostly blank Gnome desktop. Fortunately, 64 Studio has already configured the trickiest part of the system, and that's the Jack audio layer that's already running in the background. Jack is the reason why Linux audio is so powerful, but it's also half the reason why it appears so complicated.
Jack sits between your audio driver and any Jack-compatible music applications. It handles audio routing and could be considered analogous with a large, infinitely expandable mixing console. Jack can be a complete pain to get running, but if you click on the launch menu and select 'Jack Control' from the Sound & Video menu, the small window that appears will include the word 'Active' in its pretend LCD status panel. That means that Jack is working, and you can look at the current connections by clicking on the 'Connect' button.
The Sound & Video menu is crammed full synths, an oscilloscope, guitar and studio effects, an audio sampler, a turntable emulator and several methods for monitoring audio. But the two most important entries are Rosegarden and Ardour. These are the open source equivalents of Cubase and Pro Tools in the commercial world, and they're both exceptional applications for composing and recording music.
Ardour is a flagship application for audio production, and the project benefits from commercial sponsorship.
Rosegarden is great for working with MIDI and composition with real and virtual synthesizers, while Ardour lacks the MIDI support but allows for multi-track recording, mixing and mastering, making it a better choice for recording a band or a podcast, for example. When you've created your masterpiece, maximise its sound and volume using the Jamin application, trim the final audio files using the Audacity wave editor, and drop the resulting WAV files it creates into the Gnome CD Master application from the Sound & Video menu.
All of these applications are part of the default 64 Studio desktop, and you can see that this distribution covers everything from the recording, and sound generation part of a project, through the editing and mastering to the final CD burning. We can't think of any other system that provides anywhere near the same amount of functionality for the zero cost.
Also consider: Ubuntu Studio.
64 Studio: Don't miss...
Jack is running! This can be a nightmare, but 64 Studio is optimised for Jack usage, and runs it automatically at boot time.
Choice: Almost every audio-related application we can think of is installed and ready to run.
» Gamers: Live.linux-gamers
If you live for gaming, Linux isn't the best choice of platform. Most of the major releases don't offer Linux versions, and there's little third-party hardware support for controllers. But most of us love playing games, and switching to Linux doesn't mean you have to abandon this wonderful time waster. From first-rate first-person shooters to brain games and real-time strategy, there's an open source game for every mindset.
Many of these games are free, but there are also a few independent games developers releasing some excellent paid-for titles. See our World of Goo review and look some titles from Introversion for some idea of what's out there.
Most distributions will include a few games in a standard installation, and most will let you install any number of other games using the package manager. But most games are quite large, and you'll find your hard drive quickly filling up. We've found that the best solution is to boot into a live distribution specifically tailored for games, and the best we've come across is called Live.linux-gamers.net. It contains a DVD's worth of data and includes almost anything worth playing, along with the proprietary graphics cards drivers to ensure maximum performance from your hardware.
Relive the golden age of gaming thanks to a friendly Linux distribution that focuses on games.
Our favourite titles include Termulous and Nexuiz, which are FPSes built in the style of Quake III Arena. Astro-Menace is our favourite shooter, and Neverball seems to improve on the timeless gameplay from Marble Madness. Strategists will enjoy Glest and Bos Wars, and there really is something for everyone. If you really must have the latest games releases on your Linux desktop, then there is another option - or rather two.
There are two companies that sell a commercial version of Wine, the Windows compatibility layer, specifically tweaked for running the latest Windows games. These two applications are called CrossOver Games and Cedega, and both claim to run titles such as Spore, World of Warcraft and many Steam titles. Packages are available for most popular distributions, and in our experience they work quite well.
Even without those commercial alternatives, you may find that a vanilla Wine installation works well for older games, as its compatibility has been going from strength to strength thanks to the company behind CrossOver farming its fixes back into the main development tree.
Also consider: Ultimate Edition.
» Multimedia: Mythbuntu
We've written about MythTV before, such as our guide to MythTV for people who want to get started with Mythbuntu. It can play your music and movies, as well as letting you browse your photos and the internet. It can be a pain to install, and it requires complete control of a machine. But Mythbuntu, a heavily customised version of Ubuntu, goes a long way to making this as easy as possible. It features its own installation routine, and a customised configuration tool that steps you through the difficult MythTV configuration.
The end result is that you have a working system within an hour or so, rather than the weekend of work it would have taken before Mythbuntu. The installation includes everything you need to get started, and bundles the most common MythTV plugins for media playback. You can even use the installation disc as a live CD in a spare machine, turning it into a MythTV client on the network for ad-hoc TV and movie watching. Even without a MythTV system on the network, you can still use the disc for basic multimedia playback, as it operates as a standard Ubuntu disc with a few additional packages.
Turn your television into a cutting-edge media centre with Mythbuntu.
An alternative to Mythbuntu is LinuxMCE, which attempts to provide for Linux what the Multimedia edition of Windows has done for Microsoft - a standard and visible platform for connecting to a television and music system. LinuxMCE has the advantage of not being built on MythTV, immediately halving its complexity.
Using custom-built and standalone open source packages, LinuxMCE looks much better on the average television. The GUI is accelerated through OpenGL, and there are transitions between each playback mode. It all looks much better than Mythbuntu. But the reason why we can't fully recommend this distribution is that updates have been quiet, and while a new beta was released at the end of last year, it's unclear when a new version might appear.
Until then, we think it's easier to stick with Mythbuntu if you're after a multimedia distribution for your home entertainment system. But if you want a slick user interface without the hassle of configuring MythTV, LinuxMCE is worth a look.
Also consider: LinuxMCE.