In theory, any computer running Linux can be custom-built and tweaked down to the very last bit. In reality, a first-time Linux user wants to grab an install CD, get a working desktop, and do their own thing from there. Lots of Linux distributions make claims about being easy to use, fast, or stable, but what does that mean for a non-programmer trying out a Linux system for the first time? Today we're taking a look at the real differences between three popular distributions of open-source software, and offering our readers their chance to weigh in on why they like their own particular open-source OS.
Editor's note: The summaries below are by no means conclusive, and each is based on an installation of the default, GNOME-based desktop of each distribution by an editor trying to keep an open mind. As with most things Linux, your mileage will vary depending on hardware support, application preference, and limits of patience.
Background: Fedora is the free, consumer-oriented off-shoot of the enterprise Red Hat system, and is funded and founded by that same group. There's a focus on the latest free software and technologies getting onto the desktop quickly, and it supports 32- and 64-bit Intel platforms, along with PowerPC-based Mac hardware—the main reason Linux creator Linus Torvalds uses Fedora 9.
Live CD/Installation: Fedora gets bonus points for being one of the first to make putting a persistent Fedora 9 on a USB drive possible with a few clicks in Windows. The live environment is pretty snappy for its kind, and all but the heaviest apps (OpenOffice, for example) are included for toying with.
The installer itself is streamlined and smooth—Linux veterans can get geeky with networking gear, re-sizing and deleting partitions if they want, but an inattentive user turbo-clicking "Next" could still set up a working system without harming existing Windows setups. Encrypting your setup is a single option to check, and there aren't any truly confusing moments.
Default desktop: Fedora 9 puts the most common icons on the desktop—Computer, Home folder, and Trash. Most of the desktop has a blue-tinged theme to it, but the standard (and well-tested) GNOME icons are used for many apps. I like the minimalist login screen, and nothing's too distracting—except the giant "Security updates available" pop-ups in the lower-right corner.
Apps & Features: Fedora is, from colloquial evidence, the second distro most app developers are likely to pre-compile their wares for, but the distro developers themselves do a fairly good job of packaging breaking releases for Fedora. Nifty tools like AWN and GNOME Do are there, there's a custom full-screen front-end for KDE player Amarok, and Fedora's preferences run toward security and connectivity—a "Phone manager," authorization switcher for files and network access, and a simplified "Personal Sharing" setup.
Who would like it: Anyone who likes their Linux on a USB stick (with persistent data and setup), and anyone looking to try out a general purpose Linux distribution without having to monkey around with too many settings.
Background: SUSE started life as a German Unix/Linux consulting firm in the early 1990s, morphed into a Red-Hat-esque commercial-focused distribution. It's now owned by networking and software giant Novell—which has formed a somewhat controversial partnership with Microsoft aimed at Windows/Linux compatibility—and released freely under the "OpenSUSE" label.
Live CD/Installation: There's a "Help" button to explain every step of the process, but anyone looking for a hand-held installation is in for a letdown. The default action of the installer is to wipe out partitions and install over them, which isn't exactly living up to OpenSUSE's new MS-friendliness. While nothing's made final until the very last "Install" click, the multiple buttons and settings on every screen leave a sneaking suspicion that something was forgotten.
Default desktop: While Ubuntu and Fedora's looks, layout, and operation are cut from the same basic GNOME-style cloth, OpenSUSE has its own thing going on. System configuration and operation are controlled by the YaST system, the top bar is removed, and a Windows-like menu with favourite programs, common links, and other control items is kept in the lower-left corner. Nearly every desktop feature and app has gotten a SUSE graphical remix, although the basic controls remain intact. From unscientific observation, the system responds a bit slower to clicks and actions than Fedora or Ubuntu, but some may find a single, all-powerful menu more convenient.
Apps & Features: All the bases are covered, and more—media players (Banshee) and tons of audio controls, the full OpenOffice and Evolution office suites and the Tasque to-do manager, the Cheese webcam manager, and far more system and configuration utilities than you'll ever need. Package installation is faster than in previous SUSE distros with the ZYpp tool, but better still is the "1-Click Install" through OpenSUSE's web site. There's also legal MP3 support through Fluendo licensing.
Who would like it: Anyone keen on trying out virtualisation tools—OpenSUSE has got a serious jones for VMware and similar tools—or any PowerPC users who don't really dig Fedora. Also, given the roughly 22,000 packages in OpenSUSE, anyone missing a key piece of connectivity or functionality that just can't be found elsewhere.
Background: Founded by millionaire businessman Mark Shuttleworth after selling his web security firm (and a jaunt into space), Ubuntu was initially based heavily upon Debian, but has grown into the most popular Linux distribution around. Attribute some of that to its focus on "Linux for Humans," meaning Linux that tries not to show its terminal/text file side too often.
LiveCD/Installation: If you're installing Ubuntu as the only system on your hard drive, then making it through Ubuntu's "Ubiquity" installer should be a breeze, even with seemingly more CD hang-ups than other distros. If you're trying to dual-boot with Windows, however, tread carefully when it comes to partitions, as "guided" really means ""We'll do it for you, and somewhat explain it later." If that sounds scary, luckily Ubuntu can also install in Windows without me ssing things up, using the Wubi installation tool.
Default desktop: Similar to Fedora's, with a universally orange-and-brown colour and icon scheme. Not as many desktop apps installed by default as OpenSUSE, and definitely a lot more explanation of what's going on throughout the system and preference tools. Those with higher-powered graphics cards get graphical effects through Compiz, but configuring and tweaking it can be a royal pain.
Apps & Features: By virtue of its popularity and viral growth, Ubuntu is the Linux system most likely to have pre-built packages of all the latest and coolest software, as well as instructions and how-tos written on getting it to work with any apps that don't outright support it. Its collection of default apps is fairly standard for a GNOME distribution, but the polish put into Ubuntu's preference menus and configuration tools give the distro its reputation for ease of use.
Who would like it: Newcomers to the Linux game, especially those looking to dual boot or replicate as many Windows apps in Linux as possible.
I've done enough pontificating about the differences among three of the most popular distributions—now we want to hear what Linux distro you use, and why you stick with it.