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Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A Tinkerers Top 5 Distributions of 2010

In the last few days we've had several posts about personal top 5 favorite distributions of 2010. Everybody has their own favorites, but, for what it's worth, here's my list.

Arch / Archbang
Because: Personally, it's my discovery of the year. Arch Linux can be anything you like, seems solid so far and is immensely well documented. It can be as rolling as you want or one can exclude packages and whole groups from upgrading if you need something more stable for a particular purpose. An LTS kernel is also available if you'ld rather have on your server or want to be sure to avoid having to recompile modules for Virtualbox, wifi etc. every few weeks (it's actually far less than that). Everything is easy to configure by editing simple text files, and without unpleasant surprises where some tool is overriding my edits or them just not feeding through for some reason. There's even a project to port Arch to the Hurd kernel.
But while I enjoy a small base to start of with and customize from there (or, as it turns out, mostly leave as is to keep it light) starting from scratch seems like a waste of time and processor cycles. That's why I gave up on Gentoo and will probably never go as far as Linux From Scratch. Maybe not so much of a tinkerer after all ;-) . Here's where Archbang comes in. I like the choices it makes, mainly Openbox, Tint2, the interactive scrolling menu on top of the screen and the compact conky configuration, so why not start from here? Under that surface it's all Arch and still needs some file editing. It's more like a custom spin rather than an independent distribution. I would probably also like CTKArchLive, the other Arch Linux live CD that comes with Openbox, but have had no reason to reinstall.

The project started out in late 2009 but really came into full swing this year. Whatever you think about different spins and releases for every desktop or window manager out there, it proves Salix is a healthy and active project that is gathering a lot of interest and enjoys community participation. The community has for example significantly contributed to, meaning started really, the KDE and Fluxbox releases. On top of both 32 and 64-bit releases Salix also produces live CD images for several desktops.
Salix is a friendlier looking and easier to install Slackware derivative that is at the same time trying not to deviate from the original under the bonnet to stay fully compatible, with a few of their own tools for easier management and a few applications thrown in, many of which I would normally add in Slackware anyway, like extra plugins for the Xfce panel. This and the addition of more pre-compiled packages in their own repositories that can be used in the Slackware of the same version number just as well makes Salix well deserving of the 2nd place.

Because Slackware has been around for a long time and still is the base for many extremely stable and fast distributions. If you want desktop performance, go for Slackware or a spin-off. If you want solid as a rock, go for Slackware. If you want a stable performant server, go for Slackware. If you want long term support, go for Slackware (even Slackware 8.x is apparently still supported with security fixes, although there is no official policy on this). It may not be extremely up to date like Arch but in return you get predictability, and a new release comes out every 8-9 months, which is still a lot more frequent than Debian "Stable" and on par with openSUSE, for example. For everything else there's running "Current".
People go on about the package management, but security updates can be easily pulled in with 'slackpkg' which, believe it or not, installs the package automatically, and also handles distribution upgrades. Editing text files for configuration is keeping it simple, and what could be easier to remember than the explodepkg, installpkg, upgradepkg and removepkg commands?
I also found Slackware ultimately the easiest to compile and install your own kernel on, due to the lack of patches applied to the vanilla kernel as most distributions like to do, and also easiest for installing proprietary ATI graphics drivers.
Unless of course you already get them pre-installed like with PClinuxOS.

Because it is the biggest project out there and simply impossible not to mention with the impact it's having and all the distributions derived from it. Furthermore the new release of "Squeeze" is close, and this time with a fully free kernel apparently, though everything is still available in the "non-free" repository should you need it. I think it's a good compromise. This way one can install exactly the binary blobs needed but no more, keeping your system as open source and as untainted as possible while still allowing to use your hardware.
Debian currently supports 13 architectures and has about every window manager under the sun in the repositories, and with roundabout 30,000 packages give or take depending on how many sources you add it can provide almost any app or library available. Most apps out there including Google Chrome provide a Debian repository. I've never had to compile anything on Debian, but then my needs are not extravagant. Debian has also given us the Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) and the Debian Social Contract which I consider both hugely relevant. While not always practical, it is important to articulate what things *ideally* should be like so you can strive towards that goal. It also enshrined the importance of anti-discriminatory practice almost before Equal Opportunities and Disability Discrimination Acts were incorporated into law and was pretty much ahead of its time. Lastly, the way Debian is shaped, run and governed by its large global community was/is pioneering and unique. It is not a company, nor is it tied to any particular country or sphere of influence. It will be extremely difficult to bring any kind of law suits against it. Debian is important, and for that reason it will always be in the top 5, even if I'm not currently using it. It may be the last distribution we can go to - highly hypothetically and doom mongering. Or of course we could be using BSD or Haiku if it comes to that. Even then, work is ongoing towards Debian GNU/Hurd and Debian GNU/kFreeBSD to combine the userland with these kernels.

Unity Linux
The Unity project, not to confuse with the desktop environment, has had their first full release in July 2010 and have recently updated with a second point release. I like small distributions that provide a minimal base for a custom install, and Unity excells at that. It has been designed with explicitly this aim in mind, while providing users with the Goodies that is the Mandriva set of tools, known as, or better combined in, the Mandriva Control Center. Graphical package management is handled by 'Smart'. As such it is easy to administer and sort of newbie friendly too. RPM5 is providing the underlying functionality. Being this small Unity is also extremely fast and you can turn it into anything you like, but for many the default Openbox environment will be fine.
Also, even if Mandriva went down the tubes and we did not have Mageia to pick up the pieces, the legacy would live on in Unity Linux and its spin-offs like TinyMe, and in PClinuxOS, which would have been next on my list (for ease of use and a quick start, and the 'MkliveCd' tool to copy your installation).

As somebody in the DWW comments section once said, Debian --> Slackware --> Arch seems to be a natural evolution.


  1. Yeah, For me the transition path was Ubuntu → Slackware (GNOME → KDE at this time) → Chakra → Gentoo

  2. You guys are all lesser human beings than I; I've built my operating system using the LFS manuals.

    Silly Linux novices, you might as well be using Windows if you're using Arch.

  3. @Anonymous

    Haha. What a Boffin....

    Arch rocks and you know it! You're just annoyed with yourself for all that time you wasted with LFS!

  4. @Anonymous
    He's probably using PCLOS.

  5. Me, I stick to FreeBSD on my desktop and PCBSD on my notebook.

    Linux has too many variants, or distros and some are even bashing each other. They're not just bashing windows but other distros as well. :(

  6. @Anonymous

    Be nice to see the paths people have taken through the distro jungle.

    I went Redhat -> Debian -> Ubuntu -> Arch.

    All on Gnome except the move to Arch which brought me to XFCE. I'm loving it


  7. For me it was like this:

    Fedora[:<] -> Suse[:(] -> Ubuntu[:)]

  8. Hi kid(s), if one day you start to live (which actually means more than playing with a PC) you'll understand the word 'redundancy' as well as 'entropy' and start putting the right amount of effort into things you'll have to do. And if you never will, well, go on repairing your car's engine through the exhaust pipe. Quite a challenge, though a bit useless in the real world...

  9. For me, it was Red Hat 5, Mandrake (Yeah, when it was called Mandrake), Gentoo, Arch, and now that I have done it all and just want to enjoy the stability of Linux instead of fixing broken packages all day, Ubuntu, and now use Ultimate Ubuntu with a custom kernel.

  10. Ubuntu as a Linux newbie, PCBSD - liked the philosophy but wouldn't work with the hardware at the time, Mint-just because and it worked a little better for me than Ubuntu, Debian - back to the mother-ship, Mint for a working system since about "Bea". Currently running Mint 9 LTS (mine) and Mint Debian Edition (wifes). In between played with CentOS, Fedora, and PCLinuxOS (KDE), and have latest version of Puppy on a USB stick. Not bad for an old DOS/Windows guy. I need more boxes to load stuff on to get my fix - starting to feel like a junkie

  11. @Anonymous
    Hi grampa (grumpy?),

    perhaps you remember the age where all computer users were computer experts. With those 'useful' (easy) OSes, people tend to forget what's happening behind the scenes. And before you know it, nobody will know how to construct an OS anymore. Not that everybody should know how to, but at least some people should know the internals (because it's anything but simple).

    With these harder OSes you know what is going on in your machine, as the first users knew. By using a more difficult OS (Linux as a starter, something mentioned above as an extension), you are no mere user, but you become a computer engineer. You can adapt the computer for the better (or for worst). Regular users don't, they use it, get used to it and cope with everything they find annoying.

    To extend your exhaust pipe analogy: that's more or less how surgeons can perform lots of operations nowadays: cut a small hole, bring in their tools and work really well without the problems you get when you cut somebody open from top to bottom for a minor procedure. Sure, that's the easy way; but the result is just poor.

    My history was more or less this, though not quite a linear:
    Windows > Red Hat > Mandrake > Windows
    > Slackware/SLAX > Windows > Ubuntu (with a hint of Gentoo and Fedora)

    And I'm considering trying out Arch and Gentoo a bit more in the future.

  12. I was lucky enough to start out with a spare machine, so I've been distro-hopping quite a bit. I installed Slackware 8.1 first, but the first distro to last more than a few weeks was Red Hat. Then it was back to Slackware for a good long while. I have tried all the majors and many of the minors, but the only other distros to spend more than a few weeks on one of my machines were Arch, Gentoo and Zenwalk. Eventually I always came back to Slackware.
    I just tried Salix, and while it was nice, I went back to Slackware after about 2 weeks. If you're used to configuring Slackware yourself, Salix (like Zenwalk, Vector, etc.) doesn't offer you a whole lot.

  13. let's see. I used Red Hat 7.2 or so for a few days, switched to Slackware (8? 9?) and, although I have toyed with most distro's at one time or another to satiate my need to learn, I've stayed with Slackware as the distro I actually use. I have also relied on FreeBSD and Solaris, depending on what I was trying to accomplish at the time. There are things about both OS's which I really really like, particularly on server or workstation systems.

    do I think Slack or *nix in general is harder? no, I think it's SIMPLER. well, perhaps not Ubuntu/Debian with all that complexity piled on, but that's another discussion entirely...

  14. @1369ic
    Those are all fine choices. It's true, once you're used to configuring your OS anything else supposedly 'simpler' doesn't have a whole lot to offer.

  15. @Anonymous
    I'd love to do LFS in theory, but I just don't have brain cells left. I already do embedded linux for a day job. Ubuntu for me...

  16. @Anonymous
    I liked XFCE for a while then started saying "whats the point". Essentially same as gnome, without the benefits of larger user base. It really isn't significantly lighter weight. I go either gnome or lxde if need lightweight.

  17. @Anonymous
    Thanks for that. Exactly my line of thinking. Once you got it all set up, which doesn't actually take that much, 'simple' systems that can easily be configured in text files are much easier to maintain and last forever, without odd behaviour and breakages.

    I have yet to come across any breakage in the way Anonymous @ 03:43 has alluded to that would make it necessary to constantly repair the system in Arch, although I admit I have been running it now only for two months, but with plenty of updates and that includes two kernel upgrades during this time. At the same time, these were far less than Fedora or Ubuntu are throwing at you.

    And in Slackware? You must be joking. But to each their own. I just find the systems that give an easier experience from the start to have or quickly introduce stability issues and be more difficult to maintain over time as they degrade.

  18. anne-on-a-moose24 December 2010 16:20

    My linux history looks like this:

    Ubuntu (gnome) - Arch (gnome) - Arch (Lxde) - Arch (openbox) - Arch (kde4) - Arch (openbox) :P

    Fairly redundant, I love Arch but like playing with different WM/DMs. I always seem to come back to openbox though. The modularity of Arch + Openbox are perfectly adaptable for anything I throw at it.

  19. @anne-on-a-moose

    You really love Arch. I have to agree that Openbox is a great allrounder, both minimal and functional and easy to adapt the menu. It seems to be one of the small window managers that is gaining more and more ground in many distros and custom media.

    And thanks for all the comments guys, and for keeping it in good spirit.

  20. My history goes something like this... Windows -> OS X -> Ubuntu -> OS X -> Windows -> Linpus Lite (blegh) -> Ubuntu Netbook Remix -> Jolicloud (blegh) -> Moblin (blegh) -> Crunchbang 9.10 Openbox -> Crunchbang Statler XFCE -> Arch LXDE -> Arch wmii

    I've moved around a lot, but I've finally settled on arch I think. It's so easy to maintain, and I have learned so much more about linux and how my pc operates since I began using it.

  21. My road was: PCLinuxOS (KDE3), openSUSE (KDE3), Ubuntu (GNOME), Debian (Fluxbox). I have also used Zenwalk (XFCE), Puppy (JWM) and Lubuntu (LXDE). I have tried lots of other distros, I didn't like Arch.

  22. My road was Windows 3.1 Windows 98, Windows XP, and then I discovered Linux...Started with PCLOS 2007 (kde), currently running PCLOS 2010 (kde), but dual boot with Peppermint OS.

    I'm thinking I am going to scrap Peppermint, (Don't really care for debian), and dual boot PCLOS with Unity and play around a bit.

    I have come to like KDE, but maybe I will be swayed when I give something else a try.

  23. @Rick
    Unity is a good choice if you are already used to and comfortable with rpm's and the Mandriva & PCLOS way.
    You could try Enlightenment if you use KDE for the bling, but perhaps you will find that OB is perfectly adequate and light on resources. Happy experimenting, and a happy and successful 2011!

  24. Mandriva hasn't gone down the tubes at all!
    First alpha of 2011.0 is planned for later this month and with this release we will have switched to rpm5 as well, bringing us closer to Unity Linux, delivering the next version series of rpm5 for Unity Linux to follow for their next release as well. :)

    We hope that over the course of development for our next release we will bring the two closer, both technically and for the relations of our two communities to better work together.

    2011 will certainly become an exciting year for all of us! \o/

  25. This is all too funny to hear some "want-to-be's" talk like they know what they are talking about.
    I started many moons ago with Slackware 1.?, migrated to Red-Hat, Caldera, to Mandrake - since then I have primarily stayed with Mandrake/Mandriva while trying many others and keep Mandriva as the primary OS.
    I like Mandriva primarily because of the Drak stuff - easy way to control your system. PCLinuxOS is my second choice and am about to give Unity a try.
    I don't care for Ubuntu and can't figure out the hype about it, I don't care for Debian etc.
    I used to burn CD's DVD's but now test the distro's with either VMware player or VirtualBox.
    Here are some of the distro's I have tried (If I can remember them all)
    Slackware, Red-Hat, Caldera, Fedora, Debian, Suse, Lycoris, Lindos, Elive, Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Mepis, Puppy, TurboLinux, Mint, OpenBSD, and possibly some that I can't remember. (must be my age) then again I started with CPM -> DOS -> Windows.
    I have been through the gauntlet so to speak and as I said my favorites are Mandriva and PCLinuxOS and if PCLinuxOS used the RPMdrak instead of the Synaptic package handler then PCLinuxOS probably would be tied with Mandriva.
    Each to their own - try them all and use the one that works for you, but this is what works for me.
    I may also mention that my choice of Desktops is KDE - the others just don't cut it for me, just not enough flexibility and/or functionality. I hate to do command-line stuff to get something done (end up with post-a-notes all over the place) just want to make a couple clicks with the mouse - KDE gives that to me - using DoAsRoot stuff... So there ya have it. Works for me but you have to find what works for you.
    If you don't mind the Synaptic Package Handler then PCLinuxOS may be right for you and you may never need another distro' unless you just want to mess around with them.

  26. My "OS" history:

    Basic on an Amstrad 6128 - DOS - Windows 3.1, 95,, 98, XP - Mac OS X (10.5.6 - still using it on my macbook) - Ubuntu & based distros (chruncheee/chrunchbang/eeebuntu/mint) - Mint Debian - SalixOS - Sabayon - FreeBSD - DragonFlyBSD (for some long time on my netbook & on a server) and now I'm testing Scientific Linux.

    It seems now, that the stability is my main goal. A computer OS should do its work well, just that.

  27. Win95->Redhat->Mandrake 6->Redhat->Mandrake->Mandriva->Unity. Ran only Afterstep 1.8 until switching over to E17 in 2010.

  28. DOS > WIN 3 > OS/2 > RH > Mandrake > Mandriva. There are quite a couple of software packages developed for KDE I love. At present there is nothing new for mageia 1 alpha 2 but the branding. Testing Unity now ...

  29. very nice choices how to install vlc player in ubuntu?


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