Sunday, 4 December 2011

My Favorite Distribution Releases 2010-2011

I was going to write about how I finally dumped Firefox for Opera, but Firefox 8 does not seem too bad and for the first time appears a bit nippier at start up. Like Dedoimedo has found, this does not look like a completely arbitrary decision to pump up the version number but actually has some small benefits, so I'm going to give Firefox another chance before it is relegated.

The slow scrolling though remains a major annoyance, and although several supposed solutions and hacks can be found around the interwebs none of them seem to work. In any case, this should not require a hack when Chromium and Opera can do it, but traditionally Mozilla based browsers have been bad at scrolling.

So it looks like I'm going to open the 'My Top Distributions of the Year' season instead, but as it's a bit early I'm going to cover distributions and spins thereof that have been out and in use over the last 12 months, not just 2011. This is obviously biased by what we know and have tried, but I've tried all the major distributions at some point and some of their derivatives, and I'm going to state my reasons. If you're interested, read on. You will notice that none of them come with GNOME 3 or Unity by default, and only two with KDE4, but not as their only option either.


If you know me and this blog then it's quite predictable that Slackware would be my number one. It can be shaped into anything you want and it's stable and rock-solid at that. The latest release, 13.37, is particularly good and I haven't encountered a single problem. In fact it was set up in less than 20 minutes after the install, that's how easy it can be if you know what you're doing and where to get what you need. It's the best Slackware release ever, that's until the next one of course ;).
Seriously though, auto-detection and auto-configuration scripts that have always been part of it (Slackware was once deemed easy back in the day, due ot those scripts, before RedHat came along), the advances in the wider ecosphere and the inclusion of things like udev means it's not nearly as difficult as perceived and pretty much sets itself up, just like say, openSUSE, but without confusing panels and menu options. The text based installer may require some getting used to for people who only know graphical installers, but it has evolved through the years, including new options like making a USB rescue stick. Only the style has remained unaltered. There's a lot of flexibility in this set up, and I wouldn't trade it in for anything.
Slackware does not come with GNOME, but given what's been happening there for years it's no great loss. You can get it from, but this community driven project is always months behind, and if your desktop of choice is really GNOME you're better off somewhere else. That said, Slackware is great for the smaller window managers and for Xfce. It's still using Xfce 4.6.2 instead of 4.8, and when looking closer at it this was actually a good decision. 4.8 has introduced new dependencies. I'm running it on Arch but have to say I favor 4.6 over it. Slackware has a smart BDFL, is fast, flexible, and is the one distribution where my Broadcom connection never drops and has the best throughput and where suspend/resume just works in the blink of an eye, no fiddling needed, including wifi coming back up in seconds.


This small distribution spin introduced me to how beautiful and efficient the Openbox desktop can be. I've used OB before in KDE3 as a replacement for KWin but this is on a completely different scale. ArchBang is inspired by the style and looks of CrunchBang, it's extremely fast, rolling release, and rock-solid. It looks beautiful in its simplicity, and with a nice wallpaper and conky for a system monitor is all you need. There is a new release around every six months and the developer likes to experiment and change applications around a bit in a point release, but you don't have to reinstall as it is a rolling system based on Arch. You could just rip the new artwork and adjust your installation to the new release in terms of menu style and panel used if that's what you want, as the latest releases feature icons in the OB applications menu.
ArchBang also includes some great documentation and a start guide that pops up at first boot, which explains for example how to install proprietary video drivers or how to build your own installable live image from the installed system for back-up and further installs. Using the Arch Wiki instead to install the ATI Catalyst driver and Control Centre was as easy as pie, I even got it set up to automatically re-compile the fglrx module via init script after every kernel update, so now we have another system fit for gaming (as well as Fedora, read further down).

Arch Linux

I'm only mentioning Arch here because it's the underlying base for ArchBang, and it's a great project with the Arch Wiki being so up to date and full of knowledge and tips that it's become the de-facto reference for any Linux questions one might have. ArchBang is just a custom spin of Arch Linux and is using the Arch repositories for almost everything, so without all those packages ArchBang would not exist. If you prefer, there's also a guide on how to install Openbox on Arch Linux and make the desktop similar to ArchBang.

Arch, just like Slackware, is extremely flexible and can be shaped into anything you like. It also adheres to the Keep It Simple principle and uses BSD style init scripts. It supports all desktop environments and window managers around, even the older and little known ones. Although rolling by design you can also use it for servers, with a Long-term-support kernel and your own combination of excluding important packages from upgrade. It feels like the perfect system. Slackware for utmost stability and reliability, Arch Linux for when you want reliability but also want to stay on the bleeding edge and when Slackware-Current (development branch) just breaks too often.

Slax Community Remix/ Porteus

The Slax Community Remix as it was known on the Slax forum has morphed into the Porteus project with its own website. A modular system on which you can install packages of almost any format, or convert them to the native sfs/lzm modules. Porteus 1.0 comes with a few new concepts and has for the first time deviated from the traditional root auto-login and is now prompting the user at a text screen to log in with an unprivileged account. Porteus comes with KDE and LXDE, the 64-bit version employs KDE 4 while the 32-bit version uses KDE 3. It supported my wireless straight away and with all the included firmware should be suitable for almost any situation and laptop. Flash and Multimedia codecs are onboard too. The only problem I can see is with frequent updates of browser software as updated modules are not made available after release, and letting Firefox update itself can use a lot of space on the stick to save those changes. Therefore you would want to create your own module, but I have not figured out how to include the Flash plugin yet. Like Puppy and SliTaz it can also run as a PXE server.

I'm still running Remix 0.9, which can convert and use all modules created with the last official Slax 6.1.2, on my USB keys as I have seen no reason to upgrade. I have created my own modules from Slackware 12.2 packages, which seems closest related given that it was the base for the last Slax release, and does everything I want, and I have no interest in rebuilding them at the moment. Porteus 1.0 is good, but I'll wait for the next release to smooth out the experience, and hopefully come up with some better artwork. Porteus 1.1 is in testing now.

Fedora 14 LXDE

It's almost out of support and will see EOL on 8th December, but Fedora 14 'Laughlin' has been pretty good to me on my hardware, so much that I kept it on a USB stick for most of the last 12 months. While the KDE edition was nice, it seemed to get slower and slower after only 2-3 months of use on an encrypted volume. Not sure what that was about, but I switched to the LXDE edition and haven't looked back. It's a bit basic in the application department when compared to all the other editions including Xfce, but just right for building up your own system but still starting with something functional. Fedora 15 and 16 did not exactly get glowing reviews, and with the choice of applications unchanged in LXDE it's not worth taking a chance. A minor problem is that the file manager has a nasty bug in that it will just not save the specified terminal. I'm just using it for quick browsing and linux gaming, and installing the Catalyst driver was as easy as pulling it from the rpmfusion repos and rebooting, no muss no fuss. Sometimes easy is nice, and I figured Fedora has a good choice of games in their repositories. The LXDE edition remains fast and a good base for gaming. Broadcom wireless and network-manager work well together and are giving me good, uninterrupted connections, and the battery seems to last a bit longer in Fedora 14 than some other distributions.

It's always a good idea to have a RedHat product lying around, if only for reference in case you have to work with or train for their take on a Linux distribution, to check file hierarchy etc. The level of polish is unmistakable, and the included tools make life a little bit easier, a good balance between too much and too little. No nonsense system administration. The way to upgrade from here will be the proper enterprise product, Scientific Linux or CentOS 6, not another Fedora.

Linux Mint 11 & Debian Edition

Not much to say here. Linux Mint is a nice distribution if you want it all in one and asap. I have used it in the past for emergency installations where you just need to be running straight away, with all drivers and codecs
included. There are always situations where you don't have a reliable internet connection, or it is capped, and you just don't want to hunt around for all the missing stuff. You may have even got your distribution from a magazine because of that. Mint has it all, is reasonably fast, a solid all-rounder, and it doesn't kill your file system or hard drive with a million updates and a slow package manager. Fast package management is important, so you don't have to hang around and can get back to the stuff you really want/need to do, otherwise you might as well be running Windows and watch it update, and all the Anti-Virus and Spyware products on top of that. I never kept Mint around for more than a month but admit it's been quite convenient and a life-saver on two occasions. 11 still comes with GNOME 2.
LMDE is slightly less polished and with that feels more like Debian and less restricted. It also did not include the one wireless driver I needed, so it's perhaps not quite such a good drop-in emergency solution to help you out in any situation as the main edition. However, as I recall Mono libraries were quite easy to cut out as  not much depended on them, and there's also been a new release since I tested it so it may have improved further. Not that it needed that much improvement anyway, only small things like the Broadcom driver. It makes for a pretty good rolling release of Debian, preferably on the Testing branch, with monthly Service Packs 'vetted' by the Mint team to give their users a smoother experience than standard Debian Testing or Unstable would. An innovative idea, adding value to the Debian-verse, and it sounds attractive even for people like me, as I'm having less time again to fight with and sort out regressions and bugs. There's also an Xfce edition of Debian rolling. Did I mention just how fast it is? A good way to run Debian in any case, but you might also want to try MEPIS for KDE4 or AntiX for something lighter.

Puppy Linux

I have reviewed Puppy 'Slacko' just recently, and although I criticised it for the overabundance of tools and some other minor points it is actually a really good live distribution. I even kept it on one partition. It detected my Vodafone USB modem and it was a cinch to set up the dialler once I got the hang of the custom tool provided (or more importantly, finding out which one to use). It looks cool watching that terminal window dial and makes me feel like a geek. That old style ROX file manager also has its charms, as does JWM.

I just think the security posture is downright dangerous. All partitions are lined up on your desktop. Any drive can be accessed with just a click, read and written to. Other distributions at least make you think twice when prompting for the password. It's my machine, but in the hands of somebody ill-intentioned this is truly dangerous. And so Puppy makes the case for full drive encryption blatantly obvious.


This is my entry for a special interest distribution. The blend of GNOME, GTK+ applications and software that aids visually impaired users in accessing the desktop for their needs and helps take advantage of the power and joy of modern computing makes it a unique project. True, some other distributions also bundle voice recognition and other accessibility options which can be enabled, and with Knoppix ADRIANE it does not seem like an afterthought but is turned on from the start (booting to a text interface), but only Vinux provides a graphical high-contrast desktop together with a screenreader that is aimed at the partially sighted with varying degrees of vision just as much as it is still usable by a completely blind person.

On top of that there are so many images provided that you're sure to find the right one whatever your situation, requiring minimal fiddling around. Different sizes for CD or DVD with extra packages for sighted users, images for USB install, an office edition, a virtual edition running in VMware Player, a stable release (3.0.1) based on Ubuntu Lucid LTS and an unstable deemed  release 3.2.1 based on the latest Ubuntu.

Bodhi Linux

One of my top discoveries this year, Bodhi provides you with a great looking desktop that can be made to look even better. A good alternative to the main environments if you like your bling but still want it light and responsive, and it definitely looks different from your standard KDE4.
I also like the mix of Ubuntu packages and their own format that makes installation of many major programs and theme/icon sets from their site a breeze, even for the more challenged users, a bit like modules in some live systems or the bundle system in Chakra. Take a look at 'Desktop of the Week' to get an idea.


Nothing's changed here really. Salix was on my list last year, and they have continued to add value in the shape of some nice utilities to their Slackware base, like the Sourcery graphical tool to create and install packages from source or from A bit like Sbopkg, only with a GUI.

They're also providing some alternatives to the Slackware universe, like custom trimmed down images with Fluxbox and Ratpoison window managers, in addition to the more traditional but still slim Xfce and KDE4 spins. Even here, their KDE4 has got to be one of the lightest around. If I remember correctly, 13.1 ran well and without hiccups on only 256MB Ram, and that is something. And they always come with a tasteful fresh wallpaper, the latest one in 13.37 reminding me of Linux Mint and Fedora. To be honest, even adding multimedia to Slackware is now so easy I'm not running Salix at the moment, but I may use one of their more exotic spins in the future.


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  2. What I now love about Slackware is what kept me away from it all these years. Its package management system. I only wish it was more of a GTK distro than a KDE one. KDE always had issues for me (no matter what distro I was using), ranging from multiple little bugs to nasty ones locking my desktop or losing settings. I'm using Slackware with XFCE 4.6. It's basically a desktop from the mid 90's but it is working very well if you forget about the inferior file manager.

  3. Great review. Looks like I'm gonna have to try a few of these other distros.

  4. Thanks guys. Sometimes I feel like repeating myself too much with all the Slackware and Arch praise, but there'll be other stuff to read soon as well.

    Re. Xfce, a desktop from the mid 90's looks more and more attractive. Never having run it before I'm thinking of building a desktop based on FVWM for myself. Several tutorials show it can be extremely nice, and FVWM-Crystal was good. It showed off what can be done.


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