I get asked, by more junior Linux users, and people just looking to try it out, which distribution of Linux I use or recommend. It occurred to me that I never actually published an answer to this question, even though it is, by far, the question I am asked most often. I think my stock answer is maybe slightly unusual only because, unlike most of the rest of the Linux-using world, I hate every distro I’ve ever tried.
That’s right: every distribution of Linux sucks in its own special way. Some just suck less. However, eventually, no matter what distribution you use, something about it will drive you insane, and you’ll try another distro to see if it’s any better. What you’ll then realize is that, while it may handle what drove you crazy before much better, it handles something else in a way that drives you even more crazy.
Package management is really the best example I can think of. I’m not even going to talk about the package format, because any self-respecting distro will make it so that the end user doesn’t really have to care about that. What I’m talking about are the frontends. The interfaces that enable users to install software. All of these pretty much Suck (note capital “S”). YaST, URPMI, apt-get, apt4rpm, Synaptic, up2date, yum, autorpm, portage (yes, even portage), pkgtool — they all have features that’ll drive you up a wall sooner or later (some sooner than others I guess).
My favorite? Not that it’ll be relevant in about a year, but today, for a desktop system, I think YaST is pretty good as of about SuSE 9.1. However, it can be quite slow, it can be a little weird to navigate at first (because YaST doesn’t just do package installs), and some of the default configurations are quirky. I still think SuSE is a very slick desktop, and yet I don’t really recommend it much because if a user needs help, and lives in the states, my experience has been that the best help threads are on German mailing lists, and Babelfish does a terrible job with German. You can’t get help from SuSE unless you’ve paid, and even then the help you get is extremely limited, and until recently you couldn’t even get a free downloadable ISO for installation (they’ve recently allowed downloads of the DVD ISO).
But it’s not just package management: what about window environments? If you’ve used a couple of distributions and have come to like KDE, I’d recommend you steer clear of Redhat/Fedora. KDE has always been broken in Redhat, and Fedora appears to be carrying that torch into the community-based distro on Redhat’s behalf. Weird things abound in KDE on Fedora. The most recent one I’ve found is that if you’ve configured a default browser in KDE control center, and then decide you want to try Konqueror, and you open it up and type in a URL and hit “enter”, your default browser will open! Konq won’t load the page! These things become funny after 5 or 6 years.
Maybe you like GNOME? Well, then you have to stay away from Slackware, because Patrick (the maintainer of Slackware) doesn’t seem to have a clear take on GNOME. From what I can tell now, GNOME, going forward, will not be a part of the core slackware distribution, but rather will be handled by an outside third party. I’m not sure how this will pan out, but it doesn’t give me a case of the warm-fuzzies. If someone can shed more light on this, leave a comment (yeah, like anyone is reading this) 😉
Maybe you don’t like KDE *or* GNOME! Maybe you like Waiamea(sp?) or blackbox or fluxbox or windowmaker or enlightenment or twm or fvwm. For older, more stable desktops like Windowmaker and twm, you can find these as installable options in many major distros. For things like blackbox and fluxbox, you don’t want the distro-supplied version even if they offer it half of the time, because by the time they release the distro, there are already updates that add major feature enhancements. These younger desktops, while cool, are often moving targets. One I forgot and is very nice for sysadmins is xfce. Give it a shot if you haven’t. You can get it in most distros these days.
What about X and the kernel? These two items are in a state of flux in most distros right now. If you’re on the bleeding edge, hardware-wise, you’ll likely want the Xorg version of X and the 2.6 kernel. If you’re on a laptop, you almost definitely want the 2.6 kernel. However, if you build your own machines, you have to be extremely careful — I upgraded a mobo to one that supports SATA drives. I’m not using them. My mobo doesn’t seem to understand that and reports the drives in the wrong order to the OS, and the newest linux distros choke on it and fail to boot. 2.4-based distros work fine. Earlier, NVidia wasn’t so quick in distributing drivers for the 2.6 kernel. All seems ok there now, but fact remains that, while I think these are things users should never have to think about, you do.
What a choice of distro comes down to, in the long run, is answering the question “which distribution best fits my brain”. Asking someone else which distro is best for you is like asking them how you should write a Perl script: there’s infinitely more ways than one to do it, and the solution you come up with will undoubtedly look unlike anyone else’s.
In the shorter term, rather than tell newbies to use distro x or y, I tell them what I think was my most important lesson starting out: pick a distro, and stick with it come hell or high water. When you start learning to fix problems instead of reinstalling, only then should you consider trying something else. Different distros treat things differently enough that jumping from distro to distro until you find one that “just works” will only cause you to pull your hair out. Pick *one*, and stick with it. Find the support forums for it, or find a guru who doesn’t care what distro you’re using. Get it to do what you want, and see if you can get it to do what you want the way you want it done. If nothing else, you’ll learn about yourself. You’ll learn how you like things to be. Then you can ask in the forums “hey, is there a tool that does what x does, but instead of doing it like y, does it like z?”.
Know thy self, for it is all there is of you.