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Best LINUX Distribution

From Software By Jeff

Picking the best distribution really depends on what you use to quantify "best." This is related heavily to your objectives, environment, skill level, and desire to maintain the system with more control or more ease.

Table of contents


Ubuntu ( is a distribution based on the cutting-edge code that is the Debian ( distribution. Also based on Debian is Knoppix (, one of the first successful "live" versions that would run from CD without impacting anything previously installed on your system. For the purposes of our discussion, these distributions are the same. Debian is a free, community-backed distribution of LINUX that usually rides the cutting-edge of what's available, taking very close to the latest sources in their releases.

Debian distributions come with an fairly easy to use package management system, which is why it's high on my list. I put Ubuntu over the raw Debian, only because they have a more aggressive release plan, and a flurry of new support. With that wave of activity comes rapid improvement.

Ubuntu has a very large repository of packages that is maintained and "approved" by the Ubuntu community. It also has an even larger repository that is maintained by the LINUX community at large, that provides nearly every allowable software package. The upside to the repositories is that you're fairly free from having to worry about licensing conflicts, as this is one of the things they review and maintain for you. Most LINUX software is released under one of a few flexible licenses that largely proclaim that you can use the software without fee as long as you abide by some very simple rules if you choose to redistribute the software. If you're installing the software for your use, these simple rules do not even apply, in most cases.

Additionally, the Ubuntu distribution is available on a live CD or DVD, and that comes with plenty of software to turn any grumpy PC into an adequate LINUX workstation for simple needs. It's an excellent way to get started to see if LINUX might meet your needs, as well as to determine if your PC can handle it (some drivers and systems have trouble--usually because the distribution doesn't contain them, not because they don't exist); the Ubuntu live CD comes with a huge range of drivers.


I do like, and actually recommend Ubuntu for Windows converts. On my desk, however, I use SuSE ( SuSE is a distribution from Germany, that is now owned or marketed by Novell. Novell is known for their file server operating system, which is far from open, that lingers still although arguably more functionality is available from Microsoft Windows and the various UNIX derivatives. The SuSE distribution comes with as much selection as the Debian distributions. They're released fairly quickly, although sometimes the cutting-edge releases aren't available in the mainstream, and finding how to add the more up-to-date repositories is a bit tricky. One of these days I'll document it.

SuSE also has a LiveCD that contains a very wide variety of drivers. In fact, in the release-before-last, I had to use the LiveCD to determine which audio driver I needed to use to configure my system; while the versions were the same, the install wizard didn't choose the same one, and the one chosen by the install wizard didn't work while the LiveCD did. Go figure. This hasn't happened in any installation of the latest version (9.3 Professional).


Previously I had great success with RedHat ( It's changed so that now all RedHat releases are commercial. They do have an open source version, Fedora (, that they use as a test bed for fixes and enhancements. As such, Fedora tends to be a little ahead when compared to RedHat, but RedHat offers a touch more stability, and since it's commercial, there is support available.

The trouble with all of these distributions is that you either need to use the releases of software that they prepare and offer. Sometimes these releases can be a version or two back, forcing you to work without the latest fix or enhancement, or to go outside their distribution and get a version compiled by someone else, or to build it yourself.

As a simple example, Mozilla ( recently released version 1.0.5 of their FireFox web browser. It has some security fixes in it that help stop malicious websites from harming your PC. The latest version I was able to get from SuSE was 1.0.3. Two whole releases back. I downloaded and installed from source, but now I'm outside their package manager for that software. It'll be the case that when they release 1.0.4 that it'll either try to "update" and incorrectly replace 1.0.5, or it'll not try at all, and should I not notice the release of later software it won't either.


For a closer to the core distribution, try Gentoo (, which installs a bootstrap installation of LINUX, and then downloads and builds the entire system from source. As much as I'm able to work with all of the other software, I couldn't get Gentoo to like my PC. I could always get the software to install, and the system to boot, but I couldn't get a GUI up and running. For a server I might be satisfied with this, but not for my desktop. I like a good GUI (I'm a KDE ( guy...but I can work just fine in Gnome (, allowing me to flip between processes and applications as my work mandates. I'm sure with a little more tinkering I could get it to work. It's probably related to my nVidia graphics card which gives me pain even with Ubuntu and SuSE.

Raw Source

If you're looking to get really close to the core, just go get the LINUX kernel ( direct from the source, and add the tools you need from the main GNU ( repository.

The LINUX From Scratch ( project outlines how to do this yourself. It helps you set up your own bootstrap installation of LINUX (you have to start from something running, even a LiveCD from another distribution), and discusses how to optimize the system to your liking.


While the discussion until now has been strictly LINUX, the idea of free and open operating systems and environments is certainly not limited to the LINUX community. Originally licensed straight from the AT&T Labs where UNIX was developed, BSD (, or Berkeley Software Design, was a commercial version of that foundation. I haven't kept on top of it, but I believe the core of the work done at BSD is now on the free version, which used to feed the commercial version released as BSDI. Regardless, unlike LINUX, which was sort of reverse engineered from UNIX, BSD was licenced and ported directly from the UNIX root.


The free version of the BSD software is the appropriately named FreeBSD (, a distribution of open source software that continues straight from those roots. It was completely rewritten some time ago, and is completely separate from the Bell Labs UNIX from which it spawned. It's open, free, and just as full-featured as any LINUX distribution. In fact, it not only will compile all of the GNU software, and most software targeted directly to LINUX, but it will run most pre-compiled LINUX binaries. Like the plentiful choices of LINUX distributions, there are plenty of forks, derivations, and branches of BSD software, too, including OpenBSD ( and NetBSD (, both of which portend to be more secure, while remaining open.

The package management on the BSD distribution is done through what they call the "ports" system. This is a system that grabs the latest reported source and then compiles it on your system. The slight trouble is if the reported version isn't the latest, but this compromise is handy because you could actually change the reported version in the port, if you find it's not up-to-date. Later, the ports package management system will update it, and it will eventually match or exceed the version you're working with.


One fork of BSD that is more plentiful than most people realize is the Mac OS. The newest versions of Mac OS use an OS named Darwin (, whose open source version is OpenDarwin (now defunct, since replaced with PureDarwin ( Sadly, the Mac look-and-feel interface, Coacoa, is not available as an open source release; they're still holding on to the software over the machine. The interface aside, the opening of the underlying operating system offers Apple the opportunity to similarly benefit from the open source's community, just like any other BSD or LINUX distribution.


Latest in the open source game is Sun Solaris ( While for some time the Solaris OS has been available for "free," with some constraints, it has not been open and truly free. Recently they've launched a totally free and open version of the same software aptly named OpenSolaris ( This release offers tremendous opportunity for those looking for a rock-solid system on which they can blend the security and features offered by Sun with the flexibility and selection offered by the LINUX community.

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This page has been accessed 32038 times. This page was last modified 19:36, 8 Nov 2010.

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