LINUX & OPEN SOURCE
OTHER COMPUTER STUFF!
STREAMING MEDIA STUFF
Linux Distros I've Played Around With
(partially updated fall, 2010)
On this page you'll find some mini "reviews" of a number of Linux "distros" that I've played around with. With dozens of Linux distros available, there's no way I'd ever have time to try them all. But I've "played" with quite a number of them over the last few years, some more than others.
I hope you'll find my mini "reviews" helpful in picking a Linux distro for your own purposes! It's tough to keep this info up-to-date (editing is quite a chore if I've left things for awhile!) but if you'd like to find out more about the latest Linux distros the best site around is Distrowatch.com. "Distrowatch" not only keeps you up-to-date with news of the lastest Linux distros, but also tracks distros by their popularity, provides links to newsletters and podcasts, and even produces a weekly podcast of its own. It's a site worth checking on a regular basis.
If you've never "seen" Linux go to this page and find "screen shots" of dozens of Linux distros!
Fedora- As of this writing, (Fall 2010) the current version is "Fedora 13".
"Fedora" is the community-based distro put out by Red Hat, which is the "Microsoft" of the Linux world (but not so evil!). Fedora is what's known as an "RPM" based distro given that it uses the "Red Hat Package Management System". Historically Fedora defaulted to the "Gnome" desktop but you can also install the "KDE" desktop.
Fedora is not the easiest distro for a newbie, but not the hardest either. Package Management and updates are done using the "yum" package management tool. Many corporate servers run on Fedora instead of the "paid" Red Hat Enterprise Linux. It's simply that reliable!
The first Linux distro that I tried was "Red Hat 5" if I recall correctly but once they switched to Fedora, I only played with it a bit on one machine. These days Fedora tends to be very "bleeding edge" and introduces alot of cool new features that eventually make their way into other Linux distros.
Mandriva- Formerly known as "Mandrake". Mandriva is based in France but merged some years ago with the Brazil-based "Connectiva" and the small U.S. distro "Lycoris".
Mandriva releases twice per year, the first time in the fall and a second edition in the spring. So, "Mandriva 2010" was released in the fall of 2009 and "Mandriva Spring 2010" was released in the spring of 2010.
Mandriva issues two different "free as in free beer" editions, namely:
"Mandriva Linux One" which includes proprietary audio/video codecs "out of the box" along with some proprietary software. "Mandriva Free" contains only "free as in freedom" software.
Being a business, Mandriva also sells their "Mandriva Power Pack" version which includes software like "Cedega" (which allows you to play Windows games on Linux), server tools etc.
Mandriva normally uses the KDE desktop, although you can use Gnome if you want to. Mandriva One comes on a single CD disk and Mandriva Free on either a DVD or CD disk.
Package Management is best done using the "urpmi" tool or you can use the graphical "RPMDrake" tools.
Mandriva (in it's previous incarnation as "Mandrake") was probably the first GNU/Linux distro that I managed to get working well enough that I used it on a daily basis. I was using it up to about 2007 or so on an old PIII 800 MHz. IBM Thinkpad.
The "Buntu's" (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Edubuntu, Ubuntu Studio Edition etc.)
The "Buntu's" as I call them are probably the most popular GNU/Linux distributions in the world today. If someone tells you they're a Linux user, chances are that they're using "Ubuntu".
In fact to many folks Ubuntu "is" Linux. That's unfortunate in one respect because I've found that if a new Linux user has a bad experience installing Ubuntu then they assume that's the case for every Linux distro. That also happens to some extent in the tech press.
Nevertheless, Ubuntu has come a long way over the years and "works out of the box" for most folks. There's also an amazing online user community. If you run into a problem, you'll most likely find help in the user forums. Even if you don't use a 'buntu distro you'll often find that what you learn in the Ubuntu Forums can help you out with another distro.
Ubuntu is backed by Canonical, a company founded by dot com multi-millionaire (and space tourist) Mark Shuttleworth.
Ubuntu, and it's variants are released approximately every six months. The spring release will be numbered "xx.04" and the second release in the fall will be numbered "xx.10". Every two years, there is what's called a "Long Term Service" or "LTS" release.
LTS releases receive update and security "fixes" for up to three years. Other versions only receive official updates for six months to a year.
The regular releases will contain the newest features and software, but the new things once in a while will "break" your system. That's not quite as bad as it sounds. It's just that once in a while something that used to "work" might not work so well and you'll have to "fiddle" a bit.
The LTS releases focus on being very stable. You might not have the very latest software and features, but everything works and stays working for a long period of time. These are the best versions to use in a large institutional deployment or on a server computer.
Ubuntu is based on a GNU/Linux distro that's been around for a very long time called "Debian". But over the years, Ubuntu has drifted a fair bit from it's Debian base.
Ubuntu is the "flagship" GNU/Linux distribution and uses the Gnome desktop.
Kubuntu - If you prefer the KDE Desktop over the Gnome Desktop, Kubuntu is for you.
Xubuntu - Uses the lighter weight "XFCE" desktop for somewhat older computers.
Lubuntu - Uses the even lighter weight "LXDE" desktop.
Ubuntu Studio Edition - Focuses on including software applications "out of the box" for multimedia creation. Ubuntu Studio Edition uses the Gnome desktop.
Mythbuntu - Mythbuntu includes the "Myth TV" software that allows you to turn your computer into a Personal Video Recorder (PVR). Mythbuntu uses the XFCE desktop to maximize your computer resources for playing video instead of having a pretty looking desktop.
Edubuntu - Is a special version of Ubuntu designed for classroom use mostly using the "Linux Terminal Server Project".
Fluxbuntu isn't an official Ubuntu project (yet anyway) but it uses the extremely lightweight "Fluxbox" desktop environment. It's a good choice for breathing life into very old machines or if you have a fairly current machine and you want it to run quickly and don't really care all that much about having a fancy graphical desktop. It's not quite up-to-date with the most recent version as of the fall of 2010 was 9.04.
Linux Mint - Is based on "Ubuntu" but includes all of the proprietary "plug-ins" and codecs "out of the box" with no need to install them after you've installed Linux Mint on your system. It has started to become quite popular in the last few years.
It's become a personal favourite of mine.
Linux Mint comes on an installable "live CD" or DVD. As of this writing the current version is Verion 9.0 (Codenamed Isadora) with Version 10 due to be out shortly.
Linux Mint usually is released a month or so after the latest version of Ubuntu. The Gnome version is issued first, with KDE, XFCE, LXDE and Fluxbox versions following over the next few months.
There are also "light" editions that contain only free software for areas of the world (like the U.S.) where installing proprietary codecs/plugins is legally questionable.
One of the things I quite like about Linux Mint is that compared to other Linux distros it boots up and gets you running very quickly! Installation is very easy involving only about half a dozen mouse clicks from the live CD.
Linux Mint has its own easy installation routine called "Mint Install" for many popular additional software packages. Whatever can't be installed with "Mint Install" can be installed using the graphical "Synaptic" package manager or "apt-get" on the command line.
I've been "played" with this distro quite a bit over the years. I've used it at a senior's centre in my neighbourhood, installed it for friends and run it one one of my laptops.
In the fall of 2010, the Linux Mint folks released "Linux Mint Debian Edition" or "LMDE". LMDE is a little different than the other Linux Mint versions in that rather than being based on Ubuntu, it's based directly on the "Debian" Linux distro, the "root" if you will, of Ubuntu.
Unlike other versions of GNU/Linux, it's what's known as a "rolling release" in that it's updated constantly and there is no need to do a distro upgrade or a re-install to get the latest and greatest version. LMDE is a bit more "rough around the edges" and a little more geeky than the Ubuntu-based versions of Linux Mint, but so far it's been getting some great reviews.
Debian - Debian GNU/Linux is one of the Linux distros that would fall into the category of what I'd call "true geekware". But the Debian developers adhere very strictly to the "GNU" free software principles. And even though Debian might be a little "geeky", it's the least geeky of the geeky distros! As well, Debian is a true world-wide "community project".
Debian is so good in fact its the basis for alot of the "easier" Linux distros like the Ubuntu "family", Mepis, Dream Linux along with "Live CD" versions like Knoppix.
Debian "Lenny" 5.0 released in February, 2009 is the latest version. An update was released in September, 2010. Debian uses either Synaptic, the "GUI way" to install software or the tried and true command line way with "apt-get".
Of interest to ham radio operators, is that there has always been good support for ham radio software in the Debian software repositories. Of course those software repositories are also available for users of other "Debian-based" distros!
"Out of the box", Debian doesn't always have the newest software. That's because the Debian developers focus on keeping the distribution "stable". If you want to add newer software applications it's fairly easy to do.
Open Suse - Originated in Germany but has since been bought out by Novell Networks. As of this writing the current version is 11.3. Suse is a commercial version of Linux with a "community" version called "Open Suse". The commercial version is called "Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop" or "SLED". It's marketed as a business desktop operating system. Novell also sells server versions of Suse. Open Suse is relatively easy for a newbie and like Fedora Core and Mandriva is an "RPM-based" distro.
Open Suse uses the "Yast" package management tool. You can download the full DVD version of the distro which contains all of the language packs and software both free and proprietary. Or you can download the CD versions, one of which is a "KDE" version and the other is a "Gnome" version. The CD's are only available in English and if you want/need the proprietary codecs/plugins you can download an "add-on" CD.
A few years ago, Novell signed a very controversial "deal" with Microsoft over marketing, development and patent protection. Given that Microsoft tends to "eat" anyone it partners with. This "deal" earned the ire of many in the free and open source software community around the world.
Mepis - Comes out of Morgantown, West Virginia and is the "pet project" of its developer Warren Woodford. Mepis is free and comes on a "Live CD". Mepis pioneered the idea of allowing you to install the operating system to your hard drive by clicking on an icon from a Live CD. Now all kinds of distros do this. It's a fairly easy distro for a newbie and is Debian-based. The current versions are 8.0 and 8.5.
Like all Debian-based distros it uses the Debian package management tools "Synaptic" and "apt-get". Mepis, includes certain "proprietary" plugins and codecs "out of the box" such as support for mp3 files. Many Linux distros shy away from doing this for ethical/legal reasons, requiring you to install these packages on your own after you've installed the O/S.
Mepis uses the KDE desktop environment. Version 8.0 uses the older and more "stable" KDE 3.5 desktop while 8.5 uses the newer, more "bleeding edge" KDE 4.3 desktop.
A slimmed down version of Mepis called "AntiX" is available. It defaults to the "Fluxbox" desktop but you can also use the "IceWm" desktop if you'd like. It's designed to run on older machines but won't run on older AMD K5 and K6 processors.
Xandros - Xandros is a "commercial" Linux distro that was originally designed to be very "Windows-like" to make the transition from Windows to Linux very easy. A number of years ago, I ran it on one of my desktops.
It's based on Debian, and over the last few years has become rather long in the tooth, doesn't have much of a community anymore and has earned the wrath of the free and open source software community through it's patent collaboration with Microsoft.
One of the problems with the smaller "commercial" Linux distros is that they've tended to do a lousy job of making new versions of free software programmes available in their software repositories and doing updates...something you kind of expect if you've had to pay for your distro.
A modified version of Xandros was used on the early versions of the first series of "netbook" computers, namely the Asus EeePC. Personally though I think there are much better netbook Linux distros you can install that are community supported making Xandros rather irrelevant.
Linspire - Linspire, which started life as "Lindows" was a slick commercial desktop version of Linux designed as a Windows replacement.
It's now defunct, having been bought out by Xandros. The one Linspire innovation, "Click 'N Run" (CNR) which made software installs and updates easy, has been incorporated into Xandros...but the repositories are still very out of date!
Slackware - Slackware is one of the oldest Linux distributions around. Its currently on Version 13.1. It's what I'd consider a "geeky" distro. It's a community project and therefore is completely free and non-commercial. Like Debian, it forms the basis for many other Linux distributions.
However, it is quite difficult for a new user to install and configure. In fact I've never managed to get it up and running properly. However, if you're interested in learning all about how to use the Linux command line and have a great deal of patience, its a distro worth trying.
Gentoo - Gentoo is Debian-based. The newest version as of the fall of 2010 is Version 10.1 It's totally free and non-commercial. Gentoo is definitely "geekware" and not for the faint of heart! It's a distro I've decided to avoid for now!
However, Gentoo gives you complete control over your system. You can customize your installation to optimize it for all the hardware that you're running on your machine. It uses a package management system called "portege". There's also now an installable "live CD" available.
So if you are a real geek who likes to tweak, you might like Gentoo!
Dream Linux - This distro comes from Brazil and has a multi-media focus. The latest version as of this writing is "3.5". It uses a somewhat modified version of the lightweight "Xfce" desktop and so the user interface is quite similar to what you'd find on a Mac. There's also a Gnome Desktop version available.
I haven't honestly used it since Version 2.2. I installed the XFCE version on an old Celeron 333 MHz. machine with 160 MB RAM and managed to get it working reasonably well.
Knoppix - Knoppix is a "Live CD" Linux distro in that it runs completely off of a DVD disk. It used to run off a CD disk, but the software collection is now so large that you need a DVD disk for all of it.
Knoppix is based on Debian and is currently on version 4.0. Its absolutely loaded with software and makes for a great "emergency" disk for those times when your system is toast and you've got to get your machine up and running to do some work. It uses the KDE GUI.
Knoppix' hardware detection is absolutely amazing! It can find just about any hardware at all...even obscure proprietary notebook hardware.
In fact if you've got a misbehaving piece of hardware and are not sure whether its a hardware or software problem, just boot it up with a Knoppix disk. If Knoppix finds the hardware and it works then you know you've got a software problem. If it won't work with Knoppix, then its likely you have a hardware problem.
Or, if you've just slapped a bunch of components together to build a new machine, try booting it up first with a Knoppix disk before you install an operating system on the hard drive. This can save you a whole lot of wasted time and energy. There's nothing worse than wasting an hour or more installing an operating system only to find there's some kind of minor hardware problem.
Law enforcement agencies use Knoppix to so they can access computer hard drives without altering the content on them.
Damn Small Linux - Damn Small Linux is well...small! It's only 50 MB and is designed to fit on a small "credit card" sized CD or on a USB thumb drive. It uses the same hardware detection as Knoppix and so will find just about anything.
It uses the lightweight "Fluxbox" graphical user interface and so will run quite nicely on older hardware.
Slax - Slax is a "live CD" distro based on Slackware. It boots into either the lightweight "Fluxbox" or "KDE" GUI. One nice thing about Slax, is that you can write to your hard drive using Slax. The latest version is 6.1.2 and was released in August, 2009.
Now most of the time when you're booting with a "live CD" you don't want to alter the contents of your hard drive. But if you do, Slax is the live CD for you. I once trashed an operating system and had all kinds of files that I wanted to move to other machines on the home network before doing an operating system re-install. Slax allowed me to do this!
Another nice thing about Slax is that it' can find your network printer without you having to do any configuration at all. Or at least that was my experience!
Dynebolic - Dynebolic is a "live CD" distro designed for multi-media. It's designed to take advantage of "older" computer hardware such as "first generation" Pentium chips and AMD "K5" processors. The authors claim it only needs 64 MB of RAM.
It's getting a little bit long in the tooth though. As of this writing (fall 2010) it's been about three years since there's been a new release.
Puppy Linux - A "mini distro" out of Australia that's so small that you can easily run it off of a USB "thumb drive".
There are also quite a number of "derivative" Puppy distros that have been developed for a wide variety of specialized purposes. You can find out about them here.
Vector Linux - is a Canadian-based Linux distro based on Slackware. It's very "lightweight"and therefore suitable for somewhat "older" computers and uses the "XFCE" desktop instead of the "heavier" KDE or Gnome. There are both "Live CD" versions and versions that you can install on your machine. As of this writing it's currently on version 5.8 released in December, 2006.
There's also a "5.8 SOHO" edition that uses the KDE desktop released in May, 2007. I've tested this version on a K6II 400 MHz. machine with 384 MB RAM and it runs alot quicker than one would expect on a machine of this vintage.
Package management is done with "gslapt", however the amount of "extra" software in the Vector Linux software repositories is not quite as extensive as it is for many other Linux distros.
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SPECIALIZED HAM RADIO DISTROS
Harv's Hamshack Hack - Is a special "live CD" version of Knoppix put together for ham radio operators by Harvey Nelson, AI9NL. It contains programmes for the "normal" user along with most of the Linux software currently available for ham radio operators.
AFU-Knoppix - Another specialized "live CD" version of Knoppix for amateur radio usage originally from Germany. When you get to the site just click on the flag in the top right corner to switch to English.
Digipup - A specialized version of "Puppy Linux" by David Freese, W1HKJ for amateur radio usage.
Debian Dxpedition Disk - This is a special "live CD" version of the Debian-based Linux distro "Morphix". It was put together by Rein Couperus, PA0R in the Netherlands and was designed for networked computer logging on ham radio dxpeditions. You just put the CD disk into the computer's CD-ROM drive, boot up and you can easily network all of the computers making use of the Linux-based logging programme "TLF".
OTHER DISTROS (That I haven't yet tried!)
PCLinuxOS - Haven't tried it, but have played with some of the PCLinuxOS variants like "SAM" (a few years ago) and "Tiny Me". PCLinuxOS uses the KDE desktop and is based on Mandriva. The "Tiny Me" variant makes use of the "Open Box" desktop and is designed for use on older computers.
Sam Linux was at first an XFCE desktop derivative of PCLinuxOS. I played around with it a bit a few years ago and it was quite alright for older machines (and looked pretty too!) It' since become "SAMity" Linux and is now based on "Unity Linux". It still uses the lightweight XFCE desktop.
CentOS - Based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux but with Red Hat's proprietary content removed. I understand a good distro for running servers.
gNewsense- New distro supported by the Free Software Foundation! This distro was put out in Ireland and is based on Ubuntu. However, all proprietary software including hardware drivers, codecs, plug-ins and the like have been completely removed.
Part of what the Free Software Foundation is trying to accomplish with gNewsense is to document what hardware is fully supported by Linux and what is not and encourage hardware vendors to produce free and unencumbered hardware drivers.
By following the instructions on the website you can easily build your very own customized Linux distro.
DeLi Linux, currently on Version 0.72 is a specialized distro designed for very old computers with as little as 8 MB of RAM. The CD-ROM disk is only about 175 MB and takes up about 350 MB once installed. If your machine is so old that it won't boot from a CD disk, there are boot floppy disks available on the website for download.
Sabayon - Sabayon is an Italian distro based on the very geeky "Gentoo" Linux, but with the "geekiness" removed. It's been getting some rave reviews.
GeeXBoX - This distro is quite small and is especially designed for building home theatre or media centre PC's.
trixbox - This is a special distro that combines "Cent OS" with the free and open source "Asterix" software that allows you to build your very own PBX unit!
Knoppmyth - combines the "Knoppix" live Linux CD known for it's excellent hardware detection with the free and open source "Myth TV" personal video recording (PVR) software. This allows you to create your very own home entertainment centre!
It's the free software community's answer to Microsoft Windows XP Media Centre minus all of the "Digital Restrictions Management"