There are plenty of Linux reviews out there already, so my focus here is about my own personal market segment: a Linux distribution that comes with all the software I want, connects to my home network and the internet, prints, has sound, can access my Windows files – and plays nice with my ancient dial-up connection. That last part, the slow dial-up connection, seems to be the real problem for me, as I will explain.
The four distributions are all slightly out-of-date, since I bought the CDs/DVDs last year by mail, so they are all 2007 versions. My computer is middle-of-the-road by current standards: AMD XP 3000+ (single core), 2GB PC 2700 memory, 120GB hard drive, NVIDIA GeForce 7600 GT 512MB. Not fancy, but certainly modern enough.
The four distributions I have tried recently (you could add Redhat to the list, but the last Redhat I installed was 8 years ago) all have their shining points, but none of them has hit the ball out of the park for me. The biggest sticking point is the modern assumption of an always-on, high-speed internet connection. Because most distributions assume such a connection they usually do not include all the software you might need, expecting that you will simply download it as the final step of installation.
Years ago the biggest sticking point in Linux installation was the hard drive partitioning. That part of Linux installation is no longer the terrifying ordeal that it used to be, thanks to slick new graphical partitioning programs that will resize Windows partitions on the fly and use the “empty space” at the end of your hard drive. An even better development is the new possibility of installing Linux on a Virtual Machine so you can have full access to Linux without risking any damage to your Windows partition at all. The safest method of trying Linux is the “live” CD or DVD, which is a bit slow and has a few limitations, but is by far the least painful method of trying Linux.
Let me start with my least favorite first: Ubuntu. Ubuntu is the most popular Linux distribution out there, and I have to say that I love their philosophy. But for my purposes, Ubuntu is too dependent on using a high-speed internet connection as part of installation. Actually, installation didn’t work for me at all, because Ubuntu couldn’t use dial-up during the install, and couldn’t see my wife’s internet connection through the home network (which all three of the others could do). So for Ubuntu I had to rely on the live CD to evaluate whether the distro was worth my time. Turns out that of the four distributions I tried, Ubuntu was the least successful. The full install version comes with very little software on the disc, and relies on downloading tons of stuff, as well as pretty much requiring updates. And the live CD failed to use my winmodem (2 of the other distros managed this) AND failed to see an open internet connection over the home network. Ubuntu Live also failed to print to my HP printer, and failed to see my Windows partition, even after trying various tricks to mount it. My computer is a few years old, but not ready for the scrap heap yet! Ubuntu failed completely for me, although this was last years version, so who knows about the latest version – except that I expect that the net-centric install philosophy still holds.
The next was Open SUSE. I didn’t have a live CD for this one, just the install discs. Although Open SUSE wanted to go online several times during install, it was possible to cancel/outsmart it. The discs also came with a satisfying amount of software. The disk partitioning was not as slick as the other distros, and actually resulted in a corrupted boot sector and made me have to re-install Windows last year. Using a virtual machine (Virtual Box by Innotek) I installed it again, safely, and found it to be at least functional. I could see my Windows partition, and I could install lots of software off of the discs without being forced to go online. SUSE found the internet, but not the full network (a limitation of Virtual Box). SUSE was a bit rough, and not that slick, and actually crashed a few times. Printing didn’t work, and sound didn’t work. I did get WINE up and running, and played around with a few Windows programs, but WINE on a Virtual Machine is pretty darned slow and buggy. Open SUSE did not work very well for me, although in 2000 SUSE 5.2 was my favorite distro and worked like a charm on my old computer.
Mandriva Free is slick. The install is the smoothest of all, and the discs come with plenty of software. One problem is that you can’t install any packages after the main OS install without being online for the OS to check the “integrity” of the packages, and probably to check for newer versions. Mandriva found the internet, but could not find my Windows partition. Sound will not work no matter what I try. The disc partitioning worked like a charm. The only real problem with Mandriva is that it sets up for a generic desktop system and requires a good deal of tweaking to add the software you really need, or I really need. I do prefer Mandriva to Ubuntu or SUSE, at least for my purposes. It also lets you install Gnome and KDE and switch between.
Knoppix is the star of this roundup. The Knoppix Live DVD has everything, and works right out of the box, so to speak. Boot from the DVD and you get a desktop with all the bells and whistles. Network, internet, printing, sound, Windows partitions – everything works with little or no setup! The only hitch? With the live DVD (or live CD) you can’t easily save anything! Not your files, not your preferences, not any changes from one session to the next. There are ways to get around this, but then you have left the ease-of-use territory into wonky Linux configuration land. This may just be a quirk of my particular hardware setup, but Knoppix and my computer really seem to understand one another. Knoppix also does not insist on doing any forceful internet downloading. Knoppix is self-sufficient, using what it comes with – which is plenty.
Now that I have decided I like Knoppix best, I need to get the latest version (which is only a point higher than what I have, but has lots of updated packages) and take the plunge and do a full install. I think Knoppix just might be the best Linux desktop out there for poor wretches like me who have to live with a dial-up connection. (I forgot to mention that I can’t get high-speed where I live. Satellite is too expensive for me.) The prize still goes to Knoppix, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying out new flavors of Linux. -Blake