Tips for picking a GNU/Linux Distribution
Distrohopping is a term some like to use for switching from one GNU/Linux distribution to another frequently, rather than sticking to one system. I’m no stranger to this, I’ve installed nearly every major and popularly known system you’ll come across – twice.
However, through my time trying all of these various distributions, I’ve learned a great deal and finally settled (I think) upon where I plan to stay, so I thought I’d share some tips for picking your long-term system, as well as some ideas depending on what you enjoy.
Many distributions exist that utilize the same package managers, such as Debian and Ubuntu based systems using dpkg, or the RPM package manager which is the Linux Standard Base format used by many distributions such as Fedora, Red Hat, OpenSUSE, Mageia etc.
However, each of these also uses different tools to interact with these package managers, such as Apt and Apt-get for Ubuntu, Zypper for OpenSUSE, and DNF for Fedora. Some people prefer one over the other; I myself rather enjoy Zypper the most and adored OpenSUSE for a number of years, but have recently started to really love pacman from Arch Linux.
So, the first thing that I feel anyone unsure of what distribution to use needs to consider is what package manager and related tools do you find yourself most comfortable with? Do you have a preference? Are there things about various package managers you don’t like?
Another detail that should be considered in connection with the package managers, are the distribution repositories. Some distributions have massive amounts of packages available through their various repositories, others have very little. Some distributions with a huge amount of packages are Debian, Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, Arch Linux (if you count the AUR) and Trisquel . However others such as Dragora and Chakra have considerably less according to this Wikipedia page which I can’t vouch is entirely accurate, but is good for an estimation.
Now granted, even if a package is not in your repositories, you can build from source as well as other installation means, but it’s something to consider if you’re someone who just ‘wants it to work’ with your system, and doesn’t want the hassle of having to scavenge for packages.
Ease of installation
The vast majority of GNU/Linux distributions come with graphical installers, and are all relatively similar in their setup process; however not all.
Last night I made the switch from Manjaro to Arch Linux, after I decided I didn’t like a lot of the bloat that came with pre-setup distributions anymore, and wanted the freedom to start from the ground up.
The installation from the time I booted off the LiveUSB until I had my desktop environment and all the software I could think of that I wanted at the time, took around 2-3 hours; the actual Arch install took less than an hour, but then setting up my graphical environment and getting what I wanted all set up took another couple hours.
Arch Linux is setup via command line, and there is no officially supported method to install via GUI.
Another one that I have done that is both time consuming and not new-user-friendly is Gentoo . I’ve spent probably an entire day setting up Gentoo, especially since I decided to build my own Linux kernel rather than use a premade kernel.
Then there was setting up the graphical environment...and don’t even get me started on compiling LibreOffice and Firefox from source. Better to go binary on those, unless you intend to start the process at 6AM and are fine with your machine being a brick until bedtime...
Manjaro, Ubuntu, Debian, OpenSUSE and countless others though, all have very friendly installation software, and take very little time. My last major distro was Manjaro, and with my laptop running an SSD it would take about 15 minutes until I could be in my system and happily clicking around.
So, if you are scared of a CLI installation process; avoid Arch Linux, Gentoo and others like them, and stick with the others. However, the satisfaction of building your system from the ground up and being able to say, “I made this. I customized this, this is MY system as I want it, not how someone else feels I should have it,” is also a very satisfying feeling to be considered!
You can install almost any environment on any system, with very few exceptions. However, some distributions only come with certain environments prepackaged. You won’t find the Desktop Environment called Budgie in any official Fedora spin! So your next step once you have considered the package manager you want to use, is to figure out your desktop environment you want, and see if perhaps there is an official flavour of a distribution that uses that package manager, for that environment.
I opted for Cinnamon in my Arch Linux install, after falling in love with it on Manjaro (which as a Cinnamon flavour in their community releases section.)
Another obvious but important thing to consider is the hardware of your machine. I wouldn’t recommend you putting KDE5 Plasma with Gentoo on your Pentium II box. First off, I’m not even certain it would run properly, but you’d probably use all of your RAM and CPU power just getting to your desktop if you even made it; nonetheless compiling huge packages from source – good luck.
Moral and Political Views
I personally have no objection to using proprietary software (usually after I look into it, if I’ve not encountered before) on my system; however some users do. Some distributions are strictly designed to not use any, and resort in a purely open-source environment.
Others, such as Devuan, were created because of the creation and integration of systemd into other distributions such as Debian, and many feel that goes against the UNIX way of doing things. So, if you are the sort who has a preference on these things, you will want to consider this in your search.
There is a lot to consider, and stability is definitely another major one. Some distributions are what we call “Bleeding Edge” because they use the newest of packages as they come out; such as Fedora.
However, others such as Debian choose to wait and test for great lengths of time before releasing updates in order to maximize stability (unless you’re in a testing branch, I’m referring to stable branches.) So, if you want a system that is far less likely to ever crash and you are totally fine with being potentially quite a few steps behind in the latest updates, that’s an option. Or if you are willing to risk breakage, incompatibilities, and are willing to fix problems as they arise but want the latest and greatest; that’s an option to consider too.
When it comes to choosing what distribution you want to settle upon, there is a lot to consider. My home (again, I think) is going to be Arch Linux. I am enjoying pacman and the AUR, I love the lack of bloat since I built my system myself from the ground up, and I get near bleeding-edge updates. Granted that Arch has a history of being unstable if you don’t stay on top of it, but that’s no issue for me personally.
A great way to find out about distributions you may never have heard of is a website called Distrowatch which has a ranking system, and shows recent distro releases.
What about you? What are you using, and why? Let’s hear it in the comments!Advertisement