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Which Distribution?

It's easy to recommend a distribution of Linux; just pick one. You won't know if you like it or dislike it until you try it. The reason there are so many is not to confuse the newcomer, but because the system is so customizable and there are many opinions of how it should be. The same basic set of programs and tools will be in each. But the installation will be different, or the init structure will be different, or the means of updating, or the maintenance tools. Regardless of which distribution you choose to try, expect some frustration. If you are not familiar with Unix, you will feel lost at first. Learn more than 'startx' so you won't remain dependent on the graphical user interface for doing everything.

Your opinion is the one that counts. So, try a "distro" on and if it doesn't seem to fit you, try another.

Here are my personal observations of a few "distros", and your mileage will most certainly vary:

Corel -- based on Debian's package management; much 'automagical' configuration during installation to shield some raw inner workings from the user; like most automatic things, when it works it's great, but if your situation is too far from the norm, it can cause nightmares; seems to be aimed at easing the typical Windows user into a dual-boot Linux environment. Corel has abandoned their Linux offerings.

Debian -- solid, independent, conservative, a stickler for details; doesn't attempt to push the envelope with their "stable" tree (but you are free to grab from the "testing" or the "unstable" branch as you please), but rather to make sure everything works; the installation itself takes the most time and work; most secure out-of-the-box that I've used; "stable" version is based on kernel 2.2.17; package management is about the best all around, but can also use rpm and Slackware packages. This is my personal favorite, even though the installation has a reputation for terrifying 'newbies'. (So what if the installation takes longer? You only have to do it once).

Mandrake -- began as Redhat with patches applied and recompiled for Pentium optimizations; don't try to put it on a 486 or 386; uses Redhat Package Management (RPM) to deal with installation, upgrade, erasure of packages; has a fully graphical installation that requires at least 16 MB of RAM and an XFree86-compatible video card; many rpm packages are available at http://www.rpmfind.net/; can use Mandrake (mdk-i586.rpm) or Redhat (i386.rpm) RPMs; appears to be the most popular for home use right now. Those new to Linux are usually very appreciative of the ease of installation and the extra configuration tools of Mandrake. I have only one complaint with Mandrake and it is really with the RPM package system. RPMs that you download often have illogical dependencies that seem to spring more from the machine on which they were built rather than from the needs of the program in the package.

Redhat -- most widely known name; target appears to be business networks; originator of the rpm system for verifying dependencies and managing package installation and removal; can be installed on i386 or above; not as far out on the edge as Mandrake, but very quick to spot and fix bugs or exploits; has been criticized for version number jumps and quick releases before getting everything worked out. The cheap CDs of Redhat may become harder to find. See this article at Newsforge.

Slackware -- has been around a long time; uses BSD style init, which leads to /etc files that are more human-readable; package management is still klunky, but there are ways to use .rpm and .deb files; works well and is easy to maintain, but a pain to do a large-scale upgrade of the system; a benefit of the not-so-great package management is that you learn to be more independent of pre-packaged software and learn to ./configure; make; make install from .tar.gz files. Slackware, in my opinion, has some pretty illogical deviations from the FHS (Filesystem Hierarchy Standard).

SuSE -- most popular distribution in Europe; has an incredible collection of software included in the retail distribution (7 full CDs the last time I checked); uses rpm files; has a high compliance with the FHS. If you buy the "cheap" CD of SuSE, be prepared to chase down much of your system on the Internet; the cheap CD has very little software. Many of the devel packages are missing from the cheap CD, ALSA sound is installed by default but the sources are not included with the kernel so you're left without a means of recompiling the ALSA drivers if you recompile the kernel, quite a few programs I tried to install from source failed due to the default *config.sh files they expected to find. I have a personal, nit-picking gripe with SuSE: it seems every little configuration file on the system includes a SuSE copyright notice.

Storm Linux -- based on Debian; the installation is a snap but watch out for choosing the one that takes over the entire hard drive, in my opinion the warnings it gives should be stronger; is aimed to make Linux very easy for new users; drawback is that it seems to want to keep you in a GUI environment. Storm has shut down operations.

Tomsrtbt -- a distribution you can carry in a shirt pocket; painless install onto a high density 3.5" diskette; used mainly for rescue boot disk; lets you take Linux with you to non-Linux PCs, without disturbing the strange computer's data; no X, so no GUI (what do you expect on a single floppy?); uses 'snarf' for both http: and ftp: accesses; defaults to 192.168.1.9 for an IP, but full instructions for customizing the floppy are there; includes the man pages for all programs included; incredible power on a floppy.

These are just the distributions I've had my hands on long enough to make a choice. There are a lot more out there, and your opinion (which is the one that counts) will differ. It's a free system, so if you like part of it, change the rest to suit. Download, buy the full retail package, or buy a "cheap" CD for about $2 plus shipping, just make sure you read the documentation before plunging in. It's not something simple like a shareware game to try out; it's a complete operating system and way of computing.

A few places to look, for full retail packages or cheap CDs:

http://www.linuxcentral.com
http://www.linuxmall.com
http://www.cheapbytes.com
http://iso-nix.com/
Also see http://www.debian.org/distrib/vendors

If you have a fast connection, you can find ISO images at http://www.linuxiso.org

Then again, you could just copy the whole thing from a friend. The license is there to protect you, not enslave you.


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