There was a time when Linux-based systems were exclusively for the technologically inclined, who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty with code when the need arose. But time goes on and things change. Not only can Linux now do everything that other operating systems like Apple’s OS X and Microsoft Windows can do, I’m willing to wager that Linux can do a number of things better than either of them. So here are three Linux distros that can meet your every need.
The Best General Purpose Distro: PCLinuxOS
This was the second Linux distro that I used, after Ubuntu and I think it is one of the best. It is released as a LiveCD, which means you can try it out to see if you like it and the installer is right in the LiveCD itself. It comes with over 2GB of compressed software on the CD meaning that you’ll probably find an application for everything that you need. In case you, installing new software is a snap using the apt-get/Synaptic. Synaptic is one of the best package management systems and the developers have done a good job of getting it to work seamlessly with the RPM package format.
Though PCLOS was originally based on Mandrake, it is now a completely new distro in it’s own right and I personally believe that it has in some ways surpassed Mandriva. Almost everything works out of the box, including support for mp3s (I’m not sure about DVDs though). If you’re a new user, then this is definitely the one that you’d want to use. The default desktop is KDE, without too much branding. It’s pleasing, but you’ll probably be changing it sooner than later. A brand new release (PCLOS 2007) is due soon with a host of updated software and new features, be sure to grab it once it’s out.
The Best Geek Distro: Arch
Linux wouldn’t be Linux if it weren’t for the thousands of computer geeks hunched over their keyboards at all sorts of unsociable hours. Gentoo is probably the geekiest of them all, where you have to compile all your own software, but my personal favourite is Arch. I like to think of it as something of a binary Gentoo. Arch is built from i686 optimized binary packages, which means that it is almost as fast as a compiled system without all the waiting around for everything to finish itself together. Instead of using one of the common package managers, the Arch developers made their own: pacman. Pacman is a fast, efficient, no-frills command-line package manager. There are a number of command-line switches which let you search for, install, upgrade and remove packages and there is a simple fire-and-forget way to install your whole system in one go with a single command. There isn’t an official GUI, though there are a number of graphical front-ends developed by the community.
The philosophy of simplicity carries over onto other aspects of the system as well. The install is a simple text-based affair and you’re expected to manually edit configuration files to get your system up and running. There are no GUI configuration tools in sight, the command line and the text editor is going to become your best friend. Arch isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you’re brave enough to get your hands dirty, you’ll be rewarded with near-infinite opportunities for customization and and endless supply of bleeding edge, up-to-date software. Arch follows an entirely rolling release schedule, which means that once you’ve installed your system you can use pacman to keep your system up-to-date forever without having to reinstall ever again. I’m willing to bet that even the hardiest geek will have a good time with this one.
The Best Portable Distro: Puppy Linux
Don’t have a laptop, but want to carry around your customized Linux system? Get a Puppy. Puppy is a LiveCD but unlike other live CD distributions that have to keep pulling stuff off the CD, Puppy in its entirety loads into RAM. This means that all applications start in the blink of an eye and respond to user input instantly. Puppy Linux has the ability to boot off a flash card or any USB memory device, CDROM, Zip disk or LS/120/240 Superdisk, floppy disks, internal hard drive. It can even use a multisession formatted CD-R/DVD-R to save everything back to the CD/DVD with no hard drive required at all!
The basic Puppy is about 86MB in size, but it is easy to add more software later. In fact, Puppy comes with a number of tools that make it fairly simple to make your own customized Linux CD with all your often-used software and data. You’ll find a number of such special Puppies in the user forums. If you’re a Linux user on the move, you’re going to fall in love with this Puppy.
You’ve probably realized that all of the above are somewhat small distros without the huge communities or corporate backing of more common distro’s like SUSE, Red Hat, Ubuntu or Mandriva. I think this is a plus because it means a smaller, more intimate community. In fact in the case of Puppy and PCLOS, the lead developers actually stop by the forums regularly to help out. There is also a shorter time between the time that a user makes a package request and when it is added to the software repositories. In PCLOS, there’s in fact a separate forum for requesting software and Puppy and Arch actively encourage users to contribute software to separate, semi-official community repositories.
Try them out, I think you’ll fall in love with at least one of them. Then come back and tell me about it.