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And the Best Community Linux Is…


he three biggest community Linuxes are Fedora, OpenSUSE and Ubuntu. They’re all popular. They’re all good. But which is the best?

Desktop Linuxes are improving so quickly that its hard even for someone like me, who tracks operating systems the way some people track their favorite NFL teams game match-ups, to keep tabs on whats what with the latest distributions. Thats even true for the major community Linux distributions: Fedora 8, OpenSUSE 10.3 and Ubuntu 7.10.

Nonetheless, since Fedora 8 arrived in mid-November, Ive managed to use all three of them on my HP Pavilion a6040n desktop PC. This is an older, inexpensive system powered by a 1.86GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6320 dual-core processor.

The a6040n has 2GB of 533MHz RAM. To store the operating system, applications and data, it uses a 320GB SATA (Serial ATA) hard drive running at 7,200 rpm. For the display, this PC uses an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 with 32MB of dedicated graphics memory. The graphic chip uses main memory for the rest of its requirements. While this is not an adequate system for Vista—2GB of RAM for Vista is about the equivalent of 512MB of RAM for XP Service Pack 2: doable, but not very pleasant—its more than enough machine for even cutting-edge Linuxes.

Now, I could go into great and painful detail about what I found, but my colleague at eWEEK, Jason Brooks, has already done that in his review of the Linux community powerhouse trio and its associated slide show.

So, I decided to take a different tack: “Which one is the best distribution?”

First, however, let me warn you right now that I didnt find a best, one-size-fits-all distribution. Frankly, I dont believe that such a thing exists. Everyone has different needs, different requirements. However, as I looked these over, it became clear to me that each of them is the best for a particular kind of user.

Lets start with the newest of the new: Fedora 8. Fedora is a cutting-edge distribution. In fact, its so cutting-edge that you can easy slice yourself, which would make it a bleeding-edge distribution. Now, if youre a real Linux expert, youll have a lot of fun with Fedora.

For example, Fedora, to the best of my knowledge, is the first mainstream distribution to include the PulseAudio sound daemon. This latest addition to the complex Linux audio world enables you to do everything from the trivial—such as setting the volume for individual applications—to the entertainingly complex—such as sending direct audio streams across the network to other PCs and audio devices. Since Im always fooling with cross-network multimedia and PulseAudio can run on pretty much anything, I find it a fascinating program. In my copious free time Im hacking away at getting iTunes remote speaker support to work with PulseAudio.

Or, on the less technical side, you can always customize your own Fedora using spins. Do you want a multimedia-specific version of Fedora, say something like the StartCom MultiMedia Edition Linux? Well, you can build your own Fedora Multimedia edition with a spin. Of course, it will help a lot if you already know, for example, how ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture), EsounD and GStreamer all fit together to turn a media file into REM coming out of your speakers.

Get the idea? If you enjoy getting your hands dirty by really pushing the limits of Linux and open-source software, but youre not ready to join the LKML (Linux Kernel Mailing List), Fedora 8 is the perfect distribution for you.

Lets say though that you just want a good, solid Linux that wont give you too much trouble about using proprietary software and codices. Or, youre still getting your feet wet with Linux and you can use all the handholding you can get. Or, better still, youd really just like to get a brand-name computer with Linux already installed and ready to go. If any of those cases sound like you, then you, my friend, are ready for Ubuntu 7.10.

For Joe User, Ubuntu has it all. Its easy to use, and thanks to the extremely active and supportive Ubuntu community, if you do run into trouble, help is never far away.

If the last thing you want to do is to actually get to know Linux, you just want a computer that runs and doesnt get attacked on a daily basis by the latest botnet or rootkit, Ubuntu is for you. There are several hardware vendors who offer PCs with Ubuntu pre-installed. In particular, you can get the cheapest full PC on the market, the Everex TC2502 gPC, or any of several Dell laptops and desktops with Ubuntu ready to go.

To my way of thinking, Ubuntu is the perfect distribution for Linux newcomers and people who just want a great, reliable general-purpose Linux desktop.

Finally, if you want a desktop thats great for business but you dont mind pushing the edge of the technology envelope a little, then OpenSUSE 10.3 is for you. Now, if you dont want to take any chances, OpenSUSEs commercial big brother, SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) 10 SP1, is what you should buy. But if you know your way around Linux, OpenSUSE 10.3 works great as a business desktop.

What do I mean by that? As a business user, I need a desktop that can work in complicated network. Like many business networks, my LAN includes servers that use the old-school NT domain style networking as well as AD (Active Directory) for Windows and Samba-based resources. I also need access to a local NFS (Network File System) server and remote servers that I access with OpenSSH and FTP. And I do all this at the same time. Can you copy and paste a file from an NTFS (NT File System) Windows 2003 drive on an AD tree to a Linux server using ReiserFS 500 miles away over FTP—or, better still, vice versa? With OpenSUSE I can do it without driving myself crazy with manually twisting network configuration files.

You can also dislike Novell all you want for making friends with Microsoft, but let me tell you, Novells OpenOffice 2.3, which comes with OpenSUSE 10.3, does a heck of a job at converting documents from ODF (Open Document Format) into the Microsoft Office formats that my editors prefer to see. I doubt very much that some of my co-workers even know that when they see my work that its never actually been in Microsoft Office. It may not be politically correct in open-source terms but it keeps the workflow running smoothly.

Thats the point of OpenSUSE. It works extremely well even in offices where Windows is still an important server and the dominant desktop operating system. Sure, you can get other versions of Linux do this, but OpenSUSE has already been built for it.

So, there you have it. Three Linux distributions and the three jobs they’re the best for.

A version of this story first appeared in eWEEK.

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