Distro upgrade recommendations

Q It's that time of the year again when new versions hit the download mirrors. This is all well and good but can the yearly upgrade be avoided? Each year do I have to spend a day downloading and installing a new version of my distro? Are there not distros out there that are constantly updated so all you have to do is run a command and the whole system is upgraded to the latest releases? When I say that, I don't mean every six months or whenever. I mean, when I run the command it updates to the latest release at that time. This is the only thing that annoys me about Linux, the fact I have to reinstall every year just so I can keep up to date. I then have to configure everything again. I'd just like to be able to install and configure once and then upgrade from there. Is this at all possible?

A It is indeed possible to perform 'rolling upgrades' with some distros. Probably the most complete example of this is Gentoo, which doesn't actually have versions (only the installer discs have versions). The distro is constantly updated as new versions of the various software packages are released, with the result that a machine that was first installed five years ago is as up to date as one installed last week. If you don't have the patience or inclination to learn Gentoo, Debian and its derivatives can be updated to a new release version without reinstalling. If you're running the testing or unstable version of Debian, you'll get new packages as they're released, whereas most distros only release security updates. Even if you don't use a bleeding edge version, when a new version is released, all you need to do is edit /etc/apt/sources.list and change all references to the current distro label - such as feisty if using Ubuntu or etch for Debian proper - to the new label (like gutsy or lenny, respectively). Then run:

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get dist-upgrade && sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

That's not a mistake: you do the dist-upgrade step twice as some packages may not update on the first run, and if they do then the second run will do nothing anyway. If you're using Ubuntu, there's an easier way to update to the latest release, by selecting Administration > Update Manager from the System menu. When a new distro version is available, it will tell you and give you the option to upgrade. Whichever of these methods you choose, the upgrade may still be a lengthy task, but you won't have to restore your settings and software choices afterwards, and the computer should be usable while the upgrade is running. It's also possible to perform an upgrade from the install discs of the likes of Mandriva and SUSE, although people report varying degrees of success with this and conventional wisdom is to back up your data and settings then do a clean install with the RPM-based distros; a separate home partition is a definite benefit here.

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