From the archives: the best distros of 2000

Distros

Back in May 2000 the first issue of Linux Format magazine hit the newsstands. One of its features was a group test of Linux distributions, reflecting the state of play in Linux flavours at the time. If you fancy a trip down memory lane or just a quick look at how beautiful Linux wasn't all those years ago, we've dug out the original article complete with screenshots - read on!

Historical note

Remember that nine years is a long time in the computing world -- and even more so for Linux. In 2000 the OS was still regarded as a niche player, a fantastic showcase of technology for geeks but not yet ready for prime time. Today we see Linux on netbooks, Linux on Dell boxes, Linux everywhere; it's serious business.

Corel Linux is long dead, despite a high-profile entrance into the distro scene, while Caldera Linux occupied a healthy position (before the SCO shenanigans busted it up). SUSE, Mandrake, Red Hat and Mandriva are still alive in various flavours, while the British Definite distro bought the farm and WinLinux only made it to a 2003 release.

What makes a good distro?

Back in the early days of Linux, getting the operating system onto your machine was a long and complicated task. Individual compressed packages had to be downloaded off the Net and put together on your hard disk, and lots of tweaking of configuration files was required before you had a fully-working system. Enter distributions - a concept designed to make installation and configuration of Linux much easier.

Instead of working out which software you needed and then trying to download it, everything needed was supplied in a simple, straightforward package, along with manuals and extra software CDs. Also, much of the configuration could now be done during the preparation phase.

Today, there are a wide variety of Linux distributions available, with more appearing all the time. Because Linux and its source code is freely available, anyone can grab the bits and pieces of a working system and put them together to make their own distribution. Clearly Red Hat is the most prominent distribution vendor, but other companies like SuSE and Mandrakesoft are following closely.

This freedom for anyone to make a distribution has led to an assortment of packages with different aims - some try to provide a fast and easy installation, some head for being reliable servers on networks, and some just want to be solid all-rounders. This range of focus looks set to expand as Linux becomes more popular in other markets. You can buy full boxed-sets with manuals, extra discs containing applications and the source code, and invaluable installation support. If you're familiar with Linux or just want to upgrade, you can also get hold of a cheap single CD version of the distribution or download it off the Web.

Detailed online help files are essential when you're getting started.

Detailed online help files are essential when you're getting started.

So, how do you choose the best distribution? It really depends on what you are looking for. If you're new to Linux and want a simple introduction, it's best to find one with a friendly graphical installer and plenty of software. This way you'll be able to get up-and-running with minimal fuss, and won't have to trawl the Web trying to find decent programs. On the other hand, experienced users will value reliability and flexibility over flashy installers and configuration tools. If you need a distribution to run on a small file or print server, the latest dazzling desktop environments aren't going to be of any interest.

Linuxconf is the standard setup tool with distributions based on Red Hat.

Linuxconf is the standard setup tool with distributions based on Red Hat.

One of the most significant obstacles for newcomers installing Linux is the partitioning process. If your whole hard disk is devoted to Windows, making enough space for Linux is a complicated and daunting task. Distribution engineers have devised various methods for dealing with this, ranging from automatic partitioning software to placing the whole installation inside a directory on the Windows drive.

Many distributions are based on others, which is important to note when you're trying to find compatible software. Because the majority of software in a typical distribution is free and open source, another company can take the distribution's framework, add their own tweaks and improvements, and market it themselves. One example of this is Linux-Mandrake, which began as Red Hat with KDE ready-to-go (Red Hat had been avoiding the desktop suite because of license issues). After having a solid base to work on, though, Mandrake has become a worthy distribution in its own right.

The choice of default desktop is also a crucial one, particularly for beginners. While experienced users will have no trouble in setting up their favourite window manager or desktop environment, newcomers will want things ready for action straight away, without the need for fiddling with configuration files. KDE and GNOME are the two biggest contenders for the desktop, providing tools, utilities and a drag-and-drop environment, but simpler window managers like Window Maker, Sawmill and IceWM are often better alternatives on systems with smaller memory. In this test, we've also taken note of how well the desktop is set up - has it just been thrown in, or have the developers configured it to work with the special features of the distribution?

Version numbers is also a key issue to watch out for. While it appears good to have the latest releases of popular packages, they are not always the most stable. New features need heavy testing, and often it's better to have an older, tried-and-tested version rather than the current development release. This is especially true for production machines and servers; on your home PC you can take the gamble with newer, untested packages to see the latest features. In general, most distributions stick with stable versions of important programs like the kernel and related tools, and occasionally have in-development versions of less-critical apps.

Here we take a look at eight of the major distributions, examining the areas discussed above and determining the type of user each distribution would be suited to. We're looking at the single CD versions here, which are available from retailers such as the Linux Emporium (http://www.linuxemporium.co.uk).

Corel Linux 1.0

Corel's desktop is based on KDE, with various extra enhancements.

Corel's desktop is based on KDE, with various extra enhancements.

When Corel announced that they would move into the Linux distribution market, the news was greeted with both hope and apprehension by the community. While it was clear that they could help to improve Linux's position on the desktop, many thought they were in danger of dumbing-down the OS. The software company, responsible for WordPerfect and CorelDRAW, have based their package on the respected Debian distribution, and aimed it at new users who have switched from Windows.

Corel's graphical installer is welcome news to new Linux users and those who have switched from Windows, featuring mouse and dialog driven configuration. As well as taking over the whole hard drive, you can install directly into a Windows directory. However, our system froze just after it had copied the files onto our drive, and reports from other users in the main Linux newsgroups confirm that this is a common problem. According to the detailed support pages on Corel's site, these difficulties are due to hardware probing. Fortunately, though, the files were already in place on our drive so we could still start Corel Linux up.

Network and video configuration can be done from the control panel

Network and video configuration can be done from the control panel

Corel's desktop is based on KDE with various tweaks and enhancements. The most significant addition is the Corel File Manager, which resembles Windows Explorer and provides a familiar interface for new users. FVWM 95 is included too as an alternative. The XFree86 version is 3.3.5, and also supplied is the GIMP 1.0.2, Netscape 4.7 and Adobe Acrobat Reader. This is a reasonable range of desktop applications, although adding extra software is trickier as Corel Linux uses .deb packages rather than RPMs (which most other distributions use).

Still, there are many Debian packages around and the supplied 'alien' tool can convert RPMs to the native .deb format. For more advanced users, the gcc compiler and Midnight Commander file manager are also available.

This is a promising distribution, and Corel appears to have worked hard in many key areas. While there's little variety in the available desktops, the ability to perform X and network configuration through the KDE control panel is a bonus. Advanced users may feel restricted, though, and the sheer amount of installation problems we've come across and heard about make it hard for us to recommend it. If they can sort out these troubles and produce a reliable installer in their next release, Corel Linux will be worth keeping an eye on.

Ease of use: 3/5

Documentation: 4/5

Features: 4/5

Software range: 3/5

Overall: 3/5 - Has potential, but needs work on the troublesome installer

Definite Linux 7.0

The GNOME desktop with the Enlightenment window manager

The GNOME desktop with the Enlightenment window manager.

Produced by Definite Software PLC, a UK-based company, Definite Linux is based on the Red Hat distribution. It aims to be up-to-date with extra enhancements over Red Hat, and includes full UK support. The text-mode installation program is, like Red Hat 6.0's, fast and straightforward. We chose our language and time zone, and used the simple Disk Druid tool to create our partitions. It installed our selected packages and detected our mouse and video card. After installing the boot loader and configuring a few extras, we were ready to go.

From starting the installation to booting our new Linux system, only 30 minutes had passed - very impressive, and essential when several machines need to be set up. While many distributions are moving towards graphical installers, the speed of Definite's setup program is hard to beat.

GNOME, the default desktop with Definite, has not been altered much. Ready-prepared icons for the CD-ROM and floppy drives would have been a nice touch, although typical users of this distro would be familiar with configuring such things. Definite have added links to their support pages on the desktop, with extra links to other sources of information in the documentation. KDE is also included for those who prefer it, and other window managers like Window Maker and FVWM 95 are available too. In terms of applications, GIMP 1.0.4 and Netscape 4.61 are joined by Apache 1.3.9 and the egcs compiler. The supplied kernel is version 2.2.12, and the XFree86 release is 3.3.5.

Window Maker is also supplied as an attractive alternative

Window Maker is also supplied as an attractive alternative.

But Definite really excels under the hood - with RAID support it makes a very capable server solution, and not just a solid desktop OS. Another neat feature is the ISDN support, which won't mean a lot to most users but demonstrates the flexibility that Definite provides. And because it's made outside of the USA, this distribution also offers improved security over its rivals - so, for example, Netscape supports full 128-bit encryption.

We found Definite Linux to be an excellent and solid all-rounder. The fast installation and decent range of software included makes it a powerful load-and-go solution, and the usual Red Hat configuration tools together with Linuxconf create an easily maintainable system. Documentation and support is superb, and helped considerably by Definite PLC being based in the UK. New users may find Mandrake easier to work with initially, but if you're looking for Red Hat with extra bang for your money, this is it.

Ease of use: 4/5

Documentation: 4/5

Features: 4.5/5

Software range: 4.5/5

Overall: 4.5/5 - Powerful and flexible with some impressive features, and a great choice all round

WinLinux 2000

KDE, the default desktop, has been tuned to provide extra screen space.

KDE, the default desktop, has been tuned to provide extra screen space.

WinLinux 2000's main selling point is that it can be installed onto a Windows drive without the need for tricky partitioning. It's based on Slackware and claims to be "the easiest to install Linux system in the Windows world". By working with the UMSDOS filesystem, WinLinux uses a Windows directory to hold the Linux files, although it's slower than a proper, dedicated partition. We booted Windows 95 and ran the SETUP.EXE program. A typical installation utility appeared, and after choosing the 'Typical' choice for packages, the installer started copying files onto our C: drive. So far, so good.

The Windows-based installer offers a selection of installation sizes.

The Windows-based installer offers a selection of installation sizes.

The installer finished and launched the configuration tool, and an error appeared. After dismissing it, we were faced with a blank configuration window. Pressing the Back and Next buttons resulted in more errors, leaving Cancel the only option. Sadly, this wasn't just a problem with our system - we found many people complaining of the same difficulties on message boards around the Web. At WinLinux's site, we searched the Updates and Support section with no luck. We sent an email to their support team, hoping to find a solution, but had no reply.

Eventually we found a link in one of the FAQ sections to an updated configuration tool. Why this was hidden away and not highlighted in the Updates and Support section is a mystery, but finally we installed the new configuration utility and it ran better, although it only detected our mouse and not the video or sound card. When starting Linux, we encountered error messages with some of the kernel modules.

WinLinux includes kernel 2.2.13, XFree86 3.3.5 and version 2.1 of the glibc library, so it's up to date. The default desktop is KDE 1.1.2, which has been set up reasonably well, and the developers have changed the panel's size to fit smaller screens. FVWM is also available as an alternative. Other software provided includes the GIMP 1.0.4 and Netscape Communicator 4.7, and the egcs compiler is available for development work. This is a satisfactory setup, and KDE provides plenty of extra utilities for multimedia and the Internet.

In use, WinLinux's Slackware base makes it a solid and powerful system. Slackware's configuration tool (invoked with 'setup') is also a comprehensive utility, although no mention of it is given in the very small and badly-written documentation. Clearly WinLinux is aimed at newcomers, but until they sort out the setup problems and provide some detailed and clear help files, it's best to avoid it.

Ease of use: 2/5

Documentation: 1/5

Features: 3/5

Software range: 3/5

Overall: 2/5 - Good concept, let down by a problematic installation routine and poor documentation

Red Hat 6.1

GNOME and Enlightenment, the default desktop for Red Hat.

GNOME and Enlightenment, the default desktop for Red Hat.

One of the older distributors in this roundup, Red Hat have a reputation for making solid packages for both the desktop and server. The company created the popular RPM package format and remains the dominant figure in an increasingly competitive market. Like many others, they have made the move to a graphical installation process with Anaconda, which can also install in text mode.

While not as visually impressive as some of the other offerings, Red Hat's installer is clean, fast and presents useful help text at the side of the screen. It detected our mouse and graphics card correctly, and the Disk Druid partitioner was simple enough to operate. You're offered a choice of installation classes - from a typical GNOME and KDE workstation to a server, with a 'custom' option for more advanced users. The installer also creates a normal user account, which is essential for a secure and reliable system.

Red Hat has put significant backing into the development of GNOME, which remains the standard desktop environment for its distribution. While debates over GNOME vs KDE are likely to go on for some time, it's still a good choice and the number of programs and small utilities provided make a very rich and usable desktop. Icons are ready prepared to point to the CD-ROM and floppy drives, while the GNOME help browser offers links to the Red Hat Getting Started guide. The CD is also equipped with alternative window managers like FVWM, Window Maker and AfterStep. A good assortment of typical programs is supplied, with development tools, server applications (including Apache and Samba), and Internet utilities like Netscape, Pine and Lynx.

For common system administration tasks, Red Hat uses the Linuxconf configuration program. While this is powerful, it relies on a certain amount of experience and comprehension of general Linux terms. Kudzu, started at boot-up, checks for new hardware and tries to configure it. Also, the new RP3 utility for creating a dialup Internet connection is accomplished and simplifies a complicated process. These, together will all the other small utilities like printtool and sndconfig, make a very manageable system that's quick to set up.

RP3 being used to create a new Internet connection.

RP3 being used to create a new Internet connection.

However, while we didn't experience any difficulties ourselves, reports from other users describe problems with the installer freezing or generating errors, and complications when upgrading. In general, though, Red Hat Linux is a powerful and flexible distribution with excellent documentation and a very useful collection of configuration programs.

Ease of use: 4/5

Documentation: 5/5

Features: 4.5/5

Software range: 4/5

Overall: 4/5 - Robust, with a solid range of software, but a few installation problems

Debian GNU/Linux 2.1

FVWM 95 is a fast and small window manager, emulating the look of Windows 9x.

FVWM 95 is a fast and small window manager, emulating the look of Windows 9x.

Unlike the other commercial distributions in this review, Debian is produced by a non-profit making organisation called Software in the Public Interest. Volunteers all over the world help to maintain the system, and the distribution has acquired considerable respect from experienced users in the community. The text-mode installer is available in mono or colour, so Debian can be installed on very old systems that don't have colour displays - a good idea, and a refreshing change from the new jazzy installers we're seeing everywhere else.

From the start, though, it's clear that new users would find this heavy-going. The cfdisk partitioner assumes plenty of knowledge and there's little of the hand-holding you get with others. On the other hand, you're constantly prompted and alerted to what the installer is doing, which is a world apart from the "do everything automatically" idea behind other distributions like Corel.

The installation takes some time, as after choosing one of the package categories (desktop, development workstation etc.) you have to sit through the post-install configuration and occasionally answer questions for each package. Debian uses the .deb format, which is similar to RPM. However, with the extensive dselect package management tool, adding and removing software is very straightforward. But the best feature of all is the apt (Advanced Packaging Tool) system, which allows the entire system to be updated with just a few commands.

dselect, Debian's package management system, listing the installed software.

dselect, Debian's package management system, listing the installed software.

After experiencing slight incompatibilities with RPMs from various distributions, we were glad to see such painless upgrading and package control. On the software side, Debian is showing its age. The supplied kernel is 2.0.38 - not even from the 2.2.x series - and XFree86 is back at 3.3.2. An old version of GNOME is supplied, along with several window managers such as Enlightenment, Window Maker and FVWM. Being a technically-orientated distribution, a plethora of console programs that don't need X are included, with mail programs, development tools and network utilities.

The Debian CD's packages are slightly behind the times for a few reasons. Firstly, as it's a volunteer project, the developers can't just throw out another release whenever possible. More importantly, they are concerned with stability and maintenance of a working system (as seen by the excellent upgrade process). This development process and general attitude is similar to that of the kernel itself - technical excellence takes preference over commercial interests. Debian is not a good choice for Linux beginners - if you're starting out for the first time, you'll have an easier introduction with Mandrake or Caldera. But for experienced Linux users who need a very reliable, easily maintainable and carefully crafted distribution, this is the best you can get.

Ease of use: 2/5

Documentation: 4.5/5

Features: 4.5/5

Software range: 3/5

Overall: 4.5/5 - Not suited for new users, but technically superb and easily maintainable

Linux-Mandrake 7.0

Mandrake's desktop, KDE, as it appears at first boot.

Mandrake's desktop, KDE, as it appears at first boot.

The concept behind Linux-Mandrake was originally born out of Red Hat's refusal to include KDE in its distribution. This was due to licensing concerns, so Mandrakesoft decided to create a variant of Red Hat with KDE included and ready to go, and therefore new users wouldn't have to find and download the desktop suite off the Web. Since then, Mandrake has evolved into a solid distribution in its own right. The new graphical installer is a fantastic, easy to use tool, and we had no problems getting underway with it.

Clearly a lot of thought has been put in here - a column of lights down the side acts as a progress meter, while a bar of help text at the bottom provides tips for choices in each dialog box. You can choose a preset security level, and even decide if num-lock is activated at boot time! Thankfully, a proper user account is created and PPP (dialup) configuration is done here too. Apart from the long package installation process and lack of ability to configure sound, Mandrake's installer is the best graphical one we've seen and is a joy for newcomers and experienced users alike.

The excellent installer, with its powerful partitioning tool.

The excellent installer, with its powerful partitioning tool.

In operation, the distribution still remains similar to Red Hat. However, one major enhancement lies in the hardware setup tool, Lothar. This automatically detected most of our hardware, although configuring it still proved to be difficult. Still, it's certainly an impressive start and with more development it could really attract non-technical users to Linux. The DrakConf configuration tool will be a great help for newcomers and assists in a range of administration chores, while the Supermount feature for automatic mounting of removable media is a nice touch.

On the desktop side, Mandrake has KDE 1.1.2 by default, and GNOME, Window Maker, IceWM and Enlightenment are included as well. Also on the CD are Netscape, the GIMP and WINE for running Windows apps, while Emacs, KDevelop and egcs are available for developers.

Mandrake's KDE setup is good, and the on-disc documentation is thorough and well-written. The range of apps on the CD is varied and up-to-date, and while it's doubtful how much of an effect the Pentium-class processor optimisations have, the system feels snappy and responsive. With all this in mind, and the brilliance of the DrakX installer, Mandrake is currently the best general-purpose distribution available. New users will love the easy setup process, ready-to-go KDE desktop and helpful documentation. Experienced Linuxers will be pleased with the variety of desktops, development tools and general flexibility of the system.

Ease of use: 5/5

Documentation: 4/5

Features: 4.5/5

Software range: 5/5

Overall: 5/5 - Easy to use, robust, fast, with lots of great software. Highly recommended

Caldera OpenLinux 2.3

The plain KDE desktop, as set up by the Kandalf configurator.

The plain KDE desktop, as set up by the Kandalf configurator.

Caldera's main focus with its OpenLinux distribution has been the commercial sector, providing a stable desktop and server operating system that fits well into a business environment. It can be installed through Windows or onto a clean hard drive, and sports a fully graphical setup process. Lizard, the installer, is very polished and features a column of relevant help text down the side of the screen - invaluable for newcomers and a useful reference as the installation progresses.

Our mouse and graphics card were detected correctly, and the partitioning tool was clear and straightforward to work with. We could create a default user and finish some other configuration while the packages were being installed - a nice touch, and saves wasting time too.

We came across a snag when starting for the first time, though - the swap partition hadn't been assigned properly. This problem is reportedly common with OpenLinux 2.3, and although we could change the fstab file and add a swap entry ourselves, new users would find the system very sluggish and have no idea how to deal with it. OpenLinux's default desktop is KDE, which when started for the first time launches Kandalf, a wizard that offers various customisation options for the desktop. These include choosing a theme and adding icons to the desktop for the floppy and CD-ROM drives. It all has a polished and professional feel to it, although there's no choice of alternative desktops if you're not keen on KDE.

COAS, or the Caldera Open Administration System, is a suite of programs designed to make configuration and management of the system easy. While not as comprehensive as Linuxconf, it's less daunting and simpler to work with. COAS includes utilities for managing users, setting up a network and installing packages, among others. The usual desktop applications like the GIMP and Netscape are installed by default, while Dosemu, WINE and Samba are provided for Microsoft OS connectivity. Developers are catered for too, with XEmacs and the egcs compiler.

COAS, Caldera's administration tool, in action.

COAS, Caldera's administration tool, in action.

Apart from the swap partition difficulty, we found OpenLinux to be a very competent distribution suited for newcomers and intermediate users alike. There are some problems with using RPMs: they're OpenLinux's default package format, but many typical Red Hat RPMs won't install without using extra options. Most veteran Linux users won't feel at home here, but overall it's a polished distribution and, with the simple installation and uncomplicated configuration tools, it makes a good desktop OS all round.

Ease of use: 4.5/5

Documentation: 4/5

Features: 4.5/5

Software range: 4/5

Overall: 4/5 - Polished and user-friendly, OpenLinux is an good choice for the desktop

SuSE Linux 6.3

KDE with the SuSE menu, automatically generated from the installed applications.

KDE with the SuSE menu, automatically generated from the installed applications.

Another experienced distributor, German company SuSE have been around for many years and have been very popular in the European markets. One of their highlights is the large amount of software on their CDs, reaching up to 1,500 applications in the boxed set. They have also recently converted their distribution to run on the Alpha processor, and have put money into various key areas of Linux development. SuSE's installer is based on YaST, a long-running setup utility which has finally been updated from text-mode to a full graphical installation.

Sadly, when we started our YaST2 installation, it told us that our 2GB partition was too small for the minimum installation. Wisely, though, SuSE have included the original tried-and-tested YaST, and this worked properly. Installation is reasonably quick, although it isn't very neat - first YaST starts, then exits to restart the system services, then starts again, then exits and waits for a minute before running some scripts. But overall it's a reasonably simple installation and the online help is thorough and useful.

YaST is also the main system configuration tool in SuSE, offering different administrative and setup options from adding new users to configuring modems. For the most part it's easy to use and powerful, but occasionally it didn't do exactly as commanded, and if you're editing configuration files by hand it can have trouble working with them. Like others, SuSE has opted for KDE by default. It's set up fairly well, with icons for the disk drives and easy access to YaST and the help system.

The YaST tool assists with administration and configuration of hardware.

The YaST tool assists with administration and configuration of hardware.

One particularly nice feature is the automatic updating of menus - install a new application through YaST and it will add an entry to the KDE menu. This can also work for the FVWM and IceWM menus (among others) as well. SuSE Linux uses the RPM package format, but we had compatibility troubles installing many off the Web. Thankfully SuSE provide an excellent service on their site for new KDE programs, which are tailor made to fit the distribution.

One cause for concern we noticed was the inclusion of GIMP 1.1.11, a development version. The program's docs say that it's an unstable version "intended for developers only", so it seems SuSE is chasing version numbers here. A shame, then, but a good, wide range of software for both the desktop and server is included which makes up for it. In all, SuSE is a generally good distribution with some attractive features. Some of its quirks hold it back, though.

Ease of use: 4/5

Documentation: 4/5

Features: 4/5

Software range: 4.5/5

Overall: 4/5 - A decent distribution, with some clever features and a wide choice of software

Conclusion

Of the 8 distributions on test here, some are clearly more suited to different types of users than others. Corel, for instance, definitely has newcomers to Linux in mind with its attempt at automatic hardware detection and a very simple installation routine. As most unfamiliar users will be coming from a Windows background, extra effort has been made to provide a familiar working environment with an Explorer-like file manager and integrated video and network configuration in the desktop control panel.

On the other hand, distributions like Debian and Definite are aimed at the more experienced users who will be putting reliability and flexibility above flashy desktops and installers. This is important when making your choice - you'll want an easy introduction if you're unfamiliar with Linux, but if you know your way around then the restrictions of beginner distributions may prove to be frustrating.

While most are starting to feature graphical installers (based on the VGA16 X server for compatibility), this isn't always the best choice. Linux is proving to be increasingly popular in use on older hardware, where it can function as a file or print server, or simply as a development OS for trying out new software. In this light, text-based installers are crucial - running a graphical installer would be far too slow or even impossible on very old hardware.

The best solution is to provide both, as Red Hat have done for example, so you can revert to the standard setup program if any problems occur. In general, the graphical installers in these distributions add little to the functionality, but provide an important level of comfort for newcomers.

Another issue to watch out for is with package formats. Most distributors have opted for the RPM format created by Red Hat, but this doesn't guarantee compatibility with others. RPMs made for some systems may not work on others, as we've seen with OpenLinux and SuSE. If you're careful, you can avoid checking for dependent packages when installing (using the '--nodeps' switch at the command line), but ultimately this can just lead to more problems.

In general, the distributions derived from Red Hat - such as Mandrake and Definite - have fewer troubles with using standard RPMs off the Web. SuSE and Caldera aren't left out, but finding packages that will work with these isn't as simple. Their sites can provide tailor-made RPMs that are ready to use, but they're not always totally up to date. Corel and Debian take a different approach by opting for .deb packages, although you can use the Alien program to convert RPMs to the default format. While RPM packages are more abundant around the Net, there's no shortage of .deb archives thanks to the popularity of the Debian distribution.

What's the best choice of desktop? Pop in to a Linux newsgroup or join a mailing list and you'll see the occasional heated debate over KDE and GNOME. While KDE was started earlier and was first with a solid, usable desktop environment, GNOME has caught up and now there's not a lot between them. Because they're both freely available, you can try them out yourself and see which one you prefer. And if you don't like either, or want to run something less resource-hungry, you can switch to a simple window manager like FVWM or Blackbox and use most of the KDE and GNOME applications from there.

Still, it has to be said that most distributions reviewed here feature KDE as standard - it's slightly easier to work with in places, and due to the native window manager (kwm), new users don't have to worry about two different configurations at the same time. But with a compliant window manager like Enlightenment or IceWM, GNOME provides an equally friendly drag-and-drop desktop with lots of useful utilities.

From our tests, we found Mandrake 7 to be the best of the bunch out of the eight reviewed here. Debian and Definite are perhaps better alternatives for power users and experienced Linux fans, and SuSE, Caldera and Red Hat are all worth considering too. But if you're looking for a friendly, powerful all-rounder with lots of great software, Mandrake should be your first choice.

Breakdown of features

  Kernel XFree86 Auto X setup Glibc Package format Graphical installer Default desktop WINE Compiler Boxed-set Support
Corel 2.2.12 3.3.5 Yes 2.0.7 Deb Yes Modified KDE No gcc 2.7.2 30 days
Definite 2.2.12 3.3.5 Yes (Xconfigurator) 2.1.1 RPM No GNOME 1.0.10pre2 No egcs 1.1.2 60 days
WinLinux 2.2.13 3.3.5 Yes (in Windows) 2.1.2 TGZ/RPM Yes (Windows) KDE 1.1.2 No egcs 2.91.66 Installation only
Red Hat 2.2.12 3.3.5 Yes (Xconfigurator) 2.1.2 RPM Yes GNOME 1.0.39 No egcs 1.1.2 90 days
Debian 2.0.38 3.3.2 No 2.0.7 Deb No FVWM Yes gcc 2.7.2 N/A
Mandrake 2.2.14 3.3.6 Yes 2.1.2 RPM Yes KDE 1.1.2 Yes egcs 1.1.2 100 days
Caldera OpenLinux 2.2.10 3.3.4 Yes 2.1.1 RPM Yes KDE 1.1.1 Yes egcs 2.91.66 90 days
SuSE Linux 2.2.13 3.3.5 Yes (SaX) 2.1.2 RPM Yes KDE 1.1.2 Yes gcc 2.7.2 60 days

First published in Linux Format magazine

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Your comments

You'll find my name in the

You'll find my name in the contributors for documentation in Mandrake 7.0, and it was an excellent distro in 2000 and remains so today. They would likely be a more significant distro today had they not experienced near-fatal management problems (mostly a re-focus of resources on computer-aided learning). Corporate bankruptcy did not help even though they emerged from it, a rare occurrence in France.

But their biggest failure was to develop admin tools for their Red Hat-clone in Perl rather than what Red Hat had chosen, Python, probably the result of developer preference and a desire to be "NOT" Red Hat. Their style/icon/theme choices were not the best either. They had a good concept with "Red Hat done better" and should have stuck with that.

It is still my distro of choice, even with my familiarity of Red Hat (I'm a Red Hat Fedora Unleashed co-author).

Mandrake was the nicest and

Mandrake was the nicest and easiest to install but I always wanted a Debian install that was easy which is why I use Ubuntu now, although the latest version of Fedora is very good

Y2K?

I was absolutely using Linux in 1999 and 2000 but a lot of those screenshots look straight out of 1980.

I did try a bunch of distributions back then, but I don't remember them looking that crappy.

I dunno. People love to feel nostalgic, but I don't believe those screens are from 2000.

Outdated

This article seems a bit outdated? Hasn't debian released a new version after slinky?

I have used

Out of them all, I have used Mandrake 7, and I loved it. It was probably the It was really brilliant, and had its own everything. It was probably the one I learned Linux on.

Now I'm on Kubuntu 8.10, and its monitor/card config program is non-existent...

no slackware?

suprised it was not in the list

Nine years later and fonts

Nine years later and fonts still look like crap. How depressing.

Definite Linux

Wow, I'm amazed to see someone referring to Definite Linux now, 9 years after it was published (1999).

I am the person who produced Definite Linux (I published it myself on a much smaller scale before involving Definite Software). At the time I was trying to solve many of the problems I experienced using Red Hat Linux as RH, being a US based company, were usable to produce the distro with crypto things build in and I was annoyed at the lack of hardware RAID drivers in the distro. These were not the only differences but they were the main ones.

After Definite Linux had been released US laws were changed to facilitate the export of crypto which significantly reduced the raison d'etre for Definite Linux. I also started to become enamoured of Debian which I found to have a much better package management system than RPM.

Illnes and changes in my personal circumstances meant that I was not in a position to continue development on Definite Linux as I had up to that point (often working 16 hours a day on it!) and so Definite Linux died after that release.

I found that running a small ISP was much more fun - I still do!

Mandrake

Mandrake was an interesting specimen. They pushed the envelope, enabled things like colors in gcc output as default (yeah, that's what I remember them by), but there was always something that was badly broken and left you wishing for something stabler.

Oh, and Debian, with the 2.0.38 kernel, seems like they were striving to attend the special olympics. They created the .deb system which sort of remains as a critical pillar of linux distros today, but man, were the obsolete.

slack

Slackware should definitely be on this list - especially since it was the first of all distros and still lives on as one of the most clean, un-polluted Linux builds around..

other distros

I still have a T-shirt from Storm Linux, and a couple of lapel pins for Connectiva (? Brazilian distro).

Lycoris

Anybody remember Lycoirs? It used to be called Redmond Linux, but changed its name to Lycoris. I still have the boxed set somewhere. We actually ran that stuff in one of our labs.

IIRC, I think they sold out to Mandrake.

Libranet

I paid around $80 for Libranet 1.something back in that time frame...

Pretty mature by this point?

Personally I think this article doesn't look back far enough. Nine years may be a long time in "dev years", but I think the biggest changes in the appearance of various distros had already happened by this point. Truth is once KDE hit a stable, usable point most distros seemed to flock to it quickly. Look back at Linux distros in the mid-90's to see what I mean where FVWM and WindowMaker were heavily used - and usually every distro had their own look and feel. I remember using RedHat's "AnotherLevel" FVWM, meant to look a lot like NeXTSTEP. I think there was even a lawsuit about that "back in the day".

To the post that mentioned Slackware, I think Slack probably saw it's heyday in the time period I'm referring to. It was considered the "ultimate" distro at that point, but was generally believed to only be usable by the elite Linux-heads of the day.

Debian was still the best

This article fails to emphasize the amount of choice Debian gave you. You certainly weren't limited to FVWM, Debian had more WM and Desktop Environment choices than any other distro. Back then I ran KDE. It also gave you a rock-solid stable OS, with non-bleeding-edge software, OR you could choose to use the unstable distribution (before testing even existed!), which gave you the same stability as Red Hat and it's clones, but much more current software, along with the brilliant Debian Policy which is what really set it apart from every other distribution, and still does today. I believe Debian Policy (and the work that Debian maintainers put in to adhering to it) really contributed more to Linux than any other distro, and made something like Ubuntu possible today.

Red Hat 6.1

Heya.

Red Hat 6.1 (Cartman?). Ugh. That screen shot caused shrinkage to occur.

Red Hat 6.0 (Hedwig?) was my first Linux, but by no means my first experience with Unix-type machines.

RH 6.0 was a nightmare, from its installer to its compiler. 6.1 was adequate, 6.2 was actually quite good except for the hacked version of gcc.

I deployed RH 6.2 on over 300 flight information displays around Pearson Airport (YYZ, Toronto Canada) shortly after its release - I did a remote upgrade from 6.0, one machine at a time, first pushing the upgrade, telnetting into the machine (secure network, trust me) to see that everything was up, and then physically visiting the machine to see if the display drivers had worked properly.

The display program was an old proprietary DOS application expecting serial inputs; Linux allowed me to run it in DOS emulation and emulate the serial ports through a network socket. And saved how many hundred dollars in license costs and reboots?

Thank God for Linux, but thank God for how far we've come.

Lawrence Wade
slant6mopar@yahoo.com

I remember...

I remember giving a go at mandrake, debian, redhat, slackware, and suse all in 2000... By far my favorite even as a complete noobie to linux then was debian, with slackware a second. Redhat and mandrake were both nice but not my thing I guess.

Caldera Linux

I remember running caldera's openlinux as a webserver on an ISDN line. Thank God for Windows Server 2008.

Interesting this should come up.

A couple of weeks ago I was cleaning out some of my built up jump piles and stumbled across an infomagic "LINUX Developers Resource CD-ROM" from October 1994 (2-cd's, and i found a second one from 1995 with 4cd's). On it has quite a few interesting things like USENET postings of shar-packed source packages, the SimTel internet Archive, Perl/tcl/tk. But of more interesting it has XFree86 3.1, SLS 1.0.5 (kernel 1.0), Slackware 2.0.1 (kernel 1.1.50!), TAMU 1.0-A (binary only), Debian 0.91 beta and kernel sources for 1.1.50. Slackware was the first distro I ever used (its quite amusing it was 2.0 by then).

I keep meaning to take a few snaps of it and post it on my blog somewhere, but I never get around to it. Of course keep in mind that CD's were a relatively new thing back then and there was no such thing as "burning them". In fact prior to the release of these the only way to get linux (for me) was to go to uni, download the 50 or so packages from a slackware mirror onto floppies (and later redownload the ones that had corrupted on the way home) and go through some convoluted install steps. In reality those convoluted install steps were simple to how you got linux onto a machine prior to that. But still, interesting piece of history and the CD's are all still readable.

Slackware

Heeey, some of us are still using the best and only manageable dist to date.. Slackware (or well Slamd64 for newer systems). Okey you say the best of 2000-ish, soo Slackware is the best of 1993-2009, two decades but only because it were created before your time frame of analytics, does not mean it's not still part of the selection!

Slackware Needs a very honorable mention

Yes, I'm with the others that Slackware needs a very honorable mention.
I personally have been using Slack since before 2000.

I discovered Slack in 2000

Still use it today.

Slackware

my first distro beginning Y2K.

Just too late

The first edition of LinuxFormat came just too late for me; I had already installed Caldera OpenLinux without any problems and bought Applixware which was a brilliant office suite.

I had only installed Linux to see what it was like and I soon found it so much easier to use than Windows that I was hooked.

But I do remember Manndrake being installed on PCs in the equivalent of PC World at the time.

Why this fixation on Slackware?

My first distro was Slackware when I was experimenting some time in the mid 90's. Then I had to get a pcnfs+Samba server up and running in my spare time at work on a 486sx with two tiny hard drives.

I could not get pcnfs going with Slackware.
Red Hat was insisting on installing all this software I did not want or need, and which meant my disketh floweth over.
SuSE 5.1 (?, some 5.x release) worked out of the box and I have stuck with SuSE ever since.

For me as someone without any Unix background, Slackware was too hard to actually use. So what if it is as pure as driven snow, by 2000 it was for (debian hating?) purists only and they all knew about it anyway. It was also some time around then that the creator of Slackware was out of commission through some serious illness for a long time.

MCC Iterim

was the very first Linux distribution, I think. And what about SLS? Both, SuSE and Slackware trace their roots to SLS...

FVWM's AnotherLevel != NeXTSTEP lookalike.

Think Motif.

If you think all of the above looked crap in 2000, that's because most window managers such as GNOME and KDE were pushing the envelope toward Windows look/work-a-like feature sets, and were very much nascent and immature.

If you'd looked back even further to say 1998, or indeed switched to some of the other window managers available to most distros in 2000, you'd have seen highly polished environments, of which had been around for many years by the time 2000 came around. FVWM, TWM (once configured heavily!), AfterStep, ... even Caldera OpenLinux Lite (in 1997/1998) had an excellent FVWM config.

£0.02

SLS

SLS was not from 2000 though. I think it dropped off in the late 90's.

This article fails!

The OP obviously has no clue about what he is posting. Slackware was *THE* best linux distribution 2000 had to offer. Leaving it out reveals his ignorance.

FAIL

Yggdrasil

I started using Linux with the Yggdrasil distribution which came with the "The Linux Bible". I even remember carrying it around and people would give me funny looks, like I belonged to some crazy religion. Some would even ask me about it. I have to admit at the time I probably dressed weird and/or my fly was down, which was known to happen on a few occasions; hence, the weird looks as well.

Slackware was the next big step for me. I used Slackware until the RedHat 4.x series came out and have used it(Fedora) ever since. I tried a few other distros from time to time but they never compared to Slackware or Fedora(RedHat). I don't know why but I have never liked anything Debian. It reminds me of a sloth. In fact I would switch to FreeBSD before I move to any Debian distribution.

Many are Missing the Point

It seems that many of the folks making comments are missing the fact that this "post" is an ARTICLE from 2000! Y'know, like, before you were bore (if you've made that mistake...) The "OP" only posted the article, *HE* didn't miss Slackware, unless he was the original author of the article....geez, ppl, read, kthxbye.

For the rest of us...wow, yeah, I remember some of those screens. I was on RH then, though I had tried Slackware first. I think I probably could have stayed on Slack, but I was lured by RH's glamor factor.

I wasn't much for Debian then, and while Ubuntu has done a fine job packaging and marketing Linux, and is Debian based, it's not for me for daily use.

I'm running Funtoo (Gentoo)...if it moves, compile it!

Linux Format: The Early Years!

Just dug out my copy of LXF01 to see what else the covered in that issue. The cover headline was "Join the revolution! Everything you need to install and run the Linux OS."

Also featured on the cover were articles on:
Tutorials, Howtos and Tips on everything from Apache to Zip drives.
Apple Networking (fool Macs into thinking your Linux box is one of them!)
Open Source? Is it a good thing and what does it mean?
AND Which Distro?

The cover featured a natty Tux attired in a black beret and a badge reading "Windows buster".

The cover CD was Definite Linux 7.0

Some of the comments above seem to imagine that the article above is a new one, reviewing distros from 2000 (hence the "why no Slackware, etc" whines). It is of course a REPUBLICATION of the article printed on page 38 onwards of LXF01. The impression I get is that the distros were chosen on the grounds of how recent they were, user friendliness and ease of use.

btw. The first Linux distro I encountered was MCC Interim (probably 0.99) in mid 1993 and I used Slackware for a while before going over to SuSE. I currently use Ubuntu.

United Linux? Novell destroys Suse

United Linux - That didn't last long! Shortly after United Linux, Novell purchased/ruined SuSE... What a shame!

Slackware

It's a shame that Slackware isn't present at this list. It was the best distro to use if you really wanted to learn Linux.

I did use SuSE as well, but Slackware was always present on the servers.

I do appreciate a trip down the memory lane, so thanks for this! =)

Pfft - Slackware, Sclackware

Irregardless (possibly a new word) of all those numpties who haven't realised that this is a reprint (can you have a reprint on a web site?), what's the big Slackware deal anyway? In 2000 it was still a really annoying distro that was designed to not allow you actually do any work as you had to spend 4 billion years configuring the bloomin' thing using vi. As a matter of fact if you were using Slack, vi was a bit too easy, you probably used a paper tape reader/writer/whatever.

Anyhoo, what was I actually going to say? Oh yes, only that I'd forgotten how primitive the GUI's looked as recent as nine years ago!

Love, Light and Peace, Crispibits

KDE 1

Sadly, to me kde 1 looks better than kde 4

Primitive GUIs?

Do the people who say that the Linux GUIs were primitive remember at all how did the commercial UNIX GUIs look around 2000? Athena, CDE, Motif anyone?

nostalgia

I used slack for awhile, but never did get X to run on my Diamond card. Then got RedHat 5.2. Used it for quite awhile, then used RedHat 6.1 for awhile. Then Mandrake 7.2, Suse, Caldera, and others for short times. I liked them all, and each new one was a new adventure when it first booted. Now I'm using Debian and Ubuntu, but still have a fondness for Slackware.

Mandrake (circa 2000) FTW

Mandrake was my first distro, installed in 2002; version 8.2, I believe it was; a remaindered boxed set I picked out of a bin at CompUSA for US$4.88. Had it not installed, configured, and run so smoothly I might have turned back to what Redmond was offering. I've moved on to noncommercial Debian-based distributions; but I'll never forget how remarkable my first experience with Linux was.

> It seems that many of the

> It seems that many of the folks making comments are missing the
> fact that this "post" is an ARTICLE from 2000! Y'know, like, before
> you were bore (if you've made that mistake...) The "OP" only posted
> the article, *HE* didn't miss Slackware, unless he was the original
> author of the article....geez, ppl, read, kthxbye.
>
> For the rest of us...wow, yeah, I remember some of those screens.
> I was on RH then, though I had tried Slackware first. I think I
> probably could have stayed on Slack, but I was lured by RH's glamor
> factor.
>
> I wasn't much for Debian then, and while Ubuntu has done a fine job
> packaging and marketing Linux, and is Debian based, it's not for
> me for daily use.
>
> I'm running Funtoo (Gentoo)...if it moves, compile it!

Ok, i get it. But still.. not mentioning slackware pff..

The OP ("original poster" - this time i mean the guy who posted this article in 2000) fails IMHO.

Anyway, looking at those screenshots brings back memories :)

Duh!!!!

Seems like nobody has the title of this article. Yes it is from the archives 2000. But I too am suprised Slackware is not here.

I bought (yes from Borders

I bought (yes from Borders as I did not have high speed internet) Red Hat Linux 6.x in 1998. I am surprised it was reviewed in 2000. I would have assumed a newer version would have come out.

CDE on Unix was far superior to what we had on Linux back then. But for sheer beauty, nothing could beat a NeXTStep interface. I remember using it throughout my college days in early to mid 1990s.

I still think none (barring MacOS X) has beaten a NeXT GUI so far.

Currently, I am a big fan of Ubuntu and love it as a server and desktop.

Debian - it hasn't changed much.

I love this article when it comes to Debian. It hasn't changed much. Debian Stable (Etch) is still several point versions behind the "latest" of everything, is still (IMHO) the greatest thing going for experienced users,

I started on RedHat 5.0, switched to SuSE when 7.0 was current and switched to Debian while Etch was testing. Due to peer pressure I switched to Kubuntu for a while, but I didn't like putting training wheel back on after I had shed them, so I switched back. The only thing I really liked about Kubuntu was how easy wireless was without putting any effort into it. The description of Sax and Yast was still good when I abandoned SuSE.

Optimized for Pentium-class Processors

I used Mandrake 5.1, 6.1 and (briefly) Mandrake 7.0.

I remember that Mandrake's biggest promotional point was that the distribution was compiled to run on Pentium processors, and Mandrake claimed a 10-15% speed advantage over Red Hat (compiled for 386s).

Slackware; basically unchanged for a decade and a half!

My first real distro was slackware (I'd played briefly with SLS before that, but I really started with slackware) Had it running on various machines including old 386's with as little as 4M of RAM.. I got inspired to take another look at it earlier last year and it still looked exactly the same as I remember. I suppose there's probably some way to get a nice GUI and compiz-fusion running on it, but I don't have the patience any more.. Ubuntu just makes everything too easy!

Primitive GUI's

Anon said "Do the people who say that the Linux GUIs were primitive remember at all how did the commercial UNIX GUIs look around 2000? Athena, CDE, Motif anyone?"

Yes I do, especially as only a couple of days ago I had to run Clearcase over an ssh connection. I got a big blast of nostalgia as I saw a Motif gui arising from my Compiz-fusion ridden whoo-ey desktop. Our legacy program at work also still runs on Motif. Mmm, it's boxey, but it's good.

Love, Light and Peace, Crispibits

Slack94

I started using Linux late in 1994. Its odd that I insist on downloading ubuntu to a usb stick and installing from that, yet keep this ancient slackware disk around with the platypus on it (there was no tux-the-penguin back then). I had to provide boot parameters to the boot floppy because my sound card used an interrupt normally used by the floppy. Figuring all that out just to get it installed for the first time took a bit of research and reading. I then compiled my first kernel (ever) to add Hannu Savulainens sound drivers in so I could get sound. This after just reading another article about how ubuntu is hard to use...;p I know the article is from 2000, and I remember Corel linux and some of the others, but I also remember Yggdrasil as a competitor to Debian and Slackware (RedHat was new then). The window managers back then --FVWM-- didnt look like any of the more modern WM's in the article.

Every distribution had UPs and DOWNs

Every distribution had UPs and DOWNs but during that years 1999-2000 this selection is not at all the best.

First off Slackware was way better than all of these during 1996-1999, when they released the dreaded 4.0 and it all started going down. Ran well, was easily installed and full control over configuring it.

Corel was a failure because it was based on Debian, but included a preconfigured Samba which was about the only good thing about it - easy browsing of windows shares in KDE. Both had awful installation, compatibility issues and vastly outdated software collection. For those that can install and configure Debian of made a good server distro for a while when it became usable in 2002-2003.

Red had - the windows of all Linuxes, was viewed with dismay, much like Microsoft was viewed. They made buck out of something that was not working. It wasn't before Red Had 9.0 when it finally became ready. And they decided to kill it with Fedora just after one release. Fedora was usable to about Fedora 3 and probably 4, do that would be 2003-2005. Although RHEL still remains a very good server distro to this day.

About that time 2005 Ubuntu and Suse (bought by Novell) raised. It took them some time to wash off the ancestor's burdens - respectively debian's debility and Suse's deep KDE integration. Ubuntu may be the distro of choice today for easy of use and 0 costs, but this will surely change in the future.

Suse 9.0

I had tried Xandros 2 and Mandriva, but the first Linux distro that made me want to blow Windows XP off my machine was Suse 9.0. It was beautiful!

Looking at these screenshots makes me wonder if I was lucky not to come across Linux earlier - I might have been put off :p Dunno though, I'd always resented Windows :)

I am now happily using Ubuntu on the same ex-windows machine and an Eee 701. I'm looking forward to trying Moblin when my new Eee 1000 arrives.

Mandrake 7

Just reading this article reminded me that I've still got a Mandrake 7.0 CD on the shelf by my computer. I've pulled it out a few times in the last few years and installed it on old hardware for the sake of nostalgia.

The interfaces do look dated but it shows how much things improved over the next few years with the launch of KDE 3.

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