The best Linux distro of 2012!
Our annual distro competition is as close to a tradition as we get here at LXF Towers. We do it because we love distributions – we love their variety and the way that so much changes over the course of a year. If you want to see what conclusions we came to last year, for example, check out our previous feature, The best Linux distro of 2011.
But if we restricted our comparisons to the same old dominant stalwarts, our yearly parade of victors would look more like political oscillation than a reflection of Linux distribution development. Which is why this year we wanted to do something different...
We didn’t want to restrict ourselves to the same old trials and tests, we wanted to promote distributions that might not have had the attention they deserve, while at the same time considering the obvious benefits of using a popular distribution. To this end, we decided to group the contenders together not by success, but by function, and see how they would fare in a one-on-one usability fight to the death. Mint takes on Ubuntu in the classic battle between father and son. OpenSUSE Tumbleweed takes on the most popular rolling distro, Arch.
Old hands vs newcomers
Gnome desktops compete for dominance when we pit Fedora against Sabayon, and we test the best of KDE by looking at both Mageia 2 and Rosa – two related distros that have yet to make their mark. It’s not close to being an exact science, as there will be as many opinions as there are distributions. But it will be fun. Let the games begin!
Ubuntu 12.04 vs Mint 13
Ubuntu wasn’t the first distro aimed at the desktop user, but it has been the most successful. Similarly, Mint wasn’t the first distro that tried to take the best from Ubuntu and combine it with the best of the broader open source ecosystem, but it is unarguably the most successful.
Over the years, however, Ubuntu has widened its approach to target other areas of the Linux biosphere, such as servers and business desktops. It’s shipped in such a way that users can mould it as per their requirements. For example, with a couple of clicks you can turn a stock Ubuntu distribution into an enterprise desktop, or add a PPA repository (such as Zentyal’s) and you’ve got yourself a powerful business server. Flexibility for the win!
It’s not that the distro has ignored new desktop users either. It still has the best distribution installer, which takes the edge off disk partitioning, and will fetch and install proprietary add-ons during installation itself.
Once installed, the distro has all the apps to accommodate the average desktop user’s workflow. If you need additional software, Ubuntu has a wonderful Software Centre, along with all the bells and whistles such as software ratings and reviews.
Spit and polish
Desktop integration is another of Ubuntu’s strong points and the MeMenu is a testament to that. New desktop users also appreciate the unified System Settings, which simplify the task of configuring the system. There’s also the ever-improving Ubuntu One cloud service, which allows desktop users to automatically back up and sync their files across several devices.
Although it has been getting more usable with every release, the Unity desktop still isn’t every user’s cup of tea. In a recent test, we observed that only users new to the Linux desktop react favourably to the desktop, and that was when using it on a touchscreen. The experienced Linux desktop user hasn’t quite yet adjusted to the radical design changes in Unity, although Ubuntu 12.04 now plays well on multi-monitor setups.
Also, the new Heads Up Display (HUD) in Ubuntu 12.04 is a welcome addition. Unity paired with HUD has improved the usability of the desktop considerably. However, the desktop is still too keyboard-oriented. We appreciate it, and so do the initial Unity naysayers. But if our tests are any indication, the average desktop user doesn’t like to juggle input devices. No surprise, then, that most are oblivious to the ingenious HUD.
Linux Mint is everything Ubuntu is, and then some. It takes the best tools from Ubuntu (such as its installer) and a whole set of custom tools. One thing Mint doesn’t have is Ubuntu’s Unity desktop – which, for many users, is actually a major point in Mint’s favour. So, while Ubuntu went ahead with Unity despite users voicing their displeasure, Mint paid attention to disgruntled users and tried to find a solution. Its task was complicated by the Gnome desktop ditching the established way of navigating the desktop, but the perseverance of Linux Mint’s development team helped it score a winner, in the shape of the Mint Gnome Shell Extension (MGSE) desktop layer on top of Gnome 3.
Mint's Cinnamon desktop is so good, other distros are beginning to adopt it.
My Mate MATE
MGSE featured a bottom panel, an application menu, visible tray icons and other features that were missing in both Unity and Gnome 3. Mint 12 also featured the still-experimental fork of the traditional Gnome 2 desktop, MATE. The desktop has since grown in leaps and bounds, and is one of the main attractions in the latest release, Linux Mint 13. Since Mint developers actively contribute to its development, the MATE desktop works beautifully with all of Mint’s custom tools. Thanks to these developments, Mint 13 outscored Ubuntu.
OpenSUSE Tumbleweed vs Arch
With lots of open source software, the ‘release early, release often’ philosophy is flavour of the season, and this method reaches its logical conclusion with the rolling release, which is updated constantly, rather than every six months or so. However, rolling releases are not everyone’s cup of tea. This encounter between one of the earliest rolling distros, Arch, and one of the newest, OpenSUSE Tumbleweed, was an eye-opener.
First and foremost, Arch Linux is the fastest distribution there is. In our package manager Roundup in LXF159, Arch outpaced its competition in a head-to-head by a wide margin. Arch Linux is the distro of choice for people who like to have complete control over each and every software component on their computer. However, this control comes at a price. For one thing, Arch doesn’t have a graphical installer.
If your distro updates itself all the time, you never have to think about version number - the magic happens covertly. Although the same can't be said for your bandwidth bill.
Instead, installing Arch requires manually editing the config files to get the exact setup you want. The only consoling factor is the Arch Linux wiki, which has detailed instructions that’ll guide you through each and every step of the installation procedure. Oh, and you need an internet connection and a lot of bandwidth for installing the distro.
That’s where OpenSUSE’s Tumbleweed steps in. Tumbleweed was announced on the heels of the OpenSUSE 11.4 release, and despite being an excellent rolling distro, it doesn’t quite get the limelight it deserves.
If you haven’t heard of it, Tumbleweed is an OpenSUSE repository that provides rolling updates. Mainstream distros traditionally use rolling distributions to hash out packages that will make their next stable release. OpenSUSE’s Factory and Fedora’s Rawhide are examples of this.
These repos have bleeding-edge software, but they aren’t meant to be used as regular desktop distributions. Tumbleweed is different in the sense that it contains stable software.
And it gets better. Using Tumbleweed is a walk in the park. Since it’s essentially just a repository, all you need to do is install a stable OpenSUSE release and switch from the stable repos to the Tumbleweed repo using OpenSUSE’s famed one-click install method. So, unlike other rolling distros, with Tumbleweed you have the added advantage of OpenSUSE’s graphical distro installer.
If you don’t like waiting several months to use the latest release of your favourite software, and have the bandwidth to cope with the constant influx of updates, then OpenSUSE’s Tumbleweed, the winner of this match, is the distro for you.
Besides the regular distros mentioned in this feature, the community offers many specialised distros tweaked to meet any requirement.
If you’re looking for a lightweight distro to power your resource-starved machines, try the zippy Puppy Linux, which offers customised tools for virtually every task. Then there’s Bodhi Linux, with its web-based AppCenter. Finally, there’s the LXDE-based Lubuntu, the newly-inducted member of the Ubuntu-family.
Although most of the regular distros will fit on an enterprise desktop, if you need one made for that purpose, check out Scientific Linux, which has been gradually taking mindshare from CentOS, another enterprise offering. If you want a distro built with security in mind, take a look at Network Security Toolkit. It bundles many of the tools in sectools.org’s Top 100 Security Tools list and maintains a repository of security-vetted tools.
And don’t forget the amazing Linux distros that should be in every Linux user’s toolkit – CloneZilla for disk cloning, PartedMagic, which has tools for disk management and data rescue, and SystemRescueCD for repairing Windows and Linux installations.
Fedora 17 vs Sabayon 9
Both Fedora and Sabayon ship with multiple desktops, but Gnome has always been Fedora’s strong point. Recently, however, it’s started to let its standards slip.
Sure, Fedora is supported by a billion-dollar company, but the distro has the same problems as Ubuntu – it tries to appease a wide range of users, who’ll want to use the distro in places besides their desktops. Considering Fedora is a test bed for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), it isn’t surprising that the new release features a lot of cutting-edge developments for the Enterprise user, including virt-manager and other cloud-related wizardry.
Fedora gets marked down for ignoring proprietary drivers. Sure, in the perfect world we'd never have to use MP3 and Flash, but this is reality, and sometimes we need to compromise.
Fedora 17’s problems are compounded by the fact that it adheres to free software standards of how a distribution should be compiled – that is, without any blobs of proprietary software, drivers or codecs. This is great, but it doesn’t work well on the desktop. As a corollary to that, another thing that doesn’t work on the desktop is the lack of a decent package manager. PackageKit just doesn’t cut it any more. If Fedora cares about its desktop users, it needs to take a deep, hard look at its package management system.
Fedora has been around in one form or another since 1995, and the fact that it still holds a podium position on Distrowatch.com’s unofficial popularity list is a testament to its commitment to the Linux community.
It’s very difficult to find faults in Fedora. The distro’s weakest point was its KDE implementation, but it overcame that in its previous release. Still, we’d hesitate in recommending it to new desktop users, because of the distro’s stance against proprietary software – if it provided a neater way to install it, like Mint or OpenSUSE, then the user could easily make an informed choice, rather than being dictated to. Contrast this with Sabayon 9, which ships with lots of proprietary drivers, and plugins for playing content in all sorts of formats.
That said, Fedora is the leading distro that ships with Gnome. To that end, with Fedora 17 you get the latest Gnome 3.4, while Sabayon 9 has the older Gnome 3.2. Gnome 3.4 introduced some significant design changes to the apps. However, not all apps in Fedora 17 adhere to those new standards. One that has made it through is the new Documents application, which employs the Tracker indexing tool.
With the earlier usability criticisms of its parent distribution in mind, Sabayon 9 has replaced its Sulphur front-end to the Entropy package management toolkit, with a new package manager called Rigo. It’s highly verbose, and talks to users in a very human-readable language.
Desktop users will like Rigo's notifications, which are both amusing and informative - unlike the somewhat terse messages that Fedora's package manager sometimes gives.
Despite its apparent disadvantage with respect to shipping the older Gnome release, here again Sabayon 9 outscored Fedora 17 by making minor user interface tweaks to Gnome. For one, windows in Sabayon 9 show the minimise and maximise buttons that you wouldn’t find on a stock Gnome release, along with the Power Off entry whose absence in a stock Gnome 3 desktop has for so long vexed our poor DVD monkey Ben, with his broken arm that he sustained tripping over an untidily arranged supermodel on a yacht off the sun-kissed shores of Liguria.
But Sabayon has borrowed one crucial component from the Fedora project. Although based on the venerable Gentoo distro – or to be more precise, a binary version of Gentoo, Sabayon’s distribution installer is based on Fedora’s Anaconda installer. This was a close encounter, but Sabayon 9 just pipped Fedora 17.
Mageia 2 vs ROSA
Although the two-release-old Mageia is relatively new, it’s made by veteran Mandriva developers. And so is ROSA, in a roundabout sort of way. It’s developed by ROSA Labs, based in Moscow, and this is its first independent release. ROSA Labs had partnered with Mandriva for its last release, Mandriva 2011, but the two have since parted ways. ROSA 2012 is a continuation of its efforts.
There are two editions of ROSA 2012. The Free edition doesn’t include any non-free apps, which you’ll find in the Extended edition. In charge of installing the distro is the minorly-tweaked but familiar Mandriva installer, which is a breeze for those with some experience in partitioning disks.
It's taken a while for Gaël Duval's team of former Mandriva developers to come up with the goods, but Mageia now provides a stunning KDE experience out of the box.
Along with improvements to the hidden aspects of the distro, ROSA ships with a bunch of custom applications too. One of its custom apps is the ROSA Media Player (ROMP), which not only plays video but also doubles up as a desktop recorder. When the recording feature is activated, ROMP records videos of your desktop in the WebM format, much like the built-in recording feature introduced in Gnome 3.4.
Then there’s KLook, which is also integrated into another tool called StackFolder, a KDE widget using which you can browse the contents of a folder from within the panel itself.
With KLook you can preview files, much like Mac OS X’s QuickLook feature, both from within StackFolders and the Dolphin file manager. Here, we’d like to take a moment to tell you that while ROSA is available with KDE and LXDE desktops, its innovations are primarily for the KDE desktop. One such innovative feature is its redesigned KDE desktop, which has borrowed elements from the Unity and Gnome 3 desktops. It’s got a Dash-like SimpleWelcome screen, which groups apps according to their functions, and the standard KDE Launcher is replaced by ROSA’s RocketBar. The distro boasts a ROSA Sync service, which is still in beta and offers 2GB of free storage space to back up and sync files.
Most of the visible features and tools in ROSA 2012 made their debut back in Mandriva 2011. But since Mageia split from Mandriva before the 2011 release, its latest release – Mageia 2 – looks a lot like a standard KDE distro with Mandriva’s desktop tools. For starters, there’s the much-loved Mageia Control Center for performing simple administration tasks. Mageia 2 also features a tweaked panel, with an icon-only task manager as well as a Classic-mode menu.
An innovation too far?
Despite its focus on the KDE desktop, it should be noted here that Mageia 2 ships with a larger number of desktops than ROSA 2012. Past experience with KDE 4, Gnome 3 and Unity has shown us that Linux users don’t appreciate radical changes to their desktops. This is why ROSA 2012’s most distinguishing feature could turn users off – ROSA has extensively modified KDE and it now has more in common with Unity and Gnome 3 than KDE.
The distro also needs to polish its cloud storage service, which isn’t as well integrated as Ubuntu One is in Ubuntu.
When it comes to Mandriva-based distros, we have to take into account their troubled past – more so when the contenders have shared manpower with the original distribution. While we like what ROSA has done with the KDE desktop, this contest has to go the way of Mageia because of its incremental changes, consistent on-schedule releases, a solid infrastructure, and our bias for everything French.
Linux Mint 13 vs Sabayon 9
Linux Mint’s biggest strength is its clear-headed leadership. In a blog post, its lead developer Clement Lefebvre wrote, “We know what we want, we know how to implement it, and we’ll produce what we need, whether it’s using upstream components, adapting them or creating our own.”
Mint 13 is a testament to that promise. It includes a bit of everything. You get the stability of the upstream distro, along with its Long Term Support status, the best desktop distribution installer, a couple of hot-off-the-press desktop environments, and a host of custom tools.
Sabayon 9 puts up a brave fight, but eventually loses out to a formidable opponent in the shape of Mint 13. No shame in that.
Mint 13 is available in two editions. One is based on the relatively mature MATE desktop, which is a fork of the Gnome 2.x series. The other is based on the upcoming Cinnamon desktop, developed in-house at Mint, which uses Clutter and Gnome 3, and requires accelerated graphics to work.
Both desktops give you a familiar work environment thanks to Mint’s custom tools. Then there’s Mint’s Software Manager to install packages, which pre-dates the Ubuntu Software Center. Overall, Mint 13 is a desktop user’s paradise.
The Sabayon project started as a means of letting mere mortals get a taste of the slickness of Gentoo. Sabayon 9 continues that tradition and is full of Gentoo goodness.
The distro is introducing packages from the Gentoo Hardened initiative, which maintains several security-oriented projects for Gentoo. On top of this ultra secure base, users get a choice of three toppings – Gnome 3.2, KDE 4.8, and Xfce 4.10.
Also making its debut in this release is the minimalistic Rigo package manager. It’s a treat for new desktop users who are turned off by the cryptic messages and notifications thrown by other package managers. In fact, it has turned around a potential deal breaker for this distro, which ships with a broken LibreOffice suite. Rigo regularly fetches notices from the Sabayon repositories, and one of the first ones lists a simple single-line solution to fix LibreOffice.
The distro is chock-full of applications, including Google’s Chromium web browser, the VLC media player and the XBMC media centre. On the distro’s website, you’ll find lots of documentation, including a step-by-step installation guide, and a detailed FAQ section to read before you hit the forums.
The issues with Sabayon are minor, and some can be easily ironed out. The distro, by default, installs Chromium instead of Firefox, which is a little odd, but again easily fixed with a visit to the Rigo package manager. Using the new package manager is a bitter-sweet experience. It’s better than its predecessor, but still has rough edges. You have to manually restart the package manager before you can search within the just-updated repositories.
Rigo is search-based, and lists no pre-defined categories. This works for users who know the name of the package they want, but will be of no help to those who don’t.
Mageia 2 vs OpenSUSE Tumbleweed
Mageia doesn’t ship with proprietary codecs, but that’s easily fixed. Besides the core repository, which includes only free software, the non-free repositories are added by default and can be enabled by a single click.
All this is achievable thanks to the custom tools, starting with a set of graphical package management tools that are easy to use for adding software, media sources, and for updating the system. The best feature for a desktop user is that the entire distro can be upgraded to a new release from within itself with a single click.
Mageia 2 includes all the easy-to-use configuration tools that made Mandriva popular, including the Mageia Control Center or drakconf, drak3D for configuring Compiz, and the drakguard parental control module.
Mageia 2 is available with multiple desktops, including KDE 4.8.2, Gnome 3.4 and Xfce 4.9. It ships with all the popular apps you’d expect in a desktop distro. It includes the stable Extended Support Releases of Firefox and Thunderbird, too.
OpenSUSE’s Tumbleweed repository fits in nicely between its main but dated stable repositories and the bleeding edge but unstable factory repositories. The repository ensures you get tested and stable releases of everything. Before Tumbleweed came along, rolling distros were almost exclusively for experienced Linux users, since the only real rolling distros offering stable software were Gentoo and Arch. Tumbleweed is easier to use, thanks to OpenSUSE’s graphical installer. And since it’s essentially a repository, you can roll back to the stable release by replacing the Tumbleweed repos with the stable ones. Plus, when switching to the rolling release, you can mark some stable software, which will be left as is while the rest of the distro is rolled. We’ve heard about rolling release distros wreaking havoc on users’ systems. Sadly, this isn’t one of those urban legends. If you use proprietary drivers, you are advised to stay clear of Tumbleweed because one of the components that gets updates from the Tumbleweed repository frequently is the Linux kernel. If you are using proprietary drivers that are not in the main upstream kernel you’ll have to rebuild them from source every time the kernel gets an update. The Tumbleweed developers advise against using the rolling release on systems that need proprietary Nvidia or ATI graphics drivers, as well as those on which you need to run VirtualBox.
The final: Mint 13 vs Mageia 2
There were hard-fought encounters all through the tournament. In the run-up to the final, our two finalists saw off some extremely stiff competition from heavyweights, such as Ubuntu and Fedora, and spirited mavericks such as ROSA, OpenSUSE Tumbleweed and Sabayon.
So, we’re all set for a thrilling finale between an experienced minnow in the shape of Mint 13 and the newly-regrouped veteran – Mageia 2.
The Mageia team kicked in to gear as soon as it separated from Mandriva. Rather than just forking the distro, the project ensured it had the right foundation to ensure it remained immune from the problems that derailed Mandriva.
This involved setting up a non-profit organisation to govern the collaborative project, whose ownership lies with the community. Best of all, though, they didn’t let the paperwork delay the development work on the distro. While the first release was pretty much where Mandriva left off, with Mageia 2 the distro is now coming into its own.
Its team of more than 100 contributors has crafted a mammoth distro that will suit users with varied experiences on all sorts of desktops. Mint 13 is the culmination of several months of intense preparation and experimentation by the developers to find a solution for users disillusioned by Gnome and Ubuntu’s decision to abandon the classic Gnome 2.x series.
While the MGSE extensions for Gnome 3 worked well as a stop-gap measure for Linux Mint 12, the distro has been toiling hard for a better solution. Mint 13’s MATE and Cinnamon desktops complement each other well, and have scored repeatedly for the distro throughout the tournament. The desktops, together with Mint’s set of custom tools for every desktop task, including a WUBI-based Windows installer, make it a formidable opponent.
Who says 13 is an unlucky number? Mint 13 is our 2012 distro champion after seeing off the challenge of Mageia 2 in an epic final encounter.
Mint means business
There’s more to Mint than pleasing new desktop users, though. Besides the codec-laden releases, the distro also produces editions without this fluff, which makes it legal for distributions in virtually every country in the world.
Despite essentially being a one-man distro, the project is a viable business venture. It makes OEM images for computer vendors and manufacturers that make it possible for them to pre-install Linux Mint. When powered on for the first time, the distro takes the user through a simple setup procedure to create their user account. Expect a similar setup in the mintBox computers from CompuLab.
Half a dozen that just didn't make the cut
Debian has a two-year release cycle, and the long gestation period means software in the distro is much older compared with the other distros. However, you can add repos and keep it updated, as covered in the tutorial in LXF149, and many users find that it proves more stable than some mainstream distros.
One of the most popular rolling distros, Gentoo is ideal for users who crave pervasive control over their system and are willing to sacrifice the convenience of binary packages. The downside is its installation process, which is such a tricky process that we devoted a whole tutorial to it in LXF154.
Last released in May 2011, this Debian-stable based distro is offered as a live DVD. Flash and other proprietary codecs are installed out of the box. The installer isn’t for everyone, but its custom tools, such as Mepis Welcome Centre for activating community-supported repos, on top of the default KDE, make it a worthy competitor.
Chakra Linux 2012.05
Chakra is a rolling distro popular for its rendition of the KDE desktop. The current version ships with only a CLI-based package management tool, as the GUI had problems the developers couldn’t fix in time for the release. Chakra’s easy-to-use Software Bundling System offers several popular apps.
Zorin OS 6