IN DEPTH Our favourites for productivity, ease, security, hacking and speed
You might not have noticed, but there’s more than one Linux distribution out there. In fact, there are hundreds, and the list is growing weekly.
Okay, you probably did notice, but the fact remains that the free software world is, primarily, one of choice, and that means developers can – and often do – scratch their own itches.
When the people behind the Ubuntu-derived Mint distribution decided they didn’t like the direction the Ubuntu desktop was taking, its developers created their own desktop environment.
When Red Hat started to charge lots of money for its enterprise distribution, the CentOS project took the source code to those Red Hat packages and re-built versions that were binary compatible for free. There are countless similar stories, and all of them help to make the Linux landscape such a fertile one.
This also means that you don’t have to settle on a one-size-fits all distribution. There are ones for fun, for productivity and for online privacy, and there are no rules to say you can’t install more than one at once, and use different ones on different machines.
If you want to play with a distribution, many will boot from a live CD, or you can use VirtualBox to create a virtual version, neither of which requires much effort.
But before you get to that stage, you need to know which distributions are the best distributions, and for which occasions. That’s exactly what we’re going to cover now.
Best for productivity: Fedora 17
There’s usually one distribution you rely on more than any other. This is the distribution that’s going to be used day-in, day-out, and often for essential yet mundane tasks like email and writing documents. It makes sense for this distribution to be as streamlined, stable and secure as possible, while still providing software support for the latest features.
Fedora sports serious open source credentials, and each update skims off the cream of the latest updates and bundles them into a single, very well tested distribution.
The user experience is also as close to that of the original desktops and applications as possible, and Fedora scales to fit office spaces into the enterprise, with the likes of Red Hat and CentOS using it as a testing ground for stable releases.
The new release will also offer the best default user experience of the new Gnome desktop. With version 3.4, Gnome is finally able to put its teething problems behind it and start to engage with users again.
Fedora has been the one major distribution to throw its weight behind the new desktop, and as a result, it will be the one to choose for the best experience. Gnome is still the best integrated desktop, working well with applications such as LibreOffice and Firefox, so it will also be best for productivity, as well as experiencing the latest Gnome features.
One of the most interesting is the Epiphany browser, which has been given a new lease of life with version 3.4. It’s been promoted to a fully-fledged desktop browser for the new release, and integrated with Gnome’s various features better than either Firefox or Chrome.
Best for ease of use: Mint 12/13
Ubuntu is no longer the number one distribution on the influential DistroWatch site. It’s been surpassed by one of its offspring – the exceptionally talented Mint.
As Mint is built upon Ubuntu, it has a fantastic selection of default packages, and you get excellent hardware support and updates too. Ubuntu’s repositories are as close to a global Linux standard as one distribution can get, and that makes Ubuntu (or one of its derivatives) a brilliant choice if you just want to get on with running software rather than hunting down dependencies or playing on the command line.
The Ubuntu experience is still unrivalled when it comes to support and community involvement. If you have a problem (which is unlikely these days), you’ve got the best chance with Ubuntu that someone else had the same issue and solved it. It’s one of the best reasons for using an Ubuntu derivative.
But like some Linux soap opera, Ubuntu has switched from using the tried and tested Gnome desktop to something of its own creation – a desktop it calls Unity. This move split the community, which in turn put pressure on Mint to stick with Gnome. At the same time, Gnome went through a paradigm shift of its own, throwing out its OS X-like familiarity and replacing it with a full-screen, panel-based shell.
This left the Mint team with a quandary: stick with an ill-fitting Gnome upgrade, or go it alone. In the end, the developers made a brave decision. They took the best parts of the new Gnome desktop and re-built the parts the community liked from the old versions. The result was a new desktop called Cinnamon, which we think is the best of all worlds for the modern Linux installation.
Cinnamon is the reason we’ve chosen Mint as the foundation for our ease of use recommendation. It’s modern and still rooted in the old desktop. However, until the release of Mint 13 some time in the near future, Cinnamon needs to be installed through Mint’s software centre. This is as simple as searching for it and clicking ‘Install’. After the release of version 13, even this step should be redundant.
Best for hacking: Arch
Arch Linux has just celebrated its 10th anniversary, but only in the last couple of years has this DIY distribution started to gain some serious traction.
Compared to most other distributions, it has a tough learning curve that starts with its installation. There’s no graphical interface, and you’re expected to add and configure everything manually – from the interface to the sound server. It’s an old-school experience that brings a great feeling of satisfaction, as well as unrivalled knowledge of your system’s configuration and Linux in general.
Arch uses a rolling release cycle, rather than one or two major updates a year. This means that when you install Arch, you always have the latest versions of everything.
Every package is cutting edge, so your installation will surf as close to application and desktop releases as possible, without expecting you to compile the packages by hand. And while Arch can be tough, it’s nowhere near as complex as a distribution like Gentoo. Even a beginner could follow the excellent wiki instructions and come away with a working installation, and the community is one of the best and most helpful around.
The brilliant thing about Arch, and the reason we’d pick it for hacking and tinkering, is its community repository of packages. It’s not officially supported, but it’s massive and easy to contribute to.
The AUR also makes it very easy to install packages from their source code, install their dependencies and keep them up to date. This makes it perfect for experimentation, and for grabbing the latest high-profile releases.
Arch will also be our distribution of choice when we finally get hold of a Raspberry Pi, so a little time invested in learning the basics will pay off when you get hold of some interesting hardware, and you’ll learn a great deal about Linux too.
Best for security: Tails 0.10.2
If there’s one thing Linux does well, it’s security, but it’s often not easy, and creating a byte-tight installation takes plenty of manual intervention. This is where a live CD of a pre-configured Linux makes a lot of sense, and Tails is our current favourite.
The big advantage of using Tails is that it boots into a Tor-enabled desktop. Tor is an anonymity network, and it works as a kind of random multi-stepped VPN, where your internet connection passes through a variety of machines before appearing somewhere random, theoretically making it very difficult for anyone to re-trace the route back to your IP address. As soon as you open the browser, you should be browsing anonymously.
Tails includes many other tools to help with security and privacy. LUKS, for example, can encrypt your storage. Your email, instant messaging and standard browsing can all be protected using a variety of other plugins, safeguarding you from potential changes in the local configuration, and because Tails is a live CD, as soon as you reboot or shut down your machine, all traces of your session are removed.
Tails even takes care to blank your memory at shutdown, so there shouldn’t be a single electron of data remaining. This makes it the perfect choice when travelling, or for those times when you need to use an insecure network to transfer some secure data or access your banking details.
Best for speed: Bodhi
From the boot menu, you get to choose from a selection of desktop configurations, from bare bones to a design for netbooks, as well as an overall theme. Less than a second later, everything is configured.
This speed and minimalism come from a desktop called Enlightenment. Bodhi is one of a new breed of distributions that opt for its efficiency and minimalism over the perceived bloat of KDE and Gnome. As a result, Bodhi has modest system requirements without sacrificing features.
The Midori web browser, for instance, is very quick, and because it’s built on WebKit, it can render the vast majority of sites to the same standard as Chrome and Safari. General applications also boot quicker due to the distribution’s low memory footprint, and the desktop doesn’t try to do anything clever.
You can’t tell by looking at it, but Bodhi is built on Ubuntu, so you have access to the same broad selection of packages. There’s also a good selection of packages that can be installed with a single click from the web browser. Just point it at this site and click ‘Install’ – Bodhi will handle the rest. This even works from the live CD.
Due to its Ubuntu foundations, making a permanent installation is also simple, and there’s excellent hardware compatibility. Just click on the ‘Install’ icon in the toolbar and answer the few remaining questions. It normally takes less than 10 minutes to go from clicking the icon to a full-blown installation, so there are no excuses if you’re looking for the ultimate speed upgrade to your Linux distribution.