17 February 2011

10 Best Linux Distros (part 1)

1. The best distro for beginners: Ubuntu 10.04 LTS

There can be few people who haven't heard of Ubuntu. It's a word that's become synonymous with Linux, raising both praise and chagrin from the Linux community in equal measure. But outside the community squabbling, there's no doubt that this is a distribution to be reckoned with. Especially if you're a beginner.

Ubuntu is the antidote to a world of uncertainty. For the vast majority of installations, it will just work. You won't have to worry about hardware incompatibility, software installation and configuration. Stick the disc in the drive, answer a few easy questions, and you'll find yourself looking at the beautiful new design of version 10.04, the so-called Lucid Lynx.

Unlike most other distributions, Ubuntu developers know how to make a desktop look good. The aurora-like swathes of purple, orange and black may have taken their inspiration from Cupertino, but they easily beat the tedious dull-brown of previous versions.

What's not so great, for seasoned users, is that the window control buttons, such as close, minimise and maximise, are now on the top-left border. But new users, especially those used to OS X, won't find this a problem, and neither did we after a couple of days to acclimatise.
Ubuntu is still ahead of the game, and for new users it's unbeatable. It offers the best looking default desktop, an unparalleled software repository, easy installation of proprietary software like Flash and Nvidia drivers, and incorporates one of the largest and most accessible communities on the internet. It's still a winner.

2. The best distro for experts: Fedora 14

The Fedora distribution takes a trail-blazing, no compromise, approach to free software. It offers many of the same advantages of Ubuntu like excellent hardware support, a refined desktop and great package choice, with some of the core-philosophy ideals that have helped make Linux such as a success.

As a result, it's not an ideal distribution if you're looking for proprietary and closed software. MP3 codecs, Adobe Flash and Nvidia drivers are not easy to install, and get even less easier with each new release. Instead, you'll want to stick with the open source alternatives provided by Fedora.

Which isn't such a bad thing. The new version includes the fantastic, hardware accelerated, and open source, Nouveau Nvidia driver, while the new photo manager, Shotwell, is an interesting alternative to the potentially patent crippled F-Spot.

Version 14 is the latest Fedora release to tackle the growing popularity of Ubuntu, and as a result, it's one of best looking and usable distributions around, regardless of your politics. But it's also a distribution you can easily make your own.

Creating a development environment is easy, for example, and the locations used by shared libraries, configuration files and kernel headers strictly adhere to long established standards. This means that with Fedora 14 you get the best of both worlds. A good looking, usable desktop straight from installation CD, and a completely customisable, standard and stable environment from which you can build your perfect distribution.

3. The best distro for Windows Migrants: PCLinuxOS

This is the first distribution we've looked at to use the KDE desktop environment by default. Although you can grab versions for all the other major desktop environments, we consider KDE to be the best match for Windows power-users. This is because it's an environment who's slate grey and blue surface belies an underworld of configuration options, complexity and customisation on the interior.

The 4th generation of KDE has experienced stability problems, but the current 4.4 cycle has finally been able to throw off the puppy-fat pain of earlier versions.

And thanks to the quarterly ISO update cycle of PCLinuxOS, it has become an excellent choice for users who want to stay ahead in the KDE features and stability game. The latest, for example, includes significant updates to the K3b Blu-Ray, CD and DVD burner, the Digikam photo management tool, the Choqok social networking tool and the Amarok media player, all wrapped around the very latest KDE release.

Combine this with the bundled Flash player, proprietary drivers and a visually stunning desktop, and you have a great choice for users who have spent the last couple of years getting the most from the Windows File Manager, the Registry Editor and the Aero effects of the Windows 7 desktop.

4. The best distro for older Hardware: Puppy Linux 5.2

Linux's great strength is its flexibility. It runs on everything from mobile phones to space ships. As a result, it's extremely good at scaling, and makes a good choice for older hardware. Unlike some other operating systems, you won't have to resort to running older versions either. There are plenty of distributions that will take the latest software, the latest kernel and the latest drivers, and build them into a distribution tailored for older bits of kit.

The best we've found is Puppy. It's a diminutive, yet fully functional, operating system that runs from your system's memory for extra speed. Just burn the 128MB ISO to a CD and boot. What's most impressive about Puppy is that while it may be only be running from RAM, it still writes your changes back to the spare space on your CD or DVD boot media, getting the most from both possible worlds.

But the best thing about version 5.2 is that it now uses the same package repository as Ubuntu. This gives you immediate access to thousands of the most popular packages and means that, while your installation may start small, it's likely to grow into the perfect fit for whatever hardware combination you're using.

5. The best distro for your desktop: Linux Mint 10

Linux Mint, with its beautiful imagery, simple aesthetic, and 'go-do' attitude, gets our vote in a competitive field for the best Linux distribution for everyday desktop use. It may be based on Ubuntu, but it isn't afraid of challenging people expectations by combining the best pre-built tools and desktop environments with its own unique take on how a desktop should feel.

The default Gnome version is the perfect example. Gnome's top-bar is gone, leaving the lower status window as the only screen ornamentation. The launch menu gets the same treatment, replacing Gnome's trio of 'Applications', 'Places' and 'Administration' with the singular Mint Menu.

The new version is a solid upgrade, adding right-click support and transparency. If you use a lot of applications, this is a massive improvement over Gnome's default, and is easier to configure and modify. Alongside Ubuntu's prodigious packages, Mint includes quite a few of it own.

These are available through a new software manager that's better than Ubuntu's, thanks to the sporadic reviews and screenshots. You can also enable desktop effects, Compiz, and other bits of eye candy easily through a new desktop setting panel embedded within a custom Control Center application that's growing with each release. The end result is a distribution that stands on the shoulders of giants to become one the best contenders for your desktop.

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