The best Linux distros you've never heard of
8th Jan 2011 | 12:00
Discover a new breed of distros for 2011
Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. Before this wisdom dawned on the Linux community, Red Hat, Debian and Slackware had spawned several dozen distros. Some died a single-release death, but a lot survived and a vibrant community grew around them.
That, along with all the distros designed to meet specific needs, means there's a lot of variety in the Linux world. While community is key to a good desktop distro, it also needs thorough documentation on wikis and blogs, and ample support.
In addition to community-based channels, such as mailing lists, user forums and IRC, some distros also offer more traditional paid-for support packages.
What's more, the most talked-about distros – including Ubuntu, Fedora and OpenSUSE – aren't necessarily the most friendly for new users. They make installing non-free codecs simple, but there are others that – at the expense of some flaming from the free software community – ship with non-free packages, enabling you to play all sorts of online and offline media, and even games designed for Windows.
Which distro you should use depends on what you need. Moreover, despite their thriving communities, most distros – aside from the popular ones – are developed by a one-man team. These limited staffing levels explain why they don't make releases at fixed intervals. This might be a turn-off for some, but it does make for stable releases.
In any case, everything you need is included in the repository. The choice of distros available doesn't shrink as you move away from the desktop towards netbooks, either – you'll find spin-offs of the most popular desktop distributions. But there are also a bunch of other good options.
The best thing about netbook distros is their approach to helping you get the most out of the vastly decreased amount of screen space you have to work with. We can't ignore lightweight distros that don't tax old hardware incapable of running Windows 7, either. Their tiny size doesn't mean that they compromise on eye candy. So if you're tired of the brown or blue, perhaps it's time to give something new a try. Here's our pick of the best.
Easy to use Linux
Using Linux needn't be tricky, as these distros prove.
This one-man distro, developed by an army of contributors, is available in several varieties depending on your choice of desktop.
The hardware detection prowess of the distro leaves no room for complaint; PCLinuxOS supports a wealth of video cards, including Nvidia, ATI, Intel, SiS, Matrox and VIA, and there are tools for working with HP, Epson and Lexmark printers.
You can configure these and other hardware from the easy-to-use administration centre. There's no dearth of apps in the distro, although AbiWord is supplied instead of OpenOffice.org.
For your convenience, however, there is a GetOpenOffice menu entry that will fetch and install the OpenOffice.org suite. Firefox is equipped with plugins to play files in formats such as DivX, RealPlayer, QuickTime, Flash and Java.
To enhance your multimedia experience even further, there's Gsopcast for watching P2P TV, Me TV for viewing DVB broadcasts, Imagination for creating DVD slideshows and the Floola iPod manager as well.
If you want to share files, there's the Dropbox client and Tucan Manager. For running a clean ship there's Bleachbit to remove junk, the Nixory anti-spyware client, and Dupeclean to remove older versions of apps. To give you easy access to your online accounts, there's the Pino Twitter and Identi.ca client. Synaptic does package management, plus there's an app for selecting the fastest repository.
PCLinuxOS has tons of documentation as well as active forums, IRC channels and several mailing lists, so it's easy to get some help if you need it.
If you think Ubuntu is the easiest desktop distro around, you've obviously not used this one. It has loads of custom tools and is stuffed with proprietary drivers, codecs and software to give you the smoothest Linux desktop experience possible.
SimplyMepis's polished interface is based on KDE. In the Linux world, stability comes at the expense of outdated packages, but this provides a good balance of the two, since it's built using the latest stable version of Debian (Lenny) and updates selected packages.
Depending on the timing of Debian, the next version will be synced with the final release of the current Debian unstable release (Squeeze). This is a quick distro off the blocks. When you boot the live CD, you get passwords for both the demo and root users.
With the Mepis Welcome Centre, you can quickly query the user manual (which is distributed in the image), plus the online wiki and forums. You can also install popular apps such as Gimp, Thunderbird and Wine.
Besides the official repository, the distro also has community-supported repos that can be activated from the Welcome Centre.
Another great addition to the distro is the Mepis Network Assistant for setting up wired and wireless interfaces, which has NdisWrapper – and about a dozen widely used proprietary Windows drivers – pre-installed.
The Mepis System Assistant is useful for system maintenance, enabling you to free up disk space by clearing logs and package caches. From here, you can also create bootable USB keys from ISO images. The User Assistant also enables you to copy and sync caches and directories between users, as well as restore configurations to default values.
Besides the usual stash of apps, there's also OpenJDK, and all sorts of multimedia content.
Pardus, developed by the Turkish National Research Institute of Electronics and Cryptology, is proof that good things can come out of government offices. It's only available as an installable image, but what an installer it is.
The partitioner can try to find partitions with suitable free space or, failing that, looks for resizeable partitions (ext3 and NTFS) and alters them to create room. Partitions are formatted as ext4, and graphics and sound cards are automatically detected at the end of the installation.
Kaptan helps you tune your Pardus installation. It'll cover the basics, including mouse setup, themes, and altering the number of virtual desktops. It also enables you to choose from three menu styles: Kickoff, Lancelot or simple.
Pardus includes the Strigi desktop search engine, and the hardware profiler, which can also upload and share your profile. On the software front, there's the usual suspects, plus Knazar, a virtual amulet to repel evil looks; SuperKaramba for eye candy; and Kleopatra to encrypt docs.
Besides the officially supported repositories, you can also enable the contributor software repos, and easily set the software update frequency. Pardus's package manager, Pisi, is newbie-proof.
Finally, Pardus can play all sorts of media files out of the box, including MP3s, AVIs and DVDs.
When your distro boots to Pornophonique's Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, you know a great user experience will follow. As well as booting into the KDE desktop environment, Sabayon gives you the option to run it as a media centre with XBMC, or use a special environment for an ultramobile PC (UMPC).
It's got the Clementine music player with presets to online radio stations such as SomaFM and Last.fm. There's VLC Media Player for MP3s, AVIs and so on, and Dragon Player too.
Meanwhile, Firefox is equipped with plugins to play Flash and Java, and there's also a PackageKit plugin for installing apps. The distro is adept at detecting and configuring hardware. There are tools that will automatically configure various system components, such as OpenGL, wireless cards and printers.
Sabayon also includes proprietary video drivers for both Nvidia and ATI hardware. Sabayon uses its own in-house developed Entropy package manager to install additional apps. You'll find loads of proprietary software on the repos.
The distro has an unusual development model. It releases images daily to testers, and to the general public weekly. Official stable releases are daily versions that have been tested thoroughly by testers and the community.
Linux for older hardware
Brush the cobwebs off that old box and press it back into service.
Short for Simple Light Incredible Temporary Autonomous Zone, you'd expect something stellar from Slitaz, and it delivers.
For starters, it's just 30MB. Thanks to its minuscule size, you can boot the distro straight off the web into RAM. This is a wonderful way to regularly check out the current development version.
Due to its size, Slitaz takes an unconventional approach to apps. Traditional apps are replaced with lightweight equivalents, such as the Midori web browser. Slitaz also assumes you have a decent connection to the internet, which it relies on to fetch apps as you need them. For example, there's a basic text editor, but click Write Documents and the distro fetches and installs AbiWord.
You'll find lots of custom tools and apps here. There's BurnBox for writing DVDs, NetBox and WifiBox to set up wired and wireless connections, and Tazlito to remaster the Slitaz live CD. Slitaz can be installed to a hard disk or USB mass storage device. To generate a live USB system, you can use the Tazusb tool. You can install new packages via the mirrors, a DVD, or from a USB storage device.
Package management from the command line is handled via custom manager TazPkg. There's also Tazwok to configure and compile a package from source.
Care for a blast from the past? Then carve out a partition for Zenwalk. This distro is optimised for performance on older hardware and is available in various flavours.
The standard edition has Xfce, although there are versions that offer Gnome and Openbox desktops as well. Zenwalk used to be based on Slackware and is still compatible with its binary packages. Now, however, the distro uses its own Netpkg package manager, which adds dependency resolution capabilities to TGZ packages.
Instead of running the vanilla version of the Firefox browser, the distro uses GNU IceCat with plugins for Flash, QuickTime, DivX and more. There's no Java Runtime Environment, but it can be easily installed via Netpkg.
Zenwalk plays media files of all kinds out of the box and, for a wholesome desktop experience, there's Brasero, OOo, Gimp, Pidgin, Gftp, Thunar File Manager, Firestarter, NdisWrapper, the WiCD network manager, Grsync for backup, and lots more.
Zenwalk's installer brings back fond memories of the Ncurses-based Slackware installer. It uses cfdisk for partitioning, and includes an auto-install option that creates a dedicated partition and installs packages.
Zenwalk is also one of the few mainstream distros to still use the Lilo bootloader, and displays the GNU GPL before booting the desktop. Classic!
When you first boot into the distro, you're required to set up a password for root, after which you can add or view users and groups. There's good news if you like to be in command of your installations, too: Zenwalk gives you control over the groups a user belongs to.
More advanced users will also appreciate the convenience of the included kernel module configurator, kernelconfig, which enables you to select which kernel modules to load.
Plenty of distros that attempt to cater for older hardware just switch Gnome or KDE for a lightweight desktop environment and call the job done, which is why they aren't as actively developed as CrunchBang Linux.
CrunchBang developers go the extra mile to ensure you don't just have a distro for older hardware, but a nippy one at that. The live CD boots quickly to a minimal desktop with a right-click menu, and application launch shortcut keys are displayed on the desktop.
The latest stable release is based on Ubuntu, but subsequent versions will be based on Debian Squeeze sources.
Besides the Openbox and Xfce desktops, the developers have painstakingly chosen lightweight alternatives to regular desktop apps, such as Claws Mail, gPodder podcast grabber, AbiWord, Gnumeric and their ilk. There are also lots of terminal-based apps, such as Rtorrent, Vim, Mutt for email and the Irssi IRC client.
The distro also includes links to online tools such as Colour Hunter to create and find colour palettes from images, Vector Magic to convert bitmaps to vector art, and a tool to create favicons from pics.
There's no lack of multimedia apps either, including VLC, Rythmbox and libraries to play all types of media files. Kino and Pitivi video editors are on board too, as are RecordMyDesktop for creating screencasts, WinFF video converter and more.
You also get the option to enable compositing, set window transparency, choose wallpapers and select appearance settings. The developers have made smart use of the menu as well. Instead of having to hunt for config files for various components, they're all neatly placed inside it. There are links to lots of documentation too.
Puppy Linux is great. It isn't just featherweight in size, it's also packed with custom tools for tweaking almost anything about it you can think of. The minuscule live distro loads completely into the RAM and brings up a welcome screen on the lightweight JWM window manager.
Puppy detects graphics cards and recommends the driver to download and use. In addition to ATI and Nvidia cards, Puppy is also aware of the VirtualBox graphics card. You can download and activate a driver in just a couple of clicks. It's also got NdisWrapper to work with wireless cards that have Windows-only binary drivers.
Those custom tools we mentioned earlier can help with configuring the X server, sound, printers, firewall, backup, mirroring and file encryption. Most tools have a wizard to guide newer users through the setup before using the app too.
Just because it's 130MB doesn't mean you're short of apps either. Besides the usual slew, there's an alarm clock, a unit converter and scientific calculator, plus tools to stream audio, grab podcasts and much more.
While you're at it, make sure you check out the Quickpet utility, which gives you access to oft-used apps such as Wine, Google Earth, Pwidgets, Firefox and Java. This is in addition to the tons of apps in the fully fledged Puppy Package Manager.
By default, the puppylucid repo is enabled, but you can enable and pull in packages from others too, such as ubuntu-luciduniverse and ubuntu-lucid. Puppy can be installed to a variety of removable media, as well as inside a Windows partition. There's detailed documentation on the website, and help is just a forum post away.
Want it your way? These distros are flexible.
If customisation is what you crave, then Yoper is the distro you should go for. The name is even a shortened form of Your Operating System.
Spec-wise, the distro is optimised for PCs with i686 processor types or higher. Yoper isn't based on another Linux distribution. Instead, the binaries it includes have been built from scratch. What's more, its goal is to be the fastest out-of-the-box distro around.
Yoper's package manager, Smart, is custom-written for inclusion here. You'll also find various copies of the same software, each optimised for a particular hardware setup. For starters, try one of the streamlined kernels to go with your hardware.
Yoper is distributed as a live CD, which gives you the option of running the installer without booting into the distro. Inside, it's got a clean KDE install with no desktop icons. Yoper includes a pre-release of Firefox 3.6 called Namaroka that's equipped with plugins for Java, RealPlayer, QuickTime and Windows Media Player.
You won't find tons of apps here, though – Yoper's clearly aimed at experts who wish to build their own distro. It's got the Kleopatra certificate manager – which can sign, encrypt and decrypt, and verify files – as well as development tools such as the Qt 4 interface designer, and the KDE Template Generator.
This one is for the old-timers out there. Crux is a minimal distro that's optimised for i686 machines, but it's got everything you'd want in modern Linux, including a dependency-resolving package manager. The overall philosophy here is "keep it simple", reflected in the package system choices, init scripts and the streamlined tool collection, but this isn't for newbies.
The reason you'll need hardwon experience is that Crux puts you in charge. By that, we don't just mean partitioning your disks manually or creating users and groups, but also compiling your own kernel. As a result, Crux is all about being hands-on.
It has an Ncurses-based setup, which you have to initiate manually after creating and mounting the installation and swap partitions. Once the packages have been transferred to your partition, you'll have to compile your own kernel and edit the boot loader to boot into your newly installed system.
For package management, the distro relies on the dependency-resolving Prt-get package manager. But where's the fun in that? Build your own packages using the Pkgmk utility, which relies on the Crux ports system.
If you get lost, don't sweat. The Crux project has extensive documentation on its wiki, including a detailed handbook, and lots of support options.
Not to be confused with the popular bootloader, this is a distro that's stuffed fuller than a teddy bear at an eight-course meal. Sure, it's easy to red-flag SYS Linux as a flop, since its website is an FTP mirror and the only documentation to speak of is its Wikipedia page. Yet it's probably got the most comprehensive set of open source tools and utilities you'll ever find.
That's because SYS uses the LZMA compression algorithm to cram about 18GB worth of apps onto a single DVD.
SYS is targeted at the relatively inexperienced computer user. The installer searches for a partition with 18GB of space, automatically formats it, and installs the packages without any user intervention. You don't even get the option to create a user.
Due to its size, SYS requires CPUs with the PAE extension. Since it doesn't let you choose a language, you'll have to use your best guesswork to navigate to the KDE Control Centre in Portuguese to switch to English.
It's pointless to try to list SYS's many apps in the limited space here, but note that you'll really only need the package manager to uninstall apps you won't use. Package management is taken care of by a mix of Pkgtools, Gslapt and Kpackage.
Despite its application wowfactor, this distro could use some polish. A good start would be cleaning up the plethora of icons spread across its desktop. A menu redesign to segregate popular apps from lesser-used ones would be welcome too, and we're not really sure we need multiple control panels either.
These distros know how to make the most of KDE 4.
Slax looks like any other KDE distro based on Slackware, but looks are definitely deceiving. Don't get us wrong – you can run Slax as a normal distro. There are the regular apps for productivity, it's got multimedia players that play MP3s, AVIs and DVDs, and it includes Firefox with plugins for Flash. It's rock solid and quick off the blocks.
However, the distro wanders off the beaten track with its package management. Indeed, there's no package manager as such. To install apps you need to head to the Slax website, search for and then grab compressed LZM modules. Once they're downloaded, just activate them via the Slax Module Manager and you're good to go.
The Slax drive is worth a mention too. Similar to Ubuntu One and Dropbox, it's a network drive for online storage and synchronising files between various computers. In addition to Slax's drive client, there's one available for Windows as well.
The real advantage of Slax, though, is its ability to create a custom distro. For that, head to the website, click on Build Slax, then review and choose the suggested modules, such as Slax Core, Slax KDE and Slax Apps. Next, click on Add More Modules to find anything else you need.
When you're done compiling, simply download the collection as an ISO or a TAR archive. It's a fairly simple process, but if you manage to confuse yourself, drop by the Slax forum for some helpful advice.
Kanotix is a KDE-running lightweight Debian Sid-based distro with tools from Knoppix. It was pretty popular several years ago, but momentum slowed due to a lack of installer.
Released just in time for LinuxTag (German for "Linux day", not a computerised variant of the childhood game), the latest version of Kanotix has its very own custom installer, AcritoxInstaller. The automatic installer option in AcritoxInstaller is useful for both new and experienced users alike.
It analyses the partitions on your disk and enables you to choose between several partitioning schemes. Even if you pick an automated scheme, you get the option to alter the default values of the partitions.
Once you're all set up, the distro has the regular set of apps on offer. There's IceWeasel instead of Firefox, with plugins for Java, QuickTime and DivX. There are also several proprietary apps here including Skype and Wine, and the distro plays MP3s, AVIs and DVDs.
Two apps of note are the ScreenTube app for recording screencasts with audio, which you could then upload to YouTube, and the Umtsmon tool to control and monitor a wireless mobile network card.
Any distro is about more than just installed apps, though. Here, the developer has written and maintains scripts that will install the proprietary drivers for Nvidia and ATI cards. There are also scripts for installing Flash, the latest version of MPlayer, XBMC, VLC and so on.
Note that the Kanotix website is in German and English. Though most of the documentation is in German, Google Translate does a nice job of turning it into understandable English. Look out for the extensive hardware information on the wiki too.
Linux for netbooks
Take Linux on the go with these optimised distros.
The best thing about netbook distros is their approach to the user interface. EasyPeasy builds on top of the Ubuntu Netbook Remix interface to help you get the most out of the limited physical resources your tiny machine can provide.
EasyPeasy is touted as a social operating system, so if you live to tweet, or want to keep up on the latest from Facebook and Flickr, this could be a handy addition to your arsenal.
It's also designed to keep power consumption low, so you won't constantly be running out of juice and thus start missing the latest news from your friends or those you follow.
To get hold of EasyPeasy, you'll need to transfer it on to a USB drive, which can easily be done using several tools, including Wubi, Unetbootin or MultiBoot. The distribution includes Picasa for organising images, Skype, and the Gwibber microblogging client.
Despite being tailor-made for netbooks, EasyPeasy also includes OpenOffice.org, and Evolution too, although both of these programs have been tweaked to perform well on Intel's Atom processors. There's Ubuntu One for online storage, and the distribution can play a wide range of media, including MP3s, AVIs and DVDs. It comes with Firefox and the Flash plugin as well. You can also pull in more apps using the included Synaptic package manager.
On a Lenovo Ideapad S10-3s, the distro worked flawlessly. Cheese worked with the built-in webcam, and the distro also detected the proprietary Broadcom wireless.
EasyPeasy relies on the standard Ubuntu installer in order to transfer itself onto the your machine. Make sure you partition the disk carefully, since most netbooks actually have a dedicated partition for recovering the default OS. If you need any help, head towards the EasyPeasy forums. There's also a lot of information to be found on the distro's wiki, including tips on how to save power and thus get the most out of your battery. We wouldn't hesitate to recommend this one.
You'd think the limited physical resources of a netbook wouldn't leave enough room for developers to innovate, but you'd be wrong. The MeeGo user interface is a continuation of the Moblin platform. It's slick and the distro is quick to get going.
App switching is pretty fast too, regardless of the number you have open. Apps in MeeGo are automatically minimised when you bring up the panel by dragging to the top of the screen or using the Windows key. You can customise the panel to add Gadgets and a Pasteboard. Except for a proprietary Broadcom wireless card, Meego found and set up all other hardware on our test netbook, including the Bluetooth radio and the built-in camera.
Before you update packages, check for system updates. Once the required updates have been installed, head to the Garage to install popular apps, such as GCompris, Marble, AbiWord, Thunderbird, Gimp and more. For yet more apps, head on over to Manage Apps.
Out of the box, MeeGo plays a host of media types, and includes the Flash plugin for Chromium. Besides the browser, there's Empathy for messaging, Gedit for text editing, a few games (including FrozenBubble), Evolution for email, and the Banshee media player.
Then there's the Status panel, which enables you to quickly update multiple web service accounts. Note that these are currently limited to Twitter and Last.fm, but we hope more are to come. The distro also helps you sync your calendar, contacts, tasks and emails, either via Bluetooth or by using one of the supported web services: Funabol, Memotoo or Mobical.
Support-wise, go online and you'll find a detailed, illustrated guide, as well as a wiki, forums, and mailing lists.
First published in Linux Format Issue 140
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