Every year or so, there’s a new Linux distro darling. Last year’s was Ubuntu, and I’ve lost track of what this year’s favorite penguin might be. But a lot of newcomers to Linux seem to get the impression that a new distro is better than an older package because there’ll be more attention paid to new technologies and easier user interfaces. In fact, pretty much the opposite is true.
For example, I’m a Fedora moonie. I don’t hate any of the others, but Fedora got me way back in Version 3, and now that we’re at 9 it’s just getting better. I use only Linux for certain tasks, and Fedora does them all with aplomb, with almost no maintenance on my part–no reason for me to change to some new distro. A more mature distro means the project team has gotten around not just to incorporating new technologies, but also to paying attention to details. Fedora 9’s new NetworkManager, for instance, really makes Fedora on a laptop easier to manage.
Another old distro that many new users simply ignore because it’s got too much of a geek stigma is Debian. This is one of the original distros, first pubbed back in the early ’90s, with a long history of development. And in fact, many of the new distro darling packages are based on Debian, including Ubuntu. Debian’s maturity, however, has several advantages:
A much smoother installation. Debian has long history of hardware support, including drivers for mainstream manufacturers like ATI, Broadcom and Nvidia.
The largest library of compatible software repositories. We’re talking over 18,000, which is bigger than anything else, even my Fedora.
Officially supported software. So not just 18,000 packages, but just about that many that are officially supported by the Debian team–that means compatibility and performance testing as well as maintenance updates.
Slick details. I’m most impressed with Debian’s installer, which lets you not only find compatible software, but automatically lets users decide how much risk they’re willing to take by choosing the minimum maturity level of installed software, ranging from ‘experimental,’ to ‘unstable,’ ‘in-testing,’ or finally ‘stable.’ Cool thing is, most Debian users will tell you that ‘unstable’ is stable enough and choosing this option gives you access to almost the entire library of 18,000 software packages.
I’m still not a big believer in Linux as a mainstream desktop player–a desktop for everyone. But it works great for many, especially IT folks, programmers and serious power users. But if you’re looking to give the penguin a try, don’t immediately go for the latest distro to hit the streets. Check out some of the old timers, too. You might be pleasantly surprised.