In April 1991, Linus Torvalds, at the time a 21 year old computer science student at the University of Helsinki, Finland, started working on some simple ideas for an operating system. Although the desktop computer market exploded throughout the 1990s, the Linux Operating System remained pretty much the domain of geeks who like to build their own computers. I really believed that more than 20 years later we would have Linux computers in our home as common as Windows or Apple varieties.
The only dent in the domination of Windows or Apple desktop computers in recent years has been the introduction of the Chromebook as a personal computer in 2011. The Chrome operating system is a strange mix of the Linux kernel and using the Google Chrome web browser as a user interface.
The Linux operating system has come a long way since the mid 1990s. From painful experiences with using floppy disks and hunting down hardware drivers, my experiences with installing many distributions of Linux in recent years has been pretty painless.
The Linux kernel
Just as I did with answering the question, "what is the best desktop computer operating system," I am going to generalize a bit here so we don't get too deep into the geek speak. Hopefully the tech purists won't beat me up too much for generalizing. Let's begin with quickly going over the basic definitions.
Think of the Linux kernel as an automobile engine and drive train that was designed by a community. Once the engine and drive train have been developed there are groups that split off and design their own version of an automobile. Each of these automotive design groups have their own community with goals for how they want to use their finished product, some may focus on style and looks, another group may want to focus on being practical and functional. Once the group has a general purpose in mind, they will form an online community where they can share ideas in creating a finished product.
The Linux Distro
Each customized version of Linux that adds additional modules and applications is supported by an online community offering internet downloads as well as support. You will see the question phrased as which Linux distro should you use. Distro is a shortened version of the term distribution. There are many distros of the Linux family all based on the same Linux kernel, the core of the computer operating system. There are geeks who swear by which is the best Linux distro, but in the end it is a matter of what works best for you.
When it comes to comparing the various distributions, I find "the big three" to be very similar, because in reality they are variations of the same family. As of the time of this update, March 2017, based on various statistics the most popular version of Linux is Mint, with Debian coming in second, followed by Ubuntu. Mint is a fork from Ubuntu, which is itself a fork from Debian. Mint is very similar indeed to Ubuntu. Mint was forked off Ubuntu with the goal of providing a familiar desktop graphical user interface.
First answer the question, why are you looking at Linux? Do you have an old computer with an outdated operating system that you are looking to upgrade? Or perhaps you just want to see what all the fuss is about with the "free" alternative to Windows or Apple?
If you simply want to play with Linux and just want to see what all the fuss is about, Mint is a very easy place to start. I have installed Mint on a few old computers with no issues. One of the biggest issues I have experienced with many versions of Linux is the lack of drivers for certain pieces of hardware in some laptop models. There's a few old Dell laptops I moved on from installing Linux because finding drivers for the Wi-Fi was not worth the effort.
Here's a look at various distributions of Linux.
In our previous question on "what is the best desktop computer operating system" we addressed the topic of the "free" alternative to Windows or Apple as we explained Open Source software. Richard Stallman, the father of the Open Source software movement, explains that Open Source refers to the preservation of the freedoms to use, study, distribute and modify that software, not zero-cost. In illustrating the concept of Gratis versus Libre, Stallman is famous for using the sentence, "free as in free speech not as in free beer." Even though Linux is open source there are versions that are commercially distributed and supported.
Fedora - Red Hat
Red Hat Commercial Linux, introduced in 1995, was one of the first commercially supported versions of Linux, and entered into the enterprise network environment because of its support. Red Hat Linux has evolved quite a bit over the years as Red Hat Linux merged with the community based Fedora Project in 2003.
Fedora is now the free community supported home version of Red Hat Linux. Fedora ranks slightly behind the other distros we mention here in popularity, Fedora is often at the top of list when it comes to integrating new package versions and technologies into the distribution. Many users in the enterprise environment rave about the stability of Fedora.
SUSE - openSUSE
openSUSE claims to be "the makers' choice for sysadmins, developers and desktop users." You may not find a lot of neighborhood geeks telling you to try openSUSE but it ranks near the top of many charts as far as popularity. SUSE was marketing Linux to the enterprise market in 1992, before Red Hat. Many American geeks are not as familiar with SUSE because it was developed in Germany. I have not had any issues with installing it. You can always download a "live CD" which allows you to run the operating system off of the CD without having to install it
openSUSE is the open source version. SUSE is often used in commercial environments because professional help is available under a support contract through SUSE Linux. Having worked as a Novell Netware systems administrator I was involved with SUSE Linux as the Novell Netware network operating system was coming to the end of its life when Novell bought the SUSE brands and trademarks in 2003. When Novell was purchsed by The Attachmate Group in 2011, SUSE was spun off as an independent business unit. SUSE is geared for the business environment with SUSE Linux Enterprise Server and SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop. Each focuses on packages that fit its specific purpose.
Debian - Ubuntu - Mint
Ubuntu and Mint are Debian-based: their package manager is APT (The Advanced Package Tool) a free software user interface that works with core libraries to handle the installation and removal of software on the Debian Linux distributions. Their packages follow the DEB (Debian) package format.
Ubuntu is often used in commercial environments because professional help is available under a support contract through Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu.
Mint is basically the same OS as Debian or Ubuntu with a different default configuration with a lot of pre-installed applications and a nice looking desktop. Mint was forked off from the Ubuntu community with the goal of providing a familiar desktop Operating System. If you are looking for something to use as a server Debian or Ubuntu may be a better choice.
What about all the rest?
There are more that 200 different versions of Linux. Once you go beyond the versions mentioned here you are getting into support issues. With each of the three families of Linux we mention here, there is a commercially supported version and a community supported version. Keep in mind, if you are not buying support through one of the commercial versions mentioned here, each of these families have a well established online community for support of the open source version.
Is it time to switch to Linux?
Back in the late 1990s I was taking a community college course on Novell networking and systems administration using Novell Netware. As part of the curriculum we had to write a term paper on a unrelated technology topic, I chose Linux on the desktop. I concluded that I was impressed with Linux as an operating system, but it would not become mainstream desktop operating system until there were hardware companies embracing it and selling home computers with Linux installed. Twenty years later, that really has not happened.
You could make the case that the Google Chromebook is a version of Linux installed and configured along with a computer, but the Google Chromebook has not become a mainstream home computer. If all you want to do is surf the net, interact on social media, and read your email, a Google Chromebook works fine. But beyond that there are many issues.
Hardware drivers and website plugins can be a problem when using any version of Linux. Many manufacturers don't develop Linux device drivers for their hardware, you need to search them out yourself through your LInux community. Using many websites that need Digital Rights Management, like Amazon Video, Netflix, or Sling, getting your streaming to work on Linux can be difficult. Some websites don't understand Linux as an operating system and automatic installs of plugins fail.
I know I said at the beginning of this discussion that in recent years my experinece in installing Linux has been pretty painless, but I have access to name brand hardware on pretty basic computers. The problem with hardware drivers and browser plug ins keeps improving, but beware it can be an issue at times. It is still a concern that can turn your Linux experince sour. The biggest problem I have experienced in experimenting with Linux is network card and WiFi drivers in laptop models.
In our last article we discussed why is Microsoft Windows so popular. Whether you love them or hate them, many applications only have a Windows version. There are many websites that offer "open source equivalents” to your favorite applications. Some equivalents work well, others are very buggy. The key to using any open source application is looking at how active is the community that supports them. Be cautious of applications that look cool and work well, but are basically created and supported by a single individual. They can often become unsupported as developer creates an application and moves on without supporting it over time.
Take Linux for a test drive
Look for a live distribution of Linux that allows you to run a full instance of the operating system from either CD, DVD, or USB, without making changes to your current system. Many install downloads will offer you a live test drive of the distro that does not install anything to your hard drive. If everything works well from a live test drive, you can feel a bit more comfortable about doing the "real" install.