Sunday, August 19, 2012

The quest for the perfect Linux distribution: an ongoing journey

In the following article I will give an overview of the journey I have already made through the land of Linux distributions. It contains my personal view, colored by my love for KDE and eagerness to try new software. I hope it contains some useful information for you, whether you are a long-time Linux user or are new to the operating system.

The beginning of the story

In 2001, I started using Linux at the end of my first year at university, studying Computer Science. For the first (and last) time, I bought a box with a Linux distribution and some manuals in it and installed SUSE Linux 7.2. At that time, it was not really a deliberate choice, it was just the distribution some other students in my year were already using.

I immediately liked the way the Linux system was working, and it was also the start of my love for the KDE desktop. However, Linux was not nearly as smooth and polished back then as it is now and so after a while, I started wandering around. A short stop at Redhat and Gentoo Linux brought me to Mandrake Linux, where I stayed for 3 years.
I was happy with it, but unfortunately Mandrake went through rough financial times with a "déclaration de cessation de paiement" (similar to the US Chapter 11) as a result. Mandrake became Mandriva and after that, things started to go downhill, updates started to slow down and even the Mandriva club membership I had for one year did not offer a solution as club members were treated poorly. The promised extras did not make it to the club members and there were plenty of issues. Switching to Mandriva Cooker (development release) to have the latest and greatest features was not the best solution since this meant running an unstable distribution with all risks involved.
After giving it some thought, I decided to jump ship and switch to Kubuntu. I wrote a farewell notice, which was picked up by Distrowatch. A short summary:
  • I wanted a distribution which was stable, yet brought the latest and greatest of software
  • Mandriva did not offer enough updates for me, Mandriva Cooker was too unstable
  • The package manager urpmi was a lot slower than apt-get
  • Mandriva 2006 came with an unstable 6.9, which broke my dual head monitor setup
  • Kubuntu came with a great installer that recognized all my hardware and the installer was amazingly fast. do-release-upgrade could upgrade the distribution to a new release without CD-ROM
I did not think Mandriva was bad, I just hoped to find a better distribution with Kubuntu.

The journey went on

In this section I describe my more deliberate choices. Where in the first section I more or less stumbled over a new distribution, I had now enough experience with Linux to know what I liked and did not like and to make better underpinned decisions.

So, I started using Kubuntu enthusiastically, but never really felt at home, like I had felt with Mandriva. I did not like the total version update freeze between two releases, especially since it was totally out of sync with the KDE releases, which for me still contains the most visual feature updates since it is my desktop environment. When I tried using several ppa's, there were often package version conflicts and intervening manually was not all that fun. Upgrading to a new release using do-release-upgrade appeared to be an illusion as that way of upgrading was pretty unstable.
Feeling adventurous, I decided to try the development version of Kubuntu, but unfortunately, as with Mandriva Cooker, that was the wrong choice: that was completely unstable and unusable, even for a (by that time) experienced Linux user.

After only a few months, I started to look around once again. Not after long, my eye fell on a somewhat less famous distribution, Arch Linux. It offered a thing that had been on my wish-list for a long time: a rolling release offering the newest versions of software, every time when that software got released, independently of a rigid release schedule like other distributions have.


  1. You have a problem, though. It is your "love" for KDE, and because of that you have not had a chance to "see the world." So, move around a bit, download few Gnome, XFCE, LXDE etc distros, and work with them. Or download the mini.iso of Ubuntu and make your own Kubuntu. Our dictionary is pretty heavy, but we don't really use all the words in the dictionary in everyday life, and just the same way, you don't use "all" the applications all the time.

    You wanted to work with the distro you had or you wanted more and more new and newer applications? Do you know that Ubuntu old ones still work?

    First of all, think what do you really want from a Linux distro, then find out those applications, add them to your whatever distro and keep working. Another advice is find "the" vanilla distro, such as Fedora, OpenSuse, Ubuntu etc and build them yourself. It won't take a afternoon and few coffees.

    If you want to play with bare bone operating systems, then check Arch, Gentoo--they ar enot distributions, as they don't have anything to distribute at the beginning.

    If that is also not good, then try the Swedish Exton's remade, remixed distros from Crux to any type of KDE.

    Good Luck!

    1. IF he is like me, I need the newest features of MPPE, Kontact (Google Calendar and tasks), etc.. the sheer desktop power of KDE is comparable to none. It makes a user's life easier, not harder. And from my considerable experience with Gnome, XFCE, and LDXE, they fall short. I use them all, but for different reasons.

      Not to say that other DEs are not good, but for some there is no parallel in capabilities and ease of use that KDE has. It's a matter that KDE fits our needs, not a matter of other DEs being inferior.

      Choice :)

  2. You might want to test out Chakra Linux as well. It is a pure KDE implementation (with no traces of GTK). And if you aboslutely require GTK applications, they have a great 'bundles' system in place to make that possible.
    Although, Chakra is based on Arch, there is a difference in the update process. In Chakra, the applications are fully rolling while the core has a more conservative and scheduled rolling to ensure stability and speed.

    You can visit the project page at:

    1. That was my thought as well when I read it. Chakra or perhaps Fedora are good for strong KDE systems with a lot of very fresh packages - and Chakra can be administrated the way an Arch user would like - GUIs available, but still only as frontends to config files.
      Note that Chakra just made a new release.

    2. Yes! Especially the latest version of the distro, it is very well done. I am considering running it on my work PC for a test run, it has come a long way from previous versions. I like the direction they are going.

  3. Certainly, not the passenger of the same bus! But, I began my LInux Journey in 2003 with RedHats before they all went proprietary.I too shared the same brief experience with Mandrake-Mandriva. But, my longest tenure has been with Fedora releases, with intermittent installations of OpenSuse and Ubuntu.
    All, I can tell you that I kept returning to Fedora from most of these parallel trajectories. I have been hitting at pot-holes of my own kind, esp when you need Google Earth or so. But, by far I have experienced that Fedora family gives you the widest possible choices to solve out many of those issues. But, I have always an avid fan dual-boots. So, now the equilibrium is achieved with Wins, Fedoras and Unbuntus all lying on my harddisk.

  4. @Desh: I have tried other desktops and did not like them. Perhaps I should write an article on desktops as well :-)

    "Do you know that Ubuntu old ones still work?"
    => What do you mean by that please?

    I am not really looking for new applications, just new versions of the applications I use, whenever the developers release them.

    Of course I can build these packages myself, I have done so for some packages already, but it is more convenient to have them packaged for you, is it not? :)

    If you read the article, you saw that I have used Arch for quite some time and it is still one of my favorite distributions, just not my main distribution at the moment. Gentoo is not really my cup of tea as I am not really a believer of 'compile everything yourself'

    I'll have a look at the remixed distros from Crux, thanks for the hint!

    1. Not all the "new" versions of applications work, so most times the old, but sure applications are safer.

      I meant by old Ubuntu were the old Ubuntu distros. I have 5.10 and it works too.

      I am not asking you to compile everything. There are enough compiled ones in Debian and Ubuntu repos, so you could either download the mini.iso from Ubuntu or netinstall from Debian and add any applications you want and any DEs you want. If it is Ubuntu, you can use the ppas too. Much better than Arch ones, as no one knows when they'd break. You could build your Kubuntu or KDE distro that way. One afternoon and few coffees.

      I read the article. I tried my hand on Arch. It is an operating system, rather than a distribution. It was fun for sometime, but was a headache later. If I want to "feel" the Arch way, I'd use Bridge Linux. You can have a very good KDE version. The guy, who makes them don't even advertise why he is making them. That's one good reason to try his work out.

      If you need a only KDE, then why not try Chakra. It is a pretty good distro.

      There are few guys, who are not that known. One guys is Exton. You can find him here or at lauchpad or sourceforge. He has pretty slick distros of all kind.

      I wanted to "feel" Gentoo, so I tried Sabayon from 4 to 9, but nothing extreme about that. There is a quite nice Gentoo distro from St.Petersburg, Russia - Calculate Linux. But I return to Ubuntu, because it is safe.

      I like KDE, but don't like the names in that. Some application windows look like Win 95. I don't like Caligra or its earlier one. KDE, of course has its eye candy, but that's not what we are looking for, right? The DE should stay away from work, right?

      My suggestion is take Ubuntu or Kubuntu, un-install anything you don't like and install anything you need. Check Webup8, Tux-garage, Noobslab websites, and you'd find a wealth of information.

      You just can't have everything, can you?

      By the way, today I am using my own distro, meaning I looked at many, learned something, searched through the above 3 websites, learned something and now have a pretty nice ubuntu 12.04 remix with my own logo, splash screen, wallpaper, fonts, icons etc. To find the icons and fonts I went to That is a fabulous site!

      Have a good day!


      PS: My way of writing is little rough, but I am a friendly guy, okay?

    2. Not all the "new" versions of applications work, so most times the old, but sure applications are safer.
      => True, that is why it is a choice, if there were only advantages, there would not be a choice :-)

      I need more than just KDE, some applications are not available in KDE/QT land, like e.g. wireshark and I definitely do not like Calligra either :-)

      You definitely cannot have everything, you always have to prioritize.

      Remixing is nice indeed a solution, but for the moment Tumbleweed is nice for me, with just a bit of tweaking.

      You do not sound to rough to me, I believe you are friendly, no panic there :D

    3. All of us to that-remixing. We get only vanilla distros, don't we? I mean the normal Debian, Fedora, OpenSuse, Slackware, Ubuntu etc. The others are all personal remixes of the "developers". But we, users too add and delete stuff from the "normal" distros, so all we do is remixing them.

      Even, if we install Arch or Gentoo, all we get is a rough base, and then we add X, DEs and applications and finally everyone of us have a different remix of the vanilla distro or operating systems in the case of Arch and Gentoo.

      It would've been nice, if KDE, Gnome, XFCE, LXDE etc work harmoniously with each other without jumping with a massive load of dependencies. If a Gnome user would like to install KDE Klondike, he'd have massive amount of additional libraries etc coming in. This is where the Linux-related devs should inter-work. What the use of having one type of Klondike for KDE and another for Gnome and even another for XFCE? It looks like they just fight each other, trying to prove who is best. In the end even with buggy apps, Windows succeed in the userland. Just check how many would be standing in queues to buy Win 8, when it is released!

      You try and come out with a good solution for you. Some people are angry with Unity and Gnome-shell, but no one really wants to look a little beyond or under. So, Cinnamon and Mate came about, but the Gnome-Classic is just there for you to pick. And you are back in your old known way of handling the computer.

      I know I can do that with Ubuntu 12.04, which I did anyway. I have Fedora 17, so I might try to get rid of the Gnome-shell and get back the Gnome-Classic one day. There is no use shouting at the Gnome devs, but use what they have, the way one likes. And there won't be a need for cinnamon or Mate, which are trying to push the Gnome devs back.

      I understand you like KDE, but there are some, who like the old KDE, 3.5 and still find ways to stay on. This is Linux and equals freedom.

      You are quite knowledgeable in computer science, but I am not, just a user. You can do it, if I can. And better!

      Like to see your success!

      Have a nice day!

  5. @Samuel-Arton: One more to try, thanks for the hint! :)

  6. @Goluworld: Great you liked your journey too!

  7. Cheers, mate.

    And thank you for the insightful article. I've been distro-hopping quite a lot lately, owing to the recent Unity/GNOME3 debacle and since I generally prefer GTK over Qt. Furthermore, I'd rather stick with a fully functional DE like GNOME2 (which I currently am on with Fuduntu) than move over to Unity/GNOME3.

    The melding of touch and point-and-click interfaces in to one single DE is functional to neither, those who have touch screens nor to those who prefer to use mice. The Unity and GNOME teams should have taken a page or two from KDE where the users are given the choice of selecting either a Netbook interface or a normal interface. But even then, KDE is getting too bloated for its own good. Who knows, but Qt 5 and KDE 5 may bring about surprising changes and hopefully for the good.

    The future of functional DE's, I reckon, belong to Cinnamon and Razor-Qt, both of which provide a lightweight, yet powerful DE.

    1. Here is a hint, Samuel.
      Take Ubuntu 12.04 for example. It has Gnome 3 underneath and Unity on top, but that means it has Gnome Classic too, only you can't see it, as in the Unity Greeter you see only Ubuntu and Ubuntu fallback. See what happens when you do the following.

      You un-install Unity and Unity 2 and all that's there. Check this site to see how to;
      And what you get is Gnome-Classic and its fallback. Its that simple!

      Install Ubuntu-Tweak to do the tweaking, but not the Gnome Tweak Tool, as it would bring back Gnome-shell. Or use Gconf-Editor.

      Now, you are free from Gnome-shell and Unity and you have your Gnome 2 look and that's for next five years, as it is LTS. You can go on updating, but your distro won't bring in any Gnome-shell or Unity updates.

      If you like Cairo dock, you could install it, but it won't bring back Gnome-shell or Unity as you don't have it there in your distro.

      Maybe you can do that with other then Ubuntu distros, which has Gnome-shell.

      And no headaches!

      Have a good day!


    2. Should be "Maybe you can do that with other than Ubuntu distros, which has Gnome-shell."

  8. Nice overview and I agree with you, I also believe that openSUSE has the best KDE implementation, but I stopped using KDE after KDE 4 appeared, KDE 3.5 was awesome. I'm still using an old laptop, and KDE 4 is too heavy for me. I even made openbox look like KDE 3:

    As you probably see, I prefer Debian stable (with fluxbox or openbox), because I want a lightweight, stable system, with a lot of software.

    1. I am more like a 'feature-junk' I guess ;-)
      My computers is capable enough to handle a more heavy-weight desktop like KDE and I love its features. Some of its features also save a lot of time for me, but openbox is nice indeed if you prefer lightweight.

    2. I am thinking of looking at KDE again having been a Gnome user for a number of years. Just out of interest which features did you find to be time saving?

    3. There are many small ones of course, but if I have to give some important ones, I am thinking of:
      - fish (File over SSH) in all KDE applications
      - how all applications integrate with each other
      - krunner

  9. nice review but i am not into gui ...

  10. @ix Wow, that's pretty striking!

    I'm much more of a minimalist in terms of what I want in a GUI, but I've done as much distro hopping in that as you have with KDE. I definitely agree that a rolling release cycle is much easier and more enjoyable to use in the long run. Debian testing gives me what I need - things are rarely unstable in my experience. :) It's worth noting that I sometimes use different distros on different hardware (i.e. netbook vs. laptop vs. desktop) because each handles and displays differently.

    Graphical configuration, though... it feels like training wheels to me. There are some tasks where a GUI is a life-saver, and others where point-and-click is more frustrating than helpful. But what do I know, I prefer my keyboard any day. XD

    A note on Chakra, it's no longer based on Arch. Thought you might want to know that. Excellent review!

    1. I agree with you that you should not do everything with a GUI, when I am working on my laptop, I have at least one konsole open and I do many things on CLI as well, but sometimes it is just nice to fix things with a few quick clicks :-)

      Thanks for the note on Chakra!

  11. It's pretty easy to build packages from source on openSUSE given the openSUSE Build Service. All you need to know is the internal OBS RPM conventions; everything else can be done on their build servers via the web interface or on your own machine.

    I'm not a KDE fan; there are some things I like about it - Nepomuk, for example - but I much prefer GNOME 3 to the KDE 4 "Plasma", and I don't like KDE's insistence on providing a browser and an office suite when the rest of the open source world seems to have standardized on Firefox and LibreOffice.

  12. I think that, as the distro's and their DEs evolve further and further,there would come a day when a single change would trigger a massive fallback to the ol' tty, where simple commands can be typed in. i hope that happens, with apps that require graphics opening their own environments. What ticked me off most, when i upgraded from ubuntu 10.10 to 11.04 was that suddenly, all familiarity with the desktop was lost, with me having to relearn everything all over again. And though it's been a year since then, I've finally got the hang of unity, and i even like it, though i was an ordinary user with no knowledge about the terminal before it (i started trying to learn a few terminal commands as i was bothered by unity's cumbersome navigation in 11.04).

    1. Hi Anand,

      You can get rid of the Unity panel and get back to your usual way of handling your computer. Check what I replied to Samuel above.

      Have a nice day!

  13. Have you ever heard about Bedrock Linux? That might solve all your issues.

    1. Now I have :-) Looks nice, but do not know if it will work as good as they say. It seems like a lot of fiddling to me, but I will try it, perhaps when it comes out of alpha though.

  14. Since you've spent so much time with Mandrake/Mandriva I think you should have a look at Mageia. It's been a very pleasant experience for me, seems to run very smoothly no crashes yet. For some reason on Mageia my CPU temp is ~50degC, but on Ubuntu or even ROSA Linux (another Mandriva fork) it is ~68degC.

    I'll be hanging out with Mageia for awhile, it appears I'm not the only one with Mageia at the #2 spot on Distrowatch page hits.

  15. Nice share. I have used a lot of linux distros but for me. I personally love Fedora and generally use it with KDE. I found it to have all latest packages that I use. Also to me it is the ultimate dev's distro. But in my laptop I use ubuntu. And I must say you must give it a try. It is a very stable and user friendly distro.

  16. Thanks, Erwin! This article DID make me want to try out some other distros! Thanks for writing up your experiences. Good luck with your PhD work!

  17. I have tried Fedora, Ubuntu, Mint, OpenSUSE and SlackWare. At the moment I am using FreeBSD.

  18. I use Ubuntu. Things I consider as a huge advantage.
    1. Seamless installation and easy to install.
    2. Comes with the good and up-to-date (IMHO its best) applications like Firefox, Thunderbird. Though VLC would have been the default media player.
    3. Very stable. I had a clean and very stable OS using 10.04 which I planned to use as a fallback for my Windows installation (it eventually became my primary Desktop).
    4. Easy to use. I didn't have to re-learn many thing I just had to click at difference places.
    5. I have too many informations all over Internet to fiddle around.
    6. Way faster than my Windows 7 installation. I can have atleast 50 Tabs open in Firefox and the system runs as smooth as butter.
    7. Software center makes getting applications easier. The new one in 12.04 is way good. Though buggy.
    8. Perfect balance between Beauty and Performance.
    9. Unity, eventhough I hated it reading some reviews on 11.04 I started loving it in 12.04. Esp. keyboard shortcuts has increased my productivity. (Alt + ) will show you the list of commands from any open applications.

    1. No way to use Ubuntu if you really love KDE... openSUSE 12.2 with 4.9 is simply stunnig...