Graduating from Ubuntu

Monday Mar 24th 2014 by Matt Hartley
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A survey of alternate Linux distributions for those users seeking to broaden their horizons.

Ubuntu is famous for being a distribution where newcomers can discover Linux in a community environment. With ample support and tons of software in the repositories, it's a distro that seems to have it all.

But like with all good things, sometimes it's nice to see what other options have to offer as well. In this article, I dive into my picks for solid Ubuntu alternatives for those of you looking to graduate to something new.

Arch – DIY Linux

I've run Arch and distributions based on Arch for a few months now and I'll be first to admit, Arch is NOT for the faint of heart. If you genuinely want to "build" a customized experience free of fluff and the other stuff that distributions tend to come with, then this is a great opportunity for you.

Starting off at a command line, you're going to get to know the Arch wiki right away. Perhaps one of the best maintained Linux wiki's I've ever relied on, the Arch documentation is very detailed. The attraction to Arch Linux is often based on its bleeding edge packaging system, the Arch User Repository. It's a lot like Ubuntu's Personal Package Archive (PPAs), but with great front end tools for discovery and installation.

I'd even go so far as to suggest that it's by far, going to have ANY Linux software you might want, where PPAs are generally hit and miss. While many people are drawn to Arch solely based on its package management, I'll warn you now that if this is your only reason, look to a derivative instead.

Arch is a good fit for you if you're willing to spend time learning from their Wiki, and you understand that there is no Arch desktop unless you decide to install one. That said, it's a great experience to at least try once. And later on, if you so choose, you can gain a full Arch desktop using Antergos as it's fully ready to go out of the box.

Like Arch, Antergos is a rolling release distribution. This means you install it once, and you're good for life – just update, no re-installation needed.

Debian: stability at its best

If the bleeding edge aspect of Arch isn't what you're looking for, then you might want to try Debian instead. Unlike Ubuntu, there's plenty of stuff you'll need to configure yourself. But like Ubuntu, you'll be able to do so easily via apt as you install any needed packages from the repositories.

Debian is best positioned to run with the XFCE desktop, as it's both compact on a disc and keeps a minimal footprint in terms of resources.

Generally considered a Linux purist distribution, Debian lacks much of the bloat found under Ubuntu. While other distros are heavily focused on ease of use, Debian's main claim to fame is its security and stability. What this means to the user is that there's a trade-off in not having access to the latest packages without using the Debian unstable/testing repositories.

You'll also find that Debian adheres closely to the community mindset by avoiding software trademarks like Firefox or Thunderbird. Instead, they use IceWeasel and Icedove. Despite this, the FSF still doesn't consider it a recommended distribution for Free Software fans. Because Debian still has the potential of allowing non-free software, and the FSF doesn't approve.

It's worth noting that Debian offers you some interesting choices when it comes to stability. Most people chose Debian for their stable repositories. This is software that has been tested and tested again to ensure maximum stability. Debian stable users can get some newer software releases by adding the backports to their repository list.

The next choice is Debian testing. This contains software that is considered ready for the next stable release. Generally speaking, you'll see more activity in terms of newer software with this option. And finally, there's Debian unstable. Considered a developer's release, unstable provides cutting edge packages but isn't recommended for a daily use desktop.

Is Debian for you? If you value stability over bleeding edge software and hardware detection, then yes, it's a great option.

gNewSense: respecting your freedom

Based on Debian, gNewSense provides Linux fans a FSF approved Linux distribution that is free of all non-free repositories. If you want the truly Free Software experience, gNewSense is highly recommended.

This distribution even goes so far as to remove recommendations and links for non-free software within its default Iceweasel browser. This means if you end up on a website requiring Flash, you will not receive a prompt to install it from Adobe.com. This cleaned up version of Debian also includes a removal of proprietary blobs from of the Linux kernel itself.

These changes bring up issues of compatibility. On the plus side, I'm happy to report the lack of proprietary code means you're encouraged to use natively supported wireless devices instead of hacked together solutions through NDISWrapper. This means you can purchase FSF approved hardware from vendors like ThinkPenguin.com, instead of settling for incompatible hardware from your local big box store. You can also find a working database of supported hardware at h-node.

If the idea of using this distribution over those based on Debian sounds compelling, why do some people still choose other distributions over gNewSense? It's simple: the choice in what kind of software folks run on their systems. The issue here is that if I want to use Steam on my gNewSense box, this isn't supported by the community as Steam. And the games they offer aren't considered to be Free Software according to the FSF. On Debian no one is going to have a problem with Steam, and Valve even went so far as to give Debian developers, free Steam keys.

Are you someone who should consider gNewSense? If you listen to Ogg Vorbis over MP3s and make hardware purchases based on whether it's supported by Free Software, then yes, you should check it out.

Summary: Putting it all together

As we revisit the Ubuntu alternatives I've mentioned above, the best way to sum up each of them is as follows.

Arch – You are someone who isn't concerned about the FSF stance on proprietary code in your distribution, however you want a bleeding edge experience that you control from the ground up. This is a teaching distribution of Linux.

Debian – Stability above all else is what matters to you. You still want the option to use proprietary software if needed, however not at the risk of putting your Linux installation into an unstable state. This is a Linux distribution for long-term use, without the hassle of constant upgrades.

gNewSense – FSF above all else, backed by the ease of use of the Debian packaging system. Freedom from proprietary code is the name of the game with this distribution. Respecting your freedom by keeping you away from all things proprietary.

Which one is right for you? If you still don't know, I suggest trying each distribution and to see which one really speaks to you personally. Who knows, you may discover you enjoy the lightweight stability of Debian, or even the bleeding edge DIY experience offered by Arch.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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