100 Days of LotD | Day 1: The Choosing

You can find the „100 Days of LotD“ mission statement [ here ].

The biggest problem with ’switching to Linux‘ is that there are so many of them. The popularity ranking of DistroWatch.com lists a total of 276 distributions, and I am pretty sure there are some more out there (RHEL, for instance, is not listed at all). This is somewhat overwhelming for your average Windows user who usually only ever has the choice (if at all) between Home and Professional, the latter offering more features but the same overall user experience as the former. MacOS users are even less spoiled for choice.

Narrowing the search

So how does one go about choosing a Linux distro for personal use? Asking those ‚in the know‘ is not really an option – I tried that years ago and got more questions than answers. Going with the ratings like the one linked above only helps so far, because sometimes the differences between two distributions are not easy to spot but will bite you later if you do not choose wisely. There is *some* help in this matter to be found, like, for instance, the Distro Chooser but you still are left with dozens of equally fitting distros to choose from.

The most important parameters

At the end of the day, it’s down to four parameters:

  1. The parent distro (Debian for Ubuntu and Mint, RHEL for Fedora and CentOS, nothing for Arch etc.). From ‚Joe User‘ point of view, this one may be something for the ‚true believers‘ but when it comes to support for third party packages, it may be helpful to know where the roots of your chosen distro lie. I have not enough knowledge about the inner workings of Linux to feel that I must differentiate here.
  2. The desktop environment. Many distros will allow for multiple desktop managers, even installed side by side, but most have their preferred flavour. Although I have used Ubuntu on many occasions, I never came to like Gnome, even if it does have some nice applications on board and offers good UX on small screens. Of the alternatives, KDE Plasma is what resembles Windows 10 the most; Cinnamon sits somewhere in between, while Pantheon certainly looks similar to MacOS, at least from the Windows user’s perspective. There is a short but nice comparison to be found here, I played around with the four I mentioned and I feel that KDE Plasma might be the best fit.
  3. The package management. I am most comfortable with yum (RHEL) but usually able to find my way around apt (Debian) as well. There are others, both in terms of the programs actually doing the installing and of package formats supported.
  4. Support for particular packages. If you need a certain package and there is no alternative to it, the best OS is not worth much if it doesn’t support that package. Beside the office, web and email stuff, I definitely need the PowerShell stack, i.e. PowerShell Core and VSCode.

The obvious choices

There are some Linux distros I always stumble upon when looking for an OS alternative:

  • Ubuntu. If I simply need a Linux on some box for a demo, or a live distro to repartition a drive or something, this is what I always end up using. However, like I said above, I do not care very much for Gnome.
  • CentOS. This is the Linux variant I definitely know best, albeit mostly without a desktop and in server usage scenarios.
  • Kali. This is what the cool kids supposedly use if they feel like doing some hackin‘
  • FreeBSD. This is actually *not* a Linux distro but a UNIX port. I got into it by using pfSense and FreeNAS and will sometimes recommend it for servers, especially if certain HBAs and NICs are in play. Wouldn’t really want it on my desktop, though.

The candidates

I don’t have unlimited time for choosing my Linux distro (my Windows machine has died, remember?) so here’s the shortlist of candidates I came up with. I expect the Linux nerds to laugh at this but there you go, a Joe User has made his choice.

I installed each of them on my laptop and played with the desktop, the software management and other easily accessible stuff for an hour or so. Not an in-depth analysis by any means, just trying to get an impression.

Mint (Cinnamon)

I never heard about Mint until very recently, but it seems to be gainig in popularity. A nice little distro, a desktop manager I hadn’t any previous experience with, but Debian-based so software availability shouldn’t be an issue.

Why: Seems to be the new ‚go-to distro‘ for beginners and users who want a system that ’simply works‘. Cinnamon appears to be a nice enough desktop environment.

Why not: Never used it before so no experience with either package availability or the support community. This distro is not officially supported by PowerShell. It is officially supported by .NET, though.

KUbuntu (KDE Plasma)

Ubuntu calls its different variants ‚flavours‘. Among those is KUbuntu where ‚K‘ is for ‚KDE Plasma‘.

Why: The broad Ubuntu support community and the wealth of software package available combined with the Plasma desktop.

Why not: The newest LTS release (20.04 at the time of writing) is not supported by PowerShell. It seems to be in the works but not here yet.

CentOS 8 with KDE Plasma

CentOS Desktop comes with Gnome as default environment, with KDE offered as an alternative up to version 7 but removed in version 8.

Why: The variant I know best. So if I need to drop to the shell one day, I would find myself most at home here.

Why not: The desktop environment I prefer is not part of the official repo (anymore).  You need the EPEL repo to install KDE Plasma, and while the procedure outlined in this tutorial actually works, I would prefer the seamless support for everything *and* the desktop of my choice at the end of the install procedure.

openSUSE Tumbleweed

This is openSUSE’s rolling release so update and support policy is quite familiar to your average Windows 10 Current Branch user. The default choice for the desktop manager is KDE Plasma so a good Windows replacement in this regard as well.

Why: KDE Plasma as default choice. Great overall look and feel. PowerShell and its prereqs appear to be supported.

Why not: YaST and zypper are not for everyone. And although SUSE was my first ever Linux back in the day, I never actually liked YaST very much. On the other hand, you only install software every so often.

The Choice

I really liked Mint at first, but after playing with it for some time, I still could not visualise living with this OS forever, or even for 99 days.

Discarding CentOS was not easy, but I am building a user’s laptop, not a nerd’s machine. This considered, adding the default desktop from an additional repo really does not belong to the ’switching from Windows to Linux‘ scenario.

KUbuntu was the distro I felt most at home with, after an hour. But the lack of PowerShell support, not knowing when it will be added, is a no-go.

This leaves openSUSE so here’s me, learning YaST – again, after so many years successfully avoiding it. Tomorrow I’ll be putting it to good use. Stay tuned!

Title picture: Marcel Langthim from Pixabay

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