Even though the Microsoft Windows operating system dominates the desktop computing world, more people every day are learning that there are alternatives for running a PC. Most computer owners have heard of Linux, which is the free and open source operating system originally conceived and created by Linus Torvalds in collaboration with other software developers. It was intended to give the user all of the power, security, and stability of Unix, yet be capable of running on an Intel-based PC. Prior to that, Unix capabilities were only available on expensive workstations, minicomputers, and up.
Linux is free in the sense that it can be downloaded from countless websites, with no monetary price demanded by the distributor. To obtain Linux on CD-ROM, the recipient is usually asked to pay a small fee to cover the cost of producing and shipping the CDs. Linux is open source in the sense that it is distributed under the GNU General Public License, and the source code that forms Linux can be viewed and modified by anyone.
However, if you were to walk into your local computer store and request a copy of Linux, the store representative — assuming he or she is familiar with Linux — would probably first ask you what distribution (or "distro") you were interested in. Each particular distro is like a unique flavor of Linux, with varying similarities and differences among the distros available, but all sharing a common core (referred to as the Linux "kernel").
But why are there different flavors of Linux? It's not like you are asking for an ice cream cone. In the world of Windows, there's only one current flavor, Windows XP. This cuts down on the confusion. But it also cuts down on the choices open to you. Innumerable Linux developers and distributors have planned and put together literally hundreds of various distros, each to meet a particular perceived need. There are distros aimed at the computer newbie, who would be baffled by the installation instructions of distros intended for experienced programmers. There are distros that fill a stack of CDs, and others that can reside on a single business-card-sized CD.
Watching the Distros
Because there are so many different distributions of Linux, it is not always clear how they differ from one another, and which features would be of the most value to a given user. Each distro project seems to have its own take on what applications are most important, what desktop environment is preferred, and how applications and updates are best distributed and installed. However, the websites for the various distros typically share some common features, such as application lists, release notes, discussion forums, download links, and of course a picture of "Tux", the smiling penguin who serves as the beloved mascot for Linux.
There are several criteria by which each Linux distro can be judged. For instance, the various types of distros can be grouped into three main categories: "complete install", "live CD", and "demo CD". The first category encompasses all distros that are intended to be installed on a PC's hard drive. Live CDs are those that a PC can boot off of, thereby allowing the user to try Linux without disturbing their Windows installations. Demo CDs are, naturally, for demonstrating the features of Linux in general and the chosen distro in particular. There is growing overlap between the first two categories, such as the increasingly popular Ubuntu Linux, which is distributed on two CDs — one for installing and one for booting.
Possibly the best online resource for comparing the various Linux distros, is DistroWatch, which offers detailed information, links, and reviews of 441 different distros (as of this writing). That's an impressive number, considering the work involved in crafting a new variation of Linux. But it also can be an intimidating number of choices, and for that reason I will next consider some of the most popular options, and what characteristics would make a particular distro best suited for a computer user's needs.
For the Masses
For the PC owner who, when hearing the name "Linux", thinks of a Snoopy character, a distro called Linspire may be the safest choice. It is designed to be as easy to install and use as possible, even if that means paying a pile of peanuts to get it, and giving up some of the power and flexibility that would be missed by a Linux or Unix veteran. Linspire bills itself as the "world's easiest desktop Linux", and comes in two versions: digital download ($49.95) and retail package ($59.95).
Xandros is considered by many Linux enthusiasts to be easy to install, with lower hardware requirements than many flavors. The company has long had a focus on the desktop, and this is reflected in how Xandros Business Desktop OS plugs right into any typical Windows network, with full support for domain authentication, group policy profiles, and logon scripts. Like Linspire, Xandros is not free ($129 for the Business Edition), but it may be an excellent choice for a corporate environment.
At the other end of the spectrum, Slackware seems to take pride in being free, simple to use, and informal. There's even an unofficial Macintosh PPC port of Slackware, called Slackintosh. Another free Linux distro that is easy to install and use, is the previously-mentioned Ubuntu Linux, whose organization has a decidedly global perspective, and will send anyone on that globe a set of free CDs.
For the Hackers
The distros mentioned above may not have all of the capabilities desired by demanding Linux pros. For these folks, there are more appropriate options. Red Hat was one of the most pioneering distros in Linux's early years, and they continue that free tradition in the form of The Fedora Project, an entirely open-source effort. Yet despite its legacy, some of the more recent versions of Fedora Core have exhibited critical weaknesses, such as the inability to detect standard serial modems.
For this reason, I would recommend that the experienced PC user instead consider Mandriva or SuSE. Mandriva, formerly known as Mandrake, is highly regarded within the Linux community. One new advantage is that Mandriva is now combined with Lycoris, a well respected desktop that allows access to Windows files and folders.
A longtime favorite in Europe, SuSE at one time was the leader in database compatibility, and is still considered one of the better choices. Gentoo is a distro that is gaining ground on the others, possibly because it is constantly tuned for optimal configurability and performance. Last and certainly not least (for the fearless computer pro), is Linux From Scratch which can be just as difficult — and instructive — as it sounds.