Finding the Right Distro

While there are many “Best Distro for Beginners” articles on the web, I find that all of them leave much to be desired. Hurdles to overcome?

  • Requires self-installation.
  • A presumptive reliance on the terminal.
  • Defaults designed for geeks rather than non geeks.

Non technical users want a boring operating system. They do not want change. They do not want bleeding edge. They do not want leading edge. Most are not interested in the desktop at all, being only interested in apps.

While I believe Fedora has matured into one of the better distros, the relentless six month release cycle renders Fedora into oblivion for a good beginner’s distro. Fedora maintainers target a “general audience” of technical users rather than a general audience including non technical users.

In the same family is CentOS. CentOS has that wonderful 10 year life cycle. Most updates are limited to security patches and bug fixes. Other software does get updated, but the pace is something non technical users can tolerate. I have had success in massaging CentOS as a desktop. Yet the lack of a home and non enterprise user package repository leaves an emptiness. Noticeable is the lack of desktop games and an easy one-click solution to enable non-free software support. Short of a community supported version of CentOS for home and non enterprise users, this emptiness is unlikely to disappear.

After more than a year of waiting, CentOS 7 now supports 32-bit architecture. There are people still running such hardware. CentOS 6 seems like another option, but oddly, both 32-bit versions require PAE CPUs. Not to forget that user software in CentOS 6 is getting quite stale. PAE is needed only to support more than 3 GB of RAM. Most home and non enterprise 32-bit users likely will have main boards that physically do not support more than 1 or 2 GB of RAM. While most CPUs from the past 15 years support PAE even when not needed, the PAE requirement ends 32-bit CentOS as an option for some users.

That leaves the Debian infrastructure. With more than 30,000 packages, there is no emptiness with respect to finding packages. Debian supports i486 and has no PAE restrictions.

Debian itself requires massaging to create a friendly distro. One layer above that are the many derivatives based on Debian. Yet almost all of them fall short because they are designed by geeks for geeks. This especially true for any derivative based on Debian Testing. Because of the geek focus, most if not all of the distros based on Debian Testing lack quality assurance to avoid breakage.

Non technical users do not like breakage or bleeding edge. They do not care about “geek cred(ential)s.”

A caveat with Debian Stable is all software packages are stale out the gate because all packages are frozen months before release. Granted, most non technical users would not notice the difference and most do not care.

Some might argue to install Ubuntu. I never liked Ubuntu, the Ubuntu philosophy, or the Ubuntu ecosystem. While Ubuntu eventually will support systemd, I am not interested in fiddling with upstart during the interim. I am wary of the Ubuntu future because of the Canonical company focus to commoditize Ubuntu across other devices. Canonical is a business. More than likely that means users becomes the product with excessive data mining. While a minor incident, that already has been attempted in Ubuntu with the search “feature.” Even if Ubuntu was a palatable choice, non technical users need to stick with the LTS versions, which are not really that long compared to CentOS.

A twist on Ubuntu is Linux Mint. Despite being based on LTS versions of Ubuntu and providing longer support than Ubuntu, the underlying system remains Ubuntu.

Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) is one of the better Debian derivatives. That is what I have been using to install Linux for other people. I use the MATE version because Cinnamon requires 3D acceleration and historically has been buggy. Many people continue to run older hardware and fiddling with video drivers and acceleration is something I prefer to avoid.

Yet LMDE is frustrating too. Often Firefox is not updated in a timely manner, especially with hotfix point releases outside the normal Firefox six week release cycle. There is no support for the ESR version, which is better suited for non technical users. The Firefox situation is frustrating because Debian developers do not support Firefox, instead playing a silly rebranding game. I do not have time or patience to explain this rebranding charade to non technical users.

Likewise with often delayed updates for the flashplayer plugin. As all such updates are security patches, why this package is not on an automated packaging cycle is a mystery. Because LMDE is based on Debian Stable and includes the repos, one solution seems to be to remove the Mint flashplugin packages and use the flashplayer-mozilla package.

Chromium users are faced with a similar challenge to keep the pepperflash plugin updated. The Debian pepperflash-nonfree package does not support updates. Users must use the terminal to check for updates, which for non technical users is distasteful.

Keeping flash updated in Red Hat distros is easy and straightforward because users obtain updates directly from Adobe.

There is a feeling that LMDE support is always at the bottom of the Mint developers priority list. An afterthought. Sort of like the proverbial black sheep of the family. Browse the Mint forums and notice the lack of activity. Of course that lack of activity could also mean LMDE is rock solid and most users encounter few problems.

Being based on Debian Stable, excepting a few apps such as Firefox and Thunderbird, LMDE software is stale, but most non technical users won’t notice or care. That could be remedied to a certain degree by using the Debian Backports repo, but that introduces potential conflicts that non technical users are unlikely to tolerate or resolve.

Despite these shortcomings, LMDE seems to be the best of an awkward situation with respect to some kind of starting point as a “beginner’s” distro.

Because of the statements posted on the Mint web site about LMDE, some people will argue that LMDE is a bad choice as a beginner’s distro. That LMDE is “targeted at experienced users.” Hogwash.

Nowhere have I ever read that Debian is targeted only toward “experienced” users. Many people tout the opposite. LMDE is a “Mintified” Debian. Debian with window dressing. A cynical opinion is those web site statements are weasel words to treat LMDE as a side project rather than provide full support. That is, “We do not plan to support LMDE like we do with our other projects. You are on your own. Go away. Leave us alone.”

This was seen with the LMDE 1 to LMDE 2 update process. Completely command line driven. There is little hope most non technical users could update a system in this manner. I believe the process could have been handled through the Update Manager, but the developers bailed and hid behind the their “experienced user” curtain. The cynical perspective is, “Do not use LMDE unless you are a geek. Here are the geek instructions for updating LMDE. Do not bother us because you are a geek and know how to RTFM.”

The Mint developers are hardly alone with poorly handling release updates. Almost all distro maintainers expect users to update using the terminal.

I would like to see LMDE become a better supported system. To move up the Mint priority list. To become a true “beginner’s” distro and stop hiding behind the “experienced user” facade.

One observation I can offer about LMDE. Being based on Debian Stable, LMDE is boring and that is what non technical users want.

CentOS or LMDE? Both have potential but need attention.

Posted: Category: Usability Tagged: CentOS, Fedora, General, Mint

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