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Choosing a desktop Linux distro
by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols (Jan. 24, 2006)

Probably everyone who reads -- and certainly yours truly -- encounters the same question over and over again: "What's the best Linux desktop distribution?" Now, while some people will swear up and down that Slackware or Fedora or even Puppy, for that matter, is the best Linux desktop, I think the answer is more complicated. In fact, I don't think there is a single answer.

I think the best Linux desktop is the one that's best for a particular person based on their needs and level of Linux expertise. So, the next time someone asks you that question, I suggest you reply with a couple of questions of your own.

For example, you could ask, "Do you want to replace Windows? For home? For work? Are you interested in Linux because you want to get some new life out of an old system? Do you just want to mess around with Linux?" And so on...

Then, once you know where they're coming from, you can give the best possible answer.

For what it's worth, here's what I'd tell someone today based on some of the more common answers I get to my questions.
  • I want a home Windows replacement.

    For these folks, I have an additional question: "Do you want just the software basics, or do you want to shop around for other open-source software?"

    If they just want the basics, I recommend Xandros Inc.'s eponymous Xandros 3 Desktop. The Xandros line has been meant from the start to persuade Windows users to give Linux a try.

    In my experience, Xandros is the closest to Windows XP you're going to get with a Linux system. Now, for some of you, I know that's the last thing you want, but for someone who knows Windows well, it may be exactly what they want and need.

    On the other hand, Xandros doesn't have a lot of ready-to-use software outside of the basic package. If your friend really wants to try out a lot of Linux software but couldn't tell apt-get from an RPM, then Linspire Inc.'s Linspire Five-0 is the Linux for you.

    I know it's fashionable in some Linux purist circles to make fun of Linspire, but it's well past time to get over that nonsense. Linspire is a good, solid Debian-based Linux, and like Xandros, it goes out of its way to be new-user friendly.

    Linspire also far out-does Xandros with its easy-to-use CNR (click and run) new software installation system. With CNR, even your grandma can install Linux programs.

    If your friend wants more than just something that looks like XP, but looks like a particular Windows set up, they should also check out the combination of Versora's Progression Desktop and Win4Lin's Win4Lin Pro.

    Progression Desktop migrates Windows and Windows programs' settings and data from Windows to many Linuxes, including Xandros and Linspire. For example, you can use it to transfer Outlook on Windows messages to Thunderbird on Linux. Win4Lin enables you to run Windows 2000 or XP as a virtual machine in Linux. The companies have bundled these together to make a single package.

    While I haven't had a chance to really review this combo, I have tried it out with Xandros and an XP set up, and it does seem to deliver the goods. Look for a real review of the pairing soon, here at

  • I want Linux, but I also want my Windows games.

    This is a tricky one. I have yet to meet a great solution for this. You can use Win4Lin, but I've run into trouble from time to time with it and games that require Internet connectivity.

    TransGaming Technologies Inc.'s Cedega 5.0 claims to run Windows games "out of the box." Well, no.

    By using WineX technology, you can run many Windows games -- such as World of Warcraft -- but installing each new game can be a cranky process. Still, with some patience and the right combination of software and hardware, it can work.

    My best advice here is for you, or someone else who knows Linux well, to actually do the initial Cedega and game installations for your Windows buddy. With a two-week free trial of Cedega, you'll soon know if their favorite games are going to work.

  • I want a replacement for my Windows work desktop.

    You can, of course, use Xandros' Xandros Business Desktop, but, as much as I like Xandros, it is a small company, and most businesses prefer dealing with a large, well-established vendor.

    For these situations, I recommend either Novell Inc.'s OpenSUSE 10 or one of Red Hat Inc.'s offerings -- Red Hat Enterprise Linux WS, or Red Hat Desktop.

    You may notice that OpenSUSE is Novell's community distribution. That's right, but support is widely available for the entire SUSE line, and it is very solid. It's my own business desktop of choice.

    The Red Hat pair are also good. Still, Red Hat CEO Matt Szulik has never been very bullish on the Linux desktop. For Red Hat, the server, and not the desktop, is where the real action is.

    Novell does offer a business desktop, the Novell Linux Desktop 9, but it's really a thin-client rather than a full-featured desktop. If the question of the day were: "What's a good thin-client desktop," then I'd recommend it.

  • I want to make a living from Linux.

    If you want to learn about Linux, and then get a job working with it, Red Hat's community distribution, Fedora is the desktop, not to mention server, for you.

    Red Hat Linux is, without question, the single most important business Linux. As fond as I am of some of the other distributions, if I had to make a living working on Linux tomorrow, I'd be working toward my RHCE (Red Hat Certified Engineer) certification as soon as possible.

  • I want to run Linux on an older machine.

    There are many great lightweight distributions, but I keep coming back to MEPIS's MEPISLite. Weighing in at about 640 MB, MEPISLite will run on systems that were slow when Windows 98 was new.

    By using KOffice, instead of, and using the optional 2.4.29 kernel, I've managed to get MEPISLite working quite nicely on a bargain-basement system with an 800MHz Via processor, 128MB of RAM, and a 20 GB hard drive.

    You can certainly run Linux on even less-powerful systems with distributions like Damn Small Linux, Zenwalk (aka Minislack), or Puppy, but for the best combination of low system demands and features, MEPISLite, and its big brother SimplyMEPIS, is hard to beat.

  • I want a great distribution with GNOME interface.

    Ubuntu, to me, is the best available GNOME desktop system. While I'm not crazy about it as a server, it works well as a desktop.

    I'm hardly the only one who likes it as a desktop. It's a leading choice in many surveys and, most pragmatically of all, it's almost always the most downloaded distribution from DistroWatch.

    Why? Well, there are lots of reasons. Foremost, among them is that it's built upon the strong Debian distribution and its many available software packages. Unlike mainstream Debian, however, Ubuntu quickly adopts newer enhancements. This makes Ubuntu more of a cutting-edge distribution than many of the other Debians.

    It also, in my experience, does an excellent job of making the most of the GNOME interface. While nothing equals the smooth integration of looks and functionality of Mac OS X's Aqua interface, Ubuntu and GNOME come mighty darn close.

    As for KDE, I find many distributions do well by it. My particular KDE favorites are OpenSUSE and Xandros.

  • I want to use Linux in Spanish.

    In the United States, we still tend to think everyone speaks English. Since I'm married to a wonderful Cuban woman, the ever lovely Clara, I know better. Spanish is quickly becoming America's second language.

    For those users who are more comfortable with Spanish than English, I think the clear winner is Mandriva's Mandriva Linux 2006. Spanish-language support has long been in the distribution, and now that Mandriva has partnered up with HP to deliver pre-installed Linux on Latin American HP desktop and laptops (now if only they would do it the States!) it should only consolidate the France-based Linux distributor's lead.

    My own Spanish is, in a word, awful. I'm told those by friends that BlogDrake is a useful site for Spanish-speaking Mandriva Linux users.

  • I just want to mess around with Linux.

    The distribution to recommend here depends on just how much your pal already knows about Linux or Unix. Xandros is fine for someone who's brand new to Linux; Ubuntu is a fine "play with" distribution for users with a bit more experience; and OpenSUSE is what I recommend for Linux power users.
Still can't decide? It's time to turn your attention to an online Linux Distribution Chooser quiz created by Daniel Eikeland, a project leader at Norwegian open-source consultancy Zegenie Studios. It's a handy little test, and I've found it surprisingly good.

Heck, when I took it, it picked out OpenSUSE for me, so it must have something on the ball.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

There is no perfect Linux for everyone, but somewhere out there, once you know what you're looking for, there's a perfect Linux for you.

Happy hunting!

About the author: Ziff Davis Internet senior editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about technology and business since the late '80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the

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