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Linux Shootout: 7 Desktop Distros Compared

We tested openSUSE, Ubuntu 8.04, PCLinuxOS, Mandriva Linux One, Fedora, SimplyMEPIS, and CentOS 5.1. All performed well, and each had at least one truly outstanding feature.

The PCLinuxOS Control center corrals together many common administrative tools.
(click for image gallery)

Ubuntu worked pretty well with the video itself on all the machines, although there were a couple of snags. The notebooks had both their hardware and screen resolutions detected and used correctly, although my VirtualBox installation had trouble recognizing any video resolution over 800x600, even with the VBox drivers installed. I tried out the closed-source binary-only nVidia drivers on the Thinkpad, too, and while they worked fine, there were other persistent issues (like the suspend/resume problem) that weren't addressed.

I liked Ubuntu's upgrade-from-Windows features in previous versions, but 8.4 one-ups all that with "Wubi" -- a Windows installer for Ubuntu. When run under Windows, it lets you create a separately bootable instance of Ubuntu, either stored in a file on your Windows partition or on a partition all to itself. This is easily the best way to try out Ubuntu provisionally, even better than booting a live CD, although it does require some disk space. (One caveat: a Wubi-installed Ubuntu can't hibernate, so be warned if you try it on a notebook.)

PCLinuxOS 2007

Billed with the tagline "Radically Simple," Texstar's PCLinuxOS is a KDE-centric distribution aimed at users who want to get productive as quickly as possible. Some of the installation options aren't explained in the most novice-friendly ways, a problem I also had with MEPIS, but the default choices work well enough to get most people up and running.

A user installing PCLinuxOS on a system with Windows already there can resize the existing partitions to create a dual-boot. There's no actual user-data migration from Windows, but there is a very nice utility for importing Windows fonts from, say, a separate Windows installation or just a directory somewhere. A fairly typical (and useful) clutch of applications come installed by default -- the suite, the K applications, Firefox (, Sun Java 6, and many more. If you don't like KDE, there's a GNOME-based community edition as well.

In roughly the same vein as MEPIS's collection of configuration tools, PCLinuxOS has an almost-everything-under-one-roof Control Center, which in turn appears to be derived from Mandriva's tool of the same name (since PCLinuxOS and MEPIS are forked from that distro). Most every common administrative activity can be launched from here, from setting up a wireless network to enabling 3-D desktop effects to remote-controlling another machine (including Windows machines via Terminal Services!). I particularly liked the Mount Point configuration pane, since mount points are often a bit bewildering to Linux newcomers. Tools for IBM and Sony VAIO notebook-specific devices are also included by default, but they're a little buried in the menu structure.

PCLinuxOS's graphics controls worked very nicely on all the machines. My homebrew desktop was able to get 1280 x 1024 native resolution on its flat-panel display with relatively little work, and the VAIO's display worked properly right from the start. The VirtualBox guest additions also installed without any trouble, and I had a slightly greater range of resolutions available there than with most other distributions.

Power management in PCLinuxOS is a little shaky, though. It didn't work completely out-of-the-box in any of my test systems, and the instructions to get sleep and suspend working correctly were useless, since they didn't correspond to any obvious sequence of actions. Also, the online documentation for the distribution itself (as opposed to docs for, say, KDE) is rather spotty, but I suspect that's because they're in the process of transitioning from an old wiki to a new one.

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