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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 default SimplyMEPIS install includes Firefox with QuickTime plugins.
(click for image gallery)

Most of the machines I installed Fedora on didn't give me any trouble. Adding the VirtualBox extensions required me to install kernel headers and the compiler, but worked perfectly after that. The VAIO and desktop machines both had their native display settings detected without a hitch -- including the VAIO's 16:9 aspect flat panel -- and worked fine with both hibernate and suspend (although only hibernate was available on the desktop.) The VAIO's SD card slot also worked out of the box.

The Thinkpad wasn't as smooth sailing. I couldn't even get the Fedora live CD to boot without passing some special boot parameters and doing a good deal of post-install hacking. Apparently this is due to the nVidia graphics card on the T61, which needs a proprietary driver from a separate repository to work correctly. I suspect suspend didn't work on the Thinkpad for the same reason; only hibernate was available, but it worked fine.

Fedora does seem to take seriously their efforts to improve hardware compatibility and support. If you have a particularly oddball profile that took some tinkering to get running, you can elect to echo the hardware profile of your machine to Fedora's researchers. Also, if there's a suspend/resume problem, the notification balloon you get for this can link you to the "HAL Quirk Site" that has further tips and research available for you.

Other editions of Fedora are available: a KDE live CD installation and a slew of custom-spun editions contributed by the community, although the stock GNOME/KDE editions ought to be the best place for anyone to start. The pre-release version of Fedora 9 is also available for the truly stalwart.

SimplyMEPIS 7.0

A very strong but largely unsung distribution, SimplyMEPIS emphasizes it-just-works functionality and includes some of the most intelligently written graphical user interface system management tools I've seen in most any Linux desktop distribution yet. I'm surprised it hasn't gotten more attention.

MEPIS has been derived from the Debian/Ubuntu family and uses the KDE desktop environment. The setup process does require a grain or two of Linux savvy (quick, what's initrd?), but most of the things you need to know are explained along the way. GRUB can be configured to boot between MEPIS and a Windows installation during setup if you're migrating between them. Those with Intel Macs can use the new OS X Assistant to repartition their disks and boot between OSes there. The default application mix includes both the K productivity apps and staples like and Firefox -- the latter even comes with QuickTime support out of the box.

Getting wireless networking going required a bit of digging -- I had to run the MEPIS Network Assistant and then set up the KNetworkManager, but once done, it worked without a hitch. While the SD card reader worked perfectly, suspend to RAM or disk didn't work on the VAIO by default. I got it working, though, thanks to a hint from a pop-up that appeared when suspend failed. The Thinkpad suspended to disk fine, but didn't suspend to memory until I added nVidia-specific drivers; the desktop machine suffered the same fate.

One of MEPIS's strongest features is a clutch of system-configuration tools called the MEPIS Assistants, which let you change some of the most important options in four basic categories: network, system-wide configuration, user preferences, and the X server. A common theme with the Assistants is repairing a damaged configuration to a system component: for instance, the Repair tab in the User Assistant lets you restore default KDE application configurations if they get munged. The X Assistant X configurator has nVidia and ATI-specific options, including your choice of which driver to use -- the binary drivers or the generics. There's no configuration for Intel video, though (which was what my VAIO used), so that might be something to add in the future.

Other system-config tools make MEPIS even more tweak- and user-friendly. The Desktop OnTheGo feature lets you place your desktop, data, and logon information on a USB key, which can then be used on any other MEPIS installation. I also liked the boot- and partition-repair functions, which you can access from the live CD if things get messed up on your main system.

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