Sunday, September 18, 2011

64 bit Linux: A descriptive comparison.

In this post I will be offering up my take on three different 64 bit Linux distributions which I have enjoyed for different reasons. I will try to delineate the relative strengths and weaknesses that I have seen so far in each, and where I believe each one needs some improvement. Constructive commentary is welcome.

The three distributions that I will be talking about are (in no particular order):
  • Fedora 15 x64
  • Ubuntu Linux 11.04 x64
  • Sabayon 6 x64

Each of these distros will have its own section. I’ll start by talking about my own experience with each, then go on to talk about specific points where each shines and then where each falls short, after which I’ll make whatever suggestions that I might have.

Fedora 15 x64:

I’m starting with Fedora mainly because that’s the distro that I’m currently running. It feels solid and stable, runs well, and doesn’t seem to have any major glitches. The fact that the primary UI is Gnome 3/Gnome Shell doesn’t slow me down, and with some tweaks is actually fairly nice to use. I did have to go through and search for a few things, like how to get VMware Player running under Linux Kernel 2.6.40 (which was less painful than I thought it might be). I still need to go and figure out something similar for Virtualbox OSE. Here’s a screenshot below for what I have going so far on Gnome-Shell (I won’t have screenies for the other two, since I don’t have them installed at the moment)

The Good:
Fedora 15, as I mentioned above, is a very solid and stable OS, as far as I have been able to see. I’ve been able to install more or less whatever I want to run, even a few packages that are not in the normal repositories.A good example would be the Wingware Python IDE (very nice software, by the way… Brian Tomlinson and I use(d) it to debug some python code he was working on). It runs flawlessly and detected the python install on my system without me having to dig around for the location of the executables.
Getting back to the subject; so far Fedora 15′s strengths are stability, speed, ease of use (for an old Linux geek, I’m not sure about how a Linux newbie would feel. Input from that front would be welcome.)

The Not Quite So Good:
I do have some issues so far with Fedora 15, but I’ll say that they’re more likely to be inherited from Gnome-Shell and Gnome 3 than any inherent flaw in the distro itself. I am unable to figure out how to totally turn off power management features using any kind of graphical client… I find this lack of functionality disturbing.
Now for the part of Fedora 15 that I really don’t like much; the package management system, YUM. I have to say that I remember when RedHat first came out with RedHat Linux and their then-highly-advanced Redhat Package Management (RPM) system. Back then it was the cool beans, and has progressed since then. I don’t know if the problems with YUM are rooted in RPM or if they are rooted in bugs in the implementation of YUM itself. But to me, YUM is slow and occasionally too buggy. I’ve never had the kinds of problems with APT that I have had with YUM. Again, these are my experiences. Your mileage may vary.

My Thoughts on this Distro:
Definitely usable to the general populace, very stable, and also pretty fast. It lacks the total control of some distros (see Sabayon 6, below). But, for a person who is new to Linux, or for someone like me that just wants it to work, it’s a good start and a solid base to build from. I’ll mention that I tend to test all sorts of Linux OSes, from Gentoo on up to Ubuntu. I can recommend Fedora 15 without significant reservation, even accounting for YUM. It’s a very solid distro, and will serve most people very well. So, with that said, your mileage may vary.

Ubuntu Linux 11.04 x64:

The Good:
Ubuntu is perhaps the single most installed Linux distro out there. It has a good interface and runs well on most hardware that supports 3D hardware acceleration. Its interface is straight-forward, with easy to find icons for most common tasks of entry-level Linux users. I call the interface “User Simple”, in that it’s simple for a new user to get a hold of and run with. For those who may be wondering which interface I’m referring to; I’m talking about the Unity desktop in Ubuntu 11.04.
Package management in Ubuntu is excellent with Synaptic Package Manager, and is tolerable with Ubuntu Software Center (which is being actively developed to make it even better.) The Debian package format has always been a high quality system, and remains so in Ubuntu. Updating and installing new software is a breeze and rarely causes any headaches.

The Not Quite So Good:
Ubuntu is based upon Debian, which is known to be a very stable and carefully managed Linux distro. Given that, you would expect Ubuntu to continue to remain stable. I have one problem with it though. The problem that I have encompasses a lot of territory within this distro. It appears to be that a lot of Ubuntu developers are putting out new interface and software changes just for the sake of maintaining their coding quota. This behavior is driving the overall quality of Ubuntu downward, not upward. I consider this a serious problem that desperately needs to be addressed. One example of that is Unity itself, which was released far too soon. It started out as a barely functional UI which Canonical then proceeded to patch into something approaching a functional stage. This is not the way to develop software, especially an OS which has the largest (to my knowledge) share of the Linux market.

My Thoughts on this Distro:
If you want a good and stable OS which is also easy to use and isn’t hard to maintain. Also, if you don’t mind weird and unexpected changes to the user interface of what is supposed to be your OS. Then I recommend using Ubuntu. If you don’t like unpredictable and somewhat flighty development, then I’d suggest staying away.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I used to really enjoy Ubuntu, but ever since Unity and other unilateral decisions, I’ve been more and more wondering why I support a distro that doesn’t really seem to care what its users want.

Sabayon 6 x64:

Sabayon is one of those distros that takes an existing distro, reimagines part of it, expands on other parts and really applies a nice finish to it. It’s a stable OS with a lot of really innovative and cool features. Its Entropy Package Management system is top-notch. It’s blindingly fast in certain areas, and it’s a fun distro for the experienced Linux Geek to play around with.

All that being said, this distro is not for the person who is new to Linux. It is easy to break if you decide to use the wrong repository for your packages. You have to be very careful with what you decide to install from where, and you have to keep a close eye on updates. You also need to know what really needs updating, and what can wait.

The Good:
Being based on Gentoo, this distro is one of the few that gives you total control over what you install. You start with a reasonable base, and a few extras. From there you can go in and install software to your heart’s content. This is a blazing fast distro and will take good advantage of your hardware.

The Not Quite So Good:
Some things in this distro are (at the time of this writing) broken. If you want to use Gnome-Shell (heretofore referred to as “GS”) on ATI/AMD video, you’re out of luck. For some reason the maintainers of Sabayon have decided to lock GS into what’s known as fallback mode. Fallback mode resembles the interface for Gnome 2 (“G2”). It isn’t quite as pretty as GS, nor is it quite as intuitive (once you wrap your head around the interface of GS, that is), but it’s powerful, and easy to manage, and if you preferred G2 to begin with, then with a few differences, you’ll either love it or hate it.

Documentation? What’s that? So far the distro maintainers have been a little slow to document changes on Sabayon. They only have limited manpower, so their reasons are justified. If you’re running this distro, or are considering doing so, and have a bit of spare time. Consider offering to help them out on this.

A personal pet-peeve of mine: Sabayon will not work with certain advanced features of Google+ Hangouts (Hangouts with extras). This was the final straw that sent me back to Fedora 15. This needs to be fixed. Along with the problems with GS, which other distros have solved. I find that for me, this isn’t tolerable.

I run Sabayon on my other laptop in GS without issues, on Intel video, and it’s a beautiful experience.

My Thoughts on this Distro:
This distro has the potential to be truly inspiring. All the pieces are there, they just need polishing and fine-tuning. The problems with GS, Hangouts with extras, and package maintenance need to be worked out. entropy is an excellent system, but it needs a manual and it needs an interface that is less confusing to those who are new to it (I’m primarily speaking of the Sulfur gui).
Few other distros give this level of control and flexibility. But, also few other distros can be as easy to break. So, if you’re a Linux Geek, and have been for a while. Have a blast. This is a fun and highly performant distro.

My girlfriend and her son seem to enjoy it, and they seem to get it. They are not computer geeks, by any means. So, with that said, and what I’ve mentioned above, give this distro a shot, and have a blast. But only if you know what you’re doing and are not running AMD/ATI video (and also if you don’t play in Google+ hangouts with extras).

Final Thoughts:

Fedora 15 is stable, and fast. You also have several nice desktop options to choose from. I chose GS (gnome-shell).

Ubuntu is a good start if you're just starting out in Linux, and want to get your feet wet, but not too wet. Its performance is adequate for most purposes, and it is reasonably stable.

Sabayon is fast and stable, but you can get into trouble with it if you choose to use certain software repositories. It also is buggy on certain video hardware.

My Final Recommendation:

Overall, out of the distros that I mention here, I'd recommend going with Fedora 15. Ubuntu/Canonical doesn't seem to care what the user really wants, and Sabayon is probably a bit much for most people who 'just want to get things done'.

But, with the above being said, for new users who have tried Fedora and just don't get it. I'd suggest going with Ubuntu, Linux Mint or PepperMint OS (Linux Mint is derived from Ubuntu).

I won't assign numbers or ratings, because each person knows what they want and what they're willing to tolerate. I want performance, stability and ease of use and configuration. So, I went with Fedora 15. Please leave a comment and let us know what your choice is, and why. I'd like to hear your thoughts :)

I'd also like to hear about other distros to test out. Ideas are always welcome, as is constructive criticism.

Thank you for reading,