Fedora, Mint, OpenSUSE, Ubuntu: Which Linux Desktop is for You?

There are more interesting Linux desktop distributions to choose from than ever before. However, if you're looking for major distros with a great deal of support, you'll want to look at the big four: Fedora, Mint, openSUSE, and Ubuntu.

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Fedora is the closest to a free software dream distribution. It comes with no proprietary firmware. So, for example, it may not work with some Wi-Fi adapters or graphics cards. If you need more, such as NVIDIA's proprietary graphics, you'll need to download them from third-party repositories like RPM Fusion.

Mint

Mint goes to the other extreme. Want Adobe Acrobat Reader? Flash? MP3 and commercial DVD players? It's either in there or a mouse-click away. Unlike Fedora, where you have to go to a third-party site for the program, Mint makes the most popular proprietary software available in its main file repositories.

OpenSUSE

OpenSUSE takes a middle road and provides information for how users can obtain proprietary software and drivers. OpenSUSE does have, thanks to its old parent company Novell's partnership with Microsoft, better support for Active Directory than do other distributions. So, if you want to use Linux on a Windows-based network, openSUSE is your best choice.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu once kept away from proprietary software, but in its last few versions, it's taken a more relaxed attitude towards such programs. For example, Ubuntu's team has made it easy to download proprietary audio and video codecs.

Bottom line

Here, your decisions are pretty easy. If using proprietary software gives you hives, you use Fedora. If commercial programs don't bother you, Mint's the distribution for you.

Cloud integration

Once upon a time, the very idea of a desktop needing to be integrated with Software as a Service (SaaS) or cloud servicesy was silly. That was then. Today, we expect our computers to work hand-in-glove with network services. So it should come as no surprise that just like Apple is integrating Mac OS X with iCloud, Linux distributions are doing the same thing.

Fedora

Fedora comes with a host of cloud offerings. These include HekaFS, a secure distributed file system that can be used to provide a Fedora-cloud user with his or her own private storage slice; OpenStack and Condor Cloud, both Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) cloud implementations; and Aeolus Conductor, a Web interface that includes tools for creating and managing cloud instances.

That said, none of these are intimately integrated into Fedora. To use any of them will require some technical elbow-grease.

Mint

Mint has not been doing anything with the cloud yet. While some users are asking for this, Mint's developers haven't announced any plans at this time.

OpenSUSE

OpenSUSE takes several views of the cloud. Thanks to SUSE Studio, a roll-your-own Linux distro service, you can build and deploy openSUSE 12.1 instances with your own custom package selections, artwork, scripts, etc. directly to Amazon EC2 or other cloud platforms.

If you want to run your own cloud, openSUSE comes with ownCloud, a build-it-yourself Web-based cloud storage application. OpenSUSE also comes with customized support for the Eucalyptus, OpenNebula and OpenStack cloud computing platforms.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu comes with its own cloud service, Ubuntu One, ready for any desktop user to be productive with right away. The no-cost version, Ubuntu One Free gives you free 5GBs of storage. As with Dropbox you can use Ubuntu One not just as a big floppy disk in the sky but to share files across your Ubuntu, Windows, Android and iOS devices. For $3.99 a month you get up to 20GBs of storage and the ability to stream music from the Ubuntu One cloud.

More technically inclined users can build Ubuntu-based clouds using OpenStack. Serious cloud developers will also want to look into Juju, an attempt to bridge the gap between cloud technical experts and system administrators by offering easy-to-use "charms" for cloud system installation and management.

Target users

Each of these distributions is meant for a different kind of user. Sure, you could transform their personalities, but why bother when their designers have already done the work for you?

Fedora

Fedora is the desktop Linux for people who want to be on the bleeding edge. More so than any of the other major distributions, Fedora's creators take the newest of the new open-source programs and bundle them into the operating system to see what happens. For example, the next version of Fedora will probably include a radical new take on the syslog (system logging system) called Journal. In short, Fedora is for Linux developers and people who want to become one.

In addition, as the basis for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL ), Fedora is ideal for anyone who wants to keep current with one of the most successful business versions of Linux.

Mint

Mint is sticking like glue to the GNOME 2.x style desktop. It's the desktop for users who are already comfortable with the familiar and popular older GNOME desktops. With its large open-source and proprietary software collection, I believe that most users will like Mint.

OpenSUSE

OpenSUSE has twin personalities. On one hand, it's a fine KDE 4.x-based desktop -- on the other, it's also designed to work as a server that's easy to set up and use.

More so than the others, OpenSUSE comes with wizards and server tools via its YaST configuration tool. So if you want a free, community-Linux distribution that you can use both for desktop work and to run a Linux, Apache, MySQL or PHP/Python/Perl (LAMP) application server, then openSUSE is for you.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu is being transformed into an easy-to-use desktop where the operating system is hidden so far away from the users that they may never even dream they are running Linux. While this has brought new users to Ubuntu -- Canonical is also wooing OEMs -- it's alienated many of its older users. Indeed, many Ubuntu users have fled to Mint because it feels more like the "old" Ubuntu.

Conclusions

Which Linux distribution is the best one? The answer is: "It depends."

If, for example, you're a Linux developer who plans on working with high-level Linux servers, then Fedora is the best distribution for the job. Just be ready to deal with GNOME 3.2's truly annoying interface. If, on the other hand, you're a long-term Linux user who cut your teeth on an earlier version of Fedora or Ubuntu, and want a Linux desktop that just works, then Mint is the Linux for you.

If you want a Linux that can switch-hit as both a server and a desktop and like the KDE interface, then say hello to openSUSE. Finally, if you're new to Linux, need a lot of support and would like a really easy-to-use interface, then Ubuntu is your choice.

Personally, I like and use them all on a daily basis. Mint fits my own desktop needs the best, and I suspect that will be the case for most users. However, if I need a server and can't afford Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), I'm using openSUSE every time.

In the end, no matter which one you choose, you can't go far wrong -- and switching out Linux distributions is easy enough for you to try several on for size.

This story, "Fedora, Mint, OpenSUSE, Ubuntu: Which Linux Desktop is for You?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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