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Editor's Note: the Quest for the Perfect Desktop Linux

Apr 16, 2010, 23:03 (46 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

Nothing brings Linux gotchas into sharp focus like coaching a non-geeky computer user. My wonderful significantotherperson, Terry, has done more to teach me about usability than the smartest Linux gurus.

Terry is smart and willing to dig in and learn. She uses her PC for complex tasks like college coursework, audio recording and production, and digital photography. Like a lot of computer users, she learns better from a live teacher and visual aids than from text howtos.

There are a lot of little glitches that I gloss over because it's second nature to work around them. But for someone who is not steeped in years of deep Linux lore it's a different story. Terry is currently using openSUSE with KDE4. openSUSE, like any distro, has its share of peculiarities. First example: the little update status indicator. I love these. They sit in the panel, and change shape and color when updates are available. It does the job without being annoying. But when you click on it to get the updates, it asks for a root password and then disappears. No status indicator, no way of knowing how long it will take, you don't even know when it is finished.

Second example: KWord supports .fodt files. OpenOffice doesn't without hunting down and installing an extra package. It took a fair bit of Web searching to learn that much, let alone what the heck are they and why have them in addition to .odt.

Third example: Network Manager. Maybe it's me, because me and Network Manager have never gotten along. I keep hoping for a reconciliation. But I always end up removing it and configuring networking by hand.

Fourth example: Apps that crash and die. OpenOffice has a habit of doing this on Terry's PC. I have the same version on a different Linux and it's fine, so I can either try to troubleshoot it, or write it off as something weird with openSUSE.

When Terry bumps into these things I can fix them. If she were on her own she would figure them out eventually. I dream of not having to deal with these sorts of dopey little hassles at all, or at least a lot less frequently.

Adopt-a-Bug

A brief digression-- the key to keeping your sanity when you want to be a good Linux user and contribute bug reports is to pick a few projects for special attention and focus on them. When you specialize you get to know the software and developers better, and get more efficient. I think it's better to make a few small contributions than to keel over from overload and not do anything at all, which is easy to do given the vast riches available to us.

Which Distros to Try?

Between the two of use we have torture-tested a couple dozen different distros over the past few years. To me "testing" means "Install and use every day." Not fire up the liveCD, praise or criticize the color scheme, and go on to the next live distro.

Naturally, the perfect Linux is different for every user. I want something that Terry can use without having vexing little problems cropping up all the time. It is enough work learning to use applications like Audacity, Ardour, Digikam, and OpenOffice without also having to babysit a colicky Linux. It seems to me that the "noob-friendly" distros like Ubuntu, Mandriva, and openSUSE start out great, but the more you use them the more weird little glitches they exhibit. I want something with a reasonable degree of sanity, and something I can fix without having to untangle mare's nests of distro-specific "improvements."

These are my criteria for the perfect desktop Linux distro:

  • Rolling releases and continual upgrades. I think fresh installs with new releases are silly and should be done only when it's absolutely necessary, like a system that is hopelessly messed-up. A good Linux gets better with age, it's not like Windows which runs down like a cheap wind-up clock.
  • Reasonably fresh package versions
  • Stable
  • Easy to maintain
  • Active dev team and community
That is a pretty ambitious wish list, but that's the fun of Linux, we're not afraid of big ambitions. I have come up with this short list of candidates: Arch Linux, Sidux, and Debian Unstable. Me and Debian, we go way back, it is my favorite distro of all. Of course I can't resist trying out others, but I always come back to Debian. Sidux is Debian Unstable with a bit of polish and some nice management utilities. Arch Linux is highly praised from many quarters, and it is performing beautifully on my music computer.

It is good to keep in mind that the general-purpose desktop computer is the hardest one to do well. If you have ideas for other distros that meet my wish list, or have your own ideas on what makes a perfect desktop Linux, speak!