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
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.
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
These are my criteria for the perfect desktop Linux distro:
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.
- 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
- Easy to maintain
- Active dev team and community
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!