Aditya Nag
15 February, 2005

This article was first published on

Over the past few articles, we have spoken about Linux, taken a brief look at Mepis Linux, and checked out the state of gaming on Linux. Today’s article is all about picking the right desktop distribution that fits your needs. We will be looking at four mature distributions.

This is not exactly a comparative review, rather we will look at all four ,and try to
figure out which distro suits which type of user.

The criteria for picking the four was as follows. The first and most important consideration was that the installation procedure had to be simple and easy to understand. The distros should have good hardware detection, and multimedia support. They should be easy to update, and installing new software should not be a chore. Another criteria was the level of support and help available around the internet. In the end, this became a major criteria, since the chosen four distros have a lot of resources available, on there own websites as well as on other websites.

Keeping these criteria in mind, let’s meet the four candidates..

  1. Xandros Open Circulation Edition ver 3
  2. Suse 9.2
  3. Mandrake 10.1 Official
  4. Fedora Core 3

First, a little bit about the four.

1. Xandros OCE ver 3. In the past year and a half, Xandros has become a very good distro for people moving from windows to Linux, or even people using a computer for the first time. It has a very clean interface, and configuration and administration is easy. OCE ver 3 has the following new features ( from the website)

  • New! Speedy, stable, standards-compliant browsing with the Firefox Web Browser
  • New! Automatically filter out spam in an easy-to-use Thunderbird Mail reader
  • Turn off annoying pop-up ads and banners
  • Surf multiple Web sites in one tabbed window
  • New! Make phone calls over the Internet with Skype Internet Calling
  • Chat with others on MSN, Yahoo, AOL, ICQ, and IRC in a single instant messenger
    OCE is completely free. Xandros also has commercial versions, which come with some
    commercial software, and more support.

2. Suse 9.2 is a distribution with a long history behind it. It has been around for years,
and the latest version is typical of Suse. Loads of software, very good administration
tools, easy to use, and a clean interface. Suse does not offer a free ISO download of the full version , though it is possible to do an FTP install for free.

3. Mandrakesoft is a company that has been around for a while, like Suse. Mandrake has
always been know for making distros that provide a good mix of features and ease of use. The latest version carries on the Mandrake tradition. Mandrake does provide free ISO downloads.

4. Fedora Core 3. Fedora is a Red Hat sponsored and community-supported open source project. It is also a proving ground for new technology that may eventually make its way into Red Hat products. It is not a supported product of Red Hat, Inc. This statement from the website belies the power and popularity of Fedora. Since it is extremely similar to Red Hat, and there is are very many Red Hat resources available, Fedora is used a lot. It does have some drawbacks, but then, nothing is perfect. Fedora is completely free.

The Hardware.
The computer that I used to check out the distros had the following hardware configuration:

AMD Athlon XP 2400
Nvidia GeForce 6800 GT
MSI KM4AM Motherboard with the Via KM400A chipset.
Onboard LAN and Audio
NEC ND-3500A DVD + -RW

The Testing Process.

I installed each distro and used it for two days. I know that two days is not nearly enough to get to know a distro intimately, but then, this is not an in depth review. I have in the past used Suse, Mandrake and Fedora extensively, so I am very familiar with them. Xandros was the new kid on the block, so to speak.

During the two day testing period, I used the distro exclusively to do all that I normally do on my computer. I generally use my computer to do the following:

1.Browse the web.
2.Use a mail client.
3.Use a word processor for my assignments.
4.Listen to music.
5.Watch a few movies.
6.Use ssh to maintain some servers.
7.Some light web development for my personal website.
8.Graphics editing for said website.
9.Simple games to kill time.

As you can see, my usage is relatively simple. I do not use or need extremely complex software on this machine. I tend to use the computer a few hours each day, at least three. In case there is a problem, my first response is to look up the company website and
forums, and then Google it.

With all that out of the way, let’s start with Xandros.

1.Xandros Open Circulation Edition ver 3.

Xandros has made a name for itself in the Linux business. This is mostly due to its excellent installation process, and great user friendliness. Installing Xandros is a cinch. If you have installed any OS, Windows 95 onwards, you will have no trouble whatsoever with Xandros. The only screen you may pause at is the Disk Partitioning screen. Even this is very simple to understand, and you will be able to figure it out in no time at all. The hardware detection was very good, and all my hardware worked perfectly.

Using Xandros is equally easy. The default desktop is very reminiscent of Windows, and most of the Windows desktop conventions are followed. This makes it very easy for someone who is used to Windows. The Xandros File Manager is a very well crafted piece of software, and an absolute pleasure to use.

My favorite browser, Firefox was preinstalled, as was it’s mailing client cousin, Thunderbird. Both are excellent applications, and very easy to use. Xandros used to ship the Mozilla suite earlier, but I’m glad they decided to switch to Firefox/Thunderbird. Xandros OCE comes with Skype preinstalled, so you can start using VoIP to call your family and friends.

Java and Flash are preinstalled, so websites which use these two technologies will appear as they were intended to. This is a little thing, but much appreciated. In the multimedia department, Real Player 10, Xmms and Xine take care of your needs.

Xandros comes with, which is more than sufficient for 90% of people. Unless you have to use a lot of macros, or extreme formatting, OpenOffice will let you get the job done.

Browsing a Windows network worked well, and sharing folders was as easy as it is in Windows. Right click, and share. The administration and configuration tools are completely graphical and easy to use. No problems here.

Updates and software installation are handled by an application called Xandros Networks, which connects to the Xandros servers and let’s you download new software and update existing software. I tried installing Bluefish, and it worked perfectly.

Basically Xandros is a very good distro for new to intermediate users. It lets you get the job done without being intimidating. At the same time, it can be extended by more advanced users, since it is based on Debian, and it’s excellent apt package management
Burning CD’s is easy enough using the Xandros File Manager, but you are limited to 4x burning in the OCE. The commercial versions do not have this limitation. If you are not burning a lot of CD’s, this is not much of a problem, and if you are, you can always install K3b.

2.Suse 9.2 :

Suse 9.2 comes in 5 CD’s. The install process is more complicated than Xandros, but there’s nothing too difficult about it. If this is your first time, I suggest you read the documentation. The only gripe that I had with the installation is that it takes quite a long time. But then, Suse installs a LOT of software. Hardware detection is good, but the Nvidia drivers will not be installed by default. You will have to install them afterwards. All the rest of my hardware was detected perfectly.

Suse boots into a KDE desktop by default. The desktop is clean and well organized, but distinctly KDE. Suse is known for the quantity of software included, and unless you chose a very minimal package selection during installation, you’ll find that you have oodles of software to check out. I set up Firefox for my internet browsing, and used Evolution for email. You can also use Konqueror, Opera, Galeon or Mozilla.

In fact, Suse comes with such a lot of software, it can be quite confusing for a first time user. But as you use it, you will appreciate the fact that everything is there. And if it’s not installed, it will be on the CD’s. Power users will like having so many options at their fingertips.

The best thing about Suse is YaST2. This stands for Yet Another Setup Tool. Don’t let the name fool you. This is one of the best configuration tools available, in ANY OS. Yes, that includes Windows XP and Mac OSX. It’s simple enough for new users, and powerful enough that advanced users will not want to tinker with config files. YaST2 handles the updates as well, and it’s easy to keep your system patched and up to date. Installing new software, in case you need to, is also very easy. The graphical tools are best of class and leave no stone unturned.

I won’t even mention the programs included with Suse. All I will say is that whatever you would need is probably already installed. Movies, songs, documents, whatever. It’s all taken care of.

Browsing a Windows network was not as seamless as it was in Xandros, but it worked well enough. Xandros is better at this, though.

Suse is a more general purpose distribution than Xandros. As such, people who like learning new things, and tinkering with their systems will love Suse. Xandros can seem a bit boring at times. Suse will not feel that way. It gets the job done, and is also more power user ready. If you feel that you fit the category of intermediate/power user, then Suse is for you.

Suse offers a DVD-eval and Live-DVD free of cost. You can download these from the website and make sure everything works before buying the box pack. Of course, if you have a broadband internet connection, you can do a FTP installation, which gives you everything the box pack does.

Suse is a very good distribution. It comes fully loaded, and is very expandable. You will find software for music, education, video, games, mathematics, projects, and anything else that you can think of. At the same time, it installs easily and is very user friendly. It may not be as Windows-like as Xandros, but it is definitely more powerful, in terms of software available and expandability.

3.Mandrake 10.1 Official:

Mandrake is another distro which comes with a lot of software. I downloaded the freely available 10.1 DVD ISO. Installation was easy and painless. The partition tool is especially nice, and reminded me of Partition Magic Pro. The time taken was not as long as Suse but longer than Xandros. The hardware detection was painless, but I had to install the Nvidia drivers myself. Everything else worked fine.

Mandrake has a nice clean desktop. Mandrake is also a KDE-centric distro, though you can use Gnome or any other window manager if you like. The software included is not as much as Suse, but everything you need is included. The software is well chosen, and it generally works well. Kaffeine and Mplayer handle the multimedia needs, while is the usual office suite.

You do have to install Java and Flash yourself in the free download edition. This might be a bit of a problem for new users, so I suggest you hunt on google before you try this. There are many guides available that tell you how.

The Mandrake Control Center is a very nice configuration interface. I still found Suse’s YaST2 marginally better, but DrakConf is definitely not to be sneezed at. Updating the system is easy. Installing software needs a little tweaking of the repositories, but once that is done, it’s easy enough.

One thing that I had a problem with was traversing a Windows network. Mandrake comes with Smb4k, but it did not work too well on my machine. It would intermittently show all the computers, then none at all, or randomly drop some. Sometimes it would just freeze on me. Sharing directories was not as easy as Xandros either.

Mandrake has various commercial flavors, which come with things like Java and flash installed, and Nvidia driver. Still, you can install the free version and set it up exactly like the commercial version. The commercial version is more convenient, but that comes at a price, of course.

Mandrake and Suse are somewhat similar in their approach. Both include plenty of software ( though Suse wins that race! ), both have comprehensive configuration tools, and both are very expandable. In fact, in the end it boils down to personal preference between the two. They both fall in the same category, distinct from Xandros, which is more focused towards those shifting from Windows. Mandrake and Suse are both distinctly Linux focused, while still being user friendly and fun.

4.Fedora Core 3

Fedora is an unusual distribution. It is like the sandbox in Red Hat’s yard, where all the new games are played. As the website says,
“The goal of The Fedora Project is to work with the Linux community to build a complete, general purpose operating system exclusively from free software. Development will be done in a public forum. The project will produce time-based releases of Fedora Core about 2-3 times a year with a public release schedule. The Red Hat engineering team will continue to participate in the building of Fedora Core and will invite and encourage more outside participation than was possible in Red Hat Linux. By using this more open process, we hope to provide an operating system that uses free software development practices and is more appealing to the open source community.”

The Fedora installation process is rather different from Mandrake and Suse, but it’s simple enough. In fact, installing Linux is not too much of a problem anyway, these days. All my hardware was detected perfectly, with the exception of the video card. As usual, I had to install the Nvidia drivers myself.

Fedora boots into Gnome by default, with theme called Bluecurve applied. This theme is supposed to unify the KDE and GNOME desktops. It’s a fairly decent theme, and the desktop looks alright, if slightly bland. In fact, this is one thing I noticed about Fedora. The colors are rather muted. Suse has nice bright colors, as do Mandrake and Xandros, but Fedora feels like an old movie! Still, it’s appealing, and you may prefer the colors.

The first thing you have to do after installing is hunt around for all the multimedia codecs. Fedora does not ship with any, not even MP3.You will have to get them from the net. The good part is that this is not too much of a pain, since there are innumerable sites devoted to telling you how.

Firefox is the default browser, which is great. Evolution handles email, and you can also install Thunderbird. is included. The software included is quite a lot, but there’s lots of server specific software which you may not need in a desktop OS. Again, you will have to install Java and Flash.

Speaking of software, the best part of Fedora is that you will ALWAYS find pre-compiled rpm’s for it. In fact, since Red Hat/Fedora is so popular, you can rest assured that if it is made for Linux, it will work on Fedora.

The Fedora configuration tools are reasonably good, but cannot compare to YaST or DrakConf. Still, they do the job. Updates are handled by Up2date and Yum. For installing new software, Synaptic is highly recommended.
Fedora is completely free and you can download CD and DVD ISO images from the website.

The unique advantage that Fedora has over all the other distros here is the wealth of knowledge that has accumulated over the years. Red Hat is the 800 pound gorilla of the Linux world, and there is a VAST body of knowledge that has grown with it. If you are interested in learning about Linux and trying new things, Fedora is a great distro. If you just want it to work, without any extra effort, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Fedora is more of a hobbyist OS, and will require some time, effort and willingness to learn on your part. If you like the sound of that, dive right in, otherwise stick to one of the other distros.

That brings us to the end of this article. As you can see, all four distros have their strengths and weaknesses. I would say that Xandros is the easiest for a new user, followed by Suse and Mandrake together, and Fedora after that. For a power user, it’s a toss up between Fedora, Suse and Mandrake. If you want to run a server of some sort, Fedora might be your best bet.

There is no one-size-fits all distribution. If you decide to install Linux, do think carefully about your needs, and what kind of usage patterns you have. Then hunt around on the net, and see if the distro you are leaning towards has active forums, and good support.

Special Mention: One distribution which is conspicuous by its absence is Ubuntu. This is a relatively new distro that is creating waves in Linux land. The reason it was not included in this roundup was that so far, they have only launched one version, Warty Warthog. The next version is due in April, and it is shaping up to be a great distro. You might want to keep track of it. I know I am.