The best Linux distro for a new breed of PCs

The best Linux distro for a new breed of PCs

Summary: Clearly, small, low-powered laptops are here to stay, with the advent of Intel's Atom platform and the success of systems like the Asus Eee. Classmates are coming to a little lap near you, OLPC America is hard at work, and vendors should be jumping on the Atom bandwagon shortly.


Clearly, small, low-powered laptops are here to stay, with the advent of Intel's Atom platform and the success of systems like the Asus Eee. Classmates are coming to a little lap near you, OLPC America is hard at work, and vendors should be jumping on the Atom bandwagon shortly. While we're all thrilled at the prospect of using Windows XP Home on these machines (*sarcasm drips here*), the real question is which Linux distribution is best-suited for this new class of machines that I hope will be invading our classrooms in the next year?

*buntu is an obvious choice because of it ease of use and installation and presence of an alternative installation for low-end hardware. However, there are hundreds of distributions floating around that might work quite handily. Mandriva Linux, Fedora, and OpenSUSE can all be tweaked to run well and install easily, but again, they only scratch the surface of what is available.

The OLPC Sugar OS, for example, has a very small footprint, and, although its performance is a bit sluggish, the interface is a step in a very new direction. So here's your Friday poll. What's the Linux distro of choice for ultra low-cost PCs? Talk back and let us know if your choice isn't in the list.

[poll id=49]

Topics: Software, Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Ubuntu, but only an LTS version

    An Long Term Supported version of Ubuntu, not the "normal" versions. Three years of security updates instead of 18 months.

    The period of security updates of other distro's is usually too short: 1 year.... In an Ed Tech environment, you don't want to install a new version every 12 months. That's really something that other distro's should improve upon: they are beautiful pieces of work, but they outdate too quickly.

    Other option: CentOS. Even longer period of security updates, as it's really Red Hat Enterprise Linux revamped and uses the same software repositories. Disadvantages: CentOS isn't as easy to use and as easy to plug in the missing codecs, as Ubuntu is. Apart from that, the default applications are rather old: a Red Hat-patched Firefox 1.5, for example.

    Greetz, Pjotr.
    • Upgrades are painless.

      Realistically, unlike most other distros, the option of in-place upgrades is well tested and well supported from one version to the next - Ubuntu built on Debian's excellent package management and rigid packaging standards to make even major version upgrades relatively painless. In an educational environment, outside of administration, you shouldn't have the type of mission-critical applications that are sensitive enough to warrant "enterprise" grade stability. Upgrades work cleanly 99.9% of the time, and, if you don't roll them all out at once, the mess isn't too hard to clean up behind the other 0.01% of the time. Now, for administrative functions, and other "must be up" applications, go with Ubuntu's LTS versions or CentOS. It makes sense there.
      • Only clean installations are painless

        Only a clean installation of Ubuntu is painless. Upgrading an older version to a newer one, causes problems in many cases. Due to outdated settings, superannuated configurations and conflicting previous tweaks.

        I have seen a lot of upgrade misery on the Ubuntu fora in the last two years. My advice is therefore: with every operating system under the sun, a clean installation is always best. With previous formatting of the target partition.

        So for Ed Tech I would definitely advise Ubuntu LTS. And to stick with it.....

        Greetz, Pjotr.
        • Agreed (kind of)

          However, I've been really impressed with how pain free it has been keeping up to date machines, well, up to date.

          I guess part of that goes hand in hand with what you're saying anyhow, in that when a config change or similar is necessary for a new revision of some app/daemon, by keeping up to date you only have to tackle it if/as it arises.

          I've kept up with the latest Alpha stuff on a handful of Ubuntu machines and experienced no problems. Of course, you're always more likely to have a problem if a machine has the kitchen sink installed too .....
        • Clean Install Is optimal

          But remember too use:
          Installation disc creator for packages downloaded via APT
          APT removable repository creator and package backup tool for Debian based systems.
          This tool will allow you to create a media (CD or DVD) to use to install software via APT in a non-connected machine, as well upgrade and install the same set of softwares in several machines with no need to re-download the packages again.
          For more information, visit
        • My last in place upgrade was using...

          the SuSE distro. I went from 10.0 to 10.2 on three PC's. It was totally painless. Not one issue.

          I'm getting ready to upgrade to 10.3 and expect the same results.
          • You CAN expect the same results.

            I did excactly that and everyting was fine. I had to update the VLC separately though.
            Just remember, as allways, to keep your /home as a separate partition. That way: should something sour turn up, you still have all your personal data intact. (Unlike the Windows way; everything under c:\...\documents and settings).
      • You don't get it ....

        The poster is talking "business". He is not talking "home geek wanting to play with the bleeding edge".

        For the home user, Ubuntu's update cycle and "betability" is acceptable. But for business, Ubuntu is an unstable nightmare with an update cycle that is too quick.
        • Don't speak for me

          I will speak for myself, thank you. As to the rest of your message: you are either misinformed, or malignant, or both.
          • Don't speak for me

            My My someone had a big bowl of cranky for breakfast this morning!! ;)
        • Apparently niether do you.

          The person you called a home geek was saying the same thing you are; that business wants a dependable stable configuration, which is what the LTS series is, it stands for Long Term Support; and is on a three year cycle, specifically to address your concerns. It is NOT bleeding edge. You just called him names because he said exactly what you are saying.

          So what does that say about you?
          • Different post

            My reply was to a guy who was saying that apget was nice and good for business.

            Somehow the post is either gone, or my post ended up under the wrong message.
          • ahh, apolgies...what a mistaka to maka.

        • Actually I think 6.04 is the last version of

          Ubuntu to be supported by Canonical for Business. But maybe I misunderstood the license I saw. And I'm not sure of the value of this class of PC to enterprise, seems more of home geek toy to me.
        • You may want to try out Suse then. They have

          the free download (OpenSuSE) or the commercial one.
          The commercial one has pretty LONG support.
  • RE: The best Linux distro for a new breed of PCs

    Slackware .. stable, not bleeding edge, but stable. Everything works with never any worry about things being broken ..
    • True, BUT

      I have to agree, it's simple, and stable.

      Slackware does require the user to load all the drivers. If something isn't compatable, there is no generic option, you have to configure it manually. For a beginner for Linux, Slack might not be the best option.
      • But there are Slackware derivatives that handle drivers better.

        I LOVE Vector Linux, for instance.
  • To be fair to OLPC Sugar, it is ONLY for kids, though a lot of

    innovative features will make it into other distros. Especially the hardware innovations of OLPC will make it into more powerful computers with adult sized keyboards.

    Now if you asked what distro is best for grades 1-6, Sugar wins hands down.
  • All too heavy

    Seriously, they're all loaded with features that are more of a liability than an asset. Having all of the hooks for a full-featured desktop system is great -- if you're trying to do a build for a one-size-fits-all set of binaries that will support everything possible.

    I may be a bit biased in favor of Gentoo, but something that's either buildable with minimal dependencies (e.g. Gentoo) or built from the ground up without bells and whistles will have a much lower memory (and flash) footprint.

    The problem, of course, is that users will buy something light and then want to load it with everything under the Sun. When (not if) they run into trouble they won't go, "Gee, maybe I shouldn't be trying to edit video on this," they'll blame the system.
    Yagotta B. Kidding