A comment from Tezzer to my recent blog post about Two New Linux Beta Distributions got me thinking. Tezzer mentions using Debian, but looking at PCLinuxOS and others for systems that have "issues" with some Linux distributions. I have heard the same comments on other blog posts, and in fact I have seen the same sort of "issues" with my Lifebook S2110 (often because of the ATI display adapter).
I am frequently asked by family and friends why there are so many Linux distributions, and how one should go about making an informed choice between them. I will not attempt to comment on the first question, other than to say that it is because it can be done, and that is one of the things that makes Linux so wonderful. The second question, though, got me thinking about the breadth of Linux distributions, and that is something worth discussing.
The way that I look at it, Linux distributions run across a rather wide scale. At one end of the scale are what I see as the "base" distributions. The best known of these are probably Debian and Slackware. If you have the time, knowledge, desire and patience you can start with one of these and add exactly the packages that you need. The advantage is that you end up with a tight system that doesn't contain a lot of stuff you don't want. The disadvantage, of course, is that you have to find, download and install almost everything yourself, and you are taking on the responsibility to keep up with patches and updates (of course some will look at that last point as being an advantage).
At the other end of the scale are what I see as the "All In One" distributions, such as Ubuntu and Mandriva. They typically start with one of the "base" distributions, add a LOT of packages, add and tune a variety of the latest drivers, perhaps add some of their own tools and utilities, configure and tune the desktop environments, and distribute the whole thing in a way that makes it easy to install and use. The advantage of these, of course, is that they are (or should be) very quick and easy to install and use, and they are likely to come with most or all of the packages that you need, and for what is included, they take over tracking, downloading and installing patches and updates. The disadvantage is that they may be considered "bloated" with so much stuff, and of course you are dependent on their schedule for updates. While on the whole they major distributions are quite timely in getting out updates, it is still likely to be somewhat slower than you could do it yourself (as I write this, for example, Ubuntu still has OpenOffice 2.4.1).
There are various other points on the Linux distribution scale. Some are what I consider to be "focused" distributions, which concentrate on a specific area, purpose or type of hardware. Some examples of these are the "small" Linux distributions, such as Damn Small Linux, TinyMe Linux and Puppy Linux; these focus on stripping down one of the base or all-in-one distributions, to minimize the disk space, memory size and processor requirements for their distribution. Other typical examples are distributions which focus on security, multimedia, or non-English language interfaces. There are even some distributions which fall beyond the "all-in-ones" on my scale, as they are derived from those but go further by using different desktops, adding even more packages, and sometimes using their own installer or utilities. Examples of these which I have mentioned previously in my blog include PCLinuxOS (derived from Mandriva) and SimplyMEPIS (used to be derived from Ubuntu).
There are two Open Source distributions which don't fit very well on my scale - OpenSuSE and The Fedora Project. These are sponsored by, affiliated with, or otherwise derived from their commercial "parents", Novell SuSE Linux and Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
Evaluating, choosing, installing and using a Linux distribution can be considerably easier if you keep this scale in mind, and you have a clear idea of where you want to be on that scale. How much time and effort are you willing to put into your installation and maintenance, and how much control are you willing to surrender in order to have someone else do that for you?