Who Wins the Shootout?

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 10:14 PM

It has been several months since we began our quest to find the best desktop GNU/Linux distribution of the Fall/Winter 2002 batch. We have considered lots of distributions that attempt to innovated and streamline the Linux experience and now we consider who succeeded to push beyond the rest and win our award.

In our series, we've looked at Xandros Desktop Deluxe 1.0, Mandrake Linux 9.0, Red Hat Linux 8.0, SuSE Linux 8.1, and Lindows OS 3.0. Additionally, several distributions that did not receive a full review this time around but were also considered for the top spot include Lycoris Desktop/LX Amethyst, Knoppix 3.1, and Ark Linux Alpha 6 (the former two of those will join us in the next shootout).

To review, here is a breakdown of how the different distributions fared:

Xandros Desktop 1.0: Xandros, much like Corel Linux, seems like a distribution with a great concept but some unfortunate problems. After our initial review of it, we introduced a new test box that it simply would not install on. Further, an amazing security slip up that allows anyone to upgrade your system without a password, until you apply a patch, should never have slipped through the beta process (we discovered it after using the system for only about twenty minutes). Moreover, we are concerned about the company?s future — one reseller we talked to reported that Xandros' sales team ignored multiple messages and phone calls and “reliable rumors” suggest that Xandros may have recently laid off a good portion of its remaining developers.

While the Deluxe version offers CrossOver Office and Plug-in as part of a bundle, beyond that, Xandros doesn't really offer any distinguishing features to make up for its outdated KDE 2.x desktop and per-seat license. (Overall Score: C [Updated after further testing].)

Mandrake Linux 9.0: This release of Mandrake entered our competition with big shoes to fill. The company, which went into bankruptcy protection in January, had nabbed our Open Choice 2002 award for best distribution and an honorable mention in services for MandrakeClub. Unfortunately, while 8.2 can be considered a magnum opus for the company, 9.0 cannot be. Associate Editor Eduardo Sánchez backed up what others had been saying and reported major flaws in the release.

Among the problems Sánchez and others reported were details of some Linux-friendly systems refusing to install Mandrake Linux 9.0, installation of unneeded packages, problems on 800×600 screens, and sound issues on certain cards. While 9.1 may redeem the company, at the time, we were forced to recommend users to use the older 8.2 release instead of 9.0. (Overall Score: C.)

Red Hat Linux 8.0: With a refined new interface and a newly found focus on the desktop, Red Hat Linux 8.0 has been called the “just works” distribution by some supporters, and with the company's larger pockets, we thought that might have been the case. Sadly, for us it did anything but work. Problems setting up the printer, fetching updates, and widely publicized issues with KDE were all par for the course.

Add that to lack of partition resizing functionality, problems with unmounting CD-ROMs, and other annoyances, and we were forced to give Red Hat Linux 8.0 the dubious distinction of the worst scoring product we had reviewed at the time (it was joined by Lindows a short time later). That's not to say it was all bad — we noted at the time that the overall concept of Red Hat Linux 8 was good, and we hope that 8.1 is the product 8.0 should have been. (Overall Score: D.)

LindowsOS 3.0: LindowsOS promised a lot when it first went into development, including Windows compatibility. Unfortunately, with the Windows compatibility concept out the, uhm, window, we were left with a distribution that really didn't offer a very noticeable advantage to make up for its hefty $119/seat price (readers asked if we knew about the Lindows family license, and yes we do — but that doesn't do businesses any good).

While you can now get a version without Click-n-Run access for $49 per seat, the idea of getting a distribution without access to security updates doesn't seem too wise to us. Additionally, even if you spring for the $119 version, you only get Click-n-Run for a year, after which you must ante up another $99 per year per computer to keep it. Sadly, like Xandros (on which it is based), Lindows also failed to install on our standard issue Pentium 4 computer that we tested the other distributions on, and Lindows also failed on our well-supported four and a half year old Pentium II test box. With that in mind, Lindows garnered the same overall score as Red Hat, coming out just a little better in upgradability since it uses Debian's apt-get system. (Overall Score: D.)

And the Winner Is…

If you didn't catch it already by our omission from the list above, the distribution that nabbed our Fall/Winter 2002 award is none other than SuSE Linux 8.1. SuSE 8.1, while certainly not perfect, presented us with the most usable, reliable desktop we worked with. With a better than average “B” score under its belt, no per-seat licensing restrictions, and its great control center, this distribution is clearly the best in this release cycle.

Furthermore, since our review of SuSE 8.1, the company has also made available SuSE Linux Office, which offers CrossOver Office, like Xandros, on top of SuSE 8.1. It is also worth noting that SuSE has a range of enterprise server products, including mail, firewall, Lotus Domino, and general server options that allow you to use the company's software as and end-to-end deployment solution.

SuSE's clean, professional desktop is rivaled only by LindowsOS's layout, and gave us an environment straight out of the box that was not only intuitive but also eye appealing. And, as always, SuSE beats the competition concerning documentation, with a very hefty box full of manuals, including a 450-page guide that should cover almost any basic issues you may want to know about. SuSE's inclusion of a DVD copy of the distribution is also laudable and rounds out an already very nice package.

We would definitely like to offer some “kudos” to the SuSE Linux team, as they have continued to improve in a release cycle that seemed to leave the other distributions taking a few steps backwards. It would seem that while all showed up for our shootout, only SuSE was able to aim straight. We are definitely anticipating SuSE 8.2, which will become available next quarter, and should hopefully build on the strong foundation of SuSE Linux 8.1. (Overall Score: B.)

A Little Background

While none of us at Open for Business personally have chosen SuSE Linux as our distribution of choice, we were all in agreement about the winner. However, our resident Debian user, contributing editor John-Thomas Richards, did protest the decision not to consider Debian for this award. Richards noted:

I think Debian is ideal for a corporate desktop because apt-get makes system maintenance far simpler. Its installer is 'uglier' than other x86-centric distributions but it truly only needs to be run once. As you know, updating Red Hat releases means, in effect, reinstalling since it requires a reboot (or two). The initial install does seem to be more difficult but most I.T. people know a bit more about computers in general than do the target end-users, thus nullifying the added difficulty.

Eduardo Sánchez and myself are both avid Mandrake Linux users, and while we prefer the Free Software philosophy and licensing behind Mandrake Linux, we agreed that this was not MandrakeSoft's round to win. We are anticipating Mandrake Linux 9.1, but clearly the company dropped the ball on this release.

So where does that leave us for the upcoming release cycle? It?s hard to say. SuSE, as we said, did a great job of avoiding the various pitfalls that the other distributions fell into during this set of releases, and if they can use that same hard work towards new improvements in 8.2, it is quite conceivable that the company will be in line to take our next award as well. A lot of that depends on how its chief competitors, Mandrake and Red Hat, as well as Lycoris, are able to shape up for the Spring/Summer releases, but all of that won't be revealed for another few months.

In the mean time, we hand the crown to SuSE, and wholeheartedly recommend that distribution if you are shopping for a GNU/Linux variant right now. With a quality desktop, relatively low TCO, and active enterprise support, we can answer the question that we first asked last summer: “Yes, SuSE is SuPERB.”

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. You can reach him at tbutler@ofb.biz.