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Laptop Linux: Which Distro's Best?

"The best distro for me was the least install-friendly of them all: Gentoo"

Recently, I spent some time trying out various Linux distributions on my late model Toshiba laptop. Since that article came out, several new releases have come out and I've tried a couple of new distros. So here's a brief update.

Both Linspire and SuSE came out with new releases soon after the article ran (5.0 and 9.3 respectively). Linspire continues to have problems with missing device drivers and lack of backed-in kernel recompilation support. Frankly, Linspire 5.0 did about as well as Linspire 4.5 did. SuSe 9.3 was also consistent with its earlier release, but in a positive way. The 9.3 release, which is a 2.6 kernel-based distro, supported pretty much everything out-of-the-box.

I also checked out Fedora Core 3 again, armed with some new knowledge about how to get it to boot. Once past the roadblock that stymied me the first time (a problem with the install VGA driver), I was able to fully install it. However, it was missing a lot of the device support I needed, and it took a while to get it anywhere near 100% functional. Definitely not an out-of-the-box experience.

So what distro am I running on the laptop now? Gentoo, which is probably as far from an install-and-boot experience as you can imagine. For those who haven't experienced Gentoo, everything (including the kernel) comes in source form, and must be recompiled before use. What this means is that your initial install could take a couple of days (almost entirely unattended, luckily). The good news is that when you're done, the kernel and all the basic utilities and system software have been optimized for your hardware.

Once the basic install is done, you can spend another couple of days installing X, Gnome, KDE, and all the other stuff that you need to really do anything. OpenOffice was a three-day compilathon, for example. However, I have to say that absolutely everything from sound to wireless networking to cellular modem card worked right out of the (very long, slow) box. The only thing I had to grab in binary form was the proprietary ATI drivers to make my OpenGL run faster (and isn't TuxRacer a kick-butt game?).

I have to say that I really like "emerge," the Gentoo tool that automatically downloads and compiles packages for you. My past experience with from-source installs has been mixed, since you're usually running an out-of-date version of some library or other such problem, but emerge goes out of its way to make sure everything is just right during an install, and I've yet to have a compilation fail.

So, at the end of the day, the best distro for me was the least install-friendly of them all. Certainly I would never in a million years suggest Gentoo as an install for a first-time Linux user. I have heard talk that Gentoo will be getting a graphical installation tool soon, which will help a lot. But even so, the long, long initial install time makes it a distro for the chosen few.

The good news for other potential Linux users is that there's lots of distros that will get a laptop at least most of the way there, and a few that seem particularly suited to laptops. Of course, if you haven't bought your laptop yet, you can always buy one you know works well with Linux. Then you're assured of a great experience.

More Stories By James Turner

James Turner is president of Black Bear Software. James was formerly senior editor of Linux.SYS-CON.com and has also written for Wired, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. He is currently working on his third book on open source development.

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