When you're talking Linux, three big names always pop up: Canonical's Ubuntu, Novell's openSUSE and Red Hat's Fedora. Ubuntu has ridden a groundswell of both consumer and commercial support to its current ranking as the most popular Linux distribution. OpenSUSE, with its business underpinnings, has always been popular in Europe and has been making inroads in the U.S. And it is largely thanks to Fedora that Red Hat has become the biggest Linux company with a major role in community Linux.
Each of these "big three" has recently released a new version of its distribution, which means it's time to check them out and decide which is No 1. Or, more properly, which is No. 1 for what user.
To test them, I installed each distro on a Dell Inspiron 530S powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus. The test machine had 4GB of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chip set. This is a standard 2008 computer, which retails for approximately $450.
I also ran each distribution on other PCs to get an idea as to how they worked on a day-to-day basis. For example, I ran openSUSE on a Lenovo ThinkPad R61, Fedora on a Gateway GT5622 desktop and Ubuntu on an older Gateway 503GR desktop.
The Linux distros all had several things in common. First, installing each of them was a no-brainer. I popped in the CD, DVD or (in Fedora's case) a USB memory stick; got the computer to boot from the installation media; agreed on the time zone, the keyboard type and the new username; and then had a cup or two of coffee. At the end, each distribution was installed and ready to go.
In every case, there wasn't even a hint of a hardware problem. It's less trouble these days, frankly, to install Linux on a PC than it is Windows Vista.
The same was also true with getting each distribution to work with my hybrid Active Directory/Samba domain-based network with its server and NAS devices, and with a variety of Canon and HP printers. Within half an hour, I had each distribution working with my CIFS (Common Internet File System) and NFS (Network File System) servers.
In addition, installing new software with each new PC was a snap. On each system, I added the Banshee music player; Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Flash Player; and Crossover Linux|, which allows users to run Windows programs on top of Linux. Once installed, all these programs, and more besides, ran as smooth as silk.
To date, none of these Linux distros have given me a lick of trouble, and they've worked extremely well. Now, more than ever, I can't see any general reason why someone wouldn't use one of these Linux desktops in place of Windows.
None of this should be surprising, since these distributions are identical at the core -- all three are built on top of the Linux kernel 2.6.27 and use the GNOME 2.24 desktop. While their ingredients may be the same, though, the dishes made from them are quite different. What sets these three and other great Linux distributions apart is how they mix their ingredients together.