Disclaimer: I have used these three distributions only on my particular desktop computer for my particular needs. My assessment of each one is biased because of what hardware was recognized and the types of things I was trying to achieve. Your experience may be very different from what I describe below.
Right now, the top three distributions on DistroWatch.com are Ubuntu, Mandriva, and Mepis. I’ve played around with all three, and here’s what I’ve noticed:
Mandriva (formerly known as Mandrake) is a very polished distribution. It’s a fully graphical user interface (GUI) installation that walks you through each step of the process and assumes you know nothing about Linux. For example, in selecting software packages for installation, you can select from broad categories (games, internet, etc.). It also gives you the ability, if you know a lot about Linux software to select individual software packages instead of package groups. Mandriva has the best free partitioning tool I’ve seen (many people say Partition Magic is good, but it costs money). It’s the only Linux partitioning tool that’s left my Windows partition fully intact after resize (full functionality and undisturbed ScanDisk capability).
There are a few downsides to Mandriva. One major drawback is its size: it requires either three CDs or one DVD for installation. If you’re downloading ISOs (CD images) to burn, this can take a very long time. Once you’ve selected your software packages for installation, you have the option of copying the three CDs to your hard drive so that all packages will be available for future installation, but that requires a lot of hard drive space (I happen to have 160 GB, so it wasn’t a problem for me). This also adds quite a bit of time to the installation process.
The biggest problem with Mandriva, though, is that it’s so ordinary. The GUI installation will probably help Windows users uninitiated to the ways of Linux feel less intimidated, but at the end of the day, Mandriva is simply a plain-Jane KDE desktop with basic functionality.
A smaller problem with Mandriva is how it divvies up the control panel into little bits in the KMenu so that you have to click on the K, go through four subtrees to find the login manager. Then, you have to click on the K again, and go through the same four subtrees to find the theme manager. You can rearrange the KMenu, of course, but there’s still not a single control panel for all these things. I also found Mandriva’s hotplug ability sorely lacking.
Ubuntu, however, probably has hotplugging as its greatest strength. That’s what drew me to exploring Ubuntu more. (Oddly enough, I didn’t see the same hotplugging ability in Ubuntu’s KDE companion, Kubuntu.) I just pop a CD in, it appears on the desktop, and it begins playing in the CD player. I pop a USB external hard drive in, it appears on the desktop as an icon, and a folder of its contents opens. When I unmount (or eject) the external hard drive, its icon disappears from the desktop. This is basic functionality that Mac and Windows users come to expect, but it’s been slow in arriving at the Linux community, where the command-line and manual mounting and unmounting have dominated for so long.
Another plus for Ubuntu is its general solidity and speed. Maybe it’s just how it interacts with my hardware, but I found it to be extremely responsive to clicks, opening applications, and navigation through folders.
I did find Ubuntu’s defaults a bit lacking. Some Linux die-hards find the Gnome desktop appealing, but I have to say it’s quite ugly and isn’t as conducive to Mac/Windows switching as the KDE desktop is. Ubuntu also doesn’t include navigation in its folders by default (you can choose to use a browser window for navigation, though), so once you’ve gone into a folder, it isn’t easy to go back to its parent folder.
Personally, and I seem to be alone in this experience (based on what I’ve read in Linux forums), I found Ubuntu to be the only Linux distro of the top three not to recognize the native 1024 x 768 resolution of my monitor. It allows only 800 x 600, and I had to do quite a bit of research to figure out that I had to edit my etc/X11/xorg.conf file and how to do so.
… which brings me to the next thing: if you’re thinking about using Ubuntu, you’d better like the way it is out-of-the-box or get used to using the command-line. Take a look at the Ubuntu Guide. It is a great resource (a very long document that covers just about any tweak a novice user would want) and is indicative of the comprehensiveness and supportiveness of the Ubuntu community and the Ubuntu project. If you look closely at it, it’s very heavy on the command-line. Most tweaks require you to use sudo.
In Linux, there’s something called the “root” user. This root user can do just about anything and is similar to the “administrator” that is the default user on most versions of Windows (presumably not in the upcoming Longhorn release, though). “Root” access is needed to install software and change essential files (the aforementioned xorg.conf file, for example). Ubuntu, by default, does not enable a root user (you cannot log in as root and navigate through files via GUI), but it enables the regular user to use the command-line to temporarily become root by prefacing commands with the term sudo (I’m not sure what do is, but su is usually the super-user). This can be quite annoying. Fortunately, you can enable root log-in through the users and groups preferences.
Even though the Ubuntu Guide is quite comprehensive, I noticed that for a lot of basic preference changes, there’s a quite a bit that you have to do. I had to use the command-line and copy and paste a huge chunk of text in order to get more repositories for Synaptic (the package manager). I had to download a separate program to get num-lock to turn on when the computer’s started.
Some people may like CD burning through the file browser, but I prefer a good old CD burning program. The browser is drag-and-drop—you put the files you want in the CD burning folder, then you click “write to CD” (or something like that). It’s very Mac, in some ways. This could be a good thing for many people (just not for me, as I’ve come from the Nero/Easy CD Creator world of Windows).
The installation for Ubuntu is relatively painless and quick for an intermediate user. The questions about partitioning (and the use of a text-only interface for partitioning) may throw off some novice users, though.
Finally, a big plus for Ubuntu (or maybe just Gnome in general—I don’t know which)—themes that you download from gnome-look or other Gnome customization sites actually seem to install properly. I haven’t found this to be the case in KDE at all, even though the KDE theme managers all have something that says “install new theme.”
Something that Ubuntu advocates have pointed out many times is worth mentioning: Ubuntu will always be free and has a new release every six months. Its community is huge and very supportive. If someone posts a problem, she is likely to get a helpful response very quickly.
Mepis doesn’t have that luxury. It is a one-man operation (with a little help), and the base distribution, SimplyMEPIS, is free, but ProMEPIS is not. Of course, for most users, SimplyMEPIS is more than enough.
The latest SimplyMEPIS (3.3.1) has almost everything you could want in an operating system. In fact, one of my biggest annoyances with 3.3 was its lack of hotplugging capabilities, but that’s been fixed in the 3.3.1 release. While Mepis doesn’t automatically mount and open my USB external hard drive, it does automatically make it appear on the desktop. Once that happens, I just have to double-click on it, and it will be mounted and opened. Once I right-click it to unmount it, it doesn’t disappear from the desktop, though.
Still, this is only a small annoyance, cons
idering the fact that Mepis automatically detects both my NTFS and FAT32 Windows partitions and puts them on the desktop for use. I had to do a little bit of sudo backflipping to get that to work with Ubuntu.
Some people have complained that Mepis isn’t as good about detecting hardware as Ubuntu. I can’t say this happened for me, but I’d encourage people to pick distros mainly based on hardware detection. Just about everything else can be tweaked (you can even download KDE or Gnome desktop environments from both Ubuntu and Mepis, respectively). It does have both Linux kernels 2.4 and 2.6, designating 2.4 as for “older hardware” and 2.6 as for “newer hardware.” That may help.
One of Mepis’s greatest strengths is its nigh-perfect defaults. It installs just about every basic program you need (yes, including a K3B, the CD burning program) and has a special (albeit tiny) link to browse folders as root (very handy if all you want to do is some cut and paste or editing without using the command line). It has an integrated control panel that is one place to modify keyboard shortcuts, themes, icons, screensavers, logins, users, mouse preferences, etc. It was at that control panel that I could modify my KMenu, change taskbar preferences, turn on num-lock by default, choose to have my username load in automatically at the login screen (with a focus on the password field), and make the keyboard shortcuts more in line with my native Windows way of thinking (actually, there’s also a special settings wizard that will let you set basic preferences to Windows or Mac).
Enabling extra repositories through Synaptic was fully GUI and involved only checking a few boxes. Through that I was able to get libdvdcss2 (which allows you to play normal Hollywood DVDs). I also was able to download and install Thunderbird, which I couldn’t do through Ubuntu without using the Ubuntu CD (odd, I know—I don’t see why that wouldn’t just be in the repositories).
Installing Mepis is easy. First of all, it is both a live CD and an installation CD. Mandriva has no live CD (that I know of) and Ubuntu has a separate live and installation CD. That means that if you want to try Ubuntu, you boot up the live CD. Then, if you want to install Ubuntu, you have to restart the computer and put in the installer CD. It also means that if you want to try and install Ubuntu, you have two ISOs to download. I tried having Ubuntu mail me my free 10 copies, but it’s been weeks, and I still haven’t gotten them. A download is much faster, even if you have dial-up. And I don’t know what I’m going to do with ten copies of Ubuntu. With Mepis, you load in the CD. It boots to live (leaving your hard drive untouched). You can play around with it, and once you’ve decided to install it, you can click on the “Install Me” icon on the desktop.
The installation wizard itself has a partitioning tool—one that’s almost as good as Mandriva’s but doesn’t leave ScanDisk functionality in Windows intact—called QTParted. There was a weird quirk (maybe with my computer, maybe with all Mepis installations) where the installation progress stayed frozen at 3% until it was finished.
A couple of other quirks I found in Mepis (at least as installed on my computer):
1. Even though Mepis recognized my DVD player in order to play DVDs and recognized my CD burner in order to burn CDs, it wouldn’t let me mount either CD-ROM drive for simple content browsing. I kept getting an error about how the device didn’t exist. Also, the default CD player would “play” my CDs, but no sound would come out. I had to use Xine (the default DVD player) to play CDs, and I had to use Ogle to play DVDs because Xine would play the sound with weird crackling noises (wouldn’t do this for CDs, just DVDS—weird).
2. Maybe it’s just KDE, but very few theme installations worked in the regular wizard way (click “install new theme” and find the new theme). Many I had to manually configure.
3. I don’t know if this counts as quirk, but the Mepis grub screen and bootsplash background are hideous.
4. Again, not exactly a quirk, but the KWeather program installed by default is ugly and wouldn’t display the proper city, even when I had the correct city code. I uninstalled it and used Firefox’s ForecastFox instead.
5. This is a quirk I found in both Ubuntu and Mepis, so it may be more of a Firefox quirk than anything else. Firefox’s default download location is “Desktop,” but the downloads didn’t actually go to the desktop unless I selected /home/username/Desktop.
6. Problems don’t get solved, for the most part. I actually like the Mepis community, but it’s just not big enough or full of enough experts to really help the struggling novice. If Mepis works out-of-the-box for you, go with it. It’s a great distribution. If it doesn’t, though, you may want to try Ubuntu. It’s the norm for most problems posts on Mepis or Mepislovers.org to go unanswered or unsolved.
Ultimately, what informs the Linux distribution you choose should be how it works with your hardware. Does it recognize your mouse? Does it recognize your monitor and video card settings? Does it recognize your ethernet connection?
I would recommend for the first-time Windows migrant (most Linux newcomers are ex-Windows users; though, they make PowerPC versions of Mandriva and Ubuntu) to try Mepis first. If that works, stick with it. If it doesn’t, try Ubuntu.
Oh, but use Mandriva to partition your hard drive for dual boot.