I’m feeling oddly adrift in my Linux taste, these days. I wasn’t a Linux
evangelist before, mind, but I would like to be able to answer with a
recommendation if somebody asked me what distribution I think they should run.
For a long time I would have confidently replied
Ubuntu!, but right now
I should be unable to do so unless their æsthetic sense differed radically
from mine, for starters. I started this year an Ubuntu user. Right now I’m
a slightly disgruntled Fedora user in search of something better.
My experience with Ubuntu started bright and turned better with the years. It was always intended to be easy, friendly, and ready out of the box. There was a time when I was too attached to the tweaking of my Gentoo days to appreciate it, but once I started worrying about two or three computers rather than just one desktop, Gentoo felt like too much work, and Ubuntu’s satisfactory out-of-the-box experience was a relief. Installing it is a snap: Always works, never causes trouble. Upgrades are smooth. Release updates were a bit of a jar from the rolling schedule of Gentoo, but they always went without a hitch, or at most very minor hitches. (Except when I chose to upgrade to beta versions, but if I choose a beta version I know I’m inviting potential trouble!)
The problem is that while Ubuntu has an exquisitely engineered distribution, what it actually distributes is less satisfying to me of late. In part I get annoyed by the tension between Ubuntu and the FOSS community—all the controversies over contributor agreements, playing poorly with upstream, demanding that other projects adhere to their schedules, and apparently picking their software stack based on political desire for control:
Since both init and Xorg are flexible enough to provide the sorts of improvements that Shuttleworth advocates, the suspicion is that such decisions are not technical, so much as political. That is, what concerns Ubuntu/ Canonical is not the technical merits of the applications, but its ability to dominate the projects that dominate its software stack.
The launch of Ubuntu One sort of cemented my generally suspicious attitude toward Canonical. Still, while I might not be wholeheartedly enthused by the company, the product still seemed good.
Until they launched Unity with no good fallback or alternative and in a fit of anger and disgust I left Ubuntu behind. People can claim all they like that it’s similar to GNOME 3. To me GNOME 3 is different than its predecessor, but looks sleek and polished and looks good on high resolution monitors. Unity expressly comes from a netbook project and a harebrained attempt to shove multimonitor, widescreen setups into a low-res netbook mold. Additionally, it looks like the OS X dock interface (which I heartily dislike), but redesigned and styled by ignoramuses armed with crayons rather than the expert UI designers at Apple.
For a brief while I played around with Gentoo again. I like it. I genuinely enjoy the fiddling I have to do to get a Gentoo system up and running, and I really don’t think there’s so much of it that it’s a serious burden. The emotional appeal of a system that I have customised is great; it’s the comfort of a carpenter whose tools have worn down by pressure and friction to fit his hand alone—I don’t pretend that my managing CFLAGS measurably helps performance for most applications, and even USE flags, though definitely useful, don’t affect me that much. But it’s comfortable and pleasing, as someone who cares about his tools. It’s also pleasantly familiar, as the distro on which I cut my teeth as a regular and moderately competent Linux user.
The problem is chiefly just that while I’m happy, nay, delighted to manage a Gentoo system, I’m not half as happy to manage three of them, and between work desktop, home desktop, and laptop, I would be. That’s too much repetitive work; too much time.
Minor problems include never quite being entirely satisfied either with stable (which is too far behind!) or unstable (which, though rarely, sometimes means a bunch of fudging and masking and version-specific flag management); and at the time when I last tried it, the fact that I was really kind of curious about GNOME 3 and Gentoo had no reasonable way of checking it out—it was faster to try Fedora.
So right now I’m not using Gentoo, but as always when I’m not using Gentoo, I sort of wish I were.
My experience with Fedora is mixed. Once I get a Fedora system setup and running, I have no complaints. It’s solid and stable and easy to manage and keep updated, as I expect from a Linux system. They stay up to date with software versions and follow upstream rather than going off on silly, Ubuntu-esque digressions, both of which I appreciate. Running it, then, is a pleasure.
But setting up Fedora is another matter. I’ve done it a few times this year, and while it’s fine when it just works, it—wait, no, I don’t know what that’s like. I actually think setting up Gentoo is more straightforward: It’s a lot of work, but it bloody well works the way the guide tells you it will. Fedora is simple in theory, but never seems to work out of the box.
This is what I’m currently running because frustrating as setup can be, I only have to do it every six months or so at the most, and in between it’s pretty much sunshine. But ye gods! are those intermittent periods ever exasperating! Installing a release version of a distribution should not be this error prone, and the upgrades? Disgraceful.
It’s kind of the antithesis of my view of Ubuntu right now, really. If I could run an Ubuntu installer and end up with a Fedora setup, then I’d be happy. That’s not what happens, though. Instead, what I get when I try to install Fedora (I say try, but there is eventual success), is a series of tales of woe I place behind a cut for your comfort.( Details of my Fedora install and upgrade woes )
Now, I’ll freely acknowledge that I’m a bit of an early adopter if I upgrade to the newest version the same week that it’s released, but I find all this very disappointing in what is supposed to be a release version, having gone through formal alpha, beta, and RC stages, with the final release even pushed back (I think twice) to resolve blockers. This load of issues, on three separate systems, is the result? I’m typing this up on a computer that is now finally running a perfectly beautiful GNOME 3 on Fedora 16, but it really shouldn’t take this much drama to get here. I’d excuse it if I were running Gentoo/unstable (excuse it, but be surprised to find it—the quality of Gentoo’s unstable branch would have to go downhill for that to happen).
Still, having tried the two biggest distributions (Ubuntu and Fedora) and found each wanting in its own way, I’m not sure where to turn next. Linux Mint? It is Ubuntu-based but seems less willfull and control-freaky, and the next version (due any day now) will ship with GNOME 3. Maybe that’s worth a try. openSUSE? Something else entirely?