Linux

10 reasons for switching to a different Linux distribution

Sooner or later, you're going to get the urge to switch distributions -- maybe for a change of pace or maybe out of more practical considerations. Here's a look at some of the most common reasons users feel compelled to make that jump.

Sooner or later, you're going to get the urge to switch distributions -- maybe for a change of pace or maybe out of more practical considerations. Here's a look at some of the most common reasons users feel compelled to make that jump.


You've been using the same Linux distribution for years now, but something has been eating at the back of your brain... some zombie process trying to tell you to switch to a different flavor of your favorite open source operating system. You can't put your finger on it, but it's there. Some users settle on the first distribution they find and never leave it. Others seem to switch distributions as often as they switch desktop wallpaper. But most Linux users go through one (or two or three) distributions before they finally settle on that one that perfectly fits the bill. That's where this article comes in: How do you know when you're ready to switch to a different distribution?

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Your distribution is too cutting edge

There are distributions, like Fedora, that really serve more as testing ground for another (Fedora for Red Hat, OpenSuSE for SuSE). These distributions do a great job of pushing the operating system ahead of the curve. The problem is that they push so far ahead, you spend more time tweaking and fixing than you do actually working. That is not to say these distributions are of little value. In fact, they serve a great purpose in the Linux space. And the users of these distributions serve an fine cause as well -- as debuggers and testers. Without these users, distributions like Red Hat and SuSE would lag behind on enterprise-level innovation. But if you're looking for a distribution that really does "just work," you'll want to migrate away from the Fedoras and the OpenSuSEs.

#2: Your distribution's package management system is horrible

For the most part, modern Linux package management systems are outstanding. But just because the distribution has a user-friendly GUI that helps you find what you need, that doesn't mean the underlying system is right for you. This topic can easily fall into the same realm as the age-old "vi vs. emacs" war. There are those who will use only an rpm-based distribution and those who will use only a deb-based distribution. (Of course, there are also those hard core members who will use only source-based distributions.)

I have used both a yum and an apt-get system, and I have to confess I find the apt-get system to be much more elegant and less prone to breaking. I was a yum-baby for a long, long time, and the conversion to apt was simple. Why? Because the fundamental ideas are relatively the same (apt-get install package-name versus yum install package-name). But I switched because I encountered too many occasions where the yum package manager rendered a system nearly useless. User error? Could have been.

#3: Your distribution makes installing a certain package far too difficult

Recently, I discovered an outstanding batch photo editor and needed to install it on both a Ubuntu and a Mandriva system. The Ubuntu installation was simple. The Mandriva installation? Never happened. Why? Simple: The application never made it into the Mandriva repositories, whereas it was in the Ubuntu repositories. Does that mean it will always be difficult (or impossible) to install the application on Mandriva? Probably not. But at the time, I needed the package right away (and running a test now, I find the application is still not in the Mandriva repositories). This is the same with the Enlightenment desktop.

There are distributions that make installing this wonderful desktop a breeze. But there are just as many (if not more) that make installing alternative desktops not so easy. So there will be instances where you must have a particular application but you can't get it on your current distribution. For those moments, change is a good thing.

#4: Your distribution relies on closed source drivers

I have plenty of Linux friends who always have and always will refuse to use a distribution that installs anything that is closed or proprietary. Fortunately, for those users, there are Linux distributions that are 100% free -- such as Mandriva Free. Mandriva Free is advertised as the "purely" free software edition of Mandriva. Using the "free" edition has its pros and cons. Of course, you would be using all free software and could compute with a clean conscience. But with the "free" edition comes the possibility of having to do a little work to get things working completely. Still, if you are a Linux and open source purist, using a distribution that is free from closed source applications will certainly appeal to you.

#5: Your distribution doesn't offer support

This leans more toward enterprise-level than personal-level use. But some Linux distributions offer commercial support and some don't. From Fedora, SuSE, Mandriva, and Ubuntu, your company can purchase enterprise-ready support. Couple this with the regular channels of support (forums, mailing lists, Google, etc.) and you have a complete support package that rivals anything Microsoft has to offer. With those distributions that do not offer commercial support, you are at the whim of Google and other Linux users. For many Linux users this is fine. But for those situations where support is key, you know which distributions you are limited to.

#6: Your distribution doesn't support your new hardware

I don't know how many times I have switched back and forth from one distribution to another because of new hardware. The last few years of using Fedora had me frustrated beyond belief because I couldn't get the distribution to communicate with my Palm Treo 680. It wasn't until I had switched to Ubuntu that I was able to, simply and quickly, get that device syncing away.

I've had similar issues with iPods, printers, wireless network devices, and video adapters. And this doesn't account for laptops, where the combination of hardware can send you searching for the golden egg of distributions. Fortunately, Linux now enjoys the LiveCD phenomenon, where you can plop in a LiveCD, boot your machine, and know pretty instantly if that distribution will work with your combination of hardware. Those distributions I have found to be the most accepting of hardware are Mandriva, PCLinuxOS, and Ubuntu.

#7: Your distribution isn't as secure out of the box as you would like it to be

We all know that Linux is more secure than Windows. The Microsoft fanboys can cry foul all they want, but the truth is the truth. But another truth lies underneath: All Linux distributions are not created equal. There are Linux distributions that are created with the single purpose of being secure. Engarde Linux and Trustix are distributions whose purpose is to distribute hardened Linux operating systems. FreeBSD and Gentoo Linux are simply very secure operating systems out of the box. Linspire -- not so much. But in a pinch, I would still place a Linspire over Windows Vista any day.

#8: Your distribution has fallen behind

In polar opposition to number 1, some distributions have a release cycle that is far behind others. Unlike Ubuntu, which releases two versions per year (.04 and .10), distributions such as Vector Linux are irregular and slow to release. In some ways this is good. If it isn't broken, why fix it? But Linux evolves, grows, and changes quite frequently. When security holes are found, they are patched before you can issue the command to upgrade the offending software. So the latest and greatest most likely contains all of the necessary patches as well as the newest additions to the graphical environment. Can anyone say KDE 4.1? (But not 4.0, because that was a nightmare.) If you find your distribution's release cycle is causing you to be way behind in software (say you're still using OpenOffice 2.0 or GNOME 2.1), it's time to jump ship and find a more modern take on the Linux release cycle.

#9: Your distribution doesn't support your new architecture

I couldn't leave out the PPC users out there. Apple hardware is pretty appealing to many people. But to those of us who prefer a more open offering in the software department, OS X is just Windows with BSD underpinnings. But there's no need to fear. Plenty of distributions out there support Apple hardware. Yellow Dog Linux, Ubuntu, SuSE, and Fedora all have releases for Apple hardware.There are some tricks to getting everything working properly (wireless requires the extraction of the wireless card firmware), but once running it does quite well.

Another type of hardware switch might be migrating from 32-bit to 64-bit. Granted, all 64-bit machines will run 32-bit Linux, but there might be a reason you would want 64-bit running. If you're running Freespire and you want to get the most out of your 64-bit processor, you are out of luck.

#10: Your distribution has started to bore you

Believe it or not, I know more people who have switched Linux distributions out of boredom than any other reason. After running Red Hat/Fedora from Red Hat 4.2 to Fedora 8, I finally had enough and switched. Sometimes it's just more interesting to know how the other teams are playing. And sometimes you reach that point where you've done everything you can think of doing with a distribution and you know you have to move on. If that's the case, don't feel guilty for leaving behind your good ol' trusted distribution. If the distribution is good enough, you might wind up coming back. If not, you'll most likely wind up making a new best friend.

Gone but not forgotten

Somewhere along the way, you're going to have one or two reasons to switch to a different Linux distribution -- and most likely that reason will be in this list. Whether you're switching for a specific need or just out of boredom, don't forget that distribution that first allowed you to make the leap from Windows to Linux. It will always have a special place in your heart. I, for one, still have my install disk from my first Linux distribution. It will never leave my office. It was the key to my computing freedom.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

17 comments
jdclyde
jdclyde

As long as you are getting security patches, why would you continually upgrade a server OS in a work environment? Have to much time on your hands if you are. Do your patches, and upgrade to a new version when and only when, there is a reason to upgrade. Need that ROI on your time. If you can not give a reason to upgrade, then you have no business upgrading. Or are we talking home users playing around here, and not professionals in the professional work space?

Jaqui
Jaqui

you are tired of bloated dependency chains from your distro, and bloated kernels and bloated xorg builds*. * do you really NEED the driver for EVERY video card in the world to be installed? you only have one video card on your system.

Jaqui
Jaqui

Mandriva has an unofficial official repository that you have to manually add to the repository list. the PLF in it you will find the p2p / file share apps Mandriva's policy prohibits as well as many other usefull packages. [ GTK-recordmydesktop / QT-recordmydesktop and recordmydesktop were in the PLF for a year before making it into the main repositories. which suggests they use package popularity from the PLF to test before adding to the main repositories. ] the PLF: http://plf.zarb.org/

AdamWill
AdamWill

Both Enightenment 16 and 17 are in Mandriva; install 'task-e17' to get E17. What was the batch photo editor you needed?

pgit
pgit

If KDE4 doesn't get it's act together I'm going to face a dilemma. Mandriva has been on my desktops since Mandrake 7.0, but their implementation of KDE4 is a disaster. (BTW the gnome 2009 Mandriva release is the best OS I have EVER used... but I despise gnome) Seeing as good ol' KDE3 is going to be left for dead, I might have to go to a distribution that makes KDE4 functional. I hear SuSE is doing a good job with it... My only other option is go to enlightenment or XFCE.

Fyrewerx
Fyrewerx

It is so obvious that all the different distro is the reason why Linux will never be a major OS for "average" endusers. It will remain solely for enthusiasts (aka - geeks).

chris
chris

while I rue the fact that my distro (Mandriva (for years now)) may not always have the app I want to use/try, it then occurs to me that operating at this level in the world of computing is somewhere in the top 1% of geekery. Linux is just not setup for mainstream consumption (unfortunately, as I would love to promote it more heartily). It can't be both customizable and mainstream (how many custom versions of windows are out there...oh yeah, none). If companies could afford it, they might try and make every app for their distro, but they can't so they hit what they want to hit (or maybe what their community pushes for them to hit), but these things are written by regular people who have jobs and lives. They can't make their app work for all distros on their own. Understanding that keeps me from getting frustrated and throwing in the towel. All the while, I still wish things would just install like they do on my winders box :-/

jlwallen
jlwallen

KDE 4.1 is quite a bit better than 4.0. 4.0 should have NEVER been released to the public.

#1klutz
#1klutz

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux_adoption Scroll down to Governments... Whole countries are changing. And We are using Linux. "the U.S. Army is ?the? single largest install base for Red Hat Linux"[34] and the US Navy nuclear submarine fleet runs on Linux[35]. Then scroll down to Education, Home and Buisness. The US Army and US navy are Geeks? Good call.

opensourcepcs
opensourcepcs

So because there are so many different car manufacturers cars won't become mainstream? Henry Ford used to say about his cars "They can have any color they want as long as it's black". He also refused to put heaters and electric starters in his cars. Other manufacturers did and because Ford almost went bankrupt he finally gave the consumers what they wanted. A little competition is a very good thing.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Suggest you update your self. There are plenty of Home Appliance user Distros. Download say SimplyMepis 7.0 live CD, or Diety Forfend Ubuntu

jdclyde
jdclyde

to think that linux having options is a bad thing. Spoken like someone that isn't used to having options, and liking it. I suppose you believe there are more Windows servers on the web than linux, huh?

jlwallen
jlwallen

yes there are TONS of distributions out there. but there are distributions that are becoming more main-stream (Ubuntu being the star of that show.) generally speaking i find those that say Linux will never be main stream either have a lot riding on Microsoft, they've never tried Linux, or they are too busy to step outside of what they already know. Linux has already made a lot of advances in the last couple of years. When I first started writing about Linux in '99 I felt pretty sure that Linux would find its way into the mainstream media. It's come much farther than that. And it will continue to grow in popularity. That's a promise.

john3347
john3347

You have strengthened my "soapbox" with this statement. Thank you! Now if we could get a movement going and get some developers' attention, Linux could become quite mainstream nearly overnight. For several years (while I had a day job, family, etc.) I primarily used my computer FOR a project. Now that I am retired, children all gone, etc., I have the time and inclination to use my computer(s) AS a project. This new-found time has fueled my interest in Linux. When Linux developers get a grip on the fact that the vast majority of users use their computers FOR projects (whether designing skyscrapers or chatting with their friends), rather than AS a project, and start writing programs that reflect that purpose; Microsoft will, almost overnight, become just another software company. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. (Been my story for years, and I'm continuing to stick to it.) Linux developers, WAKE UP.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I wonder how much Linux the armed forces were using in late '08.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

In the main Linux devlopers develop for themselves, and hope that what they want to do is interesting enough that others will want to make use of it AND to contribute. Seeing as you are just sat there on your ass, waiting for somebody to do what you want for nothing, I suggest you don't bother waking up again. You want to write code, want to write a book, want to draw something, want to run a website... It's all there, it might not do exactly waht you want, but you could given that what you want isn't completely stoopid, do it yourself, or organise getting it done, if more than a few might want the same. It's free as in free to contribute, not beer.

Fyrewerx
Fyrewerx

My soapbox entails the multiple flavors (maybe too many), plus the additional choice of whether to use GNOME or KDE within those distros. Thankfully, apps like Open Office work with all of them -- one unifying piece. Hopefully, it will remain compatible with the Office from the "other side".

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