The five best desktop Linuxes you haven't tried

One of the pleasures of Linux is that you can try out different distributions to see which one works best for you. You like Ubuntu, but you want to fine tune the desktop engine? OK, try Kubuntu with its KDE desktop then. Some worthwhile distributions, however, don't get as much attention as they deserve. So, here's my list of five great distributions that you might want to try.

Before launching into my list, let me preface it by saying that this is a list of what I consider relatively easy to use desktop distributions. So, while Debian is a great distribution, I haven't included it because to get the most out of it you should be an experienced Linux user. I also haven't included special purpose distributions like my favorite system repair Linux, SystemRescueCD. It's a great system repair operating system. Even if you don't care for Linux and your job is bringing misbehaving PCs back into line you really should get a copy. It, however, isn't a good, general purpose desktop.

So, without further adieu, here's my list of the five best desktop Linuxes you may not have tried.

First, on my list is an old favorite of mine: SimplyMEPIS. What I like about this distribution is that, more so than any other Linux I know, it just works. It really does. I install it on any machine, it runs and life is good. I especially like that its creator, Warren Woodford, includes several small, but extremely useful utilities to make using the desktop easier.

So why haven't you heard of it? Well, MEPIS is in many ways a labor of love. Woodford isn't just the creator; he's also, by his own choice, the only major developer. That means that when sometimes life pulls him away from the distribution and that happened recently. Now, however, Woodford is back to working on his Debian-based distribution so a new version of MEPIS should soon be arriving. Trust me; it will be worth your time.

Another distribution which fell on hard times, but is back and looking really good is gOS (Good OS). The first version got a lot of attention as being the "Google operating system," because instead of emphasizing desktop applications it focused on bringing users Google's applications. It's not that, but after a 2.0 version, which wasn't that well polished, the latest version gOS 3.0, though, looks really sweet.

It's meant really for OEMs to install on netbooks, but you can download and use it on your own PC. It includes an installer for a small horde of Google Gadgets, as well as links to Google Mail, Calendar, Reader, etc. etc. You get the idea. You'll never want to run this distribution without an Internet connection, but with one, I'm finding it to be a lot of fun and darn useful.

Now, one of the constant pains of desktop Linux is that so many media codexes aren't available in open-source versions. Mint, which is a child of Ubuntu, acknowledges this and then includes the proprietary programs needed to play Microsoft media formats and the like.

The result is, in my experience, a very pleasing desktop experience. While it can't run everything -- Apple's FairPlay DRM (digital rights management) encrypted tunes from the iTunes Store is beyond its powers - it does pretty darn well with everything else. If, on the other hand, you want to try life without any proprietary software, the distribution for you is gNewSense.

Another Linux that's worth a look is PCLinuxOS, which is based on Mandriva Linux. This is a solid desktop distribution that uses a KDE interface to good effect. If I could use one word to describe PCLinuxOS it would be 'sturdy.' Like MEPIS, it works well and with a large variety of hardware components.

I'm not the only one who thinks well of PCLinuxOS. While it doesn't get much press attention, it's long been one of the most popular distributions, according to DistroWatch's listing. Go ahead and give it a run and you'll see why PCLinuxOS has quietly gained many fans.

Of course you can also use straight Mandriva Linux, and perhaps you should. At one time, Mandriva was a well-regarded and well-known Linux distribution but over the years it's dropped out of sight. It's time to check into it again.

The newest Mandriva, Mandriva Linux 2008 Spring, comes in several versions. Besides a choice between the KDE 3.5.9 and GNOME 2.12.9, it also comes in a version without any proprietary software and another, the Powerpack edition that includes many useful proprietary programs. All versions also include a handy Windows migration tool that can bring over not just documents but Windows fonts. It can also read and write to Windows' native NTFS hard drives. Mandriva does a pretty darn good job at bringing over Windows files and the like and for that reason alone I think you should give it a try.

So, did I miss any of your favorites? Let me know. In the meantime, give these a try, your usage may vary, but I'm sure you'll find at least one of the less common distributions to be worth your time.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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