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Fedora, Mint, openSUSE, Ubuntu: Which Linux desktop is for you?

January 6, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Proprietary software

A lot of longtime Linux users see proprietary software, at best, as a necessary evil. On the other hand, pragmatists just want to use whatever tool works and don't care about its origin or license.


Fedora is the closest to a free software dream distribution. It comes with no proprietary firmware. So, for example, it may not work with some Wi-Fi adapters or graphics cards. If you need more, such as NVIDIA's proprietary graphics, you'll need to download them from third-party repositories like RPM Fusion.


Mint goes to the other extreme. Want Adobe Acrobat Reader? Flash? MP3 and commercial DVD players? It's either in there or a mouse-click away. Unlike Fedora, where you have to go to a third-party site for the program, Mint makes the most popular proprietary software available in its main file repositories.


OpenSUSE takes a middle road and provides information for how users can obtain proprietary software and drivers. OpenSUSE does have, thanks to its old parent company Novell's partnership with Microsoft, better support for Active Directory than do other distributions. So, if you want to use Linux on a Windows-based network, openSUSE is your best choice.


Ubuntu once kept away from proprietary software, but in its last few versions, it's taken a more relaxed attitude towards such programs. For example, Ubuntu's team has made it easy to download proprietary audio and video codecs.

Bottom line

Here, your decisions are pretty easy. If using proprietary software gives you hives, you use Fedora. If commercial programs don't bother you, Mint's the distribution for you.

Cloud integration

Once upon a time, the very idea of a desktop needing to be integrated with Software as a Service (SaaS) or cloud services was silly. That was then. Today, we expect our computers to work hand-in-glove with network services. So it should come as no surprise that just like Apple is integrating Mac OS X with iCloud, Linux distributions are doing the same thing.


Fedora comes with a host of cloud offerings. These include HekaFS, a secure distributed file system that can be used to provide a Fedora-cloud user with his or her own private storage slice; OpenStack and Condor Cloud, both Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) cloud implementations; and Aeolus Conductor, a Web interface that includes tools for creating and managing cloud instances.

That said, none of these are intimately integrated into Fedora. To use any of them will require some technical elbow-grease.


Mint has not been doing anything with the cloud yet. While some users are asking for this, Mint's developers haven't announced any plans at this time.


OpenSUSE takes several views of the cloud. Thanks to SUSE Studio, a roll-your-own Linux distro service, you can build and deploy openSUSE 12.1 instances with your own custom package selections, artwork, scripts, etc. directly to Amazon EC2 or other cloud platforms.

If you want to run your own cloud, openSUSE comes with ownCloud, a build-it-yourself Web-based cloud storage application. OpenSUSE also comes with customized support for the Eucalyptus, OpenNebula and OpenStack cloud computing platforms.


Ubuntu comes with its own cloud service, Ubuntu One, ready for any desktop user to be productive with right away. The no-cost version, Ubuntu One Free gives you free 5GBs of storage. As with Dropbox you can use Ubuntu One not just as a big floppy disk in the sky but to share files across your Ubuntu, Windows, Android and iOS devices. For $3.99 a month you get up to 20GBs of storage and the ability to stream music from the Ubuntu One cloud.

More technically inclined users can build Ubuntu-based clouds using OpenStack. Serious cloud developers will also want to look into Juju, an attempt to bridge the gap between cloud technical experts and system administrators by offering easy-to-use "charms" for cloud system installation and management.

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