Saturday, May 18, 2013

Top Ten Sleeper Distros

by Dietrich Schmitz

With all of the recent stories I've written and my obvious bias toward one particular Linux community Distribution, you'd think there is nothing else to talk about.

Well, there is.  When I was young and had nothing better to do than ride around in a rag-top 70 Mustang consuming fossil fuel, we coined the term 'sleeper' for those cars which looked innocuous but under the hood had some major performance value going on.  In other words, they'd blow the doors off of other so-called 'hot rods' but didn't give the tell-tale signs of being souped up.

I tend to think of only a few Distributions which have a lot of potential under the hood and are categorized as 'sleepers'.  They perform when called upon and do it well and mostly go unnoticed.  Today, I give you my subjective list of top ten sleeper Distributions.  Okay, here we go.


Do you long for the days when Ubuntu sported a simple Gnome2 interface--you know--when you could actually figure out where to go to do things?  Well then SolusOS is for you.  Based on the Debian stable branch, this nimble powerhouse Distro gives everything needed for the beginner, intermediate and advanced user.  Founder +Ikey Doherty is working on a new project, Consort, a fork of a few Gnome3.x components, i.e. panel, which will allow him to continue providing a GUI based on a more traditional Gnome2-like interface.   Consort will be included in an as of yet to be released version 2.0 of SolusOS.


PCLinuxOS has some really loyal, passionate users behind it and for good reason.  In fact it's so cool, ice cubes are jealous.  Founder +Bill Reynolds aka "Texstar" has much to be proud of in this rpm-based Mandrake fork (now Mandriva Linux).  It's almost like the second amendment and gun ownership as I am reminded of that famous line that Charleston Heston (may he rest in peace) uttered at an NRA convention: "From my cold dead hands" in reference to the right to bear arms.  Such loyalty I have not found stronger than in Distro users the likes of +Alessandro Ebersol who show the respect that PCLinuxOS has earned. The default GUI in PCLinuxOS 2012 is KDE Plasma Workspace.  Other installable GUIs include Enlightenment, Fluxbox, Gnome, IceWM, KDE, LXDE, OpenBox and Xfce.


Chakra Linux, originally based on Arch Linux, employs a KDE Plasma Workspace GUI. Chakra maintains its own separate repository system and while its intention is to be a pure KDE implementation, employs a unique package 'bundle' method for applications which are GTk based, such as GIMP.  Of all the KDE-based Distros, I find Chakra's 2013.2 implementation easy to use, polished and professional.


Unlike Gentoo, upon which it is based, Sabayon Linux has a much more user-friendly 'out of the box' experience, .  Gentoo has a reputation of being the most difficult Distro to install and use, employing Portage package management system, only it ratchets up the difficulty with the requirement to compile 'everything' before use, including the kernel.  Sabayon attempts to bridge that technology chasm and succeeds with Entropy, a pre-compiled binary package manager, but also supports Portage for installing Gentoo repo 'ebuild' files.  It is one of the more leading-edge technology Distros in that it supports a non-root ZFS filesystem as does Gentoo.  Sabayon 13.04 installs with a choice of  Gnome3, KDE, Xfce, LXDE and Enlightenment GUIs.


At last check, Manjaro Linux, an Arch derivative, was ranked ninth just behind eighth place Arch Linux on, when viewed over the last 6-month period of activity.  Arch Linux users are among the most loyal following I have encountered.  Using Arch Linux is like wearing a red badge of courage, as its level of difficultly is only exceeded by Gentoo.  Manjaro, while based on Arch, maintains its own repository, but retains and uses the powerful Pacman package management system.  Manjaro, like Sabayon, succeeds in bridging Arch's difficulty gap by providing a graphical installer for Xfce, Cinnamon and KDE Plasma Workspace GUIs.


Rosa Desktop Fresh 2012 is developed by Russian concern Rosa Labs and is a fork of Mandriva Linux.  Rosa Desktop's KDE Plasma Workspace GUI has been enhanced with improved workspace design and user-friendliness.  The company also provides long-term support (LTS) Desktop and Enterprise Server versions of the operating system.  According to their website, and of all the Distros reviewed in this story, ROSA Marathon 2012 LTS is the only Distro which is Linux Standard Base (LSB) compliant.

#! CrunchBang

I spent time last summer ranging over the Distro landscape in search of a home seeking refuge from Ubuntu (I loath Unity), and came across !#.  Let me tell you, this has been for me the fastest lightweight Debian-stable Distro, bar none.  At the time CrunchBang 11 Waldorf was still in beta, but you wouldn't know it based on its great stability.  Developer +Philip Newborough has done a superb job with CrunchBang--it is easy to install, and has a nice post-install shell script which allows the user to configure additional settings and add-on applications to suit their needs.  #! sports an OpenBox GUI, which is a minimal super lightweight Stacking Window Manager using a right-click pop-up menu interface.  Spartan as it may be, the memory footprint weighs in at around 70MB ram usage as measured with 'free' when reaching the Desktop from boot.  If you are Developer, and/or hooked on speed, #! is for you.  Newcomers may be less inclined to like the OpenBox interface as compared to others, e.g., Xfce or Gnome or KDE.  This lightweight Distro truly is a 'sleeper'.


Bodhi Linux 2.3.0 is perhaps the most unusual Distro I have ever encountered.  It stands as being both a contradiction and mystery.  I mean, it's an Ubuntu derivative for all intents and purposes, but what sets this Distro apart in a crowd is it's GUI: Enlightenment, version E17.  Hat's off to +Jeff Hoogland for putting together a super lightweight Distro that while having a memory footprint of about 120MB ram as measured with 'free', the Compositing Window Manager is amazingly feature rich approaching KDE quality.  That's totally unique as far as I am concerned and you can spend a long time drilling down into Desktop configuration and find an almost infinite number of ways to tweak the Desktop to your liking.  It's a mystery to me how the Enlightenment Team got that much functionality with so little ram use.  This Distro ranks high on the lightweight 'sleeper' list.  You get speed, low ram use, and the Ubuntu repo and that is a major value proposition.


If I had to chose which Distro in the Ubuntu derivatives to return to, I think my most favorite is Xubuntu.  Simply because you avoid all of the GUI contentiousness of Unity and Gnome3 yet can enjoy all of the Ubuntu repository goodness without hassle.  I actually spent a lot of time using Xubuntu for that very reasoning until I decided to make the switch to Fuduntu then Fedora.  Xfce is the GUI and because it's written with GTk2 has no dependencies on any of the Gnome libraries.  Combine Xfce with compiz and it harkens back to the pre-Unity days of Ubuntu.  The very idea that the Ubuntu classic menu should be eliminated in favor of having the user search for a given app to me is beyond ridiculous.  Be that as it may, Xubuntu really is a good Distro.  Xubuntu 13.04 is quite practical and so I have given it the 'sleeper' Distro designation.  Of course, Xfce is light on resources so your machine will appreciate that and it will be quite snappy as a result.


Now, don't let the Ncurses character-based installer fool you into to thinking this is an ancient Distro.  Wait. It is an ancient Distro.  Never mind. In fact, it is the oldest Distro having been created back in 1993. Seriously, when you get by the installer, you'll discover that really Slackware gives you most everything all the other Distros have and in some cases newer software.  For those who hold systemd in disfavor, know that Slackware is still sysvinit BSD-style init based.  How much longer +Patrick Volkerding keeps it that way remains to be seen.  Slackware packages are tarballs in compressed LZMA format and in addition to a suite of local package tools, slackpkg is the network package manager.  Support for Gnome was dropped and replaced by KDE Plasma Workspaces as the default GUI.  Slackware gets the most Unix-like Distro designation for achieving simplicity. For pure speed and stability, Slackware gets a 'sleeper' designation.

And that is it for the Top Ten Sleeper Distros.  What are your thoughts?  Any other sleepers you like?

-- Dietrich

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