“Great” you say… “But what’s a “Distro”????”
Well, even if you don’t know what a Distro is, I can tell you that somewhere out there is the perfect Distro for you.
Linux 101: An operating system is something you will never see. A “shell” is a way to get at the operating system. If you use a command line thingie, you are using a shell. Like a DOS box in windows or a Linux terminal window. A shell is a program that runs on a system providing a user interface for a particular user.
A GUI desktop is, really, a kind of a shell but with fancy windows and buttons and so on. Things are slightly more complicated than that, but who cares.
Now, in the Linux world, there is a special entity that does not really exist in the Windows world or the Mac world. It is called a “distribution.” Or, as we say …. “Distro”
Why do you need to know this? Well, for the new Linux user, it is the most important thing you need to know. And, it is one of the most interesting things about Linux.
Trolls will arrive soon to argue with my definitions (including those above), but here’s what I think a Distro is:
A Distro is a Linux or Linux-like operating system with a default shell and desktop and various system-level services included along with a set of software applications and other software stuff installed by default.
Just as importantly, a Distro excludes (by default) a range of software and stuff.
A Distro can have only one system (say, Debian Linux) and can default to only one shell/desktop (say gnome desktop, though others may be installed and ready for you to use) and it can have only one set of certain services installed and/or used by default, For instance, the boot system that gets the computer started, the sound system, the network system, and so on. Alternatives to these systems may or may not be installed but typically only one is default.
Then there is the application software. A Distro may include one word processor, or it may include several. When it comes to certain application software, there can be a “default” in the sense that a certain program will be opened up when the user does something. For instance, double clicking on or right-click-open on the icon for a text file may open a particular text editor because it is the default. But users can easily add software, remove applications, change the default, or simply decide to use one application or another at a given moment. Users cannot easily change how the computer boots or what the underlying system kernel is or what sound system is in place. Not easily.
So a “Distro” is a commitment to some software and some aspects of how it is all configured, but with the more user-manageable and user-decidable stuff worked out to some degree but with a lot of flexibility.
Happiness (vs. Misery)
When you buy a computer from Dell or Gateway or whomever, and it comes with Windows and Microsoft Office and a bunch of other crap already installed on it, that is like getting a Windows “Distro.” A major difference between such a Windows “Distro” and virtually any Linux Distro is that you choose a particular Linux Distro because you want to make your life easier and you want to be happy and to have fun and love your computer. The Windows “Distro,” in contrast, is something that you do not choose, it is given to you, and it makes your life harder because half the crap that is installed is ad ware, and this will make your life harder and you won’t be happy and you will end up hating your computer.
Why is a Linux Distro, and the process of picking one and installing it, a matter of happiness? Well, for one thing, a Distro is a statement, almost a fashion statement. Picking a Distro is like needing a pickup truck deciding to go for some kind of Toyota pickup vs. a Ford vs. a GMC. It is like making the plunge into fantasy football and then picking which league to get involved in based on the various differences among them. It is a combination of a style-thing and a functionality-thing. Making these decisions can be enormous fun, if you let it be.
Now, in theory, once you have a certain kernel and a certain way of booting the system and some other stuff …. the things I mention above that you can have only one of installed or as default …. there is a hypothetical distribution that simply has everything. Instead of picking which word processor to install by default for a given Distro, just install all of them! This could be the Over the Top Distro. Perhaps “Evertyingbuntu.” And in fact, if you have a mondo computer with lots of disk space and memory and stuff, why not? If you install a general purpose Distro like Ubuntu and try out a lot of software but never remove any of it, you are eventually going to end up approaching Everythingbuntu.
Your Perfect Distro Is …
But there are Distros that have special qualities that match either you (and your special unique style) or that match your vitally important needs at a particular moment. For instance, Knoppix is a Distro that runs hardware better than any other because it is made by this guy from Germany who is a total hardware guru. Knoppix’s “Live CD” (a system that runs on your computer without messing with your hard drive or native system, entirely from the CD) is therefore a great thing to have on hand for fixing problems with computers. Windows computer fixit technicians keep on hand copies of the Koppix Live CD to fix Windows computers. If you mess with hardware at all, Koppix is perfect for you, even if mainly as a secondary distro you keep handy on a CD (but do get an updated version now and then!)
Plain Vanilla Ubuntu is the prefect Distro for many (perhaps most) people because it has a good install system that generally works, and once it is up and running, it is very user friendly and works well. The producers of this Distro are conservative about the application software they include: They often include only somewhat older versions that are tried and true, and wait to include the newer versions. For instance, my Ubuntu Distro does not have Firefox 3.0! This does not mean I can’t install it myself, but the Distro is going to wait and see, for a few weeks probably, how Firefox 3.0 interacts with the other software in Ubuntu. For the average new Linux user, Ubuntu (out of the box) is perfect.
If using all the usual multimedia stuff is important to you, then you should probably seriously consider a special version of Ubuntu called Linux Mint. There are many interesting things about this distribution, but among them is that it comes with a lot of the multimedia codexes (codexii?) installed and ready to go. If multimedia is your game, the Mint is your Distro.
Scientists might like to look at Scientific Linux. It is produced by Fermilab and CERN. How cool is that? Lots of people love the tiny distributions such as Damn Small Linux. These are good for people without much room, or who want to run Linux off of a floppy disk or whatever. Some distros (like Gobuntu) are morally pure, while others are ethically messy (this mostly has to do with OpenSource philosophy).
What makes a Distro unique is often the choice of automatically included software applications. In other cases, it is the system-level stuff that matters, like Koppix and its ability to run most hardware no matter what, or Damn Small Linux and its ability to be small. Damn small. In other cases the deeper kernel stuff is optimized for a particular kind of application. I was just reading about mods to a system for the purpose of getting multiple sound cards to work nicely on a system designed for audio mixing and processing. Somewhere out there perhaps there is a Distro for this purpose.
I’m thinking about creating two Distros myself. Both would probably be based on Ubunutu because I think that’s a good place to start. One would be Blogobuntu, for blogging. The other would be a science distribution based on Ubuntu. The Scientific Linux I mention above is based on Red Hat. I’d like to see one based on Ubuntu. Why? Because there isn’t one out there yet. It would be cool. And perfect.