Rolling Release Linux Distributions

I’ve been experimenting with Linux distributions that have a rolling release model.  These distros don’t have a 6 month release cycle with major updates each release, like Ubuntu; ideally they just update themselves little by little as you normally update your system.  In theory, if you’re always up to date with your updates, then you always have the most modern version of the OS.  This concept appeals to my lazy nature, as well as my desire to always have the most recent version of whatever OS I’m running (which is why I don’t just use a Long Term Service version of Ubuntu).

First, I replaced my Ubuntu installation with Linux Mint Debian Edition (LMDE) because I’d seen some good reviews of it, and the rolling release model appealed to me.  Thus far, I think it’s a fantastic OS.  It’s not quite as user-friendly as Ubuntu for a few reasons, but I actually like it more than Ubuntu.  Everything seems to run snappier under LMDE, and I prefer the default Mint panel, menu, and themes.  I originally worried about potential stability issues involved with the rolling updates (sort of like the stability problems I’ve had with in-place upgrades in Ubuntu), but I haven’t experienced any problems so far (though I haven’t used it for long).

Next, I decided to set up VirtualBox so I could try out other rolling release distros.  So far, I’ve tried Sabayon, Aptosid, Arch Linux, and Chakra.  While I respect Sabayon for trying to make Gentoo more user-friendly, it broke after the first update, so that was an instant fail.  Aptosid was stable, and I really like the fact that there’s a default KDE version, but it sticks very strictly to “Debian’s Free Software guidelines”, which are draconian for a desktop OS (they don’t allow Firefox in the repository, to say nothing about Flash, and heaven forbid an Nvidia driver).

Arch Linux was an interesting mixed bag.  After the instillation, you’re left with a basic command prompt and almost nothing else.  I only managed to get GNOME set up by following a Youtube tutorial.  But after that, everything seemed to run extremely well, and the bleeding edge versions of nearly everything I wanted were already in the default repositories. I started to like Arch’s minimalist ideal, and debated about putting it on a new HDD partition. However, the installation and setup was still pretty intimidating to me, so I looked into Arch based distros and came across Chakra.

I thought Chakra was simply a version of Arch Linux that automated the instillation and setup.  I was wrong.  Chakra is actually in the early stages of becoming its own stand alone OS, and as such it has moved farther away from Arch than I had originally thought.  While Chakra did automate the setup, it also took Arch’s minimalist idea, and applied it to the repositories.  They’ve purged their default repositories of all GTK apps.  They have special standalone “bundles” that you can download and install separately, but they don’t have very many, and this sort of application segregation seemed very strange and stifling to me.  I’m a fan of KDE, but there are some GTK apps that I like, and not all of them were in the prepackaged “bundles”.  Also, since Chakra is not Arch anymore, it’s currently in an Alpha stage of development, and I experienced some minor bugs as a result.

Thus, I went back to Arch Linux, and decided to install that on my HDD instead.  I resigned myself to the need for a laptop next to my desktop, so that I could look things up if I ran into trouble.  There were certainly some speed bumps where the laptop proved to be essential, but I eventually got the desktop up and running smoothly.  This time, I installed a minimal KDE desktop instead of GNOME, and I’ve been very happy with the result so far.  The OS is very snappy, and I love the fact that the more you use it, the more the OS starts to reflect its user.  Because Arch doesn’t come with anything preinstalled, the only applications on your computer are the ones you put there.  Because Arch doesn’t automatically configure or automate anything, the only things that your computer does are the things you tell it to do.  In a PC world dominated by Microsoft Windows, Arch Linux is a breath of fresh air in that respect.

Unfortunately, I don’t personally know anyone to whom I could recommend Arch.  As much as I’ve fallen in love with Arch’s command-line software management tool (Pacman), there are people out there who weren’t even comfortable with Synaptic in Ubuntu, to say nothing about cracking open a terminal and installing things via apt-get.  Arch is not for people who are new to Linux.  If you hate the command line, and manually editing config files scares you, then avoid Arch.  But if you already have a lot of experience with Linux, Arch could turn out to be a wonderful OS for you.

In conclusion, Ubuntu is still probably the best distro for novice Linux users, if only because everything made for Desktop Linux is made primarily with Ubuntu in mind (in that respect, Ubuntu is to Linux what Windows is to the PC), but Linux Mint Debian Edition is shaping up to be an excellent alternative.  If the rolling release of LMDE turns out to be stable in the long term, I expect its popularity to escalate rapidly.  In contrast, Arch Linux will never be popular with Linux users who are switching from Windows, but it’s also an exceptional OS, and it’s quickly become one of my favorite distributions.

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12 Responses to Rolling Release Linux Distributions

  1. Papul says:

    Dude, arch is awesome. Its the perfect combination of customizability and ease of use. Unlike gentoo, you get binary packages and dont have to compile everything from source but you can do that too if you wish. (via ABS)

    • NM says:

      perhaps if you have a masters from MIT. It has to be the hardest unix/linux dist I have ever tried to install. Thje wiki seems to go in circles and constantly does like (check for this) then fails to mention if it should or should not be there, etc. Seriously according to the wiki as of now it seems i have to install arch, to install tools, to format and partition drives and set up raid (effectively erasing everything just installed) to then install it again. WTF. It may well be the best dist out there like I said, if you can ever get it installed. An IQ of 156 seems to be of no help here.

  2. Dave says:

    You still using LMDE? I’m thinking of switching to it.

    • mattalex says:

      Actually, I’m mostly using Arch Linux (which I’ve fallen in love with). The only problem I had with LMDE was that the Debian packages for wine were older than I wanted, and it only came with Gnome at the time (I prefer KDE). It was fine otherwise. I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot if you’ve tried Ubuntu, and that didn’t seem like a good fit because of the way it updates. I’ll probably take another look at it soon to see of there’s anything new happening.

      But generally, I consider LMDE easy to recommend.

  3. Poiema says:

    I know it’s been heading on 6 months, but if you have any interest in an Arch based distro for newbies….. Manjaro Linux (http://manjarolinux.org/). I’ve so far only tried it on VirtualBox, but for a new distro it seems to be pretty solid an user friendly. Manjaro uses XFCE and has installers and system management tools.

  4. Tom Long says:

    I am surprised you never tried PCLinuxOS. As a functional, usable and reliable rolling distro it’s right up there I should think.

  5. Ulbri says:

    I’m searching for a rolling release distro, I tried Arch but damn, so difficult to install, it took me like 2 hours, and I’m not even sure that all I’ve done was good…I’ll see what PCLinuxOS and LMDE (crap…no live-cd, only live-dvd) can offer me.

  6. Adair says:

    I’d encourage anyone who’s got a few Linux miles under their belt to persevere with Arch. It isn’t a newbie friendly distro and the initial setup can be a bit of a challenge, even if only in time, but it’s worth the effort. If the vanilla setup really is too much you could do worse than use Archbang as a foundation and go from there.

  7. PePa says:

    Last I used Arch as my main desktop was 2003, but I remember always having to edit/check config files after upgrading. It still works like that I suppose? I’m now on LMDE, and it is rolling (yeah!) and it’s not very demanding. ;-)

  8. doclok says:

    chakra is also great and rolling release cuz they are based on arch…its like user friendly arch and are great

  9. Karl says:

    Linux Mint is the best non-gnome-ish gnome I’ve ever used, and it is awesome, but rolling? No. Unlike Ubuntu, however, it doesn’t break all over your face if you do an upgrade. Edit 4 files, and then do
    # apt dist-upgrade ; apt upgrade ; apt update ; apt dist-upgrade; reboot

    Very nice. But, I’m also looking for a rolling release for a tiny laptop that has a touchscreen, too. Nothing’s worked so far for everything. But then, I’ve only tried a few. The problem is it’s old enough that it won’t work on new kernels. I have to use something with the kernel that came with Ubuntu 12.04, not 12.10…

    Still looking.

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