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.