Alternative Linux distros that deserve the limelight

Despite Ubuntu’s mainstream popularity it’s not the only desktop distribution out there. Other luminaries include Fedora OpenSUSE Debian and Mandriva and they are all certainly excellent. But what about the lesser known alternatives? While there are many distributions tailored for specific tasks – such as security web serving education and so on – there are also quite a few desktop-orientated distributions that so far haven’t reached the limelight. There are at least two distributions that are worth your time. And who knows you may even choose one to be your new default desktop.

Linux Mint 9

The clean Mint desktop with its customised menu.

Choosing to look at Linux Mint as an alternative to Ubuntu is in many ways a bit of a misnomer: it’s based on Ubuntu. But maybe that’s part of its appeal. After all it brings with it all the advantages of Ubuntu but with a slightly different take.

Aside from a different visual style – an eminent green after its namesake – Mint aims to provide an even more user friendly desktop than Ubuntu which of course is saying something. And it’s fair to say it succeeds. Mint has a number of unique features largely around new configuration and administration tools that Ubuntu could probably learn from.

Mint’s update manager is cleaner and more feature rich than Ubuntu.

For example the update manager colour-codes and numbers updates based on level of risk or source (such as trusted Ubuntu packages or third party for example). It also allows you to set how frequently updates are checked for down to the minute and set ignore packages for those you never want to upgrade (in case for example you’re already using another version from a different source).

The Software Manager with user ratings and reviews.

And Mint’s version of the Ubuntu Software Center the Software Manager is easier to browse and comes with an excellent feature: ratings. Any Mint user can submit a star-rating and even a review. These are listed under the program name and screenshot so you can quickly see what other users think. When you consider the close to 33000 packages available from Ubuntu alone this is a brilliant way to narrow down the popular packages so you can find those worth installing. Some packages have hundreds of reviews and ratings providing a clear indication of the top products.

Mint’s control panel

Other useful tools include the Startup Manager to change GRUB settings easily including boot-up resolution; an easy to use Firewall configuration program that even new users can master; a simple tool to block domains; the excellent Backup Tool that not only allows to backup user files and directories and provides incremental backups but also save your list of installed software so you don’t have to go hunting for favourites again with a new install; and two tools to make file sharing a snap: File Uploader which allows you to drag and drop files to pre-defined destinations on the web and Giver which does the same for users on your network displaying local users in an instant-messaging style list for direct user-to-user sharing.

Linux Mint 9 is based on Ubuntu 10.04 but thankfully doesn’t implement Ubuntu’s strange relocation of the close buttons that occurred in 10.04. All the Mint themes for which there is a good selection stick to what you’re used to. And while it includes most of the same default applications it also adds a few new or different ones: Gimp for example is included (this was removed from Ubuntu 10.04) XChat for IRC chat Pidgin for instant messaging Gnome Player in addition to Totem and the Pulse Audio manager for better control over sound devices.

It also comes with a variety of desktop environments in case you’re not a Gnome fan: there is a KDE edition Fluxbox Xfce and LXDE. The Fluxbox version especially is a great implementation.

At the time of writing Linux Mint is the third most popular distribution on DistroWatch just behind Ubuntu at number one and Fedora at two. This says volumes about the quality and passion behind this distro. I currently have Ubuntu as my default but for the first time I’m thinking of switching to an alternative and that alternative is Mint.

Puppy Linux 5.10

Puppy is lightweight and very fast.

Puppy Linux has at least one particular claim to fame for us – it’s Australian. And it has puppy  in it’s name so you know it’s going to be good. Or at least cute. It also runs entirely from memory which means it’s both fast and compact. So much so in fact you can run it all from a small USB key – the bootable .ISO image is just 128M.

And unlike Live CDs for most other distros where there’s a usable but limited desktop environment and settings aren’t usually saved the live Puppy CD can be run and used entirely from a variety of removeable media – USB keys SD memory cards and even CDRs – any changes you make are saved in a separate file so you pickup where you left off. The settings file is actually a self-contained file system and can optionally be encrypted.

Puppy maintains its slim size and in turn its ability to run entirely from memory by using a lightweight desktop environment and different applications than you might normally be used to. For example using Abirword for word processing instead of OpenOffice and Rox-Filer as a file manager instead of Nautilus. All the essential applications are covered however from browsing and email through to video editing and even basic network administration. An impressive feat for such a compact distro.

QuickPet is a simple installer for most popular packages.

While the Puppy Package Manager allows installation from both Puppy and
Ubuntu repositories.

It isn’t on the whole as pretty as distributions like Ubuntu but then it has its own unique features. One of these is the Puppy package manager. Not only does it allow you install .PET packages (Puppy’s own package format also called Puplets) from the Puppy repositories but it allows you easily browse and install .deb files from the Ubuntu repositories too. In fact you can easily install Ubuntu Debian Slackware and Arch packages just by clicking on them. And when you download packages you can selectively choose mirrors and take advantage of a ‘Trim the fat’ option that removes unnecessary files you may not need including locales documentation and development files post-install. It’s simple features like this that give Puppy it’s charm.

Part of the reason for cross-distribution compatibility is another unique feature to Puppy: Woof. Yes it’s all too easy to go with the dog analogies but Woof is actually a quite impressive tool: it’s the means by which Puppy itself is built. In short Woof can be used to build your own minimal Puppy Linux distribution based another distribution such as the aforementioned Ubuntu Debian Slackware or Arch.

It’s for this reason there are quite a few Puppy derivatives the main ones being Fatdog64 (a 64-bit native version of Puppy) Puppeee for the Asus EeePC Fluppy for other netbooks and Quirky (Puppy’s cutting-edge development arm. Or paw I should say).

Despite the fact that Puppy’s compact size and speed lends it to obviously being ideal for older systems it none-the-less is just as capable for modern systems and even though it’s not as pretty as distributions like Ubuntu and Mint it’s excellent setup and package tools make it a pleasure to use.

Another Puppy Linux desktop

And another!


Ashton Mills
has been using Linux since Slackware came on floppies – and before that
was one of the three people in the world who used OS/2 (and loved it).
Always ready to make the most of his PC he is constantly playing with
Linux distributions and compiling the latest kernel.