Fedora, Mint, openSUSE, Ubuntu: Which Linux desktop is for you?

We look at the top four Linux distributions to find out which is right for which users.

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Included open-source software

Each of these Linux distributions is built on top of the Linux 3.1 kernel. As a result, the distributions reviewed here will, quite naturally, have several third-party open-source applications in common. OpenOffice, for instance, a long time office suite favorite, has been replaced on every major Linux distribution by the OpenOffice fork LibreOffice. Meanwhile, Firefox remains the standard Web browser choice.

At the same time, however, while you can run almost any software on any Linux distribution, each has its own particular software selections.


Fedora, as you might have guessed, uses GNOME software. Thus, its default e-mail client is the excellent Evolution groupware client. (OpenSUSE also uses Evolution.)

Where Fedora veers from the others is with its use of Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) for virtualization. While all the distributions include KVM, Fedora takes it to the next level with new features such as USB network redirection, which lets you (and authorized guests) use USB devices over your network.

Fedora also includes a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) based on Simple Protocol for Independent Computing Environments (SPICE ). This is a Linux equivalent to Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) and Citrix's Independent Computing Architecture (ICA). As a result, it enables you to use a Fedora system to run Linux thin clients across your network.


Mint Click to view larger image

Mint 12 also uses GNOME software, and adds the Mono-based Banshee 2.2 for music management and playback; Pidgin 2.1 for instant messaging; and Thunderbird 7.0.1 for e-mail. Except for Thunderbird, which I find to be far too slow and sometimes unstable, all of Mint's default choices are good ones.


OpenSUSE defaults to the KDE software family (with the exception of Evolution). While I'm not that impressed by the individual standard programs such as the Konqueror Web browser (which is not nearly as fast as, say, Google Chrome), I do like the smooth integration between KDE and its applications. Once you know how to use one KDE application, you'll know how to work all the other KDE programs.

I'm also impressed by how easy openSUSE makes it to start up server applications. In a manner of minutes, thanks to the YaST setup wizards, you can configure an e-mail, LDAP, file or Web server without any undue fuss or muss.

Another nice addition is a pair of applications: Snapper, which enables you to retrieve older versions of files and roll back system updates and configuration changes; and Tumbleweed, which you can use to update your system with rolling updates that contain the latest stable versions of all software. What this means is that you can explore software with Tumbleweed, but then head back to safety with Snapper if a program's cutting edge turns into a bleeding edge.


Besides the usual array of GNOME applications, Ubuntu opted to use Thunderbird in this latest update. However, while Thunderbird normally uses Mozilla's XUL interface, not GNOME's default GTK+ interface, which means the application tends to look a bit rough in GNOME-based Linux, Ubuntu has cleaned up Thunderbird's looks in Unity so that it looks better than it ever has (although it is not faster or more stable). Ubuntu also includes the Gwibber social networking client.

Most Linux distributions have made it easier to add software these days, but Ubuntu Unity's Software Center is the best of the lot. Besides making installing applications a one- or two-click operation, it includes ratings and reviews.

Bottom line

There's little to differentiate between the distributions. Personally, I like Mint's selection, except for Thunderbird, the best. That said, Ubuntu provides the best way of finding and installing new programs.

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