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Monday, October 22, 2012

The King of KDE Distros: The Contenders.

linux-distrosWell, done at last!  After some time gathering opinions from readers and quite some more time testing each one of the contenders, I have finished my comparison of the best of the best in KDE distros.
...Want to know the winner??

The contenders.

The final list of contenders was not directly extracted from the poll I put together. I decided to include some other distros at some readers request, as well as leaving one behind. The infamous leftover was Chakra, which I didn't manage to install (used both 2011.4 and 2011.9 images and followed all suggestions in the project's own Wiki with identical results: None) and the additions were Mandriva and Fedora. The final list of contenders goes as follows:
  • OpenSUSE 11.4 (12.1 Milestone 5 was still too un stable)
  • Mandriva 2011
  • Fedora 15 (16 Alpha was still too unstable)
  • PCLinuxOS 2011
  • Kubuntu 11.04
  • Pardus 2011.1

CRITERIA & SCORING
Alright, so we have the contenders, the next thing we need to define is the criteria by which they will be judged. Here's the list I will use:
  • It just works
  • User Friend... or foe?
  • Performance
  • Software Management & Applications
  • Hardware Friendliness
  • Aesthetic Uniqueness
  • Media support

Now, all distros will be judged against each of those categories and be given a score based on how they do. Scores will go as follows:
Score
Description
5
Excellent
4
Good
3
Average
2
Poor
1
Terrible
As a technical note, all distros were tested on the same piece of hardware, an HP 2740p Tablet PC (except for Pardus, which was tested on an HP 2730p). I chose to do it that way because I wanted a fair and consistent testing environment, but also because I know it is a great, high performing computer which sports some hardware devices that are not always easy to configure. As such, it would pose a challenge to the different distros hardware support capabilities, clearly showing where each stands in this area. I am aware that this approach would also narrow down the testing conclusions to a very specific scenario, so please keep in mind that scores and overall results described in this article may not apply everywhere.
Alright, we're good to go now... Let's dive right in!
IT JUST WORKS.
Whenever I test a Linux distro (or any piece of software for that matter), the first thing that comes to mind is whether it does what it should do. If it doesn't, or if it does in such a cumbersome way that it is effectively not viable for standard users to actually use, then I simply discard such distro. As a result, it made sense to start this comparison here.
Because this is the first item in the comparison, let me explain a bit how I will approach each of these items. Basically, since there is a big number of distros that I have to compare against quite a few criterias, in the interest of time and space, I will only go into detail when something is remarkably good or terribly wrong. Distros that do a good enough job won't get too much attention, so their actual score will be the best indication on how they did.

PCLinuxOS is rock solid, everything works as expected.

Anyways, if there is one distro in this comparison that I can highlight as an example of smooth use and out-of-the-box functionality, that would be PCLinuxOS. It pretty much required nothing from my side to get things working, providing a satisfying experience right off the bat. At the other end of the spectrum we have OpenSUSE and Pardus. The former was often a nightmare to configure and use, both in hardware and software terms (more on this in my REVIEW) while the latter did not even boot due to problems with the onboard Intel HD graphics card. On different hardware, though, Pardus works OK, but to be fair to the rest of the contenders which did manage to get things rolling on the 2740p, I have to give it the lowest score in this category.
KDE Distro
Score
OpenSUSE 11.4
2
Mandriva 2011
4
Fedora 15
3
PCLinuxOS 2011
5
Kubuntu 11.04
4
Pardus 2011.1
1
USER FRIEND... OR FOE?
Even acknowledging the big late improvements in this area, KDE itself is not an example of an extremely intuitive and user friendly environment. Therefore, it is quite critical to find which distros smooth out the path for the end user. Along the same lines, none of what was discussed in the previous category makes any sense if users can't understand it. Therefore, I personally see this category and the previous one as the most important ones, and consider they go hand by hand.
So, how did I measure ease of use? It certainly is subjective to a certain extent, but I was specifically looking for wizards, popup messages and any kind of information that helps the user get things done. If the OS required the user input to configure something (like software repositories), was there any message providing the required information or was the user left on his/her own to find out? Similarly, I was considering each distro community size, documentation availability and average forum/IRC channels response times.

Pardus provides an extremely clean and user friendly installation wizard.
Looking at it from that angle, Pardus is slightly ahead of the bunch. The installation process is probably the most informative and best documented. Once on the desktop, users get introduced to their desktops by Kaptan, a wonderful wizard that allows for some basic tweaks that can prove time and frustration saving. It is a bit of shame that Kaptan only shows up on the first boot and is not easy to find thereafter, though. On a different note, software management in Pardus is by far the most user friendly of all distros compared here, as we will see in that specific category later. Mandriva gets second place, even if its installation is not as user friendly as Kubuntu's, but it does a much better job at informing the user on screen. The Mandriva Control Center is also a great tool that makes system management easier to deal with, specially for users coming from Windows. PCLinuxOS benefits from its Mandriva inheritance here, even if on-screen messages are nowhere as informative, as well as the fact that most configuration work is taken care of from square one. Kubuntu goes next, not because it is particularly intuitive, but mostly because of its top quality installation wizard and the huge community of people behind it, which results in a plethora of resources available on the web. OpenSUSE's Yast and great community support leave Fedora on last position in this category.

Note that no distro got Excellent scoring and there were no terrible scores either. That's because all distros are a bit weak on this area and in all cases there is big room for improvement. In addition, each distro has strong and weak spots, so at the end of the day I am concentrating on which ones provide a smoother experience for the Linux novice.
KDE Distro
Score
OpenSUSE 11.4
2
Mandriva 2011
4
Fedora 15
2
PCLinuxOS 2011
3
Kubuntu 11.04
3
Pardus 2011.1
4
   
PERFORMANCE.
For this similarly important category, I will base my scoring on my experience over (approximately) a week of continued use of each distro. In other words, I didn't use any fancy benchmarking software or anything like that, just my experience over quite a big number of hours and working on very similar tasks.

PCLinuxOS felt faster and most responsive than its competition.

Yes, KDE 4.6.x already did bring significant performance and responsiveness improvements, so I must say all distros provided more than reasonable performance. Having said so, PCLinuxOS proved to be the most optimised and best tuned of the group, performing great both on my 2740p (whose solid state drive could have had a lot to do with it) but also on less powerful computers. OpenSUSE and Mandriva would follow with similar response times and overall performance feel to them. Pardus did OK, as did Kubuntu, but the latter did provide a bit of an inconsistent experience (menus freeze at times for no apparent reason). Fedora got to the checkered flag last once again, but not by a significant distance.
KDE Distro
Score
OpenSUSE 11.4
4
Mandriva 2011
4
Fedora 15
3
PCLinuxOS 2011
5
Kubuntu 11.04
3
Pardus 2011.1
3
SOFTWARE MANAGEMENT & APPLICATIONS.
This category involves a number of concepts, ranging from the application provided to manage application installation to the number of applications available, as well as the ability of the distro to keep its applications up to date at a decent rate.
In my opinion, Pardus and PCLinuxOS cross the finish line together, each leading for different reasons. Pardus stands out due to the quality of its software manager application, which is the best there currently is in KDE land, if you ask me. It does OK in terms of keeping up with external application releases, but its relatively low popularity usually means third party software will not be installable until it's packaged on the distro repositories, or until the user compiles from code (if the option is available).

PCLinuxOS provides lots of applications that almost always are completely up to date.

PCLinuxOS' strength, on the other hand, comes from the awesome job its developers do at packaging software and keeping it current. The sheer amount of apps available from its repositories is overwhelming, as is the fact that updates come as quickly as system stability allows. Because of that, it hardly suffers from third party software developers not packaging for it specifically. Having said so, while Synaptic is a good software manager, it is quickly getting obsolete, plus it looks out of place inside KDE.
Fedora, Kubuntu and OpenSUSE provided similar experience, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. For instance, one could offer a better software manager while suffering from lower third party software availability or a slower rate at maintaining software current. Mandriva suffers from all three problems, not offering that many applications on its repositories, not managing to keep them that much in synch (Firefox and Thunderbird are still on version 5 as I type these lines), and not getting that much attention from third party software makers when they package for Linux.
KDE Distro
Score
OpenSUSE 11.4
4
Mandriva 2011
3
Fedora 15
4
PCLinuxOS 2011
5
Kubuntu 11.04
4
Pardus 2011.1
5
HARDWARE FRIENDLINESS.
Some of you may consider this category the most important of all, and I would have to agree to a certain extent. After all, nothing really matters if the computer won't boot because no drivers are available to support the hardware in use. The only reason I didn't position it first is because all distros in this comparison (except for Pardus, perhaps) did a fairly good job in terms of hardware support. As a result, I expect most users to be able to get a reasonably good experience with any of them.
Note that I am not taking into account (just like I think most users won't) legal constraints here. I understand and many times share the open source view, but at the end of the day, users want an OS that allows them to get the most out of their computer. Because of that, I will score higher the distro that best manages hardware, regardless of whether it does so using open source or proprietary drivers. The way I see it, even if a certain distro does not include proprietary drivers out of the box, it should still provide an easy way for the user to install them if in need to do so (it's all about choice, right?).

PCLinuxOS managed to detect and correctly configure all devices in my HP 2740p.
 
PCLinuxOS leads this one by a significant distance, providing a satisfying experience for the end user and being able to recognize and correctly configure about any piece of hardware under the sun. Kubuntu comes second, if not for a particularly thorough catalog of drivers (proprietary ones are almost always left out), but because it does a great job at identifying what is missing and providing an easy way for the end user to overcome the problem. Mandriva follows closely, even if it failed to configure the onboard Broadcom wireless card (again, seems the final version didn't fix this problem). It did a great job with the rest of the hardware on board, though, plus it supports 3G mobile modems, something that still makes a difference (at least until NetworkManager0.9 shows up alongside KDE 4.7). Fedora was about the same as Mandriva, minus the 3G support. OpenSUSE was a bit of a nightmare and only after hours of tweaking provided partial support (the onboard mic never worked, quite a limitation when using applications like Skype). Pardus was by far the worst of the bunch, not even allowing me to boot on the 2740p. I had to test it on my 2730p, but even if that computer is usually Linux friendly, the wireless card wouldn't work.
KDE Distro
Score
OpenSUSE 11.4
2
Mandriva 2011
4
Fedora 15
3
PCLinuxOS 2011
5
Kubuntu 11.04
4
Pardus 2011.1
1
AESTHETIC UNIQUENESS.
Alright, these are all obviously sharing the same KDE desktop, so how to decide which one looks best, specially when that is such a subjective thing? Well, I thought about it and decided to leave my own taste aside and talk about which distro has made a stronger effort to develop a unique character, a branding of sorts, if you will.
High scores in this category simply show which distros look more "customized", as opposed to others which may sport more of a pure KDE desktop Look&Feel. Therefore, scores here don't necessarily mean better or worse.

Mandriva's unique Look&Feel.

With the above in mind, Mandriva hits the top podium stand with its recent 2011 release. An almost entirely original icon theme, the rosa dash launcher, a completely revamped (and awesome looking) KDM theme, window decorations and controls, all make Mandriva stand out and look... only "KDEish". Pardus also adds many original touches, bit of a shame that the strong branding displayed during the installation is not properly translated to the desktop. On a similar level, OpenSUSE looks quite original, incorporating eyecandy of its own here and there. PCLinuxOS does include many of its own elements as well, from a custom GRUB screen to a PCLinuxOS splash screen, a couple KDM themes, custom plasma theme, etc. Unfortunately, and this is where subjective kicks in, I find them ugly myself. Fedora brings a very distinctive and beautiful KDM theme and wallpaper on an otherwise "stock" KDE setup, while Ubuntu sports an almost totally pure KDE desktop.
KDE Distro
Score
OpenSUSE 11.4
3
Mandriva 2011
5
Fedora 15
3
PCLinuxOS 2011
3
Kubuntu 11.04
1
Pardus 2011.1
4
MEDIA SUPPORT.
We all know computers have become full blown media centers, capable of playing music, movies, manage and display photo collections, organise and read eBooks... you name it. Most of that functionality is offered by KDE itself, so instead of focusing on things all distros cover, I will concentrate on their readiness to play different media formats, as well as their choices in terms of media players, etc.
op
PCLinuxOS can play about anything you can think of.

If one is looking for a KDE distro capable of playing about any media format in existence, that must be PCLinuxOS. It's choice of applications is also great, including VLC, digiKam, Gwenview, Clementine and more. It also includes all kinds of plugins for browsers, such as Flash, Quicktime, Java, etc. Pardus comes loaded as well, and then the rest are pretty much on the same level, requiring the infamous "Things to do after installing XX" to get all media formats and plugins in place.
KDE Distro
Score
OpenSUSE 11.4
2
Mandriva 2011
2
Fedora 15
2
PCLinuxOS 2011
5
Kubuntu 11.04
2
Pardus 2011.1
4
OVERALL SCORES AND CONCLUSION.
Ok, you still with me? If you are, thanks and congrats, this is a looooong article!
Summing up, PCLinuxOS shines in many categories and deserves the King of KDistros crown. I have already covered many of its strengths, but let me add its rolling release nature as yet another benefit. Users can install and pretty much forget about obsolescence of applications, downloading ISO images, testing, configuring their desktop after installation, etc.
Position
KDE Distro
Score
1st
PCLinuxOS 2011
31
2nd
Mandriva 2011
26
3rd
Pardus 2011.1
22
4th
Kubuntu 11.04
21
5th
Fedora 15
20
6th
OpenSUSE 11.4
19
Mandriva's bold move with their latest release deserves recognition as well. I think they have got it all right this time, and if luck is with them, they can become the next Ubuntu now that Unity is in the way and KDE is looking so strong. Pardus, Kubuntu and Fedora follow and are closedly matched, while OpenSUSE's poor behavior in a number of categories relegate it to last position.

I guess it's easy to figure it out, but I will be explicit about it: These are six of the top KDE distros out there, so they are all good quality products. Minor details can go a long way when comparing back to back, though, and that's where the results in this comparison come from. The most important thing is that KDE users can confidently smile looking forward, because their favorite desktop management is a truly impressive piece of work, providing a great user experience under many different distro combinations... and looks like it's only going to get better!

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