Over the past week I've been collecting ISOs and burning CD and DVD ROMs from them for the purpose of just seeing how the boot, and then taking a few moments to see how they look and generally operate. I booted a fair portion of the usual suspects: Mandraive Linux One 2010/KDE, Fedora 12 x86-64, OpenSUSE 11.2/KDE, Ubuntu 9.10 and Linux Mint 8.
I chose to use a Dell 690 workstation (we have multiple machines in the lab where I work) with a quad-core Xeon running at 2.4GHz and 8GB DRAM, as well as a pair of HP Pavilion 533w's with a 2GHz Celeron and 512MB DRAM I had sitting at home (the Pavilion's were purchased for my girls when they were in late middle/early high school).
All of the distributions booted on the Dell workstation. Of the five, only Ubuntu and Mint enabled everything including sound. What was most surprising (in a good way) is how all five distributions recognized the nVidia Quadro card, enabled hardware acceleration (according to glxinfo) and provided the proper screen resolution (1600 x 1200). And at least Fedora 12 x86-64 recognized all 8 GB of memory.
Overall I found very little to gripe about, but since I was just booting the live CDs and not installing any of them (all the Dell's run Redhat RHEL 5.3), it's certainly not a fair and full test of any of them. However, if I had to make a choice as to which one to start with first it would have to be Linux Mint 8. Yes, it's derived from Ubuntu, but it's a derivative with polish and a bit more quality, and possible, panache. The desktop theme is certainly more pleasant on the eyes than the Ubuntu theme; it's certainly worth keeping after install.
With that little bit of experience I made the decision to install Linux Mint on the two home Pavilions. They were purchased at Walmart as part of a $500 kit that included a printer and monitor for the girls, with the idea that they would follow them to college. They came pre-loaded with Windows XP Home. They turned out to be little workhorses, especially for their high-school years. One of them did follow my oldest to Tallahassee for a year when she lost the use of her Compaq Presario notebook for a time. That Pavilion came home in 2007, where it sat on the shelf for over two years.
This year my wife and I made the decision to donate the computers to Salvation Army. But before they left my house I wanted the drives fully decommissioned; wiped clean, and something else installed besides Windows XP. I had no idea what personal information might still be on the drives, but I wanted to take no chances. I fired up both machines to make sure they still worked. I also wanted to check the performance of the installed XP so that I might have some indication of how much faster or slower Mint might be compared to Windows XP on that specific hardware platform.
Mint was successfully installed, but only after two attempts on each machine. The first time I would attempt to install Mint it would hang at around 67% complete. I then rebooted the machine and started with a fresh install, re-formatting the drive. By the time I was done Mint was booting on both, complete with audio. The only problem with Mint (and with Ubuntu and Mandriva as it turned out) is that the video chipset, an Intel 82845, is not supported with the current distributions. Yes, I found an Intel video driver supplied by Intel itself, but I had no desire to download and go through the gyrations necessary to build and then install that driver. All I needed was a decent way of showing that the hardware (mostly) worked without having to leave Windows XP on the boxes. The lack of decent support means the screen comes up in 1024 by 768 on Mint, instead of 1280 by 1024 under Windows XP. My attitude is if they want Windows back on the boxes then they can use their own licensed software, not mine.
Overall the Mint installation on those machines was very quick and smooth compared to the Windows XP installation it replaced. Applications such as Firefox 3.5 started up reasonably quick, as did other operations, such as starting and using Open Office. Overall I'd say the upgrade over Windows XP was a reasonable success.
So what do I think is the state of the penguin?
Desktop Linux seems to be decent enough, in its own way. When somebody asks for my opinion in such matters I recommend Linux Mint, followed by Mandriva, and then OpenSUSE. Mint usually works well enough after installation that I don't have to give two more options. But I have noticed that many who have installed Linux will eventually go back to Windows, or else buy a Mac. Since I now live in a household with both Windows Vista (and now Windows 7) and Mac OS Leopard machines, I've had an opportunity to see how they hold up over the long haul. And what I've observed is not good for desktop Linux.
First and foremost operating systems are a means to an end for the majority of users (where majority tends to greater than 95%). Linux has been to much an end unto itself for too many years, and it is only recently (very recently) that distributions have been released that are trying, with varying degrees of success, to be that means to an end. Redhat RHEL is one of those means-to-an-end distributions, and they had to be from the beginning. Businesses won't stand for the Sturm und Drang that is the norm for most distributions; they don't have the time or money to waste on it. Novell finally understood this, which is why they now have SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) and SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server) as apposed to OpenSUSE. Canonical sort of understands this, which is why they have their LTS series. Debian understood it from the beginning, which is why they have their stable branch. Debian stable might not have the latest and greatest, but when it has to run rock solid year in and year out, and you want it on Debian, then you run Debian stable.
But then you compare the current distributions against Windows 7 and Leopard, and you begin to realize how many more little details those operating systems handle correctly than does any Linux distribution. And those little details add up quickly into significant user satisfaction.
This week I upgraded my oldest daughter's Toshiba laptop to Windows 7 from Windows Vista. It was painless, flawless, and fast from start to finish. Better than Mint. Since the upgrade, the oldest hasn't had a bit of trouble (and to be honest she had no trouble with Vista after SP1 either). Windows 7 does run noticeably faster than Vista on a Toshiba that was purchased nearly three years ago, which I think is a significant achievement, especially for Microsoft. I did not attempt to upgrade Vista; I had the drive backed up to a Toshiba portable 250GB USB drive, did a clean install, and then migrated specific files and applications back onto the machine after Windows 7 was installed (a company called Refresh Computers, close to where I work, backed up the drive for me).
My wife and youngest both use a Mac; my wife uses a 2008 Macbook and my daughter uses a 2006 iMac. We've been down the OS upgrade path once already with both machines, and we'll do it again this Christmas with Snow Leopard. OS X upgrades are the easiest of any OS, bar none. And of course, once installed, the OS Just Works. This makes my wife happy, who uses Mac Office and Google Chrome the most, while it pleases my daughter, who also uses Mac Office and Photoshop.
Which brings me back to Linux. If you compare any of those distributions to eight-year-old Windows XP, then I'd have to say they are equal, if not just a little better. But compared to the latest from Apple and Microsoft, they are still in second place, and in some instances, a distant second place. And they have no one but themselves to blame.
I see the Linux community crippled by too many in the community who are in the blind pursuit of ideological purity. That group, led by the Stallmanists, seem intent on keeping free software 'pure', even if it leads to a less than satisfactory user experience (as it all too often does) compared to either Windows or Mac OS X. Those few distributions that dare to include software that allows a close approximation of the user experience you can achieve with commercial software risk scorn and ridicule from this core group.
And that's a shame. Linux could have been a true desktop contender, but it never was allowed to grow into one. Instead, it faces a future of irrelevance on the desktop, and fragmentation on embedded devices. And even that future is in doubt; Moblin appears to be stagnating, Maemo is a one trick pony (one device with one vendor, Nokia), and Android was rather radically re-engineered to fit on smartphones. Yes, Android is Linux at the roots, but it's certainly no desktop OS. Desktop Linux is destined to remain as it started out; a fringe choice in a world dominated by Microsoft and Apple, primarily Microsoft.