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The pleasures and perils of less popular distributions
By Howard Fosdick on 2013-03-28 21:49:26
Like many OSNews readers, I use Ubuntu. I also use several less popular distros. What is it like to use these lesser-known distros compared to the dominant systems? How does running, say, VectorLinux or Puppy or PC-BSD, differ from using Ubuntu or Fedora? This article offers a few ideas. Obviously, it broadly generalizes about distros for the purpose of discussion.


The size of community supporting a distro affects your use of the distro. Say you need help solving a problem. With the dominant distros you have a wide variety of sources for help. There are formal online and printed documentation, and even books you can download or buy. With the less popular distros, formal doc is the exception rather than the rule. You'll rely on forums for answers.

When you go to the forums, the popular products offer several from which to choose. Even the generic Linux forums, like LinuxForums or LinuxQuestions, include specific sections for the big name systems. With the less popular distros, your only dedicated forum may be at the product's website.

Some users like having multiple forums supporting their distro because they think it more likely they'll get their questions answered. My experience has been that the less popular product forums do just as well in this regard due to the dedication of their communities. (Your mileage may vary by product and the questions you ask.)

I find a stronger sense of community on the forums of the less popular products. With fewer participants and more leisurely posting, you get to know the people with whom you interact. That can happen on the websites of the dominant distros but it isn't as common. Post on the Ubuntu forum, for example, and your question rolls off the first page within hours. You'll probably get a quick answer, but that's the end of it. Post at the Vector or Puppy or PC-BSD forums, and your question remains visible for days or even weeks. Responses linger longer, so discussions persist. This results in closer-knit communities.

Hyperactive forums narrow your scope for participation. On the Ubuntu forum, for example, you must either answer an easy question almost as soon as it's posted, or be the expert who answers the really tough questions to which no one else replies. Otherwise your post quickly gets buried under so many others. I prefer the relaxed pace of the smaller forums. With the most popular distros I participate in the secondary forums.

Here's something to consider: not all minor distros survive. For example, Vector has a decade-long track record, and one could argue that Puppy has broken into the big leagues. But Damn Small Linux was only reactivated recently after a four-year hiatus, and two products I once had fun with, Wolvix and BeatrIX, have gone the way of the Dodo. Check the viability of an online community before you give your heart to it.


Packaging quality is another differentiator between the dominant and less popular distros. Perhaps it's unfair to generalize -- but it's probably true that you run a greater chance of uncovering a previously-unknown problem in a distro with fewer users than one that has millions. (Many other factors play here, too, such as how well a project tests new versions prior to release and the testing methods they use.) In my experience, I've uncovered more "new" bugs in the lesser-used products than in the big name systems.

Dependency checking is a good example. The repositories of the less widely-used products contain fewer apps. Package testing for new releases and compatibility testing across apps may be spotty compared to the big distros with their many users. If an inexperienced user installs lots of apps or makes big changes to his base install, he is more likely to encounter problems with a less popular distro than if he sticks with a name brand. (Obviously this gross generalization varies by product.)

Do the more popular distros roll out new technology faster? It makes sense that they could, given their much larger project teams. But much depends on the projects' priorities. The big name distros with their greater resources often more quickly roll out technologies like new user interfaces or 64-bit versions. But one can certainly find exceptions where smaller projects beat them to the punch. In fact, the very raison d'etre of some smaller projects is to test or introduce a new technology. Small projects can address important technology niches or specific goals the more popular general-purpose distros don't.

Many less popular distros rely on point releases rather than automatic updates to fix bugs. Their fixes thus often come slower than those from the big name products.

Who Should Use the Less Popular Distros?

For naive end users, the less widely used distros work well -- if the user is satisfied with the product as distributed. VectorLinux, Puppy, PC-BSD, Damn Small, and distros of similar popularity are good tools for end users who will "set it and forget it."

If a user of lesser expertise or limited patience installs one of these distros and then expects to make lots of changes without "wasting" time, they may be disappointed. Incompatibilities and breakage are more likely, as are undocumented problems. A smaller user base increases the chances that others have not yet run into any particular problem. And there is less doc to guide beginners.

For hobbyists and sophisticated users, the less popular distros are good options even when making lots of changes. These folks have both the willingness and the ability to do some testing and poking around. They're comfortable asking questions and digging answers out of forums.

For those who have the time and the interest, the less popular distros offer a unique opportunity to participate in a Linux community. Want to learn more about Linux? Support open source? Become a key project contributor? The less popular distros could be a great match for you. They have been for me.
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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant. Four Lightweight Distros Compared summarizes his OS News reviews of VectorLinux, Puppy Linux, Lubuntu, and Damn Small Linux. You may also be interested in Which Linux Distro is Best?

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