I've seen a lot of questions about what GNU/Linux distro is the best. Always, the answers seem to be based on subjective ideas and the user experience of the person doing the recommendation
To this end, I'd like to write a more detailed comparison between 3 giants in the GNU/Linux OS's field. Before you say "but where's Ubuntu/Kubuntu/etc let me state that the distros mentioned above have quite a lifespan compared to Ubuntu (Mandriva started out as Mandrake Linux back in 1998; OpenSUSE started out as Suse Linux in 1994; Fedora Core was first released in 2003 but it was based on RedHat Linux that was discontinued since 2003 and in present is provided as an enterprise platform and is non-free; previously, RedHat, the base of Fedora Core, was released in 1994 being the fisrt Linux OS to use the RPM software management system). Compare all this to the 2004 release date of Ubuntu and you can understand why in my opinion Canonical has yet to push a lot more to produce a mature version (though they most certainly have a good fast pace).
So the finalists (for my little comparison) are (in alphabetical order):
I'm not including Mandriva 2009.0 nor OpenSuse 11 because they are beta quality and did not release a stable version yet.
Now that I've mentioned the criteria for the selection of the OS's, lets jump to the criteria for the comparison:
These being said, let's dig right in:
1. Distribution media
All of the 3 contenders come both in CD and DVD downloadable ISO images. Mandriva also offers a suite of bootable USB memory sticks but all 3 distros can be loaded up on USB flash memory and can be made bootable. Also, there's a rescue cd offered by all 3 vendors.
All 3 distros get one point as to media distribution support =]
2. The installer
This is where each distro that hits the market gets either praised or booed of the stage. However, given the maturity and experience of these 3 vendors it's easy to say that the installers will be very good and live up to the expectations.
OpenSUSE has a nice graphical installer with an alternative text one (either for old hawrdware or for people that don't want anything other than a console at their fingertips!). The theme of the installer is plesant to the eye, combining a dark gray with bright green colors scheme. The contrast suffices and overall it's not all that bad for the eyes. Also, a good mention is that OpenSuse thought about color blind people and all things colored in red have a drak gray background (I know that this might not interest you, but the attention to such minor details can give you an idea of the scrutiny the installer was made with). Provided in the graphical installer is a good and easy to use partitioning manager that also provides an advanced interface for power users. There's little chance to mistakenly erase a needed partition in the easy interface. An option for auto partitioning is also provided.
Skipping along, most of the operations that need to be done are provided in an accessible even for beginners, also providing options for the more experienced ones. A nice feature is the option to chose an install type that's already been tinkered for the normal user when it comes to the GUI and thus, graphical session type. The user can choose from a Gnome Desktop (ver. 2.22), a KDE 4 desktop and a KDE3.5 desktop (just as the installer states, the graphical desktop is a matter of taste so neither I or the installer recommend one of them; though KDE4 is not as mature and stable as the other 2). Kudos for providing KDE4. The software selection interface is quite nice and is split into 2 sections. On the left side there are general categories listed (Server software, Office software, etc) and choosing either would also select the common packages required for those functions. For advanced users, on the right side there is provided a more granular package selection system. Thus, a server platform can be configure to include certain packages that normally would not be included. Just before proceeding to the installment of the selected packages, the install system give one last change to look at the configured parameters and do a final change. After that, the packages are installed and you're on your way to getting an OpenSuse desktop/server.
Over all, the installer system is good, solves dependencies perfectly and provides a nice GUI for the inexperienced users (I bet they'll love it more that the Vista or XP install interface )
Mandriva had a pretty conservative stance towards changing the installer system until their 2009.0 release, but since it's the spring version (aka beta), I'll be referring to the 2008.1 installer which, overall, keeps the same basic ideas and graphics as the previous installers. This will bring a fuzzy warm feeling for the old Mandriva users. Skipping to the essential, the options for the installer feature both a text and a graphical system. As with OpenSuse, I'll talk about the GUI installer since that's the most used one. Following a few brief questions you'll find yourself landing on the partitioning step. Now the Drake X partitioning system is quite the jewel being almost idiot proof! I say almost because it does have an advanced button that some users might be tempted to use although they don't know what to do further on. But no worries, you can always switch back to the user friendly interface. The rest of the installer is pretty straight forward. After the initial partitioning you'll be presented with a few other options (such as copying the whole install media to the hdd, which is quite recommended if you have enough space) and configure additional media such as another cd/dvd, ftp or http. After this, you end up with a screen presenting to you three install modes: install a KDE desktop (only KDE3.5), a Gnome Desktop (version 2.22) or do a custom install. Now this is what I like about the MDV installer: the 3 steps of granularity when it comes to the selection of packages. A KDE or Gnome desktop will be just fine for the normal user. Other people might want to select the custom install option to proceed to the next level of granularity. Here you'll have several options regarding a "workstation", a "server" config and finally the graphical desktop. If you check the Individual package selection checkbox, you'll end in the 3rd and final level of granularity when it comes to package selection. You'll be provided with a tree structure, each main node representing a certain class of software packages. Another neat thing about the MDV installer is checking of dependencies "on-the-fly". You'll immediately be told if a certain package needs to be removed or added to satisfy dependencies regarding the currently selected package. After this step, you're on for some R&R as the installer copies the packages and installs them. A good and bad feature is the final steps of the installer that configures (with some help) the whole system. Why is it good? Because it's all done at once as a final step and everything (from user config, to time zone, to sound card and network) is in one neat window. You can easily focus on all of them. The bad thing about this method of config is that if by any chance your machine reboots during that step, you have a little bit of a crippled system (that can be brought to life, but by much work). However, if the machine was to restart in the midst of the instalation, it will continue exactly where it left from. Over all, the MDV installer has nice features that certainly put it on the same level with the one from OpenSuse (if not a bit above it). However, a big minus for it is the lack of KDE4 even though you can install it after the system is running.
You've probably noticed that earlier I've presented the os's in alphabetical order. So why is Fedora 10 the last? Because I'm somewhat displeased about it. Don't get me wrong, I love Fedora Core and I've always loved it. Being the RedHat legacy I have much to thank it to. But, it lacks some of the glitter or spunk it used to have back a few years ago.
The installer is pretty straight forward (no way you could wonder of in WonderLand Alice! =] ) but it rather reminds me of the old Windows 98 installer. And that's not a good thing. Skipping along a few questions (root password, time config, software repos) you'll end up pretty quick with a package selection dialog. The bad thing is that you can take your pick. While this is good for a first time user, it's bad for an advanced one that knows more about the inner stuff of the linux os. Another big no-no is the lack of configuration for the X Server. While OpenSuse and Mandriva will provide you with the chance to configure the graphical display sooner or later, Fedora Core 10 does not allow you to do it in the installer at all. Only after you reboot the system can you change the resolution and such. The same goes to the sound config. And a lot of other things. The partitioner is ok... If you're a seasoned fdisk user. Otherwise you'll have to go with whatever the installer tells you to do. So, from certain points of view, the installer is for the average user and from others, for a pro. I'm not here to judge it, but it just takes you from one place to another in quite a spin. Also, the monolithic grayish interface combined with that lack of glitter I mention earlier on nearly put me to sleep.
Skipping along to the end we do have the pleasure of seeing nice progress bars (that blue stripped thingie made me tingle a bit), but that's the only thing that caught my eye during the process.
To sum things up, the installer points go like this: Mandriva 2008.1 and OpenSuse 10 pretty good. Fedora Core 10? Not so good. However, the installer shouldn't set you back, as you're going to use the os on a day to day basis, not the installer. Though The Fedora Core community might want to "fancy" it a bit.
3. The packages available post-install
There's no need for me to go into detail here.
Each of the distros have their software managers. Fedora has YUM, Mandriva has URPMI and OpenSuse has YAST2 or YAST.
Now, for yum you can find a lot of repos like Livna, Dries, Dag or some repos gather unde one name (like RPMForge or RPM Fusion). These alone provide you with lots and lots of packages! And a lot of mirrors for them too. I have to admit that Fedora Core takes both Mandriva and OpenSuse at packages availability after the install (thus making up for the lack of selection during installing the system). However, neither Mandriva nor OpenSuse fall a long way back. Mandriva has the PLF repo and quite and extended online one. Both can be easily configured using http://easyurpmi.zarb.org
Needles to say i found quite a feq games in the official Mandriva repo (from Quake 2 & 3 to Nexuiz; Q2 & Q3 have only the binaries, the pack files you have to get them from the original CD though). As for OpenSuse, I didn't even have to look for other repos other than its own online one. That seemed to have everyting I wanted.
So, right now Fedora makes up to the competition up to this point...
4. Community and support available (updates, debugging, etc)
Well, here it goes: Fedora kind of wins. OpenSuse falls second and Mandriva, third. They all have great communities but Fedora has the largest. SopenSuse and Mandriva have smaller ones but non the less, some of the elite are there! A nice note to take into mind is that Linus Torvalds uses Fedora and he personally recommends it. Another note: if Ubuntu would have been in this review too, at this point it would have certainly knocked out the competition when it would come the the community size. However, unfortunately for it, most of the elite users still prefer other distros.
5. Hardware compatibility
This is the place where Mandriva kind of take a superior stance above the other two. Not by much but certainly enough to by featuring precompiled kernels for various configurations (ranging from desktop to full fledged server) and incorporating many of the open source project for hardware compatibility, most things work out of the box.Like I said, it's just above the other two, these being able to run on similar or the same hardware and peripherals with just a bit of work and config. Bringing Ubuntu back into discussion, it has still to achieve such a level (considering that even things that should be simple got done poorly). Peripheral used for the compatibility test feature: Elo Touchsystems 1726C touch screen, WACOM, INTUOS A5 wide graphics tablet, Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer Fatal1ty Pro Audio board, no name gamepad & joystick as well as other various hardware equipments (most notably Sony Ericsson phones and Nokia N70 with Symbian S60). Notably, on Mandriva, for the touchscreen all that was required was to activate the support for it. In Fedora Core and OpenSuse it was necessary to install a few rpm's and do some minor tweaking. The connection for the Symbian S60 phones was achieved using obexftp and obextool; on all systems these were aditional rpm's that needed to be installed, however, Mandriva & OpenSuse had the latest version and Fedora Core had a previous one. All 3 systems performed well all in all.
6. The OS as a server platform
Here, all 3 systems behave perfectly. The only difference is in the configuring tools. For people that like to get down and dirty with manual editing conf files, the systems will only differ in paths. However, for the lazy, each of the distros offer specialized tools. A honorable mention goes to Fedora Core 10. Although there's no centralized setup & configure center, the tools (system-[...]) do the job just fine. Mandriha has MCC (Mandriva Control Center) that does the job just perfect. OpenSuse has Yast2 as a config tool. Each of the systems has it's own deal to cope with security (SeLinux on Fedora, Shorewall & Security level on Mandriva and Novell AppArmor for OpenSuse). This round is a tie. All systems are stable enough and well shaped for being servers.
7. The OS as a user desk
This is the only place that you'll be feeling the difference between these operating systems on a day to day use. While all 3 of them come with common software (OpenOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, Pidgin IM, etc) the way the desktops are customized to resemble the image of the distro makes the huge difference. While most users would agree that KDE & Gnome have a very organized system menu in Mandriva (apps are separated on categories very well), On Fedora there's a bit of a mess. OpenSuse doesn't falls right in the middle providing quick access to most used items and such. But in the end, really, it's all a matter of user taste. Mandriva and OpenSuse tend to be more user friendly in this matter while Fedora Core remains true to its origin and is a bit "rough" around the edges.
So, the prizes go in this order: Mandriva #1, OpenSuse #2 and Fedora Core #3.
8. Laptop performance
It was very disappointing to see that Fedora Core tends to reduce laptop performance without additional tinkering. Mandriva and OpenSuse behaved exceptionally with the note that Mandriva outdid OpenSuse by battery life with about 20 minutes (ran a movie on Mplayer GUI in KDE 3.5 with all non-essential KDE applets stopped and very similar config for the init.d scripts). When it came to office tasks, both systems performed similar. Again, I'm sorry to see that Fedora Core didn't live up to my expectations. The Laptop model is a HP 500 Notebook (a bit old, I know, but I find it acceptable running Linux =] ).
9. Miscellaneous info
To be quite hones, from my point of view, here's how I'd see these distro's put to use:
Fedora Core 10 would be perfect for small and medium networks acting as a router/proxy/file server; certain "features" make it a bit less friendly with new users but it keeps a strong grasp on networking and network based operations.
Mandriva 2008.1 is great for small networks acting as a router/proxy/file server and also balances a great Desktop for the everyday user. With some tinkering and optimizations it can be used as a router and such in large networks.
OpenSuse is a perfect system for a desktop pc. While it has features making it a good candidate for networking, it would be a shame to see all of the work done by art teams and desktop developers go to waste. Tough you can still use it as a router using Novell's firewall.
And last but not least, I'd like to see in the near future the need to add to this small comparison the Ubuntu distro since it has a great community and quite the potential.
For people that would disagree with me, this is only my opinion. If you'd like to argue, please keep it in the limits of decency as there are enough distro wars ongoing. Also, please vote as to what is your choice would be after reading this guide.
Thank you for your patience.
Pretty good write-up. I can't really comment on any of three tested. I used RadHat back in the days it was actually RedHat. I used Suse before they added the Open. The first distro of linux I ever used was Mandrake 7.0.
I can understand not included Ubuntu, but why no Debian?
... okay, what?