Although there isn't any known definition of a Linux power user, they are a celebrated breed of Linux users. All newbies must toil long and hard with their Linux installations before they can describe themselves as one.
At the very least, power users have a great degree of skill on all things Linux, whether it's the kernel, Bash or package management systems - and they aren't afraid to get their hands dirty in the name of configuring the system.
Almost all modern Linux distributions require little from users before presenting them with a working distro. By definition, no power user will want to run any of these distros. This is why, despite their popularity, Ubuntu, and Mint are not featured here.
In addition to a driven installation, which separates these distros from most others, what's even better is the adaptability quotient of the distros in our roundup. You can easily coax any of these distros to churn out music at parties, or host complex websites.
The development methodology and underlying package management system are still relevant concerns, but if you're driven by the desire to squeeze every ounce of power out of your Linux distro, you could be a power user.
How we tested...
All of the distros on our list have been around for several years, some since the 90s; and in all this time they've each earned a large amount of praise by offering unique perks or advantages over their peers, whether this is in software management or ease of installation.
All these distros are extremely stable and the test isn't so much about performance as adaptability. We're looking for things that make them ideal for experienced Linux users who are tired of newbie-oriented distros and want to do more with their Linux machines. This is possible when you have great control over every aspect of the distro.
Everything should be configurable and capable of being changed to your liking. The ideal distro for power users is one that encourages you to fiddle and tinker extensively with all the different aspects of a distro, and makes you work towards a perfect system.
Test 1: Installation
How easy is the first step?
Even though the distros are aimed at power users, a distro that makes you want to tear your hair out isn't worth recommending, no matter how much credibility it gets later on. It's not a question of how long it takes to install, but rather how complicated the process is.
Slackware is one of our favourite distros, and its installation isn't complicated at all, unless you consider an ncurses-based installer complicated. The installer is certainly different, but by no means difficult to navigate. You may want to keep a copy of the Slackware book with you, maybe on a notebook or tablet.
When you run the setup, which is a process that takes you through several installation steps, including package selection, pay special attention to the prompting mode and the software series. You can either install everything by selecting Full on the prompting mode, or select individual packages by choosing the Menu option.
You then have to select which software series to install. If you choose individual packages, the installer will not tell you how much space it will need. Slackware gets a bad rep because it doesn't offer a graphical install, but it still provides a very straightforward installation.
Fedora and Debian both provide graphical installation, that they've perfected over the years. The process is very simple, and several tasks - such as partitioning of disks - are automated, but it's best if you at least review the partitioning scheme or do it yourself, especially if there are existing partitions on the disk that you would like to preserve.
Fedora and Debian don't let you select the packages to install when installing from the live CD. Even though it doesn't provide a usable system post-installation, Arch is one of the easiest distros to install, with the most difficult step being network card configuration. If you're unable to configure your wireless card, you can run an Ethernet cable to your machine until the installation is done, and then try to configure the card later.
Once the base system is installed, you move on to meatier things, such as installing the X window system, video drivers, if needed, and the desktop environment. Even after that is done, you still have to install all the apps you may want to use, such as Firefox, VLC, LibreOffice and others.
Installing Gentoo is far more tedious in comparison with the other distros, even Arch. It makes you define USE flags and compile the kernel, so be prepared for the installation to maybe run to several days, depending on your configuration and needs. We've covered the installation for both of these in LXF in the past, but the process has changed somewhat since then, so keep the installation documentation at hand when you begin.
Test 2: default packages
Not that a power user cares either way…
An operating system is only an organised collection of a user's preferred applications. If this is true, then despite completing the installation process, it'd be unwise to label Gentoo or Arch as operating systems, because what you have is a bare bones system that you have to then populate with all the applications that you require. Not only that, you don't even get a default desktop environment, and have to choose one to install.
There are no defaults when working with Gentoo or Arch. Their intention is to give the user complete control over what they wish to install on the machine. While the other three distros in this roundup also allow you to select which packages to install during installation, they still aim to provide you with a nearly complete system. That means that out of the box, these distros offer a text editor, web browser, PDF reader and more.
For these three distros, despite the wide array of default packages, you still need to install codecs and other plugins before you can play media files, or enjoy videos on YouTube, or even get the most out of your proprietary graphics card.
Slackware doesn't offer any office suite by default, unlike Fedora and Debian - which ship with LibreOffice and OpenOffice respectively. Depending on your installation media, whether the Gnome/KDE live CDs or the DVD, you can also choose what desktop environment to install with Fedora.
With Slackware, you only get the choice of KDE and XFCE during installation. Gnome fans will have to install their favourite environment post-installation.
Test 3: adaptability
How easy is it to configure these distros to your liking?
We have repeated several times in this roundup that one of the best things about these distros is that they are highly configurable. But what does that really mean? Aren't all Linux distros configurable?
You can change the desktop background, the icons theme, define keyboard shortcuts, configure power management, and make many other changes to the appearance and behaviour of all Linux distros, so what's the big deal?
While most other distros stop at providing all the functionality listed above, the distros on our list go further and offer users the chance to make not just cosmetic changes but configure just about everything that can be configured. This gives you the chance to tweak everything per your specific needs, the kernel included!
You don't have to install the distro and then go about removing packages and settings you don't want, which will never deliver as good a system as one built from scratch to your specifications.
Gentoo - 5/5
Gentoo is an extremely configurable distro, that you can optimise for just about any application. The Portage system is at the heart of everything that's great about Gentoo. It provides control when installing packages, and the USE flags enable it to provide compile-time option support. This means you can define the features you want a package to support.
For instance, if you don't run the KDE desktop when you install packages, Gentoo compiles them without support for KDE. This is why defining the USE flags is an integral part of installation.
As it doesn't burden you with unwanted apps or libraries, Gentoo is very fast. It insists you inspect the kernel during installation and remove features you don't need. No other distro lets you streamline the kernel before installation.
Fedora - 3/5
The test bed of tools and technologies that eventually end up in Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Fedora is an ideal distro for those hoping to be on the bleeding-edge of development.
Still, one of the worst things about Fedora is its default graphical front-end to yum. You should try Yumex if you want a stable and feature-rich alternative. While Slackware, Gentoo and Arch don't give you the option, Fedora offers excellent graphical tools for any number of administrative tasks, such as configuring the network, firewall, etc. It's perfect for almost all kinds of users, and can easily be configured to be a game station, music streamer or even web or file server.
Best suited for developers and admins because of the tools it has to offer, Fedora is not nearly as flexible as Gentoo, Arch or Slackware.
Slackware - 4/5
Whereas most distros make several changes to software packages, with Slackware you get packages nearly identical to upstream offerings. People complain of a steep learning curve, but anyone familiar with the command line and classic Unix tools will find it straightforward.
Striving to produce the most Unix-like distro available, Slackware makes ease of use and stability top priorities. This makes it ideal for servers. Slackware can be configured to run with KDE, XFCE or any desktop environment supporting any window manager. It gives great control over shaping the system during installation, thanks to its advanced package selection.
Slackware doesn't follow an open development methodology, which means it doesn't maintain a software repository or a bug tracking facility.
Debian - 4/5
Along with Slackware, Debian is like the Duracell bunny - it just keeps on going. Of course, that would mean that Gentoo and Arch are the metaphorical equivalent of a Duracell bunny on steroids.
Debian is extremely stable, and this makes it ideal for servers. Its ability to please a large section of general-purpose desktop users has often been questioned because of its insistence on shipping older packages to be as stable as it can be.
That said, you can easily use the unstable repository if you want to be on the bleeding-edge. In fact, each of the three official Debian repositories have inspired several other distros. With Debian, you can run the same distro across many different architectures, as it supports i386, SPARC, AMD64, PowerPC, MIPS, ARM and other platforms.
Almost all software packages provide binaries for Debian, so you won't have installation woes for any package.
Arch - 5/5
Arch also doesn't believe in hiding the internal workings of the system. Both these distros are great if you wish to learn what makes a Linux distro tick. But despite their similarities, Arch provides a somewhat simpler way of building your system. You don't have to spend precious hours maintaining and grooming the system, as you do with Gentoo.
With its minimalistic philosophy, Arch stands in contrast to most other distros that compete to be the most feature-rich and beautiful. Other than a core system, which enables you to install additional packages, Arch makes no assumption about the kind of system you want, and allows users to mould the distro.
Building of the distro from the ground-up results in a much speedier system. Like Slackware, Arch provides software packages from upstream without any modifications.
On the next page: release schedules, documentation, package management and fun factor.