Test 4: release schedule

Not that a power user cares either way, part two

There are three popular development methodologies that Linux distributions typically adhere to - fixed schedule, fixed feature and rolling release. There's the fixed schedule, as followed by Fedora, where they try to push a new release out every six months.

These distros, more often than not, are drastically different from one release to the next. Switching from one release to the next thus involves a fresh install, or at least major upgrade. This is more time-consuming and painstaking than a rolling release.

After years of unpredictable releases, Debian recently switched to a two-year release cycle. Next, we have the feature release model, as followed by Slackware. Here, instead of announcing a date for the next release, the distro is released when it's good and ready. The project decides on a number of features it wishes to implement in the next release and works towards incorporating all the new features into the distro, releasing it only when all the features are added.

Lastly, you have the rolling release cycle. This practice is followed by Arch and Gentoo. These distros, instead of a full-sized release, offer a small, minimal distro that you can use to install the base system. You then install everything else that you need over the internet. With the very involved installation procedures that these distros require, the rolling release offers an install-and-forget way of working, and this is a feature that you can't possibly dislike.

Verdict

Slackware: 4/5
Fedora: 3/5
Debian: 3/5
Arch: 5/5
Gentoo: 5/5

Test 5: documentation

Because even a power user may need to RTFM

From installation, to desktop environment, to package management, Linux distros can sometimes change the status quo without warning. When this happens, the project's documentation and a helpful community can make the difference between a fatal kernel panic and a smooth-running system.

All the distros in the roundup can boast of a large repository of helpful documentation. Some, like Debian and Fedora, have been the subject of detailed books that describe setting them up for home use or as servers. Additionally, the popularity of each of these distros means that you can easily find answers to your queries with a simple search on the internet.

Gentoo and Arch offer the most extensive documentation, detailing even the most basic of technologies, such as configuring the Ethernet interface or the Xinitrc and fstab files. This is especially needed for such distros because of their different way of doing things. Familiarity with any Linux distro can prepare you for just about all others, but Gentoo and Arch are so different that without proper documentation, even a seasoned Linux user might lose his footing.

All the distros also have an active community that you can engage with on mailing lists, forum boards and IRC. Additionally, Slackware and Debian provide on their websites a list of companies/individual consultants that can be tapped for technical support.

Verdict

Slackware: 4/5
Fedora: 4/5
Debian: 4/5
Arch: 5/5
Gentoo: 5/5

Test 6: package management

Tools, repositories and happy customers

pacman

On Arch, you can use the Pacman package manager to install applications. Pacman uses compressed files, or tarballs, as a package format. It works by syncing the local packages with the server. Pacman supports dependency resolution and can download and install packages with a single command. The /etc/pacman.conf file contains a list of repositories.

In addition to the default, there's also Arch User Repository (AUR), a community-driven repository maintained by Arch users. Arch users can vote on the packages in the AUR, and if a package gets enough votes and has a compatible licence, it gets pushed onto the official repositories.

Like Arch, Gentoo doesn't provide any default packages, but it makes installing apps a breeze thanks to the Portage system, which is frequently identified as one of the best package management systems on Linux.

emerge is a command-line interface to the Portage system and, as with Pacman, you can use emerge to install, remove, upgrade and query packages. You may have to adjust the USE flags or use package.mask before you can install packages. This is a tedious process, especially for the uninitiated. The reliance on USE flags to define what packages you want or don't want on your machine gives Gentoo an edge over the others. The package management systems on other distros also seem slower than Portage.

Home of the yum package manager, Fedora offers several graphical frontends for you to manage packages. yum relies on rpm packages, and you thus get the advantage of many different third-party repositories, in addition to the default. You will have to configure these repos if you wish to install multimedia codecs and plugins, as a stock Fedora installation doesn't play many media file formats.

Debian's package management systems, APT and dpkg, need no introduction. Both of these are like Clint Eastwood: they continue to deliver outstanding performances year after year. Debian allows you to configure several other repositories, such as non-free and contrib, which contains packages that don't gel with the very strict Debian Free Software Guidelines. As with pacman and yum, you can use APT to install local packages, leveraging on the repositories to resolve dependencies.

Unlike the other distros, Slackware doesn't offer a single full-featured tool for package management. Instead, you have a tool each to install, update and remove packages. As Slackware uses source tarballs as packages, you also get a tool to convert rpm packages to tar.gz packages.

If you're willing to sacrifice a few features, you can use the pkgtool utility to manage packages. This tool allows you to install and remove packages, but nothing else.

Verdict

Slackware: 2/5
Fedora: 4/5
Debian: 4/5
Arch: 5/5
Gentoo: 5/5

Test 7: fun quotient

Let's put a smile on that face

Arch fun

Our whole reason for the selection of these distros is that they offer a chance for Linux users to go over and beyond what they are normally used to doing on their Linux systems. There's a lot of mucking about with files such as /etc/fstab, and setting up hostname and configuring network interface with Arch and Gentoo. And all of it using command-line tools!

These are generally processes that almost all Linux distros outgrew by the time we entered the 21st century. Their insistence on doing some things the old-fashioned way is not what makes them special, but the fact that it gives you the chance to learn the many things that modern distros take for granted.

Fedora has a lot to offer if you're interested in being at the cutting-edge of Linux development. If you've never ventured beyond newbie-friendly distros, such as Ubuntu and Mint, Fedora provides the perfect starting point towards attaining power user status.

Slackware and Debian are for more seasoned Linux users, who are willing to move towards more difficult things but still want enough familiarity to continue their learning. These distros introduce you to the possibility of working with the command line, as opposed to the graphical interface, for any number of routine tasks.

Finally, we have Arch and Gentoo. These are for those adventurous souls who are ready to learn a completely different way of working. These distros will introduce you to the core of Linux like no other distro. Forget graphical interfaces that obfuscate all configuration files. With these two distros, you are forced to spend time with configuration files you probably didn't even know existed.

Verdict

Slackware: 4/5
Fedora: 3/5
Debian: 3/5
Arch: 5/5
Gentoo: 5/5

The best Linux distro for power users is...

Gentoo Kernel

The only area where Gentoo and Arch falter is default packages, and we spent a lot of time debating whether we should award them five stars each. This is because by not providing any default packages they offer much greater control to the users to design the distro to their liking. This degree of control is the hallmark of a distro suited for power users.

After much consideration, we decided to dock points from both distros. Once that was done, it was obvious that we would have to be equally harsh on the scoring for the other distros in the documentation and package management sections.

This is why Debian and Fedora only managed four stars each in these two sections, despite offering detailed documentation and excellent package management tools. Even though we couldn't find any fault in APT or yum, Arch's Pacman and Gentoo's Portage system fare better because of the level of sophistication and elegance with which they manage packages.

Debian and Slackware are an ideal starting point for would-be power users, and give you an idea how configurable and flexible Linux systems can be.

Arch Vs Gentoo

We were tempted to award first place to Arch because it's easier to install and doesn't require users to manage USE flags before installing packages. But the real test here is the level of control the distros offer to the users in moulding the distro to their exact specifications.

Gentoo offers pervasive control. It allows you to fine-tune the kernel during installation, so that you can remove the features you don't want. It doesn't get more configurable than this! What's more, the USE flags which let you prepare the system for all the packages you wish to install or not on the system are a really novel feature.

The USE flags provide the means to specify the options and features with which Portage installs packages. This helps you cut down dependencies, package size, compile team and results in a faster and leaner system. This is why Gentoo is so much faster in comparison with the other distros.

Scores

1st: Gentoo: 5/5

2nd: Arch: 5/5

3rd: Slackware: 4/5

4th: Debian: 4/5

5th: Fedora: 3/5

Also consider...

KDE has long been a favourite with power users because of all the configuration options it offers. By extension, all KDE distros can then be described as distros for power users. So you can try OpenSUSE or Chakra Linux to get a taste of KDE's flexibility.

We've tried to limit our selection to distros that not only allow you greater control in configuring the system, but are also fun to use. The distros in our list are different from all other modern Linux distros in almost all aspects, be it installation or package management. Also, they are great for familiarising yourself with the internal workings of Linux, and teach you things that you wouldn't be aware of if you use other distros.

For this reason, it's difficult to recommend any other distro. If you've already mastered Gentoo and Arch, or are ready for even more of a challenge, you can try Linux From Scratch. LFS is a book that guides you to build your system from scratch. Unlike Gentoo and Arch, which at least provide a working base system, with LFS you have to do all the work by yourself.