Confessions of a middle-aged distrohopper

Like many GNU/Linux users, I on occasion fall prey to that great temptation: distrohopping. The title of this post is catchy, the content is decent. Sorry if anyone is disappointed 😛

Some distrohop because they are not happy with their present distribution, some do it just for the curiosity, and a hope for finding something exciting, or something that might just work different.

There is also the somewhat related hobby to test different kinds of desktop environments and/or windowmanagers. I wonder if what is most common, distro- or DE-hopping, and the reasons why? An interesting question I do not have the answer to. Admittedly, I haven't even searched for an answer for it, hehe.

My little history

I am old enough to actually have edited my own text with literal, analog cut and paste of pieces of text on paper. Pasting consisted of sorting the pieces and sometimes fix them with adhesive tape. Actually, if one had access to a big table, it was a great way to get overview of several pieces of text, and how to put them together. Before using computer, the final version(s) were written on typewriter, and photocopied. Tipp-Ex was used abundantly. In the early days of my computing (wordprocessing and printing, basically) I wrote the first draft(s) on paper and then wrote them on the computer. So I was, like many others at that time, behaving transitionally in an era of transition, the 1980s. Computers became tools for the non-tech savvy crowd. I, like most in my age, was too old to come into computing via games. Altough I rememeber my younger brother borrowing a Pong console from a friend years before that. Pong was a bit fascinating, but not that exciting, to be honest.

I also remember that in school (maybe around 1974) we did a study visit to the local car factory and saw their computer department, tapes and all, and they were also proud of their new disc memories that was so fast. That was understandable for us, since we had LPs and cassette tapes, and could understand the different access methods. Big machines in cool rooms. I also remember seeing punch card machines and telex machines when I visted my parents work places, but I never used any of those pre-PC technologies myself, as I didn't work in offices, banks or the like. There are still punch card machines in use.

I have owned and used computers for more than 20 years, and always enjoying "a computer that just works". But naturally sometimes one falls prey to that other evil: tinkering, even though that has usually been a minor thing for me. I have used Mac from a System 5.0 on a Mac Plus (I still own it), to Mac OS X 10.6, and mostly everything in between, including the Public Beta of Mac OS X, which actually cost money! Greedy bastards. I have also used Windows from 98 (functional but ugly as hell) to 7, and once upon a time even MS-DOS (shudder).

Free Software

Using mainly Macs, I didn't learn much about software freedom, but I learnt something about market freedom. The monopolistic tendencies in the world of software were very obvious, especially when it came to operating systems for personal computers. Mac users (this was before the cult of Steve) were pictured as fanatic fanbois, but the M$ world was really the more fanboiayant (if that was not a word, it is now). Belonging to the almost monopoly of 90+ per cent can make people believe they made a choice. In many cases not so.

I have been using GNU/Linux for about three years now. I do not use anything else, but in my family we have both Macs and MS Windows machines.

I like a nice graphic interface built according to the desktop metaphor, even if I find myself "putting stuff on the desktop" very little these days. I usually have one panel with application menu, shortcuts, task bar and system tray. I even tried Awesome WM a little bit, it was a bit too frugal for me, but I guess it could need some learning to really utilize and appreciate. On GNU/Linux I used mainly GNOME (2) and XFCE. I always so far have Debian as my main install. After using Chakra for a while as my test-distro, I really came to enjoy KDE (haven't liked it before), so I use that as my main DE now. I just love the look of it. There is no right environment, that is just a matter of taste. I have tried Unity, and didn't like it at all. I can't come to grips with GNOME Shell, and the latter and Enlightenment kind of make my head spin, literally. But that is just me 🙂

Distrohopping setup

Desktop machine, about four years old 64-bit processor (I always try the 64-bit version of a distro if there is one). The graphics card is an about 2 years old mid-range nvidia. The harddrive is a 3 year old 7200 rpm. I have 6 GB of RAM. It's not an ancient machine, but it works ok.

Correction per September 2012: I have now an Intel i5 and new motherboard with 4GB of RAM replacing the old one. I feel so... contemporary...

I do not have a laptop, which can add to difficulties and problems when installing a GNU/Linux distribution (e.g. it seems some wireless cards can be hard to function properly, reading from other reviews of distros).

Type of distros I try

Desktop only. Should be pretty easy to install. I don't want to spend too much time making stuff work on distros I test, so they should be quite newbie friendly. My main install is always 100% free software, apart from occasion having to use Flash (arrgh), and now also the network card driver (arrgh). On the test distro, I usually try install proprietary nvidia drivers and wine running for a game or two. And usually Flash.

I only write about ones that worked nicely for me for a period of time. The main reason is that when things went wrong, it could be me, my hardware, or the distro, and I can't be bothered to really find out. I tried quite a few that didn't install, or didn't boot, or was hard to install, or was just running slow or buggy. There have been those that just installed bootloader without asking, and one or two has even erased a few vital system files on my main installation. I used rescue mode on a Debian install CD more than once. Yes, I know, distrohopping is maybe best done on a second computer, but I do not have that luxury. I usually never try liveCDs, more than if that is the installer media.

I am not a total newcomer, and I am not very knowledgable either, no hacker, just a user getting older and older. My idea with doing this and also writing about it is that the distro I try should be stable, featureful and easy enough to use for a newcomer. While I haven't tried any fully free distro yet, a distro should have a policy of making clear what software is non-free. A distro should also basically work on normal hardware with only free software. That is my philosophy. To be honest, I had since getting new motherboard, been forced to use proprietary network card drivers. I missed to check that. I falsely assumed it was only wireless cards that can have such problems.

Sometimes distrohopping can be painful, but it can also be a lot of fun. 🙂

Posts about distros are put on the Distro category.