Yes, there is more to Linux than Ubuntu. As you are probably aware, there are many different types of Linux to choose from, even though not all get the attention they deserve. These are organized into separate distributions, (distros) and each one is different. If you've read our previous Beginner's Guide to Linux , you are already familiar with the advice we gave about choosing the right distro for your needs. This guide will shed more light on some of the more common distributions in use today and will cover the distinct advantages or disadvantages of each.
For the purpose of comparison, we personally tested each distro and critiqued it based on several distinct areas: appearance, ease of use, system administration, software/package management, security, and the level of support available for the distro. We graded each factor on a scale of zero to five: 0 – Abysmal or non-existent; 1– Very bad; 2 – Needs improvement; 3 – Average; 4 – Good; and 5 – Excellent. We hope that this guide will give you a better understanding of the current state of Linux, so you can make an informed decision about choosing the right Distro without just defaulting to Ubuntu (which we've included in this roundup)
Fedora Linux is the successor to Red Hat Linux. It was formed when the original Red Hat Linux distribution was discontinued in 2003 and was redesigned as Red Hat Enterprise Linux, a primarily server-oriented distribution. The desktop aspect of the old Red Hat Linux became Fedora as part of a community-based movement called the Fedora Project. Although Red Hat currently sponsors the Fedora Project, there is little direct involvement. Due to this, there is a degree of separation between Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which is currently the only “official” distro in the Red Hat product line.
Fedora is designed as a desktop-oriented distribution. All server functionality has been separated into the official Red Hat Enterprise Linux distribution, available from Red Hat. Since RHEL requires a non-free support contract, a community-oriented clone of RHEL called CentOS was created. Since the free software licenses that RHEL falls under mandate the release of all source code, CentOS was created based on that code. CentOS is virtually identical to RHEL aside from differences in artwork/branding.
Fedora has always been a very attractive distribution. By default, it uses a very rich blue color scheme that goes well with the standard GNOME environment. Although Fedora has always been a classic GNOME-based distribution, it does have packages for KDE 4 and other window managers.
Fedora is a very well-done operating system, on par with Ubuntu. Fedora is mostly intended for a desktop audience; if you want a Red Hat-based server system, you would be far better off with CentOS. Fedora is about as easy to use as any other desktop-oriented distribution.
Fedora is like Ubuntu in that there is no centralized system administration utility like Mandriva's DrakX or openSUSE's YaST. However, what is presented is adequate to properly administrate the system. The only downside is that the system administration menus in Fedora's implementation of GNOME are slightly non-standard, but this is easy enough to get used to.
Fedora uses the “Yellow Dog Updater, Modified” (YUM) tool to manage its packages. There is a frontend for this called PackageKit which allows you to manage programs much like similar programs in openSUSE and Mandriva. In addition to that, there is also a tool called apt-rpm that allows you to have Debian/Ubuntu-like package management in Fedora if desired.
Although Fedora has quite a bit of software available for it in the official repository, there is not quite as much as there is for Ubuntu or Debian. Fortunately, FreshRPMs.net is able to partially compensate for this problem. To facilitate this, there is a tool in the administration menu that allows you to easily manage your software sources.
Fedora's documentation is fairly poor compared to that of other distros, so any assistance must come from outside sources. Unlike Ubuntu, Fedora has a strict stance on allowing only free open source software in its default installation. (this means no non-free proprietary drivers are available out of the box) Fortunately, Fedora includes a guide about how to set up non-free software if you need it. Like Ubuntu, Fedora has an entire support forum dedicated to it: http://www.fedoraforum.org.
Security is where Fedora truly shines. Out of all the distros we tested, Fedora had the best level of out-of-the-box security. There is a proper separation of root and regular user accounts on Fedora. In addition to that, Fedora also comes equipped with SELinux (a security-focused extension of the Linux kernel) out of the box and provides a nice interface to manage it. Although openSUSE and Ubuntu also support SELinux, it does not come pre-installed on those distros at the time of this writing. Fedora also provides a nice interface for setting up and managing a firewall.
Fedora is a very well-developed distro, and is one of the best choices if security is a top priority.
Appearance : 5 --- Fedora looks great and is very professional.
Ease of Use : 4 --- Fedora is suitable for most users
System Administration : 4 --- There is no centralized administration, but the tools work well enough
Software & Package Management : 5 --- Package management is easy and there is a lot of software to choose from if you include extra repositories
Security : 5 --- Rock-solid. We would give this a 6 if our critique scale went that high.
Support Availability : 5 --- There is extensive documentation available and an entire support forum to answer your questions.
Mandriva is the descendant of the older MandrakeLinux distribution. The name change occurred because of legal issues; the Hearst Corporation filed a trademark claim over the name “Mandrake”, even though MandrakeLinux had nothing at all to do with the “Mandrake the Magician” character in Hearst's publications and there was no reasonable way that the two could be confused with each other. From the very beginning in 1998, MandrakeLinux was geared as a novice-friendly distribution. This allowed it to find its niche with new users in the years before Ubuntu came on the scene. Although Ubuntu has overshadowed many other distros, Mandriva is still very capable and enjoys a strong following.
Mandriva has three versions, each with different artwork and appearance. The color theme in the free edition is a light blue that is aesthetically pleasing, while the non-free editions feature a darker theme that helps to effectively differentiate them from the free version. Mandriva has been primarily a KDE-oriented distro ever since the days of MandrakeLinux, and Mandriva 2009's use of KDE 4.2 is extremely effective and useful. Although KDE 4.2 offers the traditional KDE menu, Mandriva has a special implementation of it that provides additional functionality (it shows previous commands/documents and provides a run command prompt while the default menu does not)
GNOME 2.24 on Mandriva is also done well. Instead of including the bare minimum with its GNOME packages, Mandriva has taken the extra time to make GNOME as nice as the KDE component. GNOME uses the “La Ora” theme by default, which includes nice sounds and window decorations. Even small Window managers like IceWM include a degree of customization, which is unusual. All in all, the distro is meticulously built, which is a very good thing.
Mandriva has always been easy to set up and use. Although there is no LiveCD functionality in the Mandriva 2009 DVD, (The CD releases do incorporate LiveCD functionality) the setup utility is straightforward and very easy to use. Unlike Ubuntu, Mandriva allows you to determine which packages you want to install. Current versions of Mandriva are just as easy to use as MandrakeLinux was. Mandriva makes no distinction between a desktop and server release; typical server functionality like Apache and MySQL are bundled with the desktop distribution. However, these are not installed unless you specifically select them on the custom installation screen in the setup utility.
Mandriva also offers a unique proprietary tool called Codina. This tool allows you to purchase the codecs required to watch encrypted DVDS and play certain audio formats like MP3. (MP3 is not supposed to work out of the box on Linux due to software patents) Many Linux users frequently use unlicensed audio codecs to provide MP3 support and tools like DeCSS to break DVD content protection so they will be able to watch the movies they paid for. While such activity is technically illegal under the United States patent law and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, many people feel that such laws (especially the DMCA) are unjust and are able to get away with using the unauthorized tools and codecs for free. Codina offers a solution to new users who may not know how to use the unsanctioned utilities or may wish to stay completely legitimate.
Mandriva has some proprietary tie-ins and is not pure open source software. On the desktop, there are two icons that allow you to join the Mandriva Community and upgrade to the the non-free deluxe edition of Mandriva. By default, Mandriva shows a splash screen that advertises Mandriva “One” (the middle grade) and Mandriva “PowerPack”. (the premium version) However, these icons are easily deleted and do not really hinder your performance in any way. The advertisement screen can be disabled by un-checking a single box, but its presence may upset more die-hard Linux users. On the flip side, there are plenty of Linux users who would be open to the idea of paying for certain features if they are truly worth the money. Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of personal choice, and Linux is here to serve everyone.
Regardless of the desktop environment in use, Mandriva includes excellent system administration tools in addition to the standard tools provided by the desktop environments themselves. Both sets of tools work well together and don't step on each other's toes. The Mandriva Linux Control Center (DrakX) is a very nice program that includes modules for software management, online administration, hardware, network & internet, system, network sharing, local disk settings, and boot settings.
Mandriva provides a wide assortment of software out of the box. Two complete desktop environments (GNOME and KDE4) are available on the DVD release, in addition to IceWM and other small Window Managers. Mandriva's implementation of KDE seemed better than that of Kubuntu. Like most distros, Mandriva comes fully loaded with all types of software like internet tools, graphics utilities, and the OpenOffice.org 3.0 office suite. (mostly things that are standard in practically every distro) Mandriva also includes extensive documentation (including a complete manual) which is a valuable resource if you are new to Mandriva or Linux in general.
Mandriva is a RPM-based distro. While it is possible to install packages on the command line, many new users prefer to use a graphical frontend instead. The package management frontend tool provided in Mandriva is excellent, with packages organized by category and the ability to exclude packages based on certain criteria (like the absence of a GUI)
Mandriva has support available from Mandriva Expert, the official support service from the distro maintainer. Mandriva Expert offers several tiers of service: answers for individual questions from regular users are provided for free while a subscription provides a response in a guaranteed amount of time. There is also unofficial support available at LinuxQuestions.org
Mandriva offers good security with proper separation of root privileges from regular user accounts. Sudo is properly implemented with the root password required for temporary privilege escalation.
Mandriva is an excellent distro. It is very beginner friendly and offers an exceptionally good KDE 4.2 implementation. For a desktop-oriented distro, Mandriva is one of the best around. However, it is not 100% free.
Appearance : 5 --- (All window managers are effective and the distro is quite attractive)
Ease of Use : 4 --- (Mandriva is one of the easiest distros we have used, but multimedia codecs cost extra)
System Administration : 5 --- (Exquisite management tool makes managing the distro very easy)
Software & Package Management : 5 --- (The package installer is excellent and has a wide selection of software. The days of RPM hell are over for Mandriva. )
Security : 4 --- (Security out of the box is what it should be, but it doesn't have anything extra)
Support Availability : 3 --- (Help is out there, but it is not as good as Ubuntu or Fedora)
openSUSE is a distribution published by Novell. It is derived from the original SuSE distribution, which was originally not freely available. The distro was renamed to openSUSE when Novell decided to make the distribution free to encourage community involvement. Technologically, openSUSE is the equivalent of the professional edition of the original SuSE. In recent years, Novell and openSUSE have come under scrutiny ever since Novell made an infamous deal with Microsoft about rather baseless patent allegations. (however, we are going to ignore that event and focus on the software itself)
openSUSE is not the only distribution under the SuSE brand; Novell also makes SuSE Enterprise Desktop and SuSE enterprise Server. These two distributions are not related to the openSUSE in any way other than the name. Unlike openSUSE, they are not free and receive much more direct development attention from Novell.
Like Mandriva, openSUSE (and SuSE before it) has traditionally been a KDE-oriented distro. By default, openSUSE comes equipped with KDE 4.2. The appearance of openSUSE is downright beautiful; we could tell that quite a bit of time was spent making this distro look good. The standard green theme in KDE 4 was very good, although the blue window decoration looked out of place amongst all the green. openSUSE's GNOME implementation is rather strange and is very different from the standard GNOME appearance.
openSUSE is a nice middle-of-the-road distro. While it is not as simplified as Mandriva or Ubuntu, it does have its moments. Although the interface is fairly straightforward, openSUSE caters to developers and higher end users. One of the way is this is apparent is the inclusion of a build resource in openSUSE that allows users to compile software for multiple distros. This can be done over the web or through a local command-line utility.
openSUSE is primarily a desktop-oriented distribution, but it does include server-oriented functionality as well. The installer for SuSE is one of the best we have ever seen, and makes setting up the system very easy.
Like most other distros, openSUSE comes fully equipped out of the box and uses a package manager to install and maintain software. For this purpose, openSUSE uses a utility named YaST. (Yet another Setup Tool) However, YaST is much more than a mere package manager; it allows the system administrator to manage software, hardware, system-wide settings, network devices and services, Novell Apparmor, security, virtualization, documentation, and more. YaST is designed to be failsafe; if you accidentally break the GUI, YaST will still work in a simplified text mode and will remain fully functional. YaST is a much more centralized and advanced administration tool than many other distros include, although it is not quite as easy to work with as Mandriva's equivalent. YaST makes the other tools provided by the KDE4 desktop environment seem superfluous in comparison.
openSUSE also includes a unique tool called Sysinfo that is sort of a YaST-powered plugin for the Konquerer component of KDE4. Sysinfo shows detailed system information in real-time.
Although YaST makes package management simple, we noticed that there was not quite as much software available for openSUSE as there is for Ubuntu or other distros.
openSUSE offers paid support and an official forum
Although security is generally good, openSUSE suffers from the same flaw as Ubuntu: out of the box, the regular user's password can be used to perform root-level activities. This was readily apparent when we tried to install software with YaST; we were prompted for the root password, but the root password was the same as the password for our regular account! It is possible to define a separate root password with “sudo passwd”, but this really should have been done during setup. On the flip side, SuSE does include Novell AppArmor and can also use SELinux.
openSUSE is primarily a developer's distro, since it has multiple developer tools like Eclipse and Netbeans in its repository and features a unique build service to make compiling software for multiple distros easy. Once the security problem is resolved, openSUSE is serviceable enough.
Appearance : 4 --- (KDE is the best solution, since the non-standard GNOME has more of a learning curve)
Ease of Use : 4 --- (openSUSE is a bit more complicated than other distros we reviewed for this article)
System Administration : 5 --- (Yast is extremely powerful and thorough, but is also quite complicated compared to Mandriva's tool)
Software & Package Management : 4 --- (YaST resolves dependencies and has a frontend for package management, but there is not as much software available as for other distros)
Security : 3 --- (The security is adequate but could be improved)
Support Availability : 4 --- (Better than Mandriva, but not as good as Ubuntu)
Knoppix is what most people think of when they envision a Linux Live CD. Knoppix was created by Klaus Knopper, a native of Germany. Unlike most Linux distributions, Knoppix was designed to run in real-time from a CD in a temporary session instead of being installed to the hard drive. During its session, Knoppix makes no changes to your computer's hard drive; when the Knoppix session terminates, the computer will be exactly the same way as it was before.
Versions of Knoppix prior to 6.0 have traditionally used a complete version of the KDE 3.x desktop and the other software that goes with it. Historically, each release of Knoppix has used different artwork for the wallpaper and boot prompt screen, but other parts of the UI have remained largely consistent. Version 6.0 is a radical departure from other versions; the aging KDE 3.5 desktop has been removed and replaced with LXDE. (Light X desktop Environment) This version of Knoppix is much faster than previous versions since it does not have the inherent overhead of a heavy desktop environment like KDE. Unfortunately, this also means that Knoppix has been trimmed down somewhat. GNOME users may prefer Gnoppix, a fork/derivative that is built around GNOME instead of KDE or LXDE.
Knoppix is unique to many other distros in this article in that it provides accommodations for visually impaired users with a specialized “Adrianne” release as of version 6.0. This is named for Klaus Knopper's wife Adrianne, who has a visual impairment. This version incorporates screen-reading tools and uses a text-based menu by default instead of starting a GUI automatically.
Knoppix generally has a dual audience. While it is ideal for people who want to give Linux a try without committing to a full installation, Knoppix is really best used as a system rescue disc. This is an invaluable resource to Windows users, since many OEMs fail to provide adequate rescue tools; the typical disk image restoration tool that most OEMs provide makes no attempt to allow users to recover their files before destroying the old installation. Since Knoppix is a Live CD, it is able to bypass a damaged system and allow you to access the contents of any hard drive on your computer. Knoppix is also a solution for secure on-the-road computing or forensics; it is sometimes convenient to carry a Knoppix CD with you to provide a sterile and fully trustworthy computing environment if you know you are going to need one.
The Knoppix environment is temporary. Although you are able to create files and save them to your home directory in Knoppix, the files will not last beyond the end of the current session. However, Knoppix allows you to create a “persistent home directory” which will allow files to be saved to a file on the hard disk that works like a virtual home directory.
Knoppix is available in only two languages (English and German), only offers one desktop environment, (If you like KDE, stick with version 5) and is only available for the x86 chip architecture. All official versions of Knoppix are 32-bit, but unofficial 64-bit rebuilds are available if you know where to look.
Although it fits on a 700 MB CD, Knoppix features a massive collection of software, (over 1000 packages) made possible through efficient on-the-fly decompression. Knoppix packs in more software than many other distros include out of the box. (the DVD version of Knoppix has even more) Since Knoppix is a read-only operating system, a wide assortment of software is necessary for the operating system to be useful for a wide variety of purposes.
Knoppix can be installed to a hard disk like any other operating system, but it is seldom a good idea to do so. Knoppix was designed to be a Live CD operating system, and installing it does not change that fact. Since it is a variant of Debian, Knoppix uses the Aptitude package manager and is mostly compatible with the Debian repositories. However, keep in mind that the software that came pre-installed on Knoppix is not handled by Aptitude and must therefore be managed manually. (This is one of the many reasons why installing Knoppix is not recommended) Also, since Knoppix is a mix of the various branches of Debian, package management can be a nightmare.
Since Knoppix is a Live CD and not an installed distribution, there is no enterprise-level support for it. Although Knoppix is mostly binary-compatible with Debian, Knoppix users are generally not welcome on support services which cater to Debian. However, there is an official forum where Knoppix users can get their questions answered: http://www.knoppix.net/forum/ Other unofficial support resources can be found with a little bit of time on Google.
Since Knoppix is read-only, no security is really needed.
Although you would have to be crazy to install Knoppix on a production computer like you would with any other distro, Knoppix fills an important niche and should be in everyone's toolkit as an emergency rescue disc.
Appearance : 3 --- The artwork is nice, but the distro looks a bit rough around the edges compared to others.
Ease of Use : 5 --- As far as rescue discs go, nothing beats a fully self-contained operating system.
System Administration : N/A (defaults to 3) --- It's a Live CD; there's nothing to administrate!
Software & Package Management : 1 --- Package management on Knoppix is difficult yet possible, but you would seldom need to install anything. Since nothing lasts between reboots, adding software to a session is mostly futile; you would be better off re-mastering the disc.
Security : N/A (defaults to 3) --- There's nothing to secure, since the operating system is automatically reset each time it is used
Support Availability : 5 --- Very good for a Live CD distro
Today, when most people think of Linux, Ubuntu comes to mind first and foremost. This amazingly popular distribution has experienced an unprecedented surge in popularity since its introduction in 2004. Back then, the Linux world was a very different place; although Linux had been making slight progress towards mainstream desktop use, Ubuntu was the first distro that tried to be accessible for everyone. The very name of Ubuntu echoes this sentiment, since it means “humanity to others” in Zulu. This philosophy is put into practice, since one of the main cornerstones of Ubuntu is a large and dedicated user community. This resource is often invaluable for new users.
Ubuntu was born as a solution to a problem. From a technical standpoint, Ubuntu is a direct descendant of Debian. Debian is one of the “classic” Linux distros, and Ubuntu greatly resembles its “parent”. While a well-earned reputation for stability has always been a prime asset of Debian, it caused a new problem: years would often pass between Debian releases because of the time it took to make a new version “stable” by Debian standards. To alleviate this problem without compromising Debian in any way, the code for the Debian unstable branch (which was still sufficiently stable, despite its name) was forked, and the new branch became Ubuntu.
By default, Ubuntu uses a distinctive brown color scheme. This has received fairly mixed reviews throughout the Linux community; some people like the color scheme while others despise it. Ubuntu also includes the other typical GNOME themes, like Crux, Motif, Glider, etc even though there is a shortage of wallpapers to choose from out of the box.
Kubuntu is much more generic in its appearance; there is very little to show it is associated with Ubuntu at all. The interface situation of Ubuntu is rather strange; on one hand, you have a heavily customized and enhanced GNOME, but on the other hand you have an almost generic KDE. This lack of balance is a significant fault in the distro. While Kubuntu gives KDE aficionados a reason to use Ubuntu, Kubuntu would benefit greatly from additional attempts to make it look more unique and bring it up to the same standard that GNOME in the regular Ubuntu distro has been elevated to.
As previously stated, Ubuntu Linux has been specifically designed for beginners and advanced Linux users alike. Ubuntu has always been easy to install, thanks to the “Ubiquity” installation tool. Ubuntu is available in several base configurations and derivatives. The main configuration of Ubuntu is a full-featured desktop-oriented operating system built around the GNOME desktop environment, (GNOME is easily the most effective interface on Ubuntu) but several official derivatives exist.
Some of these fill specific purposes (Edubuntu as an educational tool, eeeBuntu for netbooks, MythBuntu as an Ubuntu-based solution for MythTV, etc.) or offer alternatives to the GNOME interface (Kubuntu is built on KDE 4.2, FluxBuntu is built on Fluxbox, Xubuntu is built on XFCE, etc. ) In addition to the main desktop offering, Ubuntu also comes in a server edition. In this way, Ubuntu is a multi-niche operating system, unlike other distros which offer only one official configuration.
Unlike many other distros, Ubuntu and its variants do not have any type of centralized system administration tool. Virtually all system administration is done through the standard tools found in GNOME or KDE. These tools are virtually the same on any distro; the only real difference with Ubuntu is that several new non-standard modules have been “bolted on” to the GNOME system administration menus. When using a more lightweight window manager, the system can be quite difficult to manage if the various pieces of the administration tools are not all referenced properly. Centralized administration would help to solve that problem if it were ever implemented.
Ubuntu offers a very comprehensive library of software for a wide variety of purposes. Although Canonical provides support for a reasonable assortment of software, there is much more software available that is not officially supported. All software packages are divided amongst several different repositories. Most of the software available for Ubuntu can be found in the “Universe” repository, which is structured much like the main Debian repository. Ubuntu's packaging system is also able to interface with unofficial repositories but it is generally a bad idea to use a repository that is not fully trusted and cryptographically verified.
Software management is built around the amazingly powerful Aptitude package manager. (in addition to apt-get) This tool can work with various frontends to make software management easier for people who may not be fully comfortable with the command line.
The level of support and assistance for Ubuntu is excellent. Canonical provides official support for a fee, but there is no need for the average user to resort to that. (paid support is primarily for enterprise-level deployments) Due to Ubuntu's popularity, the web is replete with various articles, how-to guides, and general support information for virtually any Ubuntu problem. There is even a troubleshooting forum dedicated exclusively to Ubuntu: http://ubuntuforums.org
While Ubuntu has numerous strengths, we also noticed a flaw that could cause problems. In Ubuntu's default configuration, the root account is disabled by default and users are encouraged to use “sudo” (a temporary privilege escalation tool) to execute commands that would normally require root permissions. While there is nothing bad about sudo, Ubuntu's implementation is rather strange. Many other distros require that the root password be used for sudo (that way, you keep the benefit of a separate root account without having to switch to it) but Ubuntu has sudo configured to use the default user's own password for administration purposes. We noticed that this can be a major security risk, since an attacker would only have to compromise one password instead of two to gain full root access to the system. It is preferable to keep a wide degree of separation between regular and administrator accounts, especially in a corporate environment.
Ubuntu is an excellent distro and definitely deserves its good reputation, but it does have room for improvement. If the sudo issue could be addressed and equal effort could be put into all variants, Ubuntu would be very hard to beat.
Appearance : 4 --- (Excellent GNOME, KDE lags behind)
Ease of Use : 5 --- (Ubuntu is ideal for just about anyone)
System Administration : 3 --- (It works, but could be much better)
Software & Package Management : 5 --- (Any program you need is available in the massive repositories)
Security : 2 --- (The system is moderately secure, but it really should be better)
Support Availability : 5 --- (someone is out there to help you if you need it)
Total : 24/30
Next, let's look at some specialty distros!
In addition to the five distros we have reviewed in-depth, here are some other distros that fill a specific niche or purpose.
Puppy Linux is one of the small, ultra-lightweight desktop distros. Weighing in at only 100 MB, Puppy Linux is unique from other Live CD distros in that it can cache itself entirely in RAM, thereby allowing you to have free use of all your optical drives. (other distros like Knoppix keep the CD drive it is using locked until system reboot) Puppy Linux uses only 128 MB of RAM, so it is ideal for old equipment or for those who want to wring every last bit of performance out of their hardware. Since it runs completely in RAM without having to periodically pull data from optical media, PuppyLinux is extremely fast and responsive.
For an extreme lightweight, Puppy Linux packs in about as much software as the average Linux distro. Many of these programs are very light alternatives to things like OpenOffice.org and Gimp, but they are very useful. Puppy includes Abiword and GNUmeric for the office suite, and tools like InkscapeLight and MTPaint for graphics tools. Puppy Linux is very attractive, despite the simple JWM interface it uses.
Backtrack is a specialty Live CD distribution dedicated to the art of computer security. Backtrack includes various tools for penetration testing, brute-force attacks, spoofing, and other security-related subjects. To get much use out of Backtrack, you must be familiar with the various tools of the trade that the distro includes and know how to use them. Backtrack uses a KDE interface and is built on a Debian-derived architecture.
Arch Linux is a distro that is designed to be fast, lightweight, and simple from a developer's point of view. Arch is similar to Gentoo, but is binary-based rather than source-based. Arch is for advanced Linux users who know what they are doing and have a firm grasp on the command line. There is no graphical frontend for package management; the Pacman package management tool is handled exclusively through the command line.
Arch is quite powerful, but it is not very beginner friendly. Although it has LiveCD functionality, it is largely text-based and there is no GUI at all out of the box. Arch's installation tool is a throwback to the multi-step menu-based installers of years past, where you must manually invoke each part of the installation procedure from a list with no clearly defined order. You must also set up your bootloader manually. This is understandably daunting to anyone other than a Linux expert.
We really advise new users with little to no prior Linux experience to choose a distro other than Arch, since Arch may be very intimidating to users who have never had to deal with something like it before.
As you may have noticed, most Linux distros are built using the same components and include the same software. (most have Gimp, OpenOffice.org, etc.) Under most conditions, it is possible to make any software package (like a desktop environment) work on practically any distro. However, not all distros make use of these tools equally or implement them as well as any other.
Some distros are best experienced with GNOME (Ubuntu and Fedora, for instance) while others are best used with KDE. (openSUSE and Mandriva) Because of this, one of the things you must consider when choosing a distro is the desktop environment you plan to use. If you are a Linux user, you probably have a preference in regard to your desktop environment. If your preferred environment is not available, your productivity may suffer as a result. In the same way, you should consider which type of package management works best for you. Many people become overly dependent on one type of package management and are hesitant to fully commit to a different distro “family” that uses a different kind.
Next, you must address your current level of skill. If you are new to Linux, you are going to be very frustrated with something like Arch. Likewise, more advanced users may be hindered by an easy-to-use distro because the user-friendliness in a distro like Mandriva may get in the way or come across as patronizing. A fairly competent user would be best served with a distro like openSUSE, Ubuntu, or Fedora.
You must also address security. The way the distro landscape is set up, there is sometimes a trade-off between security and user-friendliness. For instance, Ubuntu is easier to use than Fedora, but Fedora provides much better security out of the box. However, Ubuntu's security can be enhanced by installing SELinux, better managing sudo on regular user accounts, and re-enabling the root password. In this way, the differences between the two can be equalized.
In the end, choosing a distro is about compromise. You must prioritize and decide which factors are the most important to you and which distros will offer it to you while forcing you to compromise the least. Despite its downsides, the Linux distro situation is better than Windows since Windows requires you to adapt to its way of doing things. Linux offers you more choices and allows your computing environment to better fit your needs.