Lenovo T61 and Linux Distro Comparison

Back in September, I posted about my Lenovo T61 development laptop and PC-BSD. At the time, I had chosen PC-BSD 8.2 over PC-BSD 9.0Beta1.5 based on graphics stability. Although I have since tested PC-BSD 9.0RC2, and can happily report the graphics stability issues have been fixed, I am now using Linux Mint 11 for its basic laptop usability – things like closing the lid at a Starbucks WiFi hotspot and then simply re-opening it at a different hotspot without needing to reconfigure the network, or popping USB memory sticks in and out without the desktop becoming cluttered with left-over icons.

Why use Unix on a laptop at all? Because Unix is the solution for developing innovative server-side technologies (and by Unix, I mean FreeBSD), and using Unix on a dev workstation gives functional synergies and builds Unix mental muscle. That isn’t to say that Unix on a dev workstation is required for Unix server development – I use Win7 on my large laptop for Unix server development – and to run the Windows personal productivity desktop apps I’m become familiar with over the years.

After deciding that unfortunately PC- BSD isn’t there yet on a laptop for me, I installed and spent about a week each with Ubuntu 11.10, openSUSE 12.1, Linux Mint 11 and Linux Mint 12. I didn’t evaluate Fedora because I’m interested in long-term stability more than bleeding edge, and ruled out CentOS as one additional variable too many.

I had been using Ubuntu on and off for a couple years on my IBM T23 ThinkPad, but I wasn’t endeared to Ubuntu’s new Unity desktop as a developer. Canonical appears to be orienting Ubuntu for use by end-users on tablets and smart phones, reinforced by the appearance of commercial software for sale in their software manager. While this may position Ubuntu for success in the appliance market, it probably also means I’m not going to like it any better for development purposes. The desktop version of Ubuntu 10.04 (the most recent LTS prior to Unity) is supported until 2013.04, but it may be a bit dated already being released 2010.04.

openSUSE looked promising, but when I had to manually add a repository to YaST just to install my favorite password manager (KeePassX), I was left thinking I would need to invest in more openSUSE-specific learning than I wanted to. Recent openSUSE reviews have been positive, I could live with the pure Gnome 3 experience, and openSUSE’s strong enterprise features could be valuable for meeting future white-board needs, so it hurt to leave it behind just because I didn’t have enough time to invest.

Linux Mint may be the fastest growing Linux distribution, and is reportedly the fourth most popular OS after Windows, Mac OS X, and Ubuntu. Linux Mint is based on Debian and Ubuntu. Linux Mint 11 uses Gnome 2 and has a traditional application launcher menu. Linux Mint 12 uses Gnome 3, but still offers a Gnome 2 desktop experience through Gnome Shell and MATE. The Linux Mint 12 Gnome 2-like desktop was at first attractive, but switching between a Gnome 3 and Gnome 2 experience became annoying, and I eventually switched back to Linux Mint 11 to get working TortoiseHg Gnome2 Nautilus integration. What concerns me about Linux Mint in general is it’s long-term viability. While the Linux Mint community may boast about its popularity, it isn’t really self-sufficient due to its dependence on Ubuntu and Canonical. If Canonical continues to pursue an end-user tablet-type experience, basing Linux Mint on Ubunto could become problematic (yes, there’s Linux Mint Debian Edition, but then that’s back to the bleeding edge).

How long will I stay with Linux Mint 11? Well, that depends ….  Linux Mint 11 will eventually lose relevance, that much is certain, but for now it’s the best compromise. For as long as I use FreeBSD server-side, my first choice is PC-BSD, but I’m not sure if iXsystems, who commercially support PC-BSD development, can sustain the effort necessary to make PC-BSD as effective a laptop Unix as a Linux distro. My second choice is openSUSE – like PC-BSD, it’s development is supported by a commercial organisation (Attachmate), it is freely available (unlike Red Hat REL), and it is targeted at enterprise needs.