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I am planning to migrate from Mac OS X and Windows to either a Unix or Linux distribution, i.e. I am a Linux/Unix beginner.

Right now the following caught my interest:

  1. Debian: Well established with huge repository of 20000+ apps.

  2. gNewSence: "Totally free" version of Ubuntu, so it should be more beginner friendly?

  3. OpenSolaris: Also open-source, and built on "strong" Unix base.

I do mainly basic tasks such as web browsing, office work, maintaining big photo collection, and a little bit of programming.


  1. How "free" are each of these distributions compared to each other, is this whole freedom thing a big deal?

  2. Will a binary labeled as for Ubuntu work on gNewSense?

  3. What are simple IDEs for Debian and gNewSense?

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Since this question is a bit subjective, I suggest you make it a community wiki. Thanks! – alex Oct 9 '09 at 6:26
Is there a way to do it here at superuser? Thanks for all the useful answers so far! – hpy Oct 9 '09 at 6:44
Ah I see how to do it now. Thanks for the tip! – hpy Oct 9 '09 at 7:30
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Based on the description of what you do, I would also recommend Ubuntu. There is little difference in the software available for Debian, gNewSence, & Ubuntu as they are all debian or debian branches.

Personally, OpenSolaris would be my last choice, due to limitations on support and package availability. It uses a unique package management system. Yes, it's been around forever, but that doesn't mean it's better. It's unix "base" is no stronger or weaker than any other.

Frankly, there is massive overlap between the many flavors in the *nix family. Your run in a desktop, become a KDE or Gnome, or other fanboy and run more or less the same apps no matter what distro you pick. So what's the big difference? For you as the person who has to fix it when it breaks it's the details of the system files and drivers.

The layout of /etc tends to vary from distro to distro. Some things are the same, but when fixing something on your machine, you'll have the best chance of getting accurate information from others using your distro. Personally for me, that's why I tend to stick with more mainstream choices. Picking from your list, that would be debian.

If you notice, no one has answered your 'simple IDE' question. It's because an IDE is more about what language your developing in that what OS you are running. For example if your coding in Ada or Jovial, I would definitely recommend Understand.

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Debian is also totally free. Ubuntu comes in a totally free flavor, for that matter. What gNewSense seems to do is make it hard to install non-free (as in freedom) software, where Debian and Ubuntu make it easy.

Are you meaning "Free" (as in freedom) or "free" (as in free of charge)? None of them cost money.

I'm deducing you're new to Unix-like operating systems. In that case, as I said in answer to another question, use whichever OS your friend uses. You know, the friend who already uses Linux/OpenSolaris/netBSD/whatever. That way you have someone to call for help when something doesn't work the way you expect.

In practical terms, starting from scratch none of them are terribly hard to use. Debian an gNewSense would share the Apt installer, which is extremely easy to use, potentially by way of the GUI Synaptic. Again, I strongly recommend "the one your friend can help you with" for your first system.

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"None of them cost money" unless you want to pay someone to help you... but that's money for the service, not for the product. – quack quixote Oct 9 '09 at 9:53
gNewSense also removes the proprietary bits of the Linux Kernel meaning that you can redistribute it without any fear of patent retribution that you might find in other distros like Ubuntu. This guarantees that it's Free while Ubuntu is probably Free. This isn't to spread FUD, but it's something of which to be aware – Katerberg Mar 2 '10 at 17:17

"Totally Free" means your choice number 2 will be LESS user friendly. Ubuntu is great because all the non-free stuff (binary graphics or networking drivers and so on) just work, as compared to trying to find a (possibly non-existent) free alternative.

I'd say go with Ubuntu if you're not well versed in *nix. It's easy to set up, and even if you find yourself wanting something different in a while, it will have allowed you to get your feet wet with a minimum of fuss.

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I'd not heard of gNewSense before this, and it seems to offer no user advantages over Ubuntu. They even boast of features removed. – pjc50 Jan 18 '10 at 16:53
@pjc50: see my comment on CarlF's post. – Katerberg Mar 2 '10 at 17:18

Ubuntu and gNewSense are extremely similar. Ubuntu includes non-free (free to distribute, but not free to modify or open source) firmware and drivers, but gNewSense doesn't. There's not very much difference otherwise. So heaps of hardware that Ubuntu works on, gNewSense won't work on. But if you choose your hardware so you only have hardware with open source drivers, then gNewSense will work fine.

As a newbie, don't go down the Solaris road would be my advice, it's not friendly like Ubuntu-based distros (like Ubuntu and gNewSense).

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Another vote for Ubuntu here. It is, overall, a very well-balanced release.

For simple IDEs, take a look at Geany & Komodo Edit.

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