As I promised in my previous post, I've decided to write about how I test Linux distros. But before we get to the testing, I figured I'd update you on the laptop situation. After a month or so with PCLinuxOS 2009.2 running smoothly, I discovered one small glitch for me. I was having a bit of trouble installing and running some newer versions of my favorite software. At first it was just Firefox. Version 3.6 was not available in the repositories, so I did a manual download and install from the Firefox web site. Then the problems began.
Although Firefox fired right up and seemed to run OK, when I got to YouTube, I started having trouble watching videos. I could play two or three, but then the next one would start and immediately go into fast forward mode. I launched Firefox 3.5 and had no such trouble. I tried other video sites and had the same trouble in Firefox 3.6. I figured this must be the reason that 3.6 was not in the repositories. I also had no trouble in the Chromium or SeaMonkey browsers. However, I use several plug ins that are Firefox only, and 3.6 is just faster and more secure than it's predecessors.
I then began the odyssey of trying to install the Phoronix Test Suite with the intent of using it to provide some test results for this post. Plus, I wanted to see how my results compared to theirs. The install procedure is strictly a console affair, so I proceeded to fire up a terminal window and run the install. From then on it was pretty much a comedy of errors. Partly user error and inexperience with such software, but in the end, it was also an issue of the software just not wanting to run on PCLinuxOS 2009.2. There were various dependencies that simply could not be met, meaning that "library" this or that was either not available, or simply would not run properly once installed. I finally gave up as life is too short, and I am basically lazy. I then proceeded to install a few other games and apps and ran into yet more issues such as sluggish performance, or in some cases, no performance. This led me to conclude that I needed to look at upgrading already.
I had been running the PCLinuxOS 2010 beta in VMWare Player for a while, and update after update it just kept getting better and better. So much better in fact, I decided it was finally good enough to install on the laptop. As a general rule, I do not use beta software as my main OS, but in my opinion this beta was ready for prime time. In fact, it even performs better on this machine than it's predecessor, and so far, it is as solid as a rock. There are still a few cosmetic issues to iron out, but I can live with those. Such things are generally the last to be cleaned up before a final release. They do not affect performance or stability, so I really don't mind(note: As of now, PCLinuxOS 2010 has been officially released).
At any rate, on to testing. Well almost...
One of my favorite Linux related web sites is Phoronix which is where the aforementioned Phoronix Test Suite comes from. If you are a Linux user, or even curious about Linux, this site should definitely be in your bookmarks. It is about the only site I know of dedicated to extensively testing not only all types of Linux software, but testing for hardware compatibility and performance as well. I will forewarn you though, some of the content can get a bit deep for the average user. Judging from the posts in their forums, a good number of site readers are developers and other very advanced users so they need to serve a wide variety of readership. One issue I have is that many of the benchmarks they use in testing just do not pertain to what end users such as myself actually do with their computers. I do read what they have to say and often find a useful tidbit here and there. However, for the most part I rely on my own testing to guide my computing. My testing is not nearly as sophisticated as Phoronix, but it serves my needs.
After my comical attempt at installing Phoronix Test Suite, I decided to forgo the experience this time around. While I may have gotten it to run on PCLOS 2010, I decided after reading further into the manual that my skill set may not be up to the challenge. However, for the more experienced users out there, you may find the software useful. I may get back to it one of these days, but for now, I will stick with my tried and true simpleton methods.
While I usually stick with one particular Linux distro for a while, as you can see I am not opposed to changing if a need crops up, or I find a "better mouse trap". I also find that testing the various distros increases my knowledge of Linux in general which is always a good thing. I can even learn from distros that do not work for some reason or another. To this end, I have developed my own "test suite" for lack of a better term. As I said, it is not sophisticated, but I find it gives me the info I need to make an informed decision with regards to the way I use Linux.
Tools of the trade
My main tool of the trade is VMWare Player. As many may know, this is a freeware virtual machine player which allows you to essentially run another operating system and related software on top of your existing operating system. You simply launch the player as you would any other program, and then proceed to launch your alternate OS inside the player. The advantage, at least when it comes to running Linux distros this way, is you do not have to burn a CD or DVD to run them in the player. You can simply mount the ISO file you downloaded. It runs just the same as any CD or DVD would. You can then opt to install the OS on the virtual hard drive. It all sounds pretty complicated, but it really is not. If you know how to install an OS on regular hardware, you can do it in a virtual machine. After trying it for the first time, I was an old hand in about twenty minutes. It is really that easy. Some may argue that you need actual hardware to do any meaningful testing. This may be true for some types of testing, but for simple comparative testing of Linux distros, it is not necessary. And, it is more time consuming than a virtual machine.
I should point out that the VMWare Player install program must be launched via a shell script. All this means is that you launch a terminal window, change to the directory containing the downloaded file(if it is different than your home directory), and type a simple command to launch the installer. You do have to perform this task as the "root" user. Alternately, you can copy the command from the install instructions web page and paste it into the terminal. Once done, the program launches a traditional GUI interface to take you the rest of the way. After the install, I went to the /usr/share/applications directory and copied the program's shortcut to my desktop.
Your choices are not limited to running Linux distros of course. Microsoft Windows, various flavors of Unix, and even good old DOS will run just fine in a virtual machine. About the only exception would be Mac OSX which has more to do with licensing issues than suitability. There are other limitations as well. For instance, if you had the idea of loading up Microsoft Windows into a virtual machine on your Linux box to run games, you can pretty much forget it. It may actually work for some lesser games, but mainstream FPS, RTS, et al simply will not work. At least that has been my experience. Virtual machines may one day get there, but for now it is just an exercise in futility. I have also tried other virtual machine packages such as Virtual Box and Qemu. I just find that VMWare Player runs better for me and suits my needs better as well. Some folks also run a paid program called Parallels with great success.
As I stated earlier, I currently have 14 virtual machines loaded and ready to go. These are currently in various stages of evaluation, mostly relating to when I installed them. In some cases, I may install a distro, run it for a short while, and simply decide it is not for me. I may then just delete it. That is another great advantage to using virtual machines this way. You essentially have a disposable PC which costs nothing! Other times, if a distro passes a first blush test, I may run it and update it for weeks on end. Yet another twist is something like INX. It is a console based distro that I run exclusively in a virtual machine. I use it mainly as a tool to learn the ways of the Linux command line world. It is also just fun to get away from the GUI from time to time. It brings back fond memories of my old DOS days.
Once inside the virtual machine, I generally run through, and record a few tidbits or information in a Gnumeric spreadsheet. Things such as boot times, launch times of various favorite programs, as well as general performance statistics gathered from various tools such as the Gnome System Monitor, KInfoCenter, etc... As a rule I stick with Gnome System Monitor for it's simplicity. If a particular distro does not have it, it is usually a quick download from the repositories. It also runs equally well in all desktop environments.
Now for some test results
I figured to sort of tie all this together, I would actually post some test results. These results are just a sampling of the information I have gathered on various distros of interest to me. It should be noted that each virtual machine was identically configured with 1gb ram, and a 10gb hard disk. All distros were installed using defaults provided by the install program, and were fully updated at the time of testing. it should also be noted that these are all LiveCD based distros. The Debian 5 Gnome-Full was actually created from the credit card size ISO, and then had the full Gnome desktop environment added to it via apt-get. This is as opposed to a Gnome-base install. This accounts for it's relatively large size on the hard disk. So without further ado, here are the results.(click the image to expand)
It must also note that the CPU usage numbers are somewhat subjective. If you run the Gnome System Monitor you will notice this reading bounces around a lot. After a few minutes it does stabilize a bit, and you can get a good approximation or average if you will. Take this reading for whatever it is worth to you.
So what happens next?
The answer to that question varies of course from distro to distro. As previously mentioned, many of these get deleted about as fast as they boot up. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with them. It may be simply that I do not like the cut of their jib, or in some cases there is simply nothing compelling about the distro itself. In other cases, if a distro passes all of this initial testing, it may get burned to a CD to be tested on actual hardware. I may boot the LiveCD on the laptop or the desktop system. In many cases I actually do an install on the desktop system and put it through its paces for a while. Since my laptop is my main system, I only do an install there if I actually intend to replace my existing OS. Right now, I have no compelling reason to do so. Besides, PCLinuxOS is the only distro I have found that likes all of my laptop hardware right out of the box. Someone is really going to have to hit a grand slam to replace it.
I will say based on what I know so far, I can highly recommend two other distros from my current batch of testing. One would be PCLinuxOS 2010-Gnome for those interested in the Gnome way of doing things. It is really solid, has eye candy galore, and comes with quite a collection of software. It may be the best Gnome based distro out there right now. Sorry Ubuntu fans. I call 'em as I see 'em.
The other distro I would recommend would be SimplyMepis 8.5 KDE. For those not overly enamored with KDE 4, this may change your mind. The folks at Mepis have done a beautiful job of marrying the old KDE 3 and new KDE 4 interfaces. You get the best of both worlds without the shock of such a dramatic change. While it had a bit of trouble with my laptops Wifi, and ATI video, SimplyMepis 8.5 had no trouble with the more Linux friendly desktop machine. It even replaced Fedora 12 on that machine, and has been rock solid so far. It is a good distro to try, if for no other reason than to read the very excellent Mepis manual. Just click the icon on the desktop for some very informative reading. One of the best manuals "I" have ever seen anyway, and I used to write such things in a past life.
Truth be told, you probably could not go wrong with any of the distros I listed. For raw speed I would definitely recommend Fedora 12. It is just crazy fast. The rest of the distros are perfectly fine in their own right, but were simply not what I was looking for. If your favorite distro is not listed, it does not mean I have not seen or tested it. As stated before, the above is just a small sampling of my most recent adventures. So if you have no social life, and there is nothing good on TV, grab yourself a bunch of Linux distros and get to it! If an idiot like me can do it, so can you!