Klaus Zimmermann's Corner

kzimmermann's State of the Distro - December 2023

I've decided to start posting a more or less regular series of update in here, regarding my OS usage and what distros I've been fiddling with lately. I'll post these quarterly, once per season, and maybe this can serve as a kind of thermometer of what my interests and technical expertises are at a given time. So here we go: kzimmermann's State of the Distro - December 2023 Edition!...

... but first, let me lay down my rules:

Rules of the State of the Distro

I'll have distributions ranked #1 as per my opinion in the following categories:

I might add a runner up or two for each if I feel the choice was close, but that's not a guarantee. Finally, I'll add a general overall winner distro in the end.

Of course, a reminder that this assessment is just my own opinion, and does not necesssarily reflect an actual technical assessment of these projects. So please don't get upset if you don't see your favorite distro in here somewhere, or if I say something that isn't what you think, okay?

And now, let's go.


Winner: Debian Linux and its systemd-less counterpart Devuan

debian logo

Cue in the booing from rolling-release fanboys that think that Debian is an outdated, slow to catch up and cringy distro to be installed on the Desktop. Finished? Alrighty.

If I need an OS on the desktop that is easy to set up, reliable, secure and basically will always work when I need throughout the updates, here it is: Debian. But what about the latest version of Firefox? Get it if you want, of course. Set up a backport, download it from a flatpak repo, or just get it straight from the source.

The repositories are chock full of things that basically if you can't find a program in there, either that program is probably not a very big deal, or there are third-party community maintained builds for it. Either way, with Debian, you're going to get it.

The criticism that you can't have the latest version of things is valid for some cases, though, especially kernels. For this, I have experimented lately, with huge success, an alternative: just run the bleeding edge unstable. Unlike its namesake, Debian Sid (or Devuan Ceres) isn't so unstable that you can't use it daily like a normal OS - I'd evaluate their stability as to about the same as Arch Linux's. You just have to take a few steps of care, otherwise it's very straightforward and confortable.

Stable or not, the experience that I have with Debian on the desktop is always great. Thus it is my choice for this season - and year's - desktop distro.

Portable install to go

Winner: Alpine Linux

alpine linux logo

There was a time in both mine and the history of Linux distros that the perfect portable LiveCD distro was the golden quest, as holy as the grail for computers, perhaps better described as a neverending search. KNOPPIX has great software available, but too big and slow. Puppy was fast and useful, but some design choices made it a little weird for some. Antix was too confusing: do we really need to choose from 5 DEs and that many modes of operation? Other LiveCDs varied here and there, but missed somethings of my own choice. And surrounding it all: the issue of persistence. How can we "save things" across reboots there?

This year, my quest was over. I installed Alpine in an USB stick, did some customization and that was it - I now have the perfect portable OS for myself. Props of course to the teams developing these others live distros (the amount of stuff that they fit in such a small / lightweight package is amazing), but carrying something that you've customized completely is simply unbeatable. I can even update the whole base of the distribution seamlessly, something that to this day feels clunky with strictly liveCD distros.

With Alpine, I have a solid, secure, yet lightweight base on which I can build the system the exact way I want. And even though it might wear the drive more, sysmode, the frugal install. works very nicely, almost like an internal OS. I have yet to find this flexibility and small size in other distros, or BSD.

Raspberry Pi

Winner: FreeBSD

freebsd logo

Whoa - a BSD in this Linux fest? Oh yeah. Believe me, when it comes to the Pi (at least until the 4), FreeBSD is better than Linux.

It's better because the performance of it is unlike any other Linux distribution I've ever seen, even with cpupower activated and overclocking. Nope, no match - FreeBSD's performance on the Pi is still way better, even without overclocking. You can browse a modern web, have things scroll smoothly, watch videos and even play some 3D games like Quake with it! And if you overclock it a little (2GHz) you can even make it run that gargantua MS Teams.

But what about all that lackluster driver support? WiFi drivers still on the 802.11g standard and all? Surely you can't be serious about it when Linux offers all that support out of the box, right?

Wrong, actually. For starters, the drivers provided for the Pi's hardware are often half-assed proprietary blobs, nicely obscure by its manufacturer Broadcom - of the same fame of the shitty b43 WiFi driver. This culminates in drivers that to this day don't work completely even in the official Raspberry Pi OS, like graphics that don't support xrandr or a simple redshift screen dimming. And the audio through the 3.5mm jack? One-way only. Can't record it - ever. And even the built-in dual band wifi is shaky - often I won't see 5GHz APs.

Thus, with all this considered, I take back this comment that I made last year about FreeBSD on the Pi:

(...) I would have kept FreeBSD in there, since it's also an amazing OS, but there was one major caveat: lack of support for wifi and sound. Though I could've used a USB dongle for WiFi (not optimal, but hey), lack of sound was a large disappointment (...)

Rectifying: I no longer think FreeBSD is really at fault if the driver support for the hardware is not helpful to begin with. Even drivers you find for Linux are shaky at best.

So yes, I will keep using FreeBSD on the Pi. As a desktop. With USB WiFi and audio adapters for those services, because the existing hardware is sort of moot even otherwise. And with those USB adapters - and FreeBSD - the Pi works really well, truly desktop-like.


Winner: Debian Linux.

debian logo

This is somewhat an unfair assessment because I don't really set up many servers at home, neither do I make much heavy use of it. I do have a web server (this site) and an XMPP server set up on a Raspberry Pi, but otherwise don't use them a whole lot. But I found that using Debian on the Pi is a real joy. Easy and simple to set up, familiar environment and all. So I'm keeping it.

This concept is about to be overshadowed, however, by my growing like of FreeBSD lately. Maybe I should try subbing it for a while next year? Or exploring more the server environment as a whole.

(why not Devuan here? Because I couldn't find an image to work on with the Raspberry Pi...)

Overall distro of 2023

Winner: Debian Linux or Devuan

debian logo

With all the praise I gave to Debian in this article, this isn't very surprising. Truth is, I'm so used to Debian (and more recently with the unstable branch) that given a choice to "liberate" another computer, Debian would be the first thing that would come to mind. Of course, I'm still up to experimenting with other distributions, especially distributions that I have never really tried seriously before like Fedora.

The only sad part of Debian is that they decided to drop 32-bit x86 from its supported architectures in future releases, which means that my myriad of old computers back home will have to be eventually migrated to yet another distro - probably Alpine. What can I say, though, it was a great ride, and it taught me a lot of what I know about Linux.

And while I don't really mind too much SystemD, I found OpenRC to be a lot more comfortable along the other distros I chose to use, so in those cases I'd be choosing Devuan instead.


So there you have it, my top distros for Dec 2023 ranked in my use cases, and all of course according to my opinion. What do you think of my choices? Is there any distro that you'd recommend me to try as well? I know that there are areas like OpenSUSE and the Fedora families that I have not ever touched in my life. Let me know your suggestions!

And in the meantime, Happy 2024 and see you on my next edition!

This post is number #49 of my #100DaysToOffload project.

Last updated on 12/29/23