Comparison Test: Newbie-Friendly KDE Distributions

In anticipation of my new laptop, I decided to test 5 major KDE distributions to see which one could work best on my laptop. As it happens, I ended up testing all of these on my old Sony VAIO desktop and installed Linux Mint 9 GNOME on my laptop. Go figure.
Each of these distributions aims to provide a hospitable and workable environment for the new user/Windows migrant. As such, there are a few features I expect to see included out-of-the-box. One of these is Firefox. A lot of implementations of KDE provide Konqueror instead of Firefox; while Konqueror may be faster and doubles as an excellent file manager, in terms of extensibility, ability to handle pretty much any webpage, and name recognition, Konqueror doesn't come close to Firefox. Along with this, I expect to see proprietary codecs included out-of-the-box. The story is similar for KOffice versus OpenOffice.org, so I also expect to see OpenOffice.org present and integrated nicely with KDE. I also want to see good hardware support (as tested by checking for support of my Logitech Quickcam Communicate STX USB webcam) out-of-the-box. The distribution shouldn't be too sluggish in live mode (but before that, it should have a live mode so that the user can try the distribution out first before taking the shot in the dark that is the installation process). In essence, the distribution should have Firefox (well-integrated), OpenOffice.org (well-integrated), hardware support (as per my webcam), and a reasonably fast live mode.
Although the newest version of KDE is 4.5, all of these distributions come with 4.4, which isn't a whole lot worse as far as I know. The distributions are openSUSE 11.3 (live CD), PCLinuxOS 2010.07, Sabayon 5.3, Pardus 2009.2, and PC-BSD 8.1 (live CD) along with a mystery contender that shall be revealed at the end of this post. Many of these distributions implement KDE specifically to better serve the new user, as many of these distributions are based on other distributions that are notoriously hard to work with.
As I was running low on blank CDs and DVDs at this time, I decided to try to put each of these distributions on my USB stick as a live USB. Only Sabayon and PCLinuxOS cooperated, so I decided then to test all of these distributions in VirtualBox. All of the impressions I have written are from these tests in VirtualBox; Sabayon and PCLinuxOS's performances as live USBs have not crept into this post (I hope).
With these things in mind, follow the jump to see how each contender fared. (NOTE: There are a lot of pictures after the jump, so your browser will probably slow down a bit. Please continue reading, but keep this in mind.)

5. PC-BSD 8.1 "Hubble" (Live CD)

The Boot Splash
PC-BSD is the interesting character of the bunch, mostly because it is the only distribution that is not actually Linux (it is based on FreeBSD). As everyone knows that BSD frequently leads to shark attacks (xkcd; as it turns out, shark attacks are a problem with OpenBSD, not FreeBSD), PC-BSD attempts to rectify this situation. Aside from its roots in BSD making it unique, PC-BSD, unlike most other distributions that install individual packages (and may or may not resolve dependencies), eschews the whole package management scheme altogether and replaces it with the concept of a PBI (Push-Button Installer or PC-BSD Installer) — a self-contained installation file akin to a Windows executable file. Thus, new users never have to deal with dependency hell. Of course, if a particular program is not available as a PBI, one can always get the source from FreeBSD's Ports and compile the source into a working program (or so one would hope; this is exactly what makes FreeBSD so scary). With all this in mind, let us proceed to the actual experience.
The Installer
I got the PC-BSD live CD that allows for live testing and net installations. Unfortunately, live mode refused to work — I would always be taken straight to the installer. This means that I had to create a separate virtual hard disk for PC-BSD's installation. The installation itself went smoothly, though the FreeBSD installation option will likely confuse new users, and the disk/partition labeling scheme (e.g. "da0s1") is a bit different from what a typical Windows (e.g. "C:\") or Linux (e.g. "sda1") user would see. Furthermore, the RAM and disk space requirements are quite high for what would at first seem like a fairly vanilla implementation of KDE in BSD.
After the installation finished, I restarted the virtual machine and booted from the virtual hard disk. One issue with dual-booting with Windows or Linux distributions is that PC-BSD uses the BTX bootloader instead of GRUB. The boot and startup time was somewhat slow but still reasonable. The look is fairly vanilla KDE, with 2 exceptions. Of course, the KDE menu button uses the PC-BSD logo; more important, however, is the fact that the notification area icons are all black and integrate nicely into the KDE panel. One of the features of KDE 4.5 is better notification area icon integration; PC-BSD seems to be ahead of the game in this regard, as it still uses KDE 4.4 but does its own integration very well.
The Main Screen
There is a fairly large selection of applications. Firefox and OpenOffice.org both work well and integrate nicely with the desktop theme. Most proprietary codecs are included out-of-the-box.
Though I was using VirtualBox, I was able to test recognition of my webcam by enabling USB devices in the settings for each guest OS and then using a program like Kopete (which is what I used most of the time to do this). Unfortunately, even with this, PC-BSD refused to recognize my webcam, which is a shame. BSD is noted for valuing stability over the bleeding-edge, so it may not support all new hardware; that said, my webcam is over 5 years old, so for PC-BSD to not support it is simply inexcusable.
I mentioned earlier that PC-BSD has some rather high disk space requirements and that it has its own PBI system of installing programs. As it turns out, the reason for these huge requirements is that because PBIs are self-contained, one may end up installing certain packages multiple times across different PBIs; what this means is that each PBI is around 100 MB in size. That is huge! It's also quite unnecessary, in my opinion.
Firefox and OpenOffice.org
PC-BSD is an amazing idea, in that it is probably the prime candidate in bringing BSD to a wider audience (Apple is still in denial that Mac OS is BSD-based, so they don't count). So why did it come in last? Its live mode didn't work, so users have to install before they can try the operating system. Also, its hardware requirements are quite taxing. Finally, it seems to be a little spotty on the peripheral hardware support. It's a great start, to be sure, but it definitely needs more work.

4. PCLinuxOS 2010.07 KDE

Main Screen with KDE 3-style Menu
For a while, PCLinuxOS used to be known as a sort of Mandriva-on-steroids distribution. In the last year or so, however, it has added enough of its own neat features to make a name for itself. In fact, the Helios project has made it and Linux Mint (previously known as Ubuntu-on-steroids) (along with SuperOS, which was actually known before as Super Ubuntu (before Canonical enforced the Ubuntu trademark)) as the preferred distributions for Linux installations, as these 2 distributions are renowned for actively seeking out and coddling new users with ease-of-use and excellent hardware support (along with a good mix of software). I had actually tested version 2009.2 before and really enjoyed using it (this was before the birth of this blog). Let's see how the latest version of PCLinuxOS fares today.
A Neat Trick in Folder View
The boot and startup time is probably the fastest of the bunch, but the boot splash of the darkening PCLinuxOS bull mascot, while a nice concept, doesn't accurately tell when the boot process is done. The panel is a little unusual in that it uses Windows 7 panel-style icons only, instead of bars with icons and text. It also uses a similar "pinning" concept. The mix of applications is decent, and PCLinuxOS has its own remastered Mandriva Control Center (as the PCLinuxOS Control Center), which is amazingly featured and very easy to use. Firefox is well-integrated with the system theme (which, thankfully, is the default Oxygen theme instead of Mandriva's dated Ia Ora theme), and most proprietary codecs are included out-of-the-box.
So why did the famed PCLinuxOS end up second from the bottom? Well, all productivity applications have been dropped (even AbiWord); there is only a link to install OpenOffice.org, which cannot be tested in live mode as package managers are generally quite slow in live mode. Cheese Webcam Booth and Kopete were both dropped, so there is absolutely no way to be sure that my webcam works in PCLinuxOS. PCLinuxOS was the only distribution of the bunch to have KDE Plasma stability issues, which is surprising because this distribution is renowned for stability as well; this can be brought on by opening other applications and Firefox simultaneously. Finally, PCLinuxOS eschews the Kickoff menu for a KDE 3-style menu, which a lot of people have said works better; I don't agree, because there is no longer any description of cryptic-sounding programs like KRDC, KPPP, and Kivio, so this has lots of potential to confuse new users.
Overall, I think PCLinuxOS has taken a few steps backwards with this release. Hopefully these issues will be sorted out by the time the next release comes around.

3. openSUSE 11.3 KDE (Live CD)

Boot Splash
openSUSE is probably the oldest distribution of this bunch. It started a short while after Slackware as a remastered version of it (Slackware is the oldest currently surviving Linux distribution). Later, the distribution's focus shifted towards making a solid, user-friendly, independent distribution. openSUSE has created several innovations in both the KDE and GNOME environments, including the Kickoff and Slab menus (later reimplemented in KDE as the Lancelot menu), among other things. With these things in mind, let us proceed.
Welcome Screen
openSUSE has a very nice boot menu, giving the user lots of options, including language and screen resolution. The actual boot and startup time is somewhat slow but still reasonable. One is then greeted with a helpful welcome screen, explaining to new users what Linux, KDE, and openSUSE are (among other things). Unfortunately, my Desktop view widget crashed and displayed an ugly error message; this was fixed by changing the Activity from Desktop view to Folder view. openSUSE seems stable enough, and it looks very professionally done (it kind of reminds me of Microsoft Windows 7 in its looks (though it is certainly much more stable)). On the flip side, loading applications was quite slow.
Firefox and OpenOffice.org
openSUSE has also become well-known for its fully-featured YaST control center. I didn't fully explore YaST, but from what I could tell, it looks very thorough and very stable. Firefox and OpenOffice.org both worked and were very well integrated — I do believe that openSUSE also pioneered better integration of Firefox and OpenOffice.org with KDE 4.X. However, no proprietary codecs were included for legal reasons; though I understand the rationale (and getting them is easy enough with YaST2), this will likely put off new users (especially when in live mode). The webcam worked as tested in Kopete.
Overall, openSUSE seems very well-made, but the lack of proprietary codecs is (in my mind, as it is important to new users as well) a big sore point, and the live mode is quite slow.

2. Sabayon 5.3 KDE

The Main Screen
As readers of this blog know, I have tested the previous version of Sabayon before. I really liked it a lot in live mode, so much so that I went ahead and installed it (which ended in a fiasco). Just for a little history, Sabayon is based off of Gentoo, which is (in)famous for making users compile all programs from the source code; Sabayon turns Gentoo into a mostly binary-based distribution (like e.g. Ubuntu). Let's see how the latest version of Sabayon stacks up.

The boot and startup time is reasonably fast. The more professional-looking blue theme (new in 5.2) has been carried over unchanged. There is, as always, a comprehensive selection of application, including XBMC and games like a demo version of World of Goo. Interestingly enough, Clementine (a fork of Amarok 1.4) replaces Amarok as the music player. Firefox and OpenOffice.org are there and well-integrated with the system theme. Most proprietary codecs are included out-of-the-box. The webcam works as tested in Kopete.
So what are the issues? The OS becomes rather slow when Firefox and other applications run simultaneously. Furthermore, there is this weird, persistent static in the speakers (and the only solution is to mute the volume control). Finally, the spellchecker in Firefox seems messed-up, as it marks almost every word as misspelled (I think the spellchecker uses either Italian or Spanish as its default language).

OpenOffice.org Writer and Calc (Tabbed Windows)
These are all fairly minor niggles. Overall, Sabayon provides a very solid and feature-filled desktop experience.

1. Pardus 2009.2 "Geronticus Eremita" (Live CD)

Boot Splash
Pardus is the only distribution of this bunch that is not based on any other parent distribution. It is made by a Turkish organization for use by the Turkish government and military, so obviously, stability is a priority. On the consumer end, it actively tries to woo new users with its unique set of tools and its own implementation of KDE 4.X. Let's see how this relatively unknown distribution fares.
Customized KDE Splash Screen
The first thing to strike me upon boot is a nice maroon theme. This carries on through the desktop experience. Pardus, like openSUSE, offers a number of different options upon boot (e.g. resolution, language). Unfortunately, the default language at boot is Turkish, but this can be changed in the boot menu itself (but this is dependent on new users seeing this option at the bottom of the screen). The boot and startup process is somewhat slow, but that's because there are so many programs included and squashed to fit onto a CD. Thankfully, loading programs after startup is very quick, and Pardus isn't especially burdened by Firefox and other applications running simultaneously.
Main Screen and Kaptan
Pardus seems to use its own icon set which looks like a more cartoonish, maroon version of the Oxygen icon set. It's a nice, soft theme that will likely put new users at ease. The first thing that loads is the Kaptan tool. While distributions like Linux Mint and openSUSE have simple welcome screens that users are likely to close right off the bat, Kaptan is a full-fledged step-by-step desktop configuration tool, allowing one to configure things like the wallpaper, Desktop vs. Folder view, number of virtual desktops, and theme, among other things. How cool is that?
Main Screen Post-Customization
The Pardus PISI repositories aren't exactly filled, so the live image itself comes with oodles of useful software. Firefox is present and even uses the Pardus theme (instead of the standard Oxygen theme). OpenOffice.org is also present, but it doesn't get the special Pardus treatment (aside from the splash screen) — it gets the standard Oxygen theme, which makes it look a little out-of-place here, honestly. Most proprietary codecs are included out-of-the-box. The webcam works as tested in Kopete.
Are there any downsides? As I said earlier, the repositories aren't very big, so aside from a couple of programs like Skype which are installable from the repositories, most of the software a user will be able to use is preinstalled. The only other issues are that the live CD and installation DVD are separate, and that the default language upon boot is Turkish (but this can be changed, provided the user knows (literally) where to look).
Firefox and OpenOffice.org
It's truly a shame that Pardus isn't a more popular distribution; it may have to do with the whole Turkish default thing, as that may give the impression that Pardus is a Turkish language-specific distribution. Pardus has one of the best implementations of KDE 4.X that I have seen, and actually makes (successful) concerted efforts to reach out to new users during the live session (and as far as I've heard, during the installation process as well). It seems to support most peripheral hardware, and there's not a whole lot more to ask for in terms of software selection or stability.

Mystery Contender: Chakra (Alpha 5)

Main Screen
Chakra, like some of the other distributions tested, tries to implement KDE to woo new users and is based off of a distribution that is famously hard to operate — in this case, that distribution is Arch. That said, this implementation is fairly bare-bones — in fact, the Chakra developers say openly that the same result can be had by getting Arch and adding the KDEmod packages. Arch is famous as well for its rolling-release model and for its nimbleness, as users install only the packages they want and need (and nothing more); Chakra works off of the same philosophy, but it at least starts with a basic KDE platform. The reason why I didn't compare Chakra to the others is because it is an unfair comparison, as Chakra is still just a project in its alpha stage. Let's see how it does.
Boot and startup is somewhat slow, considering that there is no shiny boot splash (and considering that Arch and Chakra are supposed to be nimble). One is then greeted with a fairly vanilla KDE desktop. The application selection is rather sparse; there is absolutely no productivity software included (save for a text editor). For purposes of maximizing speed and minimizing disk space, Rekonq, which is a new browser that combines Konqueror and the WebKit engine, is used instead of something more familiar like Firefox. Surprisingly, most proprietary codecs are included out-of-the-box. Also, the webcam works as tested in Kopete. Chakra also seems surprisingly stable, especially for an alpha release.
As Chakra has recently split from Arch with its most recent "Phoix" release, future development remains to be seen. (I didn't test that because it is a positively huge live DVD). I think Chakra is a great start, but if it wants to woo more new users, it should include Firefox and OpenOffice.org (as those are more familiar applications to new users). Good luck to the Chakra team!

Yes, yes, Pardus won this one. But who's the real winner in all of this? KDE. All of these distributions used KDE 4.4, and not one of them experienced a single Plasma crash — ever. Now, with version 4.5, KDE has finally reached amazing levels of stability and features. Furthermore, Firefox, OpenOffice.org, and GNOME/GTK+ applications actually integrate well with KDE. With GNOME looking to fall with version 3.0, if anyone is about to switch or upgrade distributions, now might be the time to migrate to a distribution with the newest version of KDE. Have fun, and I hope you thoroughly enjoyed this article!