What is the rolling release Linux distro least likely to make me crazy?
April 3, 2013 8:48 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to try my hand at a Linux distro that manages to balance current software with limited days of figuring out why something exploded for apparantly no reason and now X server won't start, or there's no audio, or no networking, or no... whatever.

Currently I'm only aware of Gentoo and Arch. Any other options? Any edge for either for someone who is willing to do this sort of thing, but hoping to not regret it and lose too much productivity?
posted by jsturgill to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Gentoo and Arch are both fairly good things to stay away from in this regard.

There's about to be a new stable Debian. That doesn't happen often, but it's usually a really good time to be using Debian, so there's that.

I have seen people having pretty good luck with Mint lately. By default it does some shady things in terms of browser ad revenue, but otherwise the installer is nice and and it's pretty current, with a pretty standard style of desktop.

I've been avoiding Ubuntu for a couple of major releases, but it may have veered somewhat back towards sanity.
posted by brennen at 9:00 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

My experience with Arch is that things still explode but that when they do it is much more likely that there is a clear wiki page or forum post explaining why and what to do about it, and it is much more likely that the underlying cause is straightforward and understandable. With other distributions, I would get tripped up by all the implicit DWIM magic happening under the surface; with Arch, I get tripped up much less and usually when I do it's because there is less going on under the surface than I realized and I just have to be a little more explicit to get it to do what I want.

The downside to Arch is that the menu-based installer has been removed and the new CLI install process is pretty intimidating, although well-documented and not all that difficult.

The use of systemd for init scripts and logging takes some getting used to.
posted by enn at 9:05 AM on April 3, 2013

It's been awhile since I've dabbled in the dark arts of Linux distros, but if I remember correctly, Gentoo was not exactly noob-friendly. I remember recommending Ubuntu to anyone who wanted to try Linux. Not sure if that's changed for some reason, but it seemed to "just work" for most people who tried it.
posted by antonymous at 9:09 AM on April 3, 2013

Debian testing (the “staging area” for the next stable release) and sid (aka unstable, where new packages are uploaded before migrating to testing) are what I use on my everyday, productivity-critical boxes, and it hasn’t ever really blown up in my face during the last 5 years or so. Autogenerated ISOs are here, though you can also start at the latest stable release and upgrade from there (or even debootstrap into a chroot, if you know what you’re doing). The worst thing that has happened so far was an Xorg upgrade messing with the OpenGL part of my video driver, which led to occasional program crashes until I figured out what was happening and temporarily set LIBGL_ALWAYS_SOFTWARE.

Make sure to install apt-listbugs if you want to go this route. It’ll tell you about known serious bugs before every upgrade.
posted by wachhundfisch at 9:15 AM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have not had any of the mentioned problems with Ubuntu in the past few years despite using it with hardware that's pretty aged nowadays. The only persistent problem that I can think of is that the fonts in certain kinds of Java apps look terrible, but since I use few of those, it's not a problem for me. However, my experience is only one data point and Ic an't offer any comparison with other distros because I haven't used them extensively.

You shouldn't have too much trouble installing several distros at the same time and sharing files between them, provided you have enough hard disk space. It might be worth it to try each candidate out at least for a couple of days this way.
posted by tykky at 9:18 AM on April 3, 2013

Neither Ubuntu or Debian are rolling-release distributions, which the OP is looking for.
posted by enn at 9:25 AM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just noticed that the title specifically says "rolling release".

FWIW, my plan for the near-term future is to do what wachhundfisch is doing, at least with testing. I used to use unstable full-time on most of my non-server machines, got burned, and have been a little iffy on it since, but I think these days testing is probably a fairly happy medium.

I understand that Ubuntu is making serious noises about moving to a rolling release. I'm not sure that's going to go over well with a lot of their target market, but it might be something to keep in mind for the future.
posted by brennen at 9:27 AM on April 3, 2013

Note that the original questioner is specifically looking for a Linux distro that "...manages to balance current software with...".

As someone who's been running Ubuntu for quite a few years now, mostly because it's nice to be running the same thing my wife is so that when she has problems with it I know how to fix it, I've got to say that Ubuntu doesn't qualify. I'm constantly delving through dependency trees trying to get recent enough versions of development software to take advantage of modern features. Even with the every 6 month release cycle, there's stuff that's way way back.

(And some of the bugs that manage to stay in recently... ugh.)

As enn and brennen point out, isn't "rolling release" either.
posted by straw at 9:28 AM on April 3, 2013

Yeah, Debian obviously doesn’t officially provide a rolling release, but it’s how I use it on my desktops. I think it’s worth a mention.
posted by wachhundfisch at 9:34 AM on April 3, 2013

I'd say Debian testing & unstable definitely qualify as rolling release.
posted by zsazsa at 9:34 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Interesting. I have no answer but thanks for making me look this up.
posted by srboisvert at 9:56 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been avoiding Ubuntu for a couple of major releases, but it may have veered somewhat back towards sanity.

Yeah no, it hasn't, unfortunately. Just recently I ended up tossing it, again, in favor of PC-BSD, which is a user-friendly, for less-advanced users, distribution based on FreeBSD. It's a *nix, but not Linux. It's stable, you can actually use it to figure out what's going wrong if something goes wrong, and when you do figure it out, you can actually fix it without going effing insane.

For instance, a few months ago I got a USB audio interface that works without a hitch on everything... except frigging Ubuntu, apparently. My motherboard's internal sound was not used, and yet Ubuntu kept assuming I should use it, so it kept overriding my sound preferences for the USB interface, and even occasionally did not see it. WTF. This is not something that should happen. Worse, Ubuntu has become such a user-friendly mess, that it's a royal pain even when you go into config files – something kept assuming and overriding anyway. Long story short, PC-BSD did also assume the MB sound was default, but when I directed it to the USB output, it stayed that way. No questions asked, no flipping around, no mysteriously-disappearing USB audio interface. That's just one example of many.

PC-BSD are doing rolling releases now. The default environment is KDE.

Just a word of warning with regard to Debian, I did try it too, but they have a Firefox-equivalent, named IceWeasel, bundled with it, and if you want the real Firefox (to be able to install useful add-ons such as AdBlock for instance, which IceWeasel can't use), you have to jump through a lot of annoying hoops.
posted by fraula at 10:15 AM on April 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nthing Debian.

Regarding IceWeasel, I don't remember having trouble using AdBlock on it. Either way, the hoops if you want Firefox are just to go to http://mozilla.debian.net/, choose the appropriate dropdowns, and add the line(s) it gives you to sources.list.
posted by trig at 10:33 AM on April 3, 2013

As brennen said, Ubuntu is considering a rolling release model (combined with biennial stable releases for boring farts like me), so you may want to keep an eye on that. In contrast to fraula, I've had no problems with Ubuntu on any of the 20+ machines I've installed it on over the past seven years. But this kind of thing always boils down to anecdote vs. anecdote, so whatever you go with, try a LiveCD first (if available) to check hardware compatibility.

Also, as others have said, Debian testing and unstable are sort-of pseudo-rolling (the very informative Wikipedia page has more information), and there's also Debian CUT, which is basically a rolling Debian (haven't tried it, can't vouch personally).
posted by pont at 10:33 AM on April 3, 2013

I have two suggestions - one crazy, that might just work, and one a bit more practical.

The crazy idea is to use OpenBSD or NetBSD. OpenBSD is very stable, and releases a new stable version every six months (which includes new packages). Upgrades between releases are painless. NetBSD is also stable, and uses pkgsrc for packages, which has a new release every quarter. You wouldn't be that far behind with either of them, although setting up a friendly desktop environment might be more challenging than it is with ubuntu/mint/etc. Neither are quite rolling releases, but they're close.

The more practical suggestion is Debian testing - currently wheezy, but wheezy will become the new stable in a couple months time. Occasionally bugs creep into testing from unstable, but there's a helpful package call "apt-listbugs" that will show you any critical bugs in packages before you upgrade. The times I've noticed something concerning in apt-listbugs during an update I've just held off on upgrading for a couple days and it's usually fixed the next time I update. I wouldn't do this on a server (that's what stable is for), but do use this approach for desktops.
posted by unix at 10:37 AM on April 3, 2013

> Just a word of warning with regard to Debian, I did try it too, but they have a Firefox-equivalent, named IceWeasel, bundled with it, and if you want the real Firefox (to be able to install useful add-ons such as AdBlock for instance, which IceWeasel can't use), you have to jump through a lot of annoying hoops.

The trademark issue is unfortunate, but this is completely untrue. Except for the name and the icon, you will not be able to tell the difference between Firefox and Iceweasel or between Thunderbird and Icedove. Debian’s rebranded versions access the regular Mozilla add-on repository exactly like the original products do. I’m happily using Pentadactyl based on Iceweasel right now.

More than that, popular add-ons like Adblock Plus are also available through the package management system.
posted by wachhundfisch at 10:39 AM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ubuntu isn't rolling release, but its 6 month cycle means not waiting forever for upgrades, and the PPA third-party repository system often provides more up-to-date packages.

Linux Mint Debian Edition is a "semi-rolling distribution based on Debian Testing."

I used to use Ubuntu, but have recently moved to Debian Wheezy (still in Testing, but in release candidate status and has been very stable for months.) I add a couple of external repositories for Emacs and my web browsers, and haven't cared about being behind the curve on everything else.

Distrowatch.org has handy charts of what versions of major software ship with what versions of different distros -- it might be worth checking how much you care about what the more recent versions of things really buys you. Maybe you could get by with a couple of third-party repositories like me.

If I were going to try rolling, I'd try Linux Mint Debian Edition.

If I wanted to go bleeding-edge, I'd use Arch where at least you have a large and active user base troubleshooting the blowups when they happen.
posted by Zed at 10:57 AM on April 3, 2013

It really depends what you're looking for in a "rolling release".

Is it that you require recent versions of specific programs X, Y and Z? Then you can check OSWatershed to find which distros have those. Or you can see if an external resource has up-to-date versions for some distro, maybe a PPA for Ubuntu or RPMFusion for CentOS. If it's your thing, you can even build them yourself, or even volunteer to help distros keep them up to date.

Maybe you have very recent hardware, and older distros don't work well on it yet? In this case, you don't really care about the applications so much, you can probably just upgrade your kernel. Most distros have instructions for building your own, or packages for testing "upstream" or "vanilla" kernels. It'll may be a bit unstable, since the new kernel is less-tested. But once you find a version of the kernel that works, you can just keep it and stop "rolling".

Or maybe you just want to feel on the cutting edge, using the most recent version of everything so you never miss a feature. Well, there's a reason it's called the cutting edge, not the flowers-and-butterflies-and-unicorns edge! By definition, it hasn't had time to be tested, and is likely to break. Sorry. You'll need to spend time fixing breakage, but at least it's helping the software authors test things out, so other users won't have the same trouble later.

Did I miss any reason to use a rolling release? Let me know!
posted by vasi at 11:45 AM on April 3, 2013

nthing Arch.
posted by SollosQ at 11:53 AM on April 3, 2013

Linux Mint Debian Edition is a semi rolling release, whatever that means.
posted by COD at 12:00 PM on April 3, 2013

I've also had many years of happily running Debian/testing. Some things took too long to update, like core Python versions, but in general updates came frequently enough to be good but not so frequently that things broke. I've since switched to Ubuntu because I realized the six month release cycle is sufficient for me.
posted by Nelson at 1:08 PM on April 3, 2013

Response by poster: I'm unfamiliar with BSD, but always enjoy trying something new. Will they have the same diversity of software packages as Arch or similar Linux distros?
posted by jsturgill at 2:38 PM on April 3, 2013

Response by poster: Vasi, I want the least amount of breakage possible while within a rolling distribution model.

So if Arch tends to, in your experience, explode every six months while Gentoo explodes every three months, there's a clear winner in your anecdote and that's good to know.

Similarly, the anecdote above about how well documented Arch problems are in comparison to Gentoo is a very useful datapoint.

The box would not be critical, so the occasional explosion is OK, but it would be used as a secondary or backup development machine. I need it to be mostly usable most of the time.
posted by jsturgill at 2:48 PM on April 3, 2013

I'm unfamiliar with BSD, but always enjoy trying something new. Will they have the same diversity of software packages as Arch or similar Linux distros?

I'm pretty sure nothing is going to have the diversity of packages as Debian, but FreeBSD's ports (which is what PC-BSD is based on) is close. NetBSD and OpenBSD don't have quite as many, but all three will have all the standard software. If there's something a little more obscure it might not be as easy to install (gnuradio doesn't have an OpenBSD port, for example), so it's worth investigating if there's something specific you need.

The BSDs are fun. The documentation tends to be better, and the man pages are actually useful. There are some differences from linux about certain things, but if you haven't used them before it's worth a try.
posted by unix at 4:10 PM on April 3, 2013

Response by poster: The most important things would be web development-related software... apache, nginx, memcached, redis, various database servers, hadoop, scripting languages, imagemagick, git, eclipse, that sort of thing.

Everything I've checked so far is on BSD, which actually makes PC-BSD seem like an attractive choice.
posted by jsturgill at 5:28 PM on April 3, 2013

Echoing recommendations for Linux Mint's Debian edition. Great distro, rolling release. Well-maintained, easy to use, and "tames" Debian for people who don't want to run Debian unstable or testing directly.
posted by jzb at 7:11 PM on April 3, 2013

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