Linux is a free and open source desktop operating system, and is recognised as the third most popular desktop operating system in the world. Unlike OS X or Windows, there are many different versions – called distributions (or distros) – that all fall under the “Linux” umbrella. Among the many flavours of Linux, the Debian Linux-based Ubuntu is the distro that tends to receive the majority of mainstream attention. Interestingly, according to the ever-popular DistroWatch, much as Ubuntu has surpassed Debian in popularity, Ubuntu has been overthrown by its own forked distribution: Linux Mint.
Linux Mint is merely one of many Ubuntu forks. Whether Mint is actually more popular than Ubuntu is up for debate, but the important part is that the Linux community has taken the Ubuntu code (you know, the Debian c0de) and customised it to add new features, serve a specific purpose in niche markets, and to offer up unique twists on user experiences.
So while Ubuntu is generally a good choice, it might not be exactly what you need. There are many other options out there that are worth knowing about – and here we’re presenting you with five of them.
Although BackTrack Linux is generally considered the de facto distribution for penetration testing, BackBox has emerged as a promising Ubuntu alternative. The latest release is BackBox Linux 3 and it features an Ubuntu base with Linux kernel 3.2, a customised XFCE 4.8 desktop, and a number of computer forensics tools. The project began as a small project led by Raffaele Forte approximately three years ago.
Popular vulnerability assessment and cracking tools such as aircrack-ng, Wireshark, XHydra, ophcrack, and w3af (among others) come pre-installed with the OS. BackBox can be used in a live environment from a CD or USB flash drive, or installed permanently onto a system. Thanks to the Ubuntu base and included desktop applications (multimedia, email, web browsing, and document editor), BackBox can be used as a day-to-day OS on your main machine while also being capable of venturing into computer forensics, software exploits, and password cracking on the weekends (with permission, of course).
The scientific community has heartily embraced the open source Linux OS on systems ranging from desktops to workstations to supercomputers. Bio Linux 7 is a perfect example of scientists using Linux as a workstation OS for data analysis, and one that’s free and can be used by anyone around the world. Specifically, Bio Linux 7 focuses on providing a platform for bioinformatics, with is a biological science that studies the storage, retrieval, and analysis of biological data (the IT parallel to biochemistry). Bio Linux 7 is the latest release, and is based on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.
Along with the traditional pre-installed applications found in Ubuntu 12.04, Bio Linux 7 also packs in several applications used in the sphere of bioinformatics. These applications include database and analysis tools that are used for tasks such as DNA and RNA sequencing, drug design, and software development.
The operating system is developed by community contributors and the NEBC, which is the Environmental Bioinformatics Centre sub-group of the Natural Environmental Research Council. Its open source nature allows it to be freely shared and used by researchers worldwide to study bioinformatics from a common platform.
Developed by Antoni Norman, PinguyOS is a general purpose operating system that is packed with features and ready-to-run with little-to-no user tweaking required. It focuses on a simple user interface that is friendly to new Linux users – especially those who are migrating from Windows or OS X computers.
The latest release is PinguyOS 12.04 Final, which (as the name suggests) is based on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. On top of the Ubuntu OS, PinguyOS features a customised Gnome 3.4.1 desktop and a wide breadth of pre-installed applications. The OS includes applications for web browsing, email, messaging (Skype, IRC), torrenting (Deluge), remote desktop, media playback (Clementine, VLC, XBMC, PS3 Media Server), gaming (Wine, PlayOnLinux), word processing (Libre Office), backup, Ubuntu One cloud storage, video and photo editors, and even support for burning LightScribe discs. Needless to say, just about any task that you are used to performing on Windows or Mac OS X can be done using PinguyOS out of the box.
The PinguyOS desktop includes two Docky application docks along the left and bottom edges of the desktop. Meanwhile, the right side of the screen hosts the Conky resource monitor which displays CPU, hard drive, RAM, and network utilisation graphs. The Docky bars with application shortcuts will be familiar to OS X users, while ex-Windows users longing for a Start menu will be right at home with the Cardapio application menu.
According to a review by RefuGeeks, PinguyOS tends to require more system resources than most Ubuntu-based distros. On the other hand, PinguyOS does not require any tweaking or tracking down programs to get rolling – that step is already taken care of – and for new users that is a huge advantage.
Poseidon Linux is another open source operating system aimed at the scientific community. It is developed by a number of scientists and researchers led by oceanographer Christian dos Santos Ferreira. Poseidon Linux features a Portuguese-language UI by default but does include English translations out of the box. This distribution is the spiritual successor to the Knoppix-based Kurumin Linux project, although Poseidon now uses Ubuntu as its base.
The latest release is Poseidon Linux 4, and it is based on Ubuntu 10.04 LTS. Despite the aging 10.04 LTS base, Poseidon is still being actively supported. The developers have stated that Poseidon’s goal is to offer a stable and easy-to-use platform for students, schools, libraries, researchers, and laboratories. Stable and known-reliable packages take precedence over new features, and faster update schedules for Poseidon Linux. As a result, new versions of Poseidon are only released when updating the Ubuntu or kernel is absolutely necessary to continue supporting certain pre-installed scientific applications in need of important updates.
Out of the box, Poseidon features a Gnome 2.30.2 user interface with a simple blue theme, along with the traditional office, media playback, file sharing, and editing programs expected of an Ubuntu-based distribution.
The secret sauce of Poseidon Linux is in the collection of pre-installed scientific applications. It includes a number of programs relating to the bioinformatics, chemistry, CAD, geostatistics, mathematics, physics, and programming fields of study. Some examples of the niche programs include Eclipse, GCC, GPeriodic, Lyx, OpenUniverse, Postgresql, Python, QCAD, and Tree Puzzle. In short, Poseidon Linux is not flashy or new, but it is stable and free for anyone to use in their pursuit of scientific knowledge.
No HTPC would be complete without software to effectively present multimedia, and XBMC is one of the best free media centre options available. It can play a variety of music, video, and photo file formats, act as a TV PVR, and support additional third-party applications and plug-ins.
XBMCbuntu is a standalone version of the XBMC media centre software that can run off a CD or USB flash drive. The latest release is XBMCbuntu 12 which was officially released earlier this week. It includes many improvements to the interface and underlying capabilities. It uses Lubuntu 12.04 LTS and a minimal LXDE desktop (that is hidden by default) to support the XBMC 10-foot user interface used to organise and show off your media collection.
XBMC has a long history as a free media centre, and XBMCbuntu (formerly known as XBMC Live) makes it extremely easy to use. The XBMC UI automatically starts in full screen mode and no installation is needed to browse and play back files. However, you can permanently install it onto a PC to configure media libraries and PVR functionality (by tapping into MythTV or similar backend software) if you wish to use it as a permanent set-top box alternative. The UI is intuitive and easily navigated with either a TV remote or mouse. It is a unique Ubuntu-based distribution that is certainly worth test driving on your next home theatre PC.
The open source Ubuntu Linux operating system has proven to be a popular foundation for developers to build a diverse collection of customised distributions. The alternatives listed above merely scratch the surface of the available Ubuntu-based options that are currently available – and they are all free to use. If you are a fan of Ubuntu or Debian Linux, but have been craving a bit more from your OS, start test driving some of the excellent community-made alternatives!