All Linux distributions are supposed to be free, but some distributions are freer than others. Because some gaps remain in free software functionality, many distributions, including Ubuntu, include proprietary applications, such as Acrobat and Flash readers, and drivers for video and wireless cards. Many more include Linux kernels with proprietary firmware for device drivers.
Among the hundreds of distributions, only eight are officially recognized by the Free Software Foundation as being completely free of proprietary material.
Mostly based on Debian or Ubuntu, and often South American or Spanish in origin, these distros often lag behind the most popular ones in the software they include. Sometimes, too, they lag in functionality -- for instance, they include the Gnash Flash-player, which is still not a complete replacement for Adobe's Flash player.
However, they all have the advantage of being entirely free for you to modify and re-distribute as you choose. If the philosophical aspects of free Linux software appeal to you as much as the functionality, that might seem like a fair tradeoff.
Would you find one of these totally free Linux distributions suitable for everyday use? Here are brief descriptions of each of them to help you make up your mind:
Began in 2002, Blag (Brixton Linux Action Group) is one of the oldest free distributions. Its work on producing a kernel free of proprietary firmware device drivers was the basis for the Linux-libre project that provides free kernels.
Blag is also one of the most activist in orientation, with a front page that proclaims it "works to overthrow corporate control of information and technology through community action and spreading Free Software" and linking to anarchist literature. In addition, it has a decidedly odd taste in graphics.
Based mostly on Fedora, Blag is distinctive for its choice of default applications -- for instance, Abiword rather than OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice, and Sylpheed for email. Rather than Skype, it includes its own service, called Blasterisk. Other applications can be limited.
With the last stable release over two years old, Blag is outdated now, although a new version is currently in alpha. It is not a distro for beginners, although intermediate and advanced users might find its eccentricities worth exploring.
Unlike most free distributions, Dragora is not based on an existing project, but created from scratch. Besides freedom, its goal is simplicity, making it a possible choice for anyone who wants a fast system or is working on an old one. Instead of GNOME or KDE, for instance, it offers a choice of Icewm, Scotwm, or Xfce, and offers Exaile for a music player, and Claws for email.
Such choices make Dragora a challenging distro for new users, who are unlikely to have encountered these choices. Its text-based installer, which requires fdisk or cfdisk for partitioning and only creates a root user, could also intimidate newcomers -- and so could its package management system.
However, experienced users might appreciate Dragora's hands-on approach, to say nothing of small touches such as offering to rename the root account to make it harder to find.
Dynebolic is a distribution that specializes in video, audio, and image production. The home page associates the distribution with Rastafarianism, declaring that "This software is about Digital Resistance in a babylon world which tries to control the way we communicate, we share our interests and knowledge."
Dynebolic uses the Xfce desktop -- a sensible choice, given that some of its specialities can quickly claim all the RAM available on your computer. Its default software selection is exhaustive in its specialties, but minimalist in its choice of productivity software. For example, it includes Abiword, but not OpenOffice.org, nor any software for spreadsheets or slide shows.
Like several other free distributions, Dynebolic is in need of an update, since its last official release was four years ago. However, the project is trying to raise £16,000 to build the next release.
Derived from Ubuntu and Debian, gNewSense is the distribution used by many of the employees of the Free Software Foundation. It is probably the largest free distribution project, and certainly one of the most active.
Although gNewSense includes some popular KDE applications such as Amarok, it is based on GNOME, with a layout similar to Ubuntu, including the four applets in each panel corner, and the use of sudo for temporarily assuming root privileges. It does not, however include Ubuntu's repositioning of title bar buttons or the centralized apps for sound and social media.
So long as you are content with GNOME-based apps that do not use Mono, then gNewSense should be a distro with which you can live. But although gNewSense includes a few popular KDE applications such as Amarok, the only desktop it fully supports is GNOME. In general, its selection of packages is adequate but limited, especially if you are used to the selection in Debian or Ubuntu.
Although Musix positions itself as an all-purpose distro on its web page, as the name implies, it is specifically designed for audio production. Since many of its applications are not included in a general purpose installation, it is available as a Live DVD image, rather than a minimal CD image. The distro is based on Knoppix, and uses the Debian installer, which gives detailed control over installation.
Musix uses a GNOME 3 desktop, with a pre-installed series of seven virtual desktops, each with its own set of icons: a general one, as well as ones for office, audio, midi, graphics, and Internet.
Unfortunately, however, not only are the icons on each desktop positioned idiosyncratically, but a mixture of English and Spanish appears on the desktop, and the latest release is several years old. As of three months ago, development was continuing, but just now Musix is more a source of ideas than a distribution you would want to use. Try the Live CD if you want to study it, rather than installing it.