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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With the last stable release over two years old, Blag is outdated now, although a new version is currently in alpha.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.
Developed at the University of Vigo in Spain, Trisquel is based on Ubuntu. The distro is GNOME-based, but does not use any of Ubuntu's modifications to GNOME. Aside from the branding wallpaper, the largest visual difference is a menu that is arranged by priority, rather than alphabetically, with Internet and Office at the top, and Applications on the bottom.
Designed primarily for Spanish business and finance, Trisquel also includes a Mini, Gamer, and NetInstall editions. Packages for KDE and Xfce are available, but, somewhat confusingly, are labeled kubuntu-desktop and xubuntu-desktop as in Ubuntu.
Trisquel includes Mono-based packages, which although free in license, might deter some of those interested in free distributions from trying it. However, those not bothered by Mono will find Trisquel both fast and almost instantly familiar.
Developed in Argentina, Ututo was the first free distribution recognized by the Free Software Foundation, and remains one of the most active, with versions for Atom processors, as well as for 32- and 64-bit Intel and AMD processors. Although you can also install a generic version of the distribution, if you choose the appropriate build for your CPU, Ututo can be surprisingly fast.
Ututo is the only one of the recognized free distributions to derive from the Gentoo distribution. Like Gentoo, it can use the Portage package tool, but it also includes Ututo-Get, an alternative tool inspired by Debian's apt-get.
Its desktop is a more or less standard GNOME desktop, with a generally standard selection of packages. The last official release was fourteen months ago.
Developed in Venezuela, Venenux does not appear to have any English version, despite the overwhelming number of system messages and packages are in English.
Built on Debian, Venenux uses KDE 3, but apparently as a deliberate choice, not because of the age of the last release. Otherwise, the distribution is currently a year or so from being current, with a standard selection of packages.
The Unofficial Ninth Free Linux
These distributions are not for everyone. Some are not for beginners, and you might balk at using the others, since they are typically supported by small groups of developers, and the future of each can be crippled by a very small group deciding to leave the project.
If that is how you look at these distributions, you might consider looking at Debian instead. Debian is not recognized by the Free Software Foundation as an officially free distribution, because it includes the non-free repository, as well contrib, a repository for software that is free in itself, but depends on proprietary software.
However, neither of these repositories is enabled by default, and, in December 2010, Debian announced that its standard build would include a kernel free of proprietary device drivers. These drivers will be placed in the non-free repository, and some Debian images may include them, but the fact remains that in its upcoming release Debian will be easier to install as a distribution every bit as free as the ones mentioned here.
Whether other major distributions will follow Debian's example is uncertain. Ubuntu seems to have rejected the idea several years ago, but Fedora is rumored to be discussing the possibility internally.
Meanwhile, you can consider these eight officially free distributions and Debian the early fulfillment of the free software advocate's long-held dream.