Choice of distro by installation and maintenance complexity, with reasons

This is inspired by some of the controversy around changes to the Arch installation process and it got me thinking about the different levels of complexity associated with installing and maintaining the various distros.

Here’s a list of some of the popular distros arranged in roughly decreasing order of complexity (based on my direct experience and then the current limits of my knowledge).

LFS with BLFS >
Gentoo >
Arch >
Slackware >
Debian / Fedora / Manjaro / RHEL / CentOS >
Ubuntu >
Mint / Zorin

Some people choose distro mainly based on aesthetics or feel, but if you chose because you definitely enjoy a certain amount of tinkering that matches a certain distro or an excellent out of the box experience and as little as possible complexity, I’ll be interested to know which you chose and why, with reference to complexity.

I’m not sure where best to place openSUSE and MXLinux which are also popular, so if you use distro that’s not on my basic list, where you think it might fit could also be useful to know!

Thanks :slight_smile:

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I prefer Arch-based distros because I much prefer the AUR over adding random PPAs which if they break can break your entire update process because it can’t resolve the PPA details.

I’m normally a Manjaro user by default, but I’ve been testing another couple of Arch-based distros this week: SalientOS and currently EndeavourOS.

Salient is really really nice, but ran into issues with it and LibreOffice freezing up and crashing the entire OS, and Endeavour was only installed at 1:30am this morning, so haven’t really got to roadtest it yet as I had to be up for work 5½ hours later :joy:

So I’ll be giving it a thorough run through tonight and seeing how it runs, but I’ll likely go back to Manjaro by the weekend :+1:

In terms of Debian-based distros, my favourite would probably be either MX, Ubuntu Budgie or Xubuntu. I hate Gnome’s default interface, lack of customisation options etc, although Manjaro’s spin has a customised Gnome UI which is really nice.

That means Pop!_OS is a distro I’m really not fond of, mainly because it insists on using Gnome and doesn’t really play ball with other DE’s very well.

Since switching to Linux full time as my daily OS I’ve loved the amount of tinkering I can do, as it scratches that itch that isn’t fully possible in a Win10 environment with its laughable “customisation” options. I’ve switched DE so many times on my old Manjaro install it’s not funny, but at least I have experience with the vast majority of DEs, even some Tiling Window Managers (not a fun learning curve!) :joy:

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Thanks for your feedback, Sar. I’ve never settled for long on a Ubuntu / Ubuntu based distro for long, even Mint I was on for, maybe a week or two; fortunately didn’t need to add any PPAs or experience how they might break things during that short time. Also I’ve not used Arch based systems for long enough to know anything-much about AURs; my Manjaro experience was short-lived - few days. I think my poor experience was due to an update issue that Michael mentioned a workaround for on Arch in another post on here.

I guess change of DE also can require a fair bit of tinkering. I used XFCE for about six years, with minimal tinkering necessary after initially setting-up my panel the way I wanted it. I still like XFCE a lot, and revert to it when I need a quick startup-run-shutdown cycle on my laptop. Luckily Debian Stable which I use on all my machines allows multiple DEs to be installed. I also have Plasma and Gnome installed. Gnome on Wayland surprisingly became my favourite since I installed Debian 10, after some minor modifications using the tweaks tool. It now fits my workflow very nicely. Plasma is definitely massively configurable but I don’t really want to spend a lot of time configuring DEs, if I can avoid it. I use it least of the three.

I am wondering if some of the tiling managers are like the old “Window Managers” of old, when I first started using X, back in late 1989 I believe, prior to the existence of Desktop Environments, for which GNOME and KDE became early rivals. The Window Managers needed to be configured via text files :slight_smile: I guess if I needed to resort to a very minimal system I could resort to something like that too!

Yeah the likes of i3 and bspwm run on config files that can be edited in text editors. There’s a fair amount of work involved in both their setup and learning to use them, but the people that like them really love them.

They’re not for me though, I prefer a proper floating window environment.

XFCE would be my absolute favourite as well if only it’d work properly with dual monitors.

Plasma is really nice, and I’m a recent convert after disliking it initially, although one bugbear I have is that it won’t do different wallpapers per virtual desktop like XFCE does.

Budgie & Cinnamon aren’t configurable enough for my tastes, although they do give a great DE out of the box with minimal tinkering required and look really slick and professional.

Gnome is godawfully horrible IMO.

Mate is fine, falling somewhere in between XFCE and Cinnamon for me.

LXQT/LXDE are nice, but lack configuration options compared to XFCE.

So for me no single DE is absolutely perfect, but XFCE and Plasma are the closest thing IMO, so I tend to install both, even though their settings apps conflict :stuck_out_tongue:


For me it is Debian. PPAs and the AUR are almost the same. I am not a fan of both. Not even snaps and flatpaks. I like everything to be integrated nicely into the repos.

Debian is minimal enough but not too minimal. It has automation but not everything. It has the biggest repos. It is old school, I like that, e.g. the installer is very flexible but it is also modern enough but not that shiny like Ubuntu with its software selection made by others for you.

The installation is easy, flexible, comprehensive and minimalist. The maintenance is almost zero. You get security updates and you can safely go from one version to another knowing it will not replace your installed apps with something else. You can choose the difficulty yourself or in other words the branch if you prefer, between stable, testing and unstable.

Debian is a mix of DIY like Arch but with the convenience of Ubuntu if you choose to install one of the desktop Debian ‘tasks’ and you will end up with a full blown desktop environment.


Thanks for your feedback, vinylninja. I definitely find the Debian balance and approach suits me too though I tend to stick with Stable :slight_smile:

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I agree as well. I sometimes climb the fence and tiptoe through the green grass of an Ubuntu flavor da jour but always come back to plain old Debian. At one point I ran Sid (Unstable) for 3 years and it was more solid than many other distros “stable” versions. At the time, it was the only one that would support the hardware in my brand new MacBook Pro and it just ran so well I never bothered to migrate to a stable line even after one with support for my hardware was released.


Thanks for your feedback @Jp7x7. I am starting to wonder if it was my hardware / vm that might have been more of an issue than Sid. I wonder if you dual-booted it with macOS back then, or replaced macOS completely? I’e heard about Sid being more stable than the stables of other distros, in which case I have no idea how those distros could be used on production machines! I just like things to work, and experience suggest Debian is superb for that :slight_smile:

I tried installing vanilla Debian 10 last night.

Stupidly long and ancient installation process, it eventually installed and booted to a black screen with a blinking cursor, no display manager, no terminal etc.

Scrapped it and installed Pop instead. Worked first time and had a way more modern installation experience.

Debian really should be ashamed of themselves.

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That’s really sad to hear, @Sar. I’ve never had Debian flake on me in that manner. What’s very surprising is that it’s the latest version so I would have expected drivers etc. to be reasonably up to date even for new hardware. I wonder whatever could have gone wrong?

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I’d chosen to use the net iso installer, but perhaps the full ISO would work better…


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@Sar I think the full .iso’s probably pretty big. I’ve only ever used the net installer and it’s been excellent. Not sure what happened :confused:

Exactly why I prefer Debian as well. Though perhaps not the best of scenarios, I have a couple of old servers out there I have updated over the years from Debian 4 all the way to 9 or 10 with nothing more than “apt-get dist-upgrade” with minor to no issues.

In that specific case I was actually triple-booting between Linux, Mac, and Windows. Linux was my primary OS and where I spent 80% of my time. I used MacOS because I have some audio equipment that uses a Dante audio network and there was (and still is) no Dante support in Linux sadly. Windows was because I was learning Powershell and they hadn’t open-sourced it yet.

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Oh and as to issues with Sid, it wasn’t completely without hiccups although they really were few. I had a day or so where KDE wouldn’t work but I was only testing it anyway. I think I was primarily using XFCE at the time so that wasn’t a big deal (but could have been if I relied on KDE for my work). Most of my issues were hardware related but that was to be expected since the reason I was on Sid in the first place was that I needed some bleeding edge support to make my device work. With the exception of the KDE thing (and even that admittedly could have been self-inflicted) I can’t remember any specific software issues I had that could be directly linked to running Sid.

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In my opinion, Debian install can be a challenge if you’re not familiar with the fact that no non-free drivers are included in the stock ISOs. I usually pull one of the alternate ISOs that have the non-free drivers so things tend to work out of the box (more like Ubuntu). Sorry, I’m just not a Stallman-purist. You can also get a net-install iso with non-free repos turned on by default. (Note for any newbies reading this: “non-free” doesn’t mean you have to pay money. It refers to the non open source drivers that can be used. An example would be the NVidia video card drivers. You have to explicitly enable this kind of support in Debian.)

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That is why we have Ubuntu.

The netinstall should work just like the full ISO.

I have had a lifetime of tinkering and have come to the realization that complexity, to me, is really only worth it if the circumstance call for it, say if I need to support odd hardware or want to learn a new skill. Otherwise, for general-purpose machines, I go with Ubuntu-based distros for a few reasons. I have personally found them to be more compatible with my hardware and generally more stable overall than the other options. It’s also definitely “easy mode” for me to just install, change the dozen or so settings I need to and then get on with my life.

20 years ago I had an endless appetite for tinkering and would intentionally break things just to fix them. Fixing a problem was more fun that playing games (still is…haha). I do still like to experiment and try just about every release of any given distro but I do it on a separate partition, keeping my main install intact and available to get stuff done. Or I just test it in a VM.

Lastly, I don’t begrudge or question anyone’s motivation for wanting to tweak and tune and customize nor do I claim that Ubuntu is “better” than anything else. Like you, I use what works and what makes sense for the given situation.


Sounds really useful to have all three main desktop OSes on the same machine and I’m guessing then that the macOS bootloader must be pretty okay. I think they started using EFI a long time before it became standard on PCs - creating very many problems for dual-booting, at least. On occasions when I’ve had to install Linux on a Windows 10 machine, I’ve actually found it easier to switch to legacy settings and install Linux from there instead of trying to mess around with grub on efi with SecureBoot and all the rest of it. Now that Debian 10’s supposed to support EFI and SecureBoot, I might try on newer equipment.

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I agree about non-free drivers in Debian. I don’t recommend it to complete beginners due to it probably needing at least some tweaking out of the box, which newcomers to Linux probably want nothing-much to do with. It’s quite possible that manual installation of wifi drivers, some media codecs and possibly proprietary graphics drivers for performance improvement will be required. That doesn’t take long and for me, it’s worth the trouble of avoiding the extra bloat and - to my mind - complications - added by Ubuntu-based distros, whose .debs aren’t really compatible with Debian, and whose binaries are built by Canonical and not the Debian team. I think Debian’s push for reproducible builds is excellent, just as a prudent step in a more secure direction.

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@EricAdams Thanks for your reflections. Sounds very reasonable to keep a production system intact and use VMs or an alternative installation with production system still in place. I think one of the beauties of Linux is that it’s an incredibly productive tool but it can, to an extent be quite a fun toy and learning device too! For my day-to-day use, I enjoy the simplicity of Gnome and its workflow, but I keep KDE around for when I just feel like something different and fancy just customising things because the desktop feels more my own space than just something functional. I also think there’s a lot that can be learnt from tinkering, though currently I’m taking that almost to the maximum through my interest in LFS, which I plan to say more about when I get really down to it :slight_smile: