Distrowatch Reviews Suck A$$

It’s sad to see how far the standards at Distrowatch have fallen. I didn’t always agree with Caitlyn Martin (particularly her views for Vector and against Slackware — I realize new users want to be able to install without reading any documentation but Slackware isn’t difficult, burdensome, or too nerdy to install) when her reviews would appear at Distrowatch, but at least her standards went beyond appearances, themes, and other trivialities.

Today’s review abortion doesn’t disappoint if your primary criterion for a Linux distribution is style rather than substance. The target is Scientific Linux, which I’ve recently written a good bit about because I was testing it out on my Aspire One.

The reviewer started with some prattle about his presumptions about (against, rather) SL and that it’s a niche/specialty distro. That couldn’t be further from reality. It’s simply recompiled from RHEL sources — much like CentOS is — but with more of an emphasis on packages relevant to research. That’s to be expected as it’s the product of FermiLab, CERN, various universities, etc., where end users are less concerned with games, default themes, and so on, and more on applications relevant to their work.

The reviewer then notes SL’s “website is a simple display of black and white in a Wiki style” and “is fairly quiet, almost sparse in its presentation.” Yes, and what’s wrong with that? It’s very straightforward and informative. It’s not put together to entertain prospective users or “reviewers” who are drawn to aesthetics over performance.

It doesn’t take long for the reviewer to fall into his own tedious comfort zone in how he rates distros:

The theme is really where the system shows its roots and its age. The distribution is, after all, sitting on a 3-year old platform. Some may find this an unpleasant trip into the past while others will probably enjoy the comfort of familiarity.

In fact, he later in the review adds, “The version of GNOME which comes with Scientific is 2.16, which is a few years old. This may be good or bad, depending on one’s point of view.” Why the hell would it be bad if it works, doesn’t crash, doesn’t hog up too many resources just to make stuff wobble, etc.? This whole issue is moot to enterprise users — remember, the release and support cycles for RHEL (and its clones) are measured in years rather than months. This distro can be used on newer hardware but is still a valid and working solution for hardware being used at the time of the 5.0 release — as well as older hardware. Most distros consign older hardware to the scrap heap, which is why businesses and researchers don’t use them in production. Why the hell would they want to use something which makes 2010 presumptions (multicore CPUs with GB of RAM) for 2005 hardware (which may not even have 512MB of RAM)?

The reviewer’s mindless obsession about default themes is a common thread in the reviews he’s had at Distrowatch. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the distinctions between an enterprise-grade distro and all the other bullshit he’s attracted to because of “pretty” themes with bleeding-edge versions of every possible piece of software. Never mind those other distros are buggy as hell and unsuitable for use in environments where RHEL, CentOS, SLED, and SL are going to be used.

He then notes the live CD’s installer “may seem primitive compared to other installers” — even though the installer for the real CD set uses anaconda, the same installer used by RHEL, CentOS, etc. Maybe if he’d read the site instead of criticizing its lack of entertainment value he’d know the difference and maybe chosen to do a conventional install rather than use the live CD (though I’m quite content and satisfied with the live CD’s installer myself).

The review drones on to note that a default user account — which happens to be sluser — is set up. The reviewer didn’t note that the tools are in place from the live CD/install to manage multiple user accounts, including removing sluser. Instead, he criticized the version numbers of the applications: “Most of the applications are fairly standard, though their version numbers tend to lag a bit behind the latest and greatest.”

What this dumbass doesn’t realize is that those “version numbers” include patch level numbers. So that kernel 2.6.18.xxxx has had many improvements backported from official versions >2.6.18. The same is true of many of the applications included. In addition to security patches, there are legitimate feature patches. Does that mean everything is bleeding edge? No. But people who need an enterprise-grade operating system aren’t looking for bleeding edge — they only want stability and security. An enterprise distro — SL/CentOS/RHEL/SLED — delivers stability and security without pretenses or without delusions that the most recent version of anything is necessarily “the greatest” version of it.

The review continues with high praise for inclusion of YUMEX (a graphical front-end to yum; I’m not going to be as judgmental as I should be about preference of using such things over command line tools), Flash, and various audio codecs. He regrets certain video codecs aren’t included. The reviewer also left out the fact that anything else a user may want can often be found in third-party repositories; one of the benefits of being (mostly) binary-compatible with RHEL 5.5 is that there are alternative repositories that will (mostly) work in CentOS and SL just as they do in RHEL. Perhaps he just didn’t know any better. Regardless, that’s something which other users might consider noteworthy. (The qualification of “mostly” is warranted since packages between repositories can be built with different dependencies which will break when using too many repositories. Two can be too many if their bases and dependencies are unmatched. There are ways to manage conflicts via yum. The point remains that users can set up additional repositories for SL and thereby access a wider selection of software packages.)

He winds down his review by not being able to find many flaws aside from its age:

The only drawback, so far as I can see, is that some of their key components are getting out of date. Usually this isn’t a problem, except perhaps, when using software like OpenOffice.org and Firefox. Those projects which put out major releases once a year or more will appear dated.

This ignores the fact that relevant patches are given for security and to fix issues as warranted. That inlcudes OOo and Firefox. Enterprise users aren’t going to care that the distro in question — RHEL, CentOS, SL — is tied to release cycles for various projects the way, for example, Ubuntu is tied to Gnome’s release cycle. To enterprise users, the difference isn’t measured in release numbers of software included in a base or repository but rather in the stability of the whole paradigm. Using such a benchmark, Ubuntu is not even comparable. That explains why so few businesses, researchers, government units, etc., use Ubuntu but do use RHEL, SLED, or the clones of those.

I noted in one of my own posts about SL, “I’ve gone back and forth between OOo 2.x and 3.x recently and, aside from formatting changes in 3.x that don’t work when backing down to 2.x, I don’t think enough of 3.x to demand that whatever distro I use have it available.” I really don’t think most users would even know any difference, particularly since few users will avail themselves of any features contained in the newer versions. What’s left is being on the cutting edge for the sake of being on the cutting edge.

That’s fine for some people. But I think Linux reviews shouldn’t try to fit every distro in that same basket. A reviewer should actually understand the underlying paradigms of a distro and judge according to those rather than to “it’s too old” or “it’s not pretty enough” sham criteria. It’s a disservice to readers — not to mention to the developers working on their distros — to lump them all together and, by way of flawed benchmarks, make them rise or fall according to aesthetics and/or version numbers.

Distrowatch’s reviews are utterly predictable because they focus only on those two elements. If you use a flashy theme and enable wobbly windows by default, you’re likely to get a good review. If your distro requires more than clicking buttons to do things, isn’t terribly flashy, or is targeted at stability rather than being on the cutting edge of application release cycles, you’re going to be compared to the distros with paradigms 180-degrees from your own.

I saw that happen with DSL. I’ve seen it happen with Slackware, TinyCore, and OpenBSD. Now I see it with CentOS and SL, too.

Sadly, Distrowatch is among the worst at pulling that crap and reviewing every distro according to one slovenly-conceived set of criteria. Reviewers whose focus is on style rather than substance don’t seem to have much substance themselves.

UPDATE: Surprised at the traffic this post is generating since it hasn’t been linked anywhere (by me anyway). Yes, it’s the same hare-brained reviewer mentioned in other posts in my Scientific Linux and OpenBSD categories regarding GnoBSD who complained that the BSDs don’t automount every freaking piece of storage you insert in your USB ports by default and that the process in BSD is  difficult. I responded to that in another post here. I don’t know why any Linux distros include man pages since the vast majority of users — and especially distro reviewers — obviously can’t bother reading them.

In any event, I noted only two pieces of software in the SL base (from the CD) that I’d update: emacs and hplip. The reason I’d update hplip is so my printer would work. The reasons for updating emacs are probably more selfish: I don’t want to track down packages like org-mode and others which are now included in emacs and so I wouldn’t have to change anything in my .emacs file. But like I wrote in one of my SL-related posts, I’d be just as happy using emacs 21.x (again). Either way would take some effort on my part — either I compile emacs (trivial) or I hunt down the things I currently have set up in my .emacs and set it all up again (less trivial but acceptable). Big freaking deal.

Finally, I need to clarify that SL’s repositories — and the install CDs — have a wide variety of software beyond scientific/research kinds of applications and third-party repos aren’t necessary to use SL as a “normal” distro. You don’t have to enable third-party repositories to have a usable system. The software contained in the live CD (Gnome version) is adequate for most users with an adequate mix of commonly used software including browser, e-mail client (thunderbird), file manager, media player, and so on.

UPDATE 2: I meant to add above that SL (and RHEL and clones) is hardly alone in using “old” release numbers. I’m currently using my laptop at home which has Debian Lenny installed on it. My OOo version is almost as ancient as the one used in SL. Not complaining — WorksForMe (and odds are it would work for everyone else whose not too obsessed with version numbers to actually get stuff done).

Blimey! I don’t see an expiration date on it! Maybe the dipshits at Distrowatch will give Debian a crummy review because its stable branch doesn’t have the “latest and greatest” version numbers like Fedora or Ubuntu. Whatever. At least it works and the developers aren’t pissing people off by little things like moving buttons around. The result is that Debian-stable is stable while Ubuntu seldom is. That’s the price users have to pay for being wedded to bleeding edge software and the ever banal paradigm that places style over substance. And for relying on Distrowatch reviews for accurate and fair reviews.

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3 Responses to “Distrowatch Reviews Suck A$$”

  1. kruce Says:

    Finally catching up on my feeds, and I can’t believe that one got published. He barely touches on the fact that it is an Enterprise distro, and I had to check twice to see that there was no mention of its relationship to RHEL. I like having Distrowatch in my RSS – as a simple means of keeping track of what’s up to date and such – but I really wish they’d categorize things into Firewalls, Enterprise, and Desktop . . .

    • lucky Says:

      Hey there, ltns. I don’t think the review ever noted that it’s a clone of RHEL or enterprise-grade. Just the usual comparing every distro to those with frequent release cycles. It’s really hard to compare certain distros to some perceived “standard,” especially when the supposed standard has a very short release support cycle (even Ubuntu LTS is too short, IMO). Been through that, as I noted, with DSL and now TinyCore.

      http://tinycorelinux.com/forum/index.php?topic=5753.msg30592#msg30592

      I think things should be turned around if you want to compare SL/CentOS to Ubuntu. Why does Ubuntu’s default install have greater requirements than SL/CentOS? Why doesn’t Ubuntu support releases for years instead of months (or why not longer than three years for LTS)? Why does Ubuntu come with bleeding edge rather than stable and well-tested applications? Why does Ubuntu come with fancy wallpapers and themes but require attention to detail to setting things up properly (e. g., my post about setting up at correctly in crunchbang since ubuntu doesn’t set this up at all even though it’s apparently included in the base; at works properly in default Debian installs)? Etc.

      After all, some of those “ten reasons Linux is better than Windows” points are typically about issues relating to stability, security, and length of support. On those grounds, I can accept RHEL or SLED (or clones of those).

      Anyway, I agree they could categorize things a little better. It would just help if they’d accept that there are valid reasons why some distros and BSDs do things differently from what some people expect and that those distros deserve to be graded and reviewed according to those distinctions. Alas, I don’t think highly enough of that particular reviewer to accept that he knows the difference.

  2. kruce Says:

    Understand completely. I’ve been following the trends of various other distros (for my netbook . . . since for some reason I left Karmic on it), and in particular am starting to understand the bigger issues people are having with Ubuntu. It really hit home for me (and started diving deeper into it) when I saw that Crunchbang, Eebuntu, and Untangle all moved (or moving) to Debian. Makes me regret that I have an Ubuntu “server” instance at home . . . but I’ll probably change that around as well.

    On one hand, the way that Ubuntu drives the consumer market is certainly vexing. But then its somewhat bearable with the knowledge that its not enterprise ready or directed. No matter how you view the LTS strategy.

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