While all Linux operating systems are the same at their core, there are also things which separate them somewhat. For example, package managers differ between each variation, as do other things. One large point of difference that many people will face is the way you actually get such a system onto your computer.
Though many Linux operating systems these days are easy to install, if not even easier than Windows, there are some which buck this trend. They usually trade ease of use for flexibility and power out of the box. This might not be good for everyone, but for those who like it can be very, very appealing.
What Makes an Installation Hard?
In general, the more choice you get out of the box, the harder it is to set up.
Through this list, you’ll see that trend, from a fairly easy learning curve, to something a little harder to grasp. There are a number of Linux operating systems which try to tailor themselves for specific users, and it shows at times.
The amount of documentation there is about a specific Linux operating system can also make such installations easier or harder. In general, having little information on how to install something can mean two things. Either it’s intuitive enough to not need it, or you’re in for a bit of a challenge. Having extensive information on hand can also mean that much more to read and digest.
Truth be told, Debian is still remarkably simple to get up and running, for the most part. The thing that makes it a little harder in comparison to the likes of, say, Ubuntu, is that it provides a larger amount of choice upon installation.
It shows the beginning of a trend followed by other Linux operating systems: that of giving more and more control to the user. They begin to assume a certain level of knowledge from you before proceeding. For example, in Debian’s setup, you’re expected to supply an appropriate hostname for your installation (granted, one is supplied by default).
This continues throughout the entire setup process. You’re given a choice to have a graphical installation process, or an entirely keyboard driven one. You must decide which desktop environment you want to have, if any, rather than be given one by default. You’re even given a choice to configure your package manager somewhat!
Another thing that can make Debian uniquely difficult is its strict policy on proprietary software, which extends to drivers. As such, you might find yourself in a situation where you must install a few extra drivers yourself, to get things working. Compare this to more consumer-focused operating systems, which supply them for you.
Unsurprisingly, the oldest Linux operating system, Slackware, is a little tricky to set up. Though a step up from Debian in terms of difficulty, it provides plenty of documentation in its setup disc, and installs a usable base system for you by itself. It doesn’t even require an internet connection to get running!
Like Debian (and unlike easier Linux operating systems like Mint), you’re given plenty of choices during the installation process. Not only can you choose what groups of software packages you want to have by default, but also exclude entries that you don’t need as well.
As a result of this however, you may also need to know what each package does, and why they’re important. While it’s tempting to exclude as much as you can, it also increases the chance of making an unusable system.
Another thing that makes Slackware a bit more difficult is that you need to first manually partition your hard disk drive using either the fdisk or cfdisk command-line tool. One could also do this in a different tool, but these are the tools Slackware provides users with.
All this being said, it’s a gentle slope up from Debian. You’re basically given multiple command-line tools to set up Slackware, rather than the single, graphical one that Debian provides. And compared to the Linux operating systems below, it’s by much easier to install.
The NuTyX Linux operating system is aimed towards users who desire flexibility and power. That by itself should send a few warning bells to people not very interested in those sorts of things. Like Arch Linux, it comes at a price: a steeper learning curve.
Unlike Arch, you’re still given some form of graphical interaction in its installer, similar to Slackware. However, it does a little less in comparison, which may be difficult for some to handle. If you want to install a desktop environment, you’ll need to know how to use its package manager, after the basic installation process.
Like Slackware, you’ll be using a command line tool to partition your hard drive. Going through the entire process of installing NuTyX will leave you with a very basic system to build from (like Arch Linux). Unlike Slackware though, you’ll need to install the rest of your programs from the command line. Almost nothing comes out of the box — that’s where you come in.
It’s the price to pay for an even higher level of choice. You’re given just the basics to get yourself started, which, with the right knowledge, you can build upon. NuTyX expects you to know how its package manager works, along with other terminal tools.
Of course, the Linux operating system that’s well known for its hard-to-install process would be on here. And for good reason. Like NuTyX, you’re expected to know a lot about your system, along with the right tools to use to set it up. That is to say, there’s no installer, and you’ll be touching the command line a lot.
This comes with the benefit of a lot of power in your hands. Gentoo is about as far as you can get to choosing exactly the kind of Linux operating system you want, without actually making your own. It’s partially why Google’s Chrome OS is based on it.
That being said, Gentoo’s documentation is quite excellent, so while you’re on quite the thorny path, you won’t be alone. It’s very detailed, stepping you through the entire installation process. However, it’s quite dense, and difficult to wade through. That’s the result of focusing on choice and flexibility — there’s no default options, so you decide them yourself.
For example, many things which other Linux operating systems take for granted are a manual choice on Gentoo. You may choose how it manages system services. You’re encouraged to compile your own kernel, with all the work (and power!) that entails. It’s yours to change to your liking, right from the start.
It’s the sort of Linux operating system that’s both hard, but fairly open to others. If you do put in the time to learn about Gentoo, you’ll find it easy enough to use, what with the large amount of information online about it. Plus, their community can be quite helpful in a pinch — Gentoo’s users will likely be quite versed in Linux compared to other places.
Exherbo Linux is a fairly obscure Linux operating system, quite similar to the more well-known (and infamously hard) Gentoo Linux. As such, it has some rather interesting ideas, such as an expectation for users to contribute back to development, along with lots of assumed knowledge.
Not only is its documentation quite scarce, but you’ll be relying on multiple external tools to get your system set up. Think what Slackware and NuTyX do, but for multiple parts during the installation. This is because there’s no hard and fast way to get it working — for the most part, you’re on your own.
For example, where the previous Linux operating systems would do things such as mount your partitions automatically, Exherbo expects you to do this yourself. There isn’t really an official installation disc either — the best they recommend is to boot into a live USB environment and start from there.
It’s a complicated process, not helped by all the steps you need to do in between. You manually partition your hard disk drive. You compile your own kernel. And you’ll be surrounded by unfamiliar terminology that needs wading through.
Compared to even Gentoo, which at least has an extensive handbook, Exherbo is quite light on user information. Put all these factors together, and you’ve got a recipe for a Linux operating system that’s hard to install. That being said, Exherbo was never designed for end users in the first place.
What About Linux From Scratch (LFS)?
Linux From Scratch (LFS) isn’t exactly an operating system by itself. Instead, it provides readers with a way of making one of their own. A blueprint for something rather than an actual base, so to speak. It walks a reader through every step of making their own operating system with great detail and care.
As such, it’s very educational, as well as very difficult to install. You’d need to learn about many new Linux concepts along the way, along with compile a great deal of programs. However, it can’t really be considered a Linux operating system, as it’s merely documentation on how to make one.
The End Result Is the Same
It’s important to keep in mind that no matter the Linux operating system you choose to install, what matters is getting it onto your computer and using it. Sure, there may be benefits or drawbacks to whatever setup you pursue, but that’s just how Linux is: various by nature.
What’s really important is choosing something that best suits you. If you want a high level of flexibility, then by all means, use something like Arch Linux. And if you want something more automated, that’s fine as well. It’s still Linux, after all.
What’s the hardest Linux operating system you’ve installed (or tried to)?