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Linux is the OS of choice for freedom loving software hippies, but there’s a dirty little secret buried within the kernel The Linux Kernel: An Explanation In Layman's Terms The Linux Kernel: An Explanation In Layman's Terms There is only one de facto thing that Linux distributions have in common: the Linux kernel. But while it's often talked about, a lot of people don't really know exactly what it does. Read More not everything you see is open source!

The Linux kernel contains binary blobs, proprietary code that makes certain hardware run. Many laptops have Wi-Fi or graphics cards that don’t run without the manufacturer-supplied firmware.

This doesn’t bother many Linux users. If manufacturers don’t want to share their code but want to contribute to Linux, let them! But, on the other hand, this is closed source code, and that means users can’t verify what’s going on inside. This is partly why the Free Software Foundation doesn’t endorse many of the most popular distributions. This includes Fedora, which doesn’t allow any non-open source software in its repos.

Instead, the FSF recommends distributions that don’t contain any closed source code, even at the kernel level. These distros aren’t as popular, but there’s still a diversity of options.

1. Trisquel – The Easy Choice

Looking for a simple and easy to use distribution with plenty of software? Trisquel is a good place to start. This distro is based on Ubuntu LTS releases, making it relatively modern.

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The big difference between Trisquel and Ubuntu is the lack of binary blobs and proprietary software of any kind. Trisquel won’t recommend you install closed hardware drivers or codecs. But you maintain the freedom you have to tweak your experience as you would on Ubuntu. Add PPAs to install software Need More, Or Updated, Software? Try These 7 Ubuntu PPAs Need More, Or Updated, Software? Try These 7 Ubuntu PPAs Read More that isn’t available in the repos.

Since each release is based on an Ubuntu LTS, the experience does start to feel dated after a while. A lot happens within two years in the free software world. Installing Trisquel 7 means you will run applications from 2014. Though with Ubuntu 16.04 now available 6 Big Reasons to Upgrade to Ubuntu 16.04 6 Big Reasons to Upgrade to Ubuntu 16.04 A new LTS release of Ubuntu means security and stability. Whether you're upgrading or switching from Windows, let's take a look at what's new in Ubuntu 16.04 Xenial Xerus. Read More , the next release shouldn’t be too far off.

2. Parabola – For the Latest Software

Parabola is Arch Linux with the closed bits removed or replaced.

Like Arch, Parabola is what you make it. The website provides you with a text-based installer that gives what you need to make your own custom machine. There’s a guide online, but expect little in the way of hand-holding here.

Because of this, Parabola is geared towards more advanced users. It’s also for free software lovers who want access to current software, so unlike with Trisquel, you won’t be stuck using outdated versions.

3. gNewSense – Tried and Tested

As Trisquel is based on Ubuntu, gNewSense derives from Debian. This gives you an idea what to expect from each one. Where the former has its own theme and layout, the latter is pretty vanilla.

The similarities between gNewSense and Debian don’t stop there. Since Debian uses old but stable versions of software, gNewSense does the same. This can leave you feeling behind the times. Installing the latest version of gNewSense in 2016 will have you running apps from 2012.

The “advantage” over Debian is the removal of any references to closed source software. You won’t see certain codecs and non-free apps in the repos. The gNewSense developers have also removed mentions and suggestions to install proprietary software. If you like Debian but dislike that project’s willingness to host and provide non-free code, this may be the distro for you.

4. BLAG – For RPM Lovers

Not a fan of the Debian ecosystem? Prefer RPMs over DEBs? BLAG is your Fedora-based alternative to Trisquel and gNewSense.

You could describe BLAG as Fedora with binary blobs removed. BLAG also comes with a few third-party repos, such as Freshrpms. But the latest version is based on Fedora 14, which released in May 2011.

BLAG stands for the Brixton Linux Action Group. The distro has an anti-corporate, anarchistic culture that may seem different from what you’re accustomed to. Whether that’s a pro or con is up to you.

What about My Current Distro?

Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE, Arch Linux, and other prominent distros The Best Linux Distributions The Best Linux Distributions There are many Linux distributions available for a number of different purposes, which makes it difficult to choose at times. Here's a list of the very best to help you decide. Read More all ship with a Linux kernel that contains binary blobs. But you don’t have to use those kernels. It’s possible to install the linux-libre kernel and continue using the distribution you already know and love. The Free Software Foundation Latin America provides several ways to do so.

This is also a good way to check if your hardware works with the linux-libre kernel before trying out a full-fledged distro. If they don’t, you can switch back to a kernel version that works 5 Reasons Why You Should Update Your Kernel Often [Linux] 5 Reasons Why You Should Update Your Kernel Often [Linux] If you're using a Linux distribution like Ubuntu or Fedora, you're also using the Linux kernel, the core that actually makes your distribution a Linux distribution. Your distribution constantly asks you to update your kernel.... Read More .

Does Your Computer Respect Your Freedom?

Many Linux users want the freedom to do whatever they want. Some simply use open source software because it’s practical. Others try to use exclusively open source software Can You Get By Using Purely Open Source Software? Can You Get By Using Purely Open Source Software? Open source software is far more common than you think, and a great philosophy to live by. Not convinced? The chances are pretty high that you can be productive with just open source software. Read More . But what’s your motivation?

Do you feel that distros the Free Software Foundation recommends go too far? Is removing all closed source code the only way you feel safe on your computer? Does freedom mean being able to install whatever you want? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  1. fcd76218
    July 11, 2016 at 7:53 pm

    "Linux is the distro of choice for freedom loving software hippies"
    Shouldn't that be "Linux is the O/S of choice"? DistroWatch database lists close to 300 distros. They are all based on the Linux kernel.

    • Christian Cawley
      July 12, 2016 at 8:04 am

      Well spotted!

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