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. Linux is the OS of choice for freedom loving software hippies, but there’s a dirty little secret buried within the kernel: not everything you see is open source!
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.
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 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, 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also for free software lovers who want access to current software, so unlike with Trisquel, you won’t be stuck using outdated versions.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 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.
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. 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!