Exploring the FSF's free distributions for the desktop

Trisquel

Trisquel (Figure 4) [8] is by far the most active project on FSF's free distribution list. It has been on the list since 2008 and survives on public donations. Based on Ubuntu, Trisquel is available in four versions: the Standard release, which uses MATE as a desktop environment; Trisquel Mini for lighter or older systems, which uses LXDE; Trisquel Sugar Toast for children; and Trisquel Net Install, which installs over the Internet. KDE Plasma and other desktop environments are available in the repositories, and over 51 localizations are available.

Figure 4: Trisquel is currently the most active free distribution.

Trisquel installs with a minimum of applications – mostly Gnome Technology. Probably the most innovative feature is Abrowser, a modification of Firefox with the name changed for copyright reasons (Figure 5). Abrowser is notable for its numerous security settings, including options to disable JavaScript, geolocation, and the loading of custom fonts. These options are clearly explained, with the fact clearly stated that some of the options may interfere with normal web browsing. However, Abrowser reflects the fact that the browser is generally the most vulnerable part of the operating system.

Figure 5: Trisquel features Abrowser, a high-security fork of Firefox.

As a distribution, Trisquel has a long and well-received history. If you wish to run a free system, try a version of Trisquel first.

Roll Your Own

If none of these alternatives suit you, try converting your distro of choice to a free distribution. Before you start, research your hardware, so you know if it requires proprietary blobs. If you wish to run an all-free system, you'll need to replace any hardware that requires non-free drivers.

Next, edit the repositories and their sections so that only those that contain free software are active. In Debian, that means making sure that the Stable, Testing, and Unstable repositories have only the main section enabled and not the contrib and non-free sections. In Ubuntu, disable the Restricted and Multiverse repositories, while in Fedora, check that only the rawhide and fedora repositories are active. Each distribution organizes its repositories differently, but finding which contain proprietary software is usually a matter of seconds. Once only free repositories remain, you will not be able to install proprietary packages without modifying the list of repositories.

Next, you need to remove any proprietary software already installed. Download and re-run deblob, which removes proprietary software [9], and deblob-check, which checks kernels, source code, and patches. Some distributions also have their own tools, like Debian's vrms (virtual Richard M. Stallman), which detects non-free applications [10] (Figure 6). When you want to upgrade a kernel, download one from Linux-libre [11] or its mirrors. Check your distribution for instructions about compiling and installing kernels. Over the years, the procedure has been improved and documented, so that freeing your Linux installation is mostly a matter of patience.

Figure 6: Debian includes the tongue-in-cheeked named vrms (Virtual Richard M. Stallman), which detects non-free software.

At the end of the process, your system will not run any faster, although it might be more secure. But is it worth it? Only you can decide. Still, if software freedom matters to you, then the effort is worthwhile, if only so you can honestly say that your operating system is truly free.

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