Evaluating Linux distros, 2012: A dinosaur's opinion

As Fedora 14 nears end of life, I realized that Fedora 17 with Gnome 3 really wasn't usable for the way I like to work. So, it's time to explore the options. Often distro and window manager comparisons show off what looks different about the systems, the way they `want' to be. Here I'm going the opposite route: I know what I want, how closely can I make the system be like that? So I try to make each one do exactly the same thing, replicate my current Fedora 14 desktop feel and functionality which I quite like (although I'll also mention its shortcomings). In turn, the F14 desktop I use is really based on a layout I evolved while using Solaris and fvwm in the 1990s.

From my point of view computer usability improved steadily from my first experiences with IBM 1130 JCL through ICL George IV, PDP-11/34, cam.ac.uk PHOENIX, VAX/VMS, to Unix/Solaris (with some regret at nice VMS features that Unix doesn't have) and Slackware Linux. The MS Windows/Apple MacOS interfaces never appealed to me and I have barely used them. Then in the 1990s came the web, and the internet became something for everyone instead of mostly for scientists. This was a great thing for the world in a general way, but for those of us who like scientist-oriented UIs it was the beginning of a largely downward trend in computer usability. We're holding on to the old capabilities with our fingernails and continually explaining to the new generation why our way has productivity advantages. Don't get me wrong, I love youtube, and live on facebook even as I diss it. But when I'm working, I want a command line. In fact, I want lots of command lines.

First I look at some basic capabilities in the setups I tested.
Capability FVWM/Sol FC14-G2 FC17-G3 FC17-XFCE FC17-KDE Mint/MATE Mint/Cinnamon
Focus-follows-mouse Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
F5 does RaiseLower Yes Yes Buggy? No Yes Yes No
Right-click menu gives xterm Yes Partial No Partial Partial Partial No?
Workspace switcher Yes Yes(buggy) Buggy Yes Yes-ish Yes Yes-ish
Suppress icons on desktop Yes Yes Yes? Yes Yes Yes Yes
Color active window titlebar Yes Yes No? Yes? No Yes No
Panel No? Yes Broken Yes? Yes/Ugly Yes Broken?
Panel launchers No? Partial Broken Partial Partial Partial Broken?

Fedora 14/Gnome2 desktop. Panel control is good; grey panel on top, transparent one below; spacer keeps the window list in a small area. Third panel at bottom of second monitor includes a second workspace switcher at left and clock applet with locations (Boston and GMT) at right. Mouse is on the Firefox window and so its titlebar has gone blue. Specially configured gnome-terminal at right allows uemacs on a big text file.
Mint 13/MATE desktop. The logout/shutdown buttons are a little too quiet for my taste and panel transparency doesn't seem to work; I prefer the look of the Fed 14 panel. Otherwise I can do pretty much everything I could do before.
Fedora 17/KDE desktop. I don't like the look of the panel as much and the workspace switcher is almost unreadable. But it's a workable config. It was probably my second choice of the new distros. However, the 'log out user' button stopped working for me at one point and forced me to reboot to get out of it... dunno what that was about.
Fedora 14/XFCE desktop. Not bad, but I want raiselower and a few other things didn't quite work smoothly.
Fedora 17/Cinnamon desktop. Couldn't get things to work right with this - the launchers squashed in top left didn't do anything.
Mint 13/Cinnamon desktop. Panel seems non-functional.

Update Dec 2019: I switched to Mint/MATE and am still happily using it, although there are starting to be some annoyances (gtk-file-chooser, I'm looking at you.)