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Choosing an FSF-Endorsed Distro in 2020

2020 December 3

[free-software] [info] [tech]

Let's suppose you want to run a fully free GNU/Linux distribution that has been endorsed by the Free Software Foundation. Let's also suppose this is for a personal computer that can actually run a fully free distro.

You don't have a lot of options here. The FSF maintains a list of free distros on the GNU Project website. Unfortunately, many of these are not viable options. Let's talk through them.


These distros have not had a full release in a long time:


Per Dragora's website, Dragora's last release (Dragora 3.0 Beta 1) was a beta release over a year ago (October 2019). According to its Wikipedia page, Dragora's last full release (Dragora 2.2 Stable) was in 2012.


Dyne:bolic is not suitable as a general purpose OS. It's intended for audio and video editing and does not receive security updates. The last release seems to be Dyne:bolic 3.0-beta (MUNIR), which was released in 2011.


A new version of gNewSense has not been released since 2016. Reportedly, a new release is in the works, which the developer hopes will be available in 2021.


It looks like Ututo had a release candidate based on Ubuntu in 2017 that was never released as a full release. According to Wikipedia, prior to that, Ututo was based on Gentoo, and its last version was released in 2012.

Other Distros

That leaves us with 5 options.


Guix is interesting. It's a package manager and a distribution. I'll talk about the distribution here. According to the Guix download page, the newest version of the Guix system (1.2.0) can be installed on i686, x86_64, ARMv7, and AArch64 machines; however, an installer is only available for i686 and x86_64, so it seems it will be more difficult to install on ARM machines.

I've tried installing Guix, and I found the package manager confusing. I haven't spent a lot of time with it, though. But I don't think it's a good choice for beginners.


Hyperbola is a stable distro which is currently based on code from Arch and Debian. The current version is v0.3.1, but it's presented as a full release. I don't know how their versioning system works, but the 3 seems to mean major version 3. Hyperbola does not support ARM CPUs, but it does have a Hypertalking version "adapted for blind and visually impaired users".

In its next major release, Hyperbola will become HyperbolaBSD based on OpenBSD rather than GNU/Linux-libre. Hyperbola has been generally doing some interesting stuff I haven't seen other FSF-approved distros doing like pushing back against Chromium and Mozilla software with trademark issues.


Parabola is a rolling-release distro based on Arch which supports i686, x86_64, and armv7h CPUs. This means it can run as 32-bit on ARM CPUs, but not as 64-bit, and only the CLI images are available for ARM. Parabola supports two init system options: OpenRC or SystemD. Parabola also has a version called TalkingParabola with text-to-speech and braille, but it's only available for i686/x86_64.


Finally we reach the ones that are easy to install.

PureOS is Purism's Debian-based distro. It only supports amd64 (x86_64). The current version is PureOS 9.0 (Hephaestus), which is based on Debian 10 (Buster).


Trisquel is based on Ubuntu. The current version is Trisquel 9.0 (Etonia), which was released in October. It seems to support i686 and x86_64, but not ARM.


So basically, assuming your hardware can handle all free software, and you have an Intel or AMD CPU, you can run an up-to-date, easy-to-install fully free Debian-based distro. (You even have two options if your CPU is 64-bit.) Otherwise, you'll have to figure out how to install Guix or an Arch-based distro. There's currently nothing Fedora-like on the list (since BLAG was discontinued), which is sad to me since I like Fedora.

Basically my point in this post is to highlight that there aren't a lot of options that are actively maintained and appropriate for beginners, and the options that do exist are both descended from Debian.