There are valid and compelling reasons why one might want to use only Open Source Software. Avoids any patent or IP legal issues, better security, and encourages innovation are just a few. However, on the other side of the argument there are justifiable reasons for the inclusion of multimedia codecs, proprietary drivers, and closed software in modern Linux distributions. Neither side is wrong. It's a matter of personal tastes and values. But many, like myself, would like to be completely Open Source if it didn't mean losing too much functionality. Can your computer environment be entirely Open Source? What might we give up if we chose that path? To find out I tested two similar distributions, one adherent to the strict Open Source philosophy and one at the other end of spectrum that strives to provide a complete computing experience out-of-the-box.
Sidux and Linux Mint are similar in some fundamental ways. Primarily, they are both Debian derivations, although technically one is based on Ubuntu Linux. Both are delivered as one ~700 MB liveCD image. Both have hard drive installers, proprietary graphic driver installers, and a well rounded selection of starter applications. However, they are different in some significant ways as well.
Sidux 2007-02 (Tartaros)
Sidux is a new Linux distribution based on Debian Sid that hopes to release three or four times a year. The initial release came in the form of a preview in January 2007 and has since included two finals, with Sidux 2007-02 being the second. Its developers believe in a strict Open Source policy for the reasons stated above.
Sidux booted my laptop to a 1024x768 KDE 3.5.7 desktop. Sound, usb, and the mouse devices worked. The menu contains all the common KDE applications as well as many extra KDE and non-KDE specific apps. It features OpenOffice.org 2.2.1, Iceweasel 126.96.36.199, and Gimp 2.2.15. Under the hood we find a preemptive Linux 188.8.131.52, Xorg 7.2.0, and GCC 4.1.3. The liveCD contains an extraordinarily complete local user's manual that unfortunately isn't carried over to the hard drive install.
All my hardware worked upon boot and the screen resolution was easily adjusted by a manual configuration file edit. I had no problems with stability or functionality of the system or applications. The desktop appearance was moderately attractive with its customized wallpaper and unusual color scheme. The font rendering was a bit below average in comparison to today's current offerings, but they weren't unacceptable. I found that my Ndiswrapper dependent wireless connection worked well even with WPA when configured and started from the commandline. The graphical internet connection utilities did work properly here.
The harddrive installer worked wonderfully. It was a user-friendly tabbed application that asked just enough configuration questions to complete the job. All desired results were delivered including my choice of how to handle the boot loader. It features apt-get with pre-configured software repositories for package management and a commandline proprietary graphic drivers installer. The NVIDIA driver installation didn't work here.
All in all, Sidux is a solid desktop system that could very well meet the needs of anyone wishing for a fairly complete but purely open source solution. I found Sidux to be very stable with well above average performance.
Linux Mint 3.0 (Cassandra)
Linux Mint is another new comer to the Linux distribution line-up. Introduced in November 2006, it is now on its fourth release. 3.0 is its second round number version. The developers of Linux Mint are trying to provide users with a "comfortable GNU/Linux desktop" which may include proprietary or binary-only software.
Linux Mint booted into a 1280x800 Gnome 2.18 desktop with sound, usb, and mice working as desired. It contains a select number of applications such as OpenOffice 2.2.0, Firefox 184.108.40.206, Thunderbird 220.127.116.11, Pidgin 2.0, and Gimp 2.2.13. The foundation is formed by Linux 18.104.22.168, Xorg 7.2.0 and GCC 4.1.2. The liveCD and harddrive install contain links to online documentation and user help facilities when one opens the default webbrowser.
Hardware configuration for my laptop was excellent and including the extra keyboard volume adjustment and mute keys. In fact, Linux Mint includes an on-screen graphic to show the increasing or decreasing volume when the keys are used. This is only the second Linux distribution to feature this extra. The desktop is very attractive with its abstract pastel background and customized Gnome menu. Font rendering was above average even for my laptop LCD screen. Despite problems in the past with this distro, my wireless connection worked with WPA at the commandline. Again as with Sidux, I didn't have much luck with the graphical utilities for this. Linux Mint includes their own control panel for hardware and system configuration and it handled most other tasks very well.
Its harddrive installer is user-friendly and works well. Like Sidux, it asked just a few questions and finished here with no problems, including my choice in boot handling options. After install, Synaptic is available with pre-configured repositories to install additional applications. Linux Mint also includes Envy, which installs the proprietary graphic drivers for NVIDIA and ATI cards. That process completed as designed and even updated the necessary files for use upon reboot. One issue I had was that Beryl didn't function here.
Linux Mint is a worthy contender for your desktop operating system, although it does include some binary-only plugins and software to enhance the end-user experience. I had no problems with the applications or system except sometimes the sound mixer applet would crash upon login. Overall, it was stable and average in performance.
I tested each distro specificially for different file handling, internet experience, and overall functionality. I found that my user experience with each wasn't significantly different. There were some inconveniences when using Sidux, but not enough to characterize the system intolerable. Using my wireless ethernet chip rendered my system impure from the start, but below I have outlined the results of some common tasks and functionalities I want out-of-the-box. Not all are necessarily related to the open source argument, but might be of interest. After reviewing the following chart or in using your passed experience, please take time to answer our poll question: Can you Live with a Pure Open Source System? 
|Sidux-2007-02||Linux Mint 3.0|
|Optimal Screen Resolution|
|Office doc read/write|
|Office wps read/write|
|Office ppt read/write|
|Auto-mount Removable media|