gNewSense 3.1: The FSF-approved Linux distro that's stuck in 2010

This system sets out with a major goal in mind: to provide a Free Software Foundation-approved Linux distro.

Were you happy with your Linux (sorry, “GNU/Linux”) desktop system circa 2010? Is strict adherence to Software Freedom highly important to you?

If you answered yes to either of those questions then gNewSense, which just released version 3.1, may be the perfect Linux distribution for you.

That bit about “2010” may sound a bit snarky, but it really isn't meant that way. In fact, after having spent a few days with gNewSense, I have come to truly appreciate this little Free Software Foundation-approved (and funded) system.

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My beautiful gNewSense screenshot.

For those unaware: gNewSense is a Debian-based Linux distro which focuses on including zero non-free software packages. You won't find any binary blobs here. In fact, gNewSense is strict enough about its “only Free Software” policy that even Richard Stallman feels comfortable enough to use it.

Now, reviewing gNewSense is a rather odd thing. It's sort of like reviewing Ubuntu or Debian from 2010 – just about every package in the gNewSense repositories dates back to that time.

That's right. Out of the box you get cutting-edge (*cough* in 2010) software like GNOME 2.30 and OpenOffice 3.2. Not only are both of these discontinued pieces of software, but both of them have newer versions than what’s included in the gNewSense repositories. So, in a sense, they are doubly outdated.

But is that bad? Do we really, absolutely need the latest versions of every package available? Truth be told, I loved my GNOME 2.30 desktop back in 2010. It was fast, stable and relatively customizable. And you know what? It still is.

In fact, the stock installation of gNewSense – thanks, in large part, to using older and lighter versions of popular software – is incredibly fast and astoundingly un-taxing on your hardware. The whole system, when logged in with no additional software running, uses roughly 105 MB of RAM. So this plucky little distro will perform well on even modest hardware.

Of course, just make sure your hardware doesn't require any proprietary drivers, because you won't get any of those here. Just because other, modern Linux distros run on your laptop, with support for things like “Wi-Fi” and “Video cards” doesn't mean gNewSense will. Luckily, it comes with a Live ISO, so you can test it out before installing.

One bit that I found rather interesting - using either of the default web browsers (that's right, it comes with two pre-installed: Epiphany and Iceweasel) you can play standard-definition YouTube videos admirably well using a pre-setup gnash installation. Right out of the box, this worked like a charm. For those determined to not use the proprietary Flash software, this is definitely a plus.

Overall, I'd say that gNewSense is not meant for those new to Linux. It includes a graphical installer... but it's a bit more old-school than some of the polished installers we see nowadays in other distros. And for package management, Synaptic is included, which, while excellent, isn't exactly tailored to folks unfamiliar with Linux.

In a lot of ways, this system is a bit of a blast from the past, reminding me of all of the things I loved about using my Linux desktop in days of old (does that phrase work when we're only talking about four years ago?). It's fast, stable and highly functional.

In fact, I can't think of many things I can't do with gNewSense 3.1. Could I use it as my primary work machine? You know what... I absolutely could. It might be a bit of a pain on occasion (due to outdated software and a lack of proprietary drivers), but it would be doable.

But, if I'm being realistic, I definitely won't be using it. The reality is that I am comfortable with using things like the occasional proprietary driver, and I'm a big fan of some of the newer desktop environments (such as GNOME Shell). Even if I were living, right now, in the year 2010... I still probably wouldn't use this distro when there are so many others available that make it easier to use a wider array of hardware.

That may not sound like high praise for gNewSense, but it really is. This system sets out with a major goal in mind: to provide a Free Software Foundation-approved Linux distro (of which there aren't many) that works well. And, by that metric, gNewSense 3.1 is a rousing success.

Now, here's what I'm wondering - would you be willing to live with four-year-old software if it meant you could be confident that you were running a 100% Free Software system?

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