After my growing distaste with Ubuntu, I decided that I needed to find a new Linux distribution to stay with for a while. I had last gone distro-shopping for my main choice many years ago, and it seemed like a good time to revisit that question.
The first choice on my list was Arch Linux. With all the hype it's been getting recently, I figured it would be worth my time to try something non-Debian-based for a change. I ran this for the better part of 6 months, and was very pleasantly surprised. The system ran fast, was extremely minimalistic, and I learned more about Linux internals with Arch than with any other distribution I tried in the past. The system was finally, truly mine. It ran everything I wanted it to, and nothing I didn't want it to. I controlled everything. This became a blessing and a curse over time. I did learn exactly how everything interacts with a Linux system, but I also spent way more time managing my setup and troubleshooting than I did actually getting work done or enjoying my computer. I love figuring out problems and toying with my system, but Arch left me almost overwhelmed with knobs and buttons, there wasn't anything left up to chance, I controlled it all. I came up with a short list of things I wanted in Arch, then tried to install it on my other machines. This is where I hit a snag. Arch is so minimalistic, I had to do all the setup work again on the other machines. This isn't actually a problem in the long run, as Arch never goes out of date, but it takes forever for me to customize my system and make it just what I want it to be. ArchBang does a fantastic job of getting you an up-and-running ArchLinux systems with a barebones networking and GUI setup, right from the start, but there are still a lot of things I need to customize. The ArchLinux ecosystem in general is nice to work in, but, in my experience, many of the larger updates require manual intervention and/or configuration changes. As time went on, I felt like I was maintaining my system more than I was using it. I can't bash Arch, I really can't. It is a wonderful project that has taught me more about Linux in 6 months than I've learned in the past few years, but it isn't pick-up-and-go enough for me, it is really valuable as a learning experience, not so much as a "Click and Run" distribution.
The next logical leap from ArchBang was CrunchBang. CrunchBang is a customized, slimmed down Debian system that thrives on simplicity and ease-of-use. It is a lightweight Debian distribution with a major focus on getting things set up right away and keeping it all simple. CrunchBang is awesome, it really is. Its the best, most stable parts of Debian with the minimalistic featureset of ArchBang. As much as I loved it, I didn't really fall in love with OpenBox. I love the minimalism, but I really missed the wide breadth of configuration options I got with Gnome 2 or XFCE and I really missed Compiz Fusion, which wasn't playing nice with OpenBox.
In the end, I decided to choose the most logical next step from Ubuntu: Debian with XFCE. It offers a lighter install than Ubuntu, a lot of system control, all while being easy to use and keeping me inside the Debian ecosystem. I am going to start looking at Mate soon, as I really love Gnome 2, and would love to see the project continue. To me, Gnome 2 was complex enough to do what I wanted, yet simple enough to look clean and stay out of my way.
I'm open to suggestions on what other distributions to try, if you have an idea, let me know in the comments.