Another Day Another Distro – Part 9 – Fedora 8
Apologies for the slight delay in publishing this review but life got in my way a bit as it invariably does, the upside though is that I spent a few days with Fedora 8 rather than just one or two I had planned. I’ve used Fedora quite a bit in the past, starting with the original Fedora Core a few years back. It seems they’ve dropped the core bit from the name and I was anxious to see what else had changed in the couple of years we’d been apart…
Distro Base – Red Hat
Packaging – RPM (managed by the Yum utility)
Kernel – 126.96.36.199-49.fc8
Default Desktop – Gnome 2.20.1
Fedora And Me:
As I’m sure most people reading this will know, Fedora is the free branch of Red Hat Linux, probably the largest Linux distributor around, at least in the enterprise market. As I mentioned I’ve used Fedora since the original Fedora Core came out years back. It was always an impressive system but I found it was often awkward to use as a main home desktop. Setting up things like multimedia codecs and proprietary video drivers was a bit of an effort, not massive but still not the sort of thing a novice user would relish. In the last couple of years I discovered Ubuntu and was wooed away from Fedora. So coming back to it with a fresh perspective how would I feel? I didn’t know.
I chose to use the LiveCD version of Fedora 8 rather than the full DVD installer, partially because it was quicker to download and also because I thought it would be the best comparison to Ubuntu, which comes on one LiveCD. I booted up the disc and was greeted by the Fedora desktop. I didn’t even have to add the extra “noapic” option to boot as I sometimes do, it seems the quirks of my hardware were not a problem. I clicked the install icon on the desktop and followed through the numerous configuration screens, it was painless and the Anaconda installer worked perfectly. It installed the system in under 10 minutes which included a full reformat of my 200gb hard disk which surprised me. I did have to do a manual reboot of the system at the end as it didn’t prompt me to remove the disc and reboot, not a major thing but it’s such a little step it seems it would be easy to add. I restarted from the Gnome system menu and then was greeted with a configuration wizard on the first boot. This asked me for network details, user account information and so on. All in all the installation went very smoothly I have to say. You can see the slide show below if you’re interested.
Using The System:
The first thing that strikes you about Fedora is the artwork, it’s beautiful and it always has been, even in earlier releases I thought. For me though true beauty runs much deeper than looks alone, nevertheless if you can’t abide an “ugly” desktop then Fedora will probably please you. I have to say though upon first login I thought to myself “oh look it’s Ubuntu with a blue theme”, it may be that Ubuntu copied Fedora or maybe it’s just not that easy to make one Gnome desktop look different to another I don’t know. Anyway, I’m a self confessed Gnome fan so it looked good to me. I was advised of some updates by the system which I tried to install but it failed and told me my network connection may not be working. This was unexpected, so I opened Firefox and loaded a few pages without trouble, it obviously wasn’t the network. I tried the updater again a couple of times and eventually it worked. It could have been a busy server I suppose with this being a new release but still it wasn’t a great first impression to make.
I had a look through the menus and noticed that there wasn’t much software installed by default, well there wasn’t much of the stuff I usually expect in a new Linux desktop install anyway. OpenOffice was particularly conspicuous by it’s absence, along with lots of other things. The cupboard looked a little bare. So I opened the software manager from the main menu and searched for some of the tools I use, it found most of them but it took a long time going through different pages and ticking a myriad of check boxes. I installed a ton of stuff which obviously took quite a while to download, OpenOffice is over 100mb on it’s own I think. Probably the reason it was hard to fir on the CD. I left the system to it and went off to get some food.
Upon returning I decided to try and fix the screen resolution, it was set to 1280×1024 which is no good for my display. I need 1440×900 and very few systems seem to offer that by default, it’s not a common requirement though I suppose. I opened the display settings applet and discovered I was using the standard VESA driver which is limited to say the least. I selected “nv” from the options to see if that would work for me, also choosing “Generic 1440×900 LCD” as my monitor type. After an X server reboot this gave me the correct resolution but I found I couldn’t enable 3D effects. It seems the driver wasn’t compatible. A quick internet search turned up this guide to setting up Fedora 8. It proved to be a life saver, I added the Livna repository to Yum in the terminal and installing the latest Nvidia drivers. This was a little fiddly and I’m not sure a novice user would be so keen but I got it done and soon had the 3D desktop working which was a relief. I found with the standard desktop the system slowed down a lot when changing workspaces or scrolling on large web pages. I’ve had this problem on other distros but the performance of Fedora seemed a little slow on my hardware, it also took a long time to open my external USB drive which is usually quick. Make of that what you will.
I decided to try opening some multimedia files and it was then that I encountered the new Codec Buddy feature, it basically asks you to purchase the codecs required from Fluendo. It’s not expensive to do so but having always gotten the codecs free on other systems I was reluctant to part with any cash (no change there). I installed the free Mp3 decoder which worked. I then opened the software manager and searched for the appropriate Gstreamer plugins, the standard set up is the 3 packs of codecs, Good, Bad and Ugly. I found the Ugly set was not installed and got it from the Livna repo, even after that though I still couldn’t play Xvid video for some reason. I decided to just install the VLC player which has always proved to be a silver bullet for me. True to form it played the videos without the need for extra codecs. VLC really is a great tool I must say.
I tried a few other things out, Firefox prompted my to install Flash but then failed to do so, even Debian did this for me without a complaint. Anyway, I went to the Adobe website and installed their RPM package which got Flash working. NTFS reading and writing worked flawlessly out of the box, nothing spectacular for a modern distro with the ntfs-3g driver but still worth a mention I think. I had a pretty fully functioning desktop by this time but it had taken me a while to get there. Perhaps I was a little rusty.
Not So Yummy, More Yucky:
Fedora uses the Yum package manager which works in a similar manner to Apt-Get on Debian systems or that’s the theory anyway. I’ve always had problems with Yum and it never seems to work properly for me, I know it is a powerful tool and in the right hands (possibly not mine) can do great things but it kept locking on me and crashing. We did not get along and we never really have. When you open the software manager it locks Yum so that other applications can’t use it at the same time, a sensible move for sure and the same thing happens with Apt. However, I found that the update service kept locking Yum up and it wasn’t keen to let go. I even rebooted the whole system thinking that would release it but it didn’t, it was still locked up. I searched around the Fedora Forums and found a fix thankfully, I was able to kill the yum-updatesd and yum-updatesd-he processes which released the lock but it was a bit of a hassle and I still kept getting dependency errors with the general updates on a daily basis. I also tried using Yumex the GUI front end to see if it helped but all I got was the same errors in a nice coloured window instead of a blank terminal. I’m sorry but to me Yum isn’t a patch on Apt, I’m a Debian fan and I admit that so maybe I’m biased but Yum is about as welcome around my house as haemorrhoids. Sorry, I have to be honest and that’s how I feel. I’ve heard you can install Apt on Fedora and I need to investigate that more I admit.
Fedora is a good distro, it always has been but I don’t think I would want to use it as my main desktop. I know the Fedora fans wont like me saying that but I found it to be a bit buggy and it needed a lot of setting up. I know Ubuntu can be buggy too and Gutsy has definitely shown us that, so I’m singling out Fedora it happens with lots of systems. As a distribution it has some really great features such as SELinux to keep your system secure, the Pulse Audio which allows for some really neat manipulation of audio routing and one thing I really liked was the virtualization tools. I tried the Virtual Machine Manager and liked it a lot, I had a good play with Qemu and Xen, that was great and credit where it’s due I was impressed.
All of this brought me to the conclusion that this distro is really suited to developers, enthusiasts or perhaps server deployments. It seems to tailored that way, possibly because of the business focus of Red Hat I don’t know. It just feels to me like that the home desktop scenario is an after thought. If you want a development server or a machine to do work on it’s great but not for the everyday multimedia, internet and general playing about I think most home users want. It can do that don’t get me wrong but you have to know how to set it up and it seems like you’re fighting the system a little. That may just be my opinion though.
Fedora is a very good system and I keep reiterating that because I know a lot of people will view as a negative review and really it’s not. Yes I had some problems with the system but it has a lot going for it and I think many people will love it. Especially anyone who values the aesthetics of a system as a major priority, it’s looks beautiful and I think in many ways they aimed very high with this release, it just seems they fell a little short in some areas. There’s nothing wrong with that, I admire the ambition and if you’re going to do something then you should go for it wholeheartedly. There were just a few bugs that I didn’t expect and Yum really got on my nerves. Maybe I could have tried harder and spent longer fighting with Yum I don’t know, I will accept that accusation. I should also point out that this was the LiveCD and a lot of the software I found to be missing like OpenOffice was probably removed because of space constraints, the DVD probably wouldn’t have this problem I suspect. Still, other LiveCDs seem to manage ok fitting everything in.
If you want a web server, file server or any other kind of server really Fedora is a great option I think, maybe it would even work on the desktop for some people but for me I’m afraid it didn’t. With distributions like Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS and Mandriva around which do everything for you I don’t see many novice users choosing Fedora. I know a lot of people don’t like having things done for them and that’s cool. My intention in doing this little distro tour was to find the system that worked easiest on the desktop for the most people and against these criteria it didn’t do so well but against another scenario I think things might be different.
So in keeping with the rest of the series, here’s my jokey slogans for this distro:
“Fedora 8: A pretty face but it takes some work and the package manager isn’t so yummy”
“Fedora 8: It’s Red Hat Jim… but not as we know it” 🙂
So where do we go from here?
EDIT: It seems I have one more distro to review for this series which I missed out, Linux Mint. Since the idea of this short series was to find the best thing to recommend to a friend new to Linux I have to give Mint a shot, even if it is still in beta. I’ll do that before the overview.
That’s a good question. I started out with the plan to spend a week looking at the current state of available distributions and decide which one I preferred for my desktop. Yet here we are a month later and I’m still going, for some reason people are also reading this, so I want to thank you all for that 🙂 I plan to write up a little overview of this series next and then move of on to review more distributions, maybe as another series with a different agenda I don’t know yet but one thing is clear… it’s too late to stop now 😉