Distro Review: Fedora 11
Today I thought I’d report back in detail on my experiences with Fedora 11, the community distribution release from perennial Linux giants Red Hat. It’s a distribution with a reputation for being close to the cutting edge, some would argue too close. Many people have complained to me about bugs, but is this fair? I haven’t looked at Fedora in depth since version 8 or 9, so I wanted to see for myself. I have some history with Fedora, but I felt it lost it’s way a little a few years back. It was time to put past experiences – both good and bad – aside, to really see what Fedora 11 could bring to the table…
Although I downloaded Fedora 11 a few weeks back, I actually installed it while at FUDCon (the Fedora conference) in Berlin; surrounded by Fedora developers and Red Hat employees. Now that’s what I call support. I first installed Fedora way back in 2003 when it was called Fedora Core, it had just been split from Red Hat Linux. It was even one of the first distributions I managed to convince my employers at the time (the National Health Service) to try out. It wasn’t my first Linux experience by any means, but it was quite early in my adoption of the platform. I kept coming back to it over the years but felt increasingly disappointed as it got more experimental and felt less usable. The last version I used properly was Fedora 8 and that left something of a sour taste in my mouth. YUM (the package management tool) kept locking up for no apparent reason and the system wasn’t really stable enough to use as a proper desktop. I’d briefly looked at other releases of Fedora in the meantime, but going into this Fedora 11 install, I wasn’t sure what to expect at all.
Although I downloaded a copy of Fedora 11 before leaving for Linux Tag in Berlin, I picked up a nicely packaged Gnome LiveCD from the Fedora stand at the conference. I decided to use that for the install. Back at my budget hotel (sans Internet) later that evening I set about wiping my system and installing Fedora. My test machine as always was my trusty Dell XPS m1330n, and interestingly enough I noticed the display machines on the Fedora stand were all m1330’s. This could only bode well for my the compatibility of my hardware. I booted up a live session using the CD and everything seemed to work out of the box, I was also struck by the impressive look of the system. The desktop background particularly. I’m not usually a visuals guy, but I did study Art History along with Computer Science for my University degree (what a combination that was), so I like to think I have something of an eye for artwork. Clicking the icon on the desktop I launched into the install wizard. I like the Anaconda installer, I’ve always found it works well on any of the Red Hat-based systems I’ve used. It asks you all the usual questions you’d expect: keyboard language, network hostname, time zone, yada yada and it was all straightforward, until I hit disk partitioning. This is where things got a bit more interesting. As you’ll know if you’ve read many of these reviews I favour a particular partitioning system.
12gb / (root)
With Fedora though I had to change that. I chose custom partitioning and was informed that my root partition would have to be formatted as ex4, not a problem. I’m told this is because the LiveCD image it copies over is ext4. However, after hitting the confirm button to continue, I was informed that the system can’t boot from ext4. This means you need to fence off some extra space to use as a /boot partition, and format that as ext3. Apparently this is a GRUB (bootloader) problem; versions lower than 2 can’t boot from ext4 I’m told. This has been fixed in Ubuntu by applying a patch but it’s very pervasive and the Fedora developers apparently didn’t feel happy using it. As a distribution not really known for caution in using new software this seemed strange, but they must consider it a significant threat to stability. I used about 300mb for the /boot partition which seemed to work well. After that I was able to carry out the actual install, this took about 20mins to complete. You have to reboot the system and remove the CD manually after install, which seems a bit odd to me. You might consider this nit picking, but almost every other distro prompts you to reboot and remove the disc these days. It seems a basic oversight. Not a major one by any means, but still something that could easily be polished up.
Upon rebooting the machine you’re asked to complete a few further steps; such as accepting the software’s license, creating user accounts and setting date/time. You’re also asked to submit your hardware profile to help the developers diagnose any bugs, I dutifully did this. It seems a bit odd to me that you have to do this after a reboot, wouldn’t it make more sense to just do all this in the main install? I know Anaconda has worked like this for a while, but it still seems counter intuitive to me. Anyway, the installation was complete, easily enough and in a respectable time. Next it was on to configuring the system and making it feel like /home.
I should point out that I did most of this setup work while sat on the floor of a corridor at Linux Tag, surreptitiously stealing power, I needed Internet access to download packages and this couldn’t be done at the hotel. Wireless was already working for me out of the box, so I just connected with Network Manager. Fedora only ships with 100% Free Software and loaded the Nouveau drivers for my freedom hating Nvidia card. Nouveau is a project to try and implement free drivers for Nvidia cards. I applaud the intention and most things worked well but I couldn’t seem to get any 3D acceleration, which makes it kind of pointless having a posh video card. Another problem I found was in suspending the machine to RAM, it simply wouldn’t wake up the display again with the free drivers. A lot of people tell me they don’t think suspend and resume matters, but I use it a lot and so do many others. I also found the machine would overheat a lot with the free drivers. So I quickly decided to install the proprietary Nvidia drivers, a GNU lots it’s horns that instant, I’m guilty. It’s not as difficult as you may first think to add the restricted drivers though, you simple have to add a software repository called RPM Fusion. This also offers access to restricted media codecs and other software such as Skype, more on that later.
I found this guide very helpful in enabling 3D acceleration and Compiz effects. It tells you how to install the RPM Fusion repos with YUM. Once you’ve done that it’s simply a matter of installing the appropriate driver.
“yum install kmod-nvidia xorg-x11-drv-nvidia”
You need to log out and back in for the changes to take effect, this is because the X Server needs restarting. If it’s worked you should see an Nvidia splash screen on startup. After that you can install the Compiz packages as detailed in that guide. You enable the 3D desktop with the little widget on the menu under “System / Preferences / Desktop Effects”. Compiz was fully working. I also ticked the box to enable wobbly windows, I’m a sucker for wobbly windows. A lot of distributions come with Compiz enabled out of the box, so I couldn’t describe this as my easiest Compiz experience ever, but it certainly wasn’t hard to set up either. Most of the work is done by YUM, no hacking in config files or other such shenanigans.
Fedora 11 comes with a reasonable selection of software. Most of the things you could need, but no OpenOffice.org or Mono interestingly. I found installing all the multimedia codecs was easy once the RPM Fusion repositories were enabled. I installed all the Gstreamer plugins (good, bad, ugly), VLC, Deluge, Skype, Gpodder, Tasque, Gwibber, Audacity, EasyTag, Bluefish and much more with ease. The software repositories seem really deep and very up to date I must say. 10,000 packages was the figured quoted to me by Max Spevak, and I can believe it. The GUI tool for managing packages (gnome-packagekit) reminds me very much of Synaptic, which is no bad thing. I do think they could make some improvements to the interface by adding simple things like a progress bar, so you have some idea how long it’s going to take to finish. I also tweaked the Gnome layout a little to suit my tastes, removing the bottom toolbar and installing the Avant Window Navigator. I had to change the default behaviour of Nautilus (the file manager) to load in browser mode and display items in list view. These are all personal preferences, but I don’t get how anyone can use Nautilus with browser mode off, it makes things so much easier. After a couple of hours discovering things and tinkering I was very happy with my Fedora 11 desktop.
The Sweet Sound Of Music:
One feature I’d like to highlight in F11 is the new sound mixer. Sound is a subject close to my heart as you may know, but I’ve had mixed success with Pulse Audio to date (no pun intended). The concept is brilliant, it’s like JACK for human beings (I just stepped on someone’s trademark…) but it never quite hit the spot. I found it buggy and unusable mostly. Fedora was one of the first distributions to implement Pulse with Fedora 8, and they’ve made a much better job of it than Ubuntu. The new mixer which ships with F11 is great, it makes Pulse so easy. Unlike with a lot of systems still using plain ALSA, you can have multiple applications using your audio card at once and pipe audio between them. You can even mix the output levels of each application and set up internal recording easily. I expect we’ll see this mixer tool crop up in future releases of a few other distros. It seems that the Fedora team have a close interest in PulseAudio, as Paul Frields showed me his new PulseCaster application last week. It’s in the early development stages but anyone interested in making podcasts or just recording phone/voip interviews should keep an eye on it.
Ease Of Installation & Use: 3/5
Community & Documentation: 4/5
As I said right at the start, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Fedora 11. I’ve had mixed results in the past, but this feels like a really good release. I’m not just saying that because I’ve had a chance to spend time with some of the Fedora team lately either. If I didn’t think it was any good, I’d tell you straight. It’s improved a lot in the time I’ve been away. It boots up really quickly which may be due to the Plymouth bootloader, I can’t confirm that 100%, but I can confirm that speed is not a problem with F11. The Fedora Project have taken a strong stance on Free Software and while I respect and support this, I was a little worried how easy it would be to get the desktop working as I needed it to. Once I enabled the RPM Fusion repositories however, my fears quickly dissipated. The amount of software available in the repositories is amazing, and there wasn’t one program I couldn’t find. You can’t say that about many distributions. F11 shipped with a beta version of Firefox 3.5 but it’s now been updated automatically to the release version. This happened just a day after the official release, that’s pretty impressive. It was before Arch and at the time of writing Ubuntu still haven’t packaged the upgrade yet. If you want the latest software this is a good distro to try I’d say. I noticed a few quirks here and there as I went along, but nothing compared to what I was led to believe by other reviews. I had no issues with stability and I haven’t noticed any show stopping bugs in well over a week using this full time. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky, but I doubt it. They do use some testing software and I think a lot of people fear they’re just getting a beta (or perhaps even alpha) version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. I’ve even thought the same myself in the past, but this is unfair to Fedora and the people who work hard on making it. They do push the envelope at times and try things other distributions wouldn’t, but they seem to see this as leading the way and developing the whole Linux desktop. The amount of stuff pushed back into upstream projects by Fedora is a testament to this spirit.
People ask me who exactly Fedora is aimed at, and that’s a tough question to answer. I’m not sure I know, but it’s definitely become more community driven in the last couple of years. This is now bearing fruit and F11 benefits. When Fedora (or should I say Fedora Core) was originally spun out of Red Hat, it didn’t seem to have a lot of differences in the early releases. It increasingly got more experimental and unstable for me and that’s why I felt they lost their way slightly. That’s just how it seemed to me, but Fedora 11 is right back on track. Would I put Fedora on a production server? Probably not, but I don’t think it’s meant for that anyway. That’s why we have CentOS. It’s not particularly hard to use, not on the Arch or Gentoo scale, but I wouldn’t feel confident giving Fedora to a complete Linux novice. There are probably better distributions for that. For people who know a little bit about Linux and want to experiment, I think it’s perfect. It’s also good for developers and anyone who wants to learn about Red Hat systems. No matter what you may think of Red Hat as a company, you can’t deny that in the business Linux world they completely dominate. I’d encourage anyone after a serious Linux job to take a look at Fedora (and probably CentOS too) as a way to learn more. It will stand you in good stead in the long run. I can see why so many distributions are based on it, the tools they have for making your own respin are formidable.
To sum up then, I think F11 is a good release and well worth a few days of anyone’s time. I’ve never really felt comfortable with Fedora on my home desktop until now. I have everything set up as I need it and I’d be happy to stay here longer. The community has grown in strength, there’s lots of help available out there. I think things are really looking up in the Fedora world. They have lots of innovative features and things that will no doubt end up in future releases of other distros. This is where they see themselves, the ground breakers or pioneers who explore new things on behalf of the rest of us. The developers have done a great job on Fedora 11 and I encourage you to take a look at it and let me know how it works for you.
Where to next?
To be honest I haven’t fully decided yet. I have a few ideas but nothing concrete. I’ve enjoyed my time with Fedora a lot but I’m a wanderer as you know, and it’s time for me to move on again. If you would like to suggest a Linux distribution, or even perhaps a BSD you think I should visit please let me know. You can leave comments here or send me an email to dan AT danlynch DOT org, I’m always interested in hearing from you. You’ll have to join me next time to see exactly where we end up, mystery is half the fun right? I look forward to seeing you on the next adventure…