Distro Review: Fedora 12
Today I’d like to talk about my experiences with Fedora 12 over the last couple of weeks. I’ve been running it as my main desktop and really getting a feel for how it ticks. Fedora is the community release from corporate Linux giants Red Hat. I’ve used it on and off since its inception back in the early 2000’s, it’s fair to say there have been big highs and lows in that time. I considered Fedora 11 a definite high though, and I was interested to see how this release would stack up.
Distro Base – Red Hat
Packaging – RPM (Managed by YUM)
Kernel – 184.108.40.206-162.fc12.i686
Default Desktop – Gnome 2.28 (KDE4.3 LiveCD Also Available)
I began by downloading the standard Gnome LiveCD. I noticed they were heavily promoting the KDE4 version at the Fedora stand during Linux Tag in Berlin, but the Gnome edition still seems the most established to me. I booted it up and was greeted by the rather funky looking Plymouth bootloader. Plymouth is a Red Hat/Fedora development, it’s been in use for a couple of previous Fedora releases and it’s quickly becoming dominant in the Linux bootloader world; even Ubuntu recently announced they will use it in their next release, despite initial resistance. For some reason the live session was a very slow to boot, taking about 10 minutes in total and I have no idea why. Booting from a CD is always slower than a hard drive of course, but not usually by this much. Once the desktop was loaded it was quick and responsive, so I thought no more of it. The stock Red Hat installer – known as Anaconda – is very polished, it’s been refined over many years. It takes you through all the usual steps you’d expect, choosing keyboard layout, language and time zone; before moving to setting up disk partitions. I always choose to configure my disk partitions manually with any distro. I keep my home folder with all files and settings on its own /home parition you see. I use about 12gb for the system root (/) and another 4gb as swap space. This allows me to hop between distros quite happily without losing data. I back it up to external drives as well though of course, I can’t emphasize the importance of that enough. There’s no such thing as too many backups, so be warned.
I found the partitioning tool in Anaconda easy to use and understand, a bit more so than DrakeX which I recently used in Mandriva. A personal thing perhaps. In no time I was ready to confirm the install and copy the files onto my disk. I set it on its way and sat back to watch, yeah my life is just that exciting. It took about 15 minutes to complete this process but didn’t automatically eject the disc at the end or offer a button to reboot, you have to do this manually. I was pleased to see the boot process go a lot quicker this time off the hard disk. This isn’t the end of the install process though. Next you’re prompted to accept the license, set up user accounts and more. I’ve talked about these 2 stage installers before and while I don’t have a major problem with them, I do think it’s better to just gather all the information in one go and perform the install. I entered all the relevant information and completed the set up pretty quickly, the whole install taking about 25 minutes in total including reboots, which is respectable. I could now set about customizing the system. That turned out to be a long and drawn out process, I would soon discover.
My 3D Graphics Troubles:
I don’t normally devote a whole section of a review to just setting up graphics drivers, but unfortunately in this case it’s warranted. It was a huge part of my F12 experience. I should start this off by saying that it could all be the fault of Nvidia and their evil corporate ways, but I find that a little hard to believe. I know I’ll get tons of comments from people saying “that’s what you get for having an Nvidia card” or “If the drivers were Open Source this wouldn’t be a problem”, I agree, it probably wouldn’t. But that doesn’t change the facts. Installing proprietary Nvidia drivers on Fedora 12 is about as much fun as trying to remove your own tattoos with sandpaper. By default F12 detects that you have an Nvidia graphics card and enables the open source Nouveaux drivers. That’s all well and good, I would happily use the Nouveau drivers over the freedom hating offering any time, if it wasn’t for one slight problem. They don’t support 3D graphics properly yet! Fedora doesn’t ship with any proprietary software by default, much the same as OpenSUSE and some other distributions. I understand the legal reasons for that and I have no problem with it, provided access to this software is easy enough for those who chose to opt in. I looked up a few different guides to installing the Nvidia drivers and ended up doing this 3 times, even having to reinstall the whole system twice. I installed the RPM Fusion repositories, a 3rd party service that contains all the software Red Hat can’t or won’t distribute. This part is really easy. Honestly, dead simple and I have no complaints. You simply go to the RPM Fusion website and click on a couple of package links, this downloads and installs the repositories via RPM package files. Couldn’t be easier. Things were about to get a lot more messy though.
You have to stop the Nouveau driver from grabbing your video card at boot up. It attempts to do this to show the funky graphics in the Plymouth bootloader and blocks the binary Nvidia drivers. Changing some options in your grub.conf file prevents this. Not something I’m averse to, I’ve hacked many a config file in my time but this solution didn’t work for me. Most guides tell you to put “nouveau.modeset=0” in the kernel options. The first time I tried this I didn’t backup the old grub.conf file and the blame for this lies squarely at my feet, see my earlier comments on backups. I installed the Nvidia drivers with YUM as instructed, modified GRUB and rebooted. The Plymouth screen changed but the new drivers weren’t in use. I still had no 3D acceleration. I used the nvidia-xconfig tool to enable them in my xorg.conf and restarted the X server. This was a disastrous move as I ended up with a load of strange coloured lines on the screen and no display at all. I couldn’t event switch to run level 3 using CTRL+ALT+F2 and login. Booting up from the LiveCD again I attempted to salvage things by mounting the home partition. I found the grub.conf file but even after restoring this to its former state it didn’t fix things. I tried reinstalling GRUB on the partition with a few terminal commands but it was all to no avail, I had to reinstall everything. I won’t go into another long winded story but I tried this whole process again a second time, making a backup of grub.conf but as it turned out that didn’t help. I was able to switch into a terminal with CTRL+ALT+F2 but restoring the old config file and removing the binary Nvidia packages with YUM got me nowhere. Onto install number 3 then, third time lucky. I was reluctant to break the system again so left a comment on the blog where I’d seen the guide. The author Rob Stewart was fantastic and couldn’t have been more helpful. He told me to try using “rdblacklist=nouveau” instead of the original kernel option. I crossed my fingers (and toes) and tried again. To my massive relief, it worked. I saw an Nvidia splash screen at boot up and I was finally using the correct drivers. At this point I’d like to say I rode off into the sunset with my fully working F12 install and we lived happily ever after, but that’s not the end of the story.
I tried to enable 3D desktop effects with the built in tool but it kept failing. There wasn’t any useful error information but I searched online for some help anyway. I decided to try starting Compiz from a terminal and troubleshoot it like that. From the error messages it seemed the default GUI tool wasn’t using a “–replace” command to replace my window manager when starting Compiz. I tried a modified command and thankfully it worked, my window borders were replaced and I finally had 3D effects. I modified /usr/bin/compiz-gtk to store the new command, once I’d done that the little 3D graphics wizard began to work as it should have in the first place. An oversight in development? I’m not sure. This was all very time consuming, painful and a little disappointing. In Fedora 11 I’d just installed the Nvidia drivers with YUM, clicked a button and enabled 3D effects. I don’t know what went wrong here, but this process really needs to be improved if Fedora 12 wants to be a good option on the home desktop. Perhaps that’s not the goal though. There are some good guides to setting up F12 from start to finish online and I’d recommend following one of these, you may well need it.
Like Fedora 11 this release comes with the Package Kit GUI for managing software on your system. It searches quickly and does the job, but for my money it’s not quite as feature full as other tools yet. I actually prefer Yumex as an alternative GUI for the YUM package manager, the Fedora equivalent of Apt-Get on Debian based systems. Back in Fedora 8 I had some real problems with YUM locking up on me, but I haven’t seen that in years and I’m a big fan of it now. Adding new repositories and getting access to a wider range of packages is pretty easy. The RPM Fusion repos I discussed earlier are a must for anyone wanting to use their system for media playback. If you double click on a file the system can’t play it will prompt you to install the codecs automatically, which is great. You have to ensure you have the appropriate repos set up so you can do this, but after that it’s easy enough. One slight improvement would be a meta package to install all the evil codecs in one fell swoop, you have to hunt around a bit for individual packages sometimes. I don’t suppose this is something the Fedora Project would do themselves for legal reasons, RPM Fusion would have to do it. I had to configure sudo to allow my user to perform root actions. Some distros do this for you automatically, but opinions on whether this is actually a good thing are divided. I had to install Nano to edit the sudoers config file which seemed odd. I thought every system came with Nano (a terminal text editor) these days. I also had to install wget and a few other core utilities I would expect to just be there. It didn’t take long but it all added to the setup process.
After the mammoth task of getting my video drivers working I was also able to install Avant Window Navigator and move the toolbars around. I reconfigured the desktop layout and also installed Pidgin, Audacity (more on that in a minute), Easytag, VLC, Deluge, gPodder, Gwibber, Chromium (from the Google repo), GIMP, Bluefish, WINE and more. I was pleased to see that Spotify worked well with WINE first time. No audio problems or lag. The Pulse Audio implementation on F12 is really good, it should be I suppose as they’ve had it longer than any other distro but credit is still due. Fedora advocates always point to the fact that it often has new innovations before other distros. The developers work really hard on this and I think they see themselves as trail blazers in a way. They push a lot of their work back upstream and that’s how it ends up in so many other distributions. That’s something they really should be commended for. A good example is the Pulse Audio mixer, which I first saw in Fedora 11. I then heard from many people what a great new development it was 6 months later when it turned up in Ubuntu. This is not a dig at the Ubuntu developers who also do great work, but to me Fedora feels closer to the upstream projects.
The Audacity Of It:
I used Fedora 12 to do my daily work for well over a week. Part of that involved editing podcasts, for which I normally use Audacity. I installed Audacity from the repos and was pleased to see that it was version 1.3.9, this has vastly improved compressors to earlier versions. I found however that it couldn’t import mp3 files as it hadn’t been compiled for this task. Again, there is a legal/ideological reason behind this. Mp3 is a patent encumbered format. I removed this version and installed the “freeworld” package from RPM Fusion, but this turned out to be Audacity 1.3.7 and the compressors just weren’t up to the job. For the record, Ogg Vorbis sounds far better and I prefer it to Mp3, but the podcasts I produce require Mp3 versions too that’s just a fact of life. I decided to stick with 1.3.9 and convert any mp3 files I needed to import beforehand manually. I used mpeg123 for this. Oddly Audacity would export to Mp3 through LAME, just not import. It caused some extra work but didn’t add too much time to my jobs. I then wanted to use Easytag to tag the finished podcast files as I normally do. This wouldn’t open mp3 files either, cue a double facepalm moment. What use is an ID3 tagging program without support for mp3 I ask you? I was a bit wound up I admit and I let off some steam about this on Identi.ca, where people kindly offered some solutions. There’s a fixed version of Easytag package in the testing repositories for Fedora 12, you have to enable them and install it from there. After that it did work and I realise my use case isn’t normal, but that doesn’t help when I’m seemingly fighting the system just to get some work done.
Ease Of Use: 2/5
Community Support & Documentation: 4/5
Overall I found Fedora 12 a little disappointing but perhaps that’s because I liked Fedora 11 so much. I’ve only given 2/5 for ease of use because of all the hassle involved in setting up video drivers, terminal utilities and other things. I know some people won’t like that, but for me the real work was only half done once the installer completed, maybe even less than half. I accept the blame for any problems caused by my own mistakes, but I feel it could be a lot easier to use. I’ve given 4/5 for speed because I found the system really snappy. Boot time was also very quick and I liked that. I’m giving stability 3/5 which is average because while I found the system pretty solid, I did get some application crashes frequently. Fedora has something of a reputation for being unstable at times and I don’t know if that’s entirely fair. There were some rough edges but not massive show stoppers like the booting problems I experienced in OpenSUSE. An example would be the firewall tool which crashed every time I tried to launch it, but didn’t affect overall system stability. You can see this in some of the screen shots. On the up side it gave me an opportunity to test out the automatic bug reporting tool, which I liked a lot. It pops up in the notification area and enables you to quickly send reports to the Red Hat bugtracker, all powered by Bugzilla.
I’m giving community support and documentation 4/5 because I received some great help from many quarters. Not least on linuxsoftwareblog.com from author Rob. I’ve also found the Fedora developers to be very helpful and responsive. There’s plenty of tutorials, wiki’s and other resources to dig into. You’re certainly not alone. Features gets 4/5 as well, which might surprise some people given the preaching I did earlier about how innovative Fedora is. It does tend to have new features before other distros but I didn’t see too many in F12. I think this release may have been more about consolidation and fixing bugs from F11, which seemed to have more groundbreaking things in it. There’s still plenty of new toys with the latest versions of all the relevant software. Overall I’m giving 3/5 which is pretty average I’m afraid. I like Fedora and I like the people who make it, but the problems getting it set up detracted from the experience for me. Once I got everything working it was quite enjoyable to use and the closest thing I can compare it too is moving home, moving to somewhere with a lot of stairs to be precise. Once you get all your stuff transported up those stairs and in position it feels nice to be in the new place, but god it was an effort. This isn’t a bad release by any means and I think Fedora fans and experienced Linux users will like it. For the novice and less confident user though, I’d steer well clear. Some people get upset with me taking an end user approach to reviews, but that’s because I consider myself an end user and I think it’s important. If you have more compatible hardware you might find the set up goes a lot easier. Try it out for yourself and let me know how you get on in the comments. I’m still eager to see what Fedora 13 has in store, and the tag line for that has to be “Unlucky For Some”, just for all the bingo fans. Ok maybe not, it wouldn’t be a great tag line to promote your product under I guess. Meh.
I’ll be moving on to Linux Mint 8 very shortly. It’s been out over a week already but the releases have been so thick and fast lately I just haven’t had time to think. I’ll report back on that as soon as possible. After that I have a few other things to look at and you’re always welcome to suggest things to me. You’re also more than welcome to join me for more adventures along the way…
UPDATE: There is now a Belorussian translation of this article, thanks to Paul Bukhovko.